Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington kicked off the Original KingFest at Pine Bluff Tuesday with a keynote address calling for a mass public service movement to improve the city.


The celebration, sponsored by the Interested Citizens for Voter Registration (ICVR), honors the late civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with community service and interracial cooperation. Former professional baseball player and Pine Bluff native Torii Hunter will speak Sunday at First Assembly of God Church and lead the KingFest Marade/Parade Monday as part of the celebration.


Washington, speaking to a joint meeting of the Pine Bluff Rotary Clubs at the Pine Bluff Country Club, said that King dreamed of communities working together to solve common challenges. However, he also understood that “sometimes barriers stand in the way of progress.” Quoting King, she said disagreements arise because people fear one another. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate.


People do know each other in Pine Bluff, Washington said, and because of that they know their common struggles and challenges. But she said it was “time for us to face some very important truths.”


“When a young person in a different neighborhood than I goes to a school without opportunities to help them become college- and career-ready, that affects my child’s success,” she said. “When a business is good for me, but it operates so Main Street closes, that affects my bottom line. When a family decides to leave my community for another community, it leaves all of us worse off. For us to truly create positive change in Pine Bluff, we must recognize that we are all interconnected. That our progress is shared. That we must take on challenges together.”


With that, she asked attendees to sign up for community service on paper cards distributed by her aides. Her office is building a database of volunteers who have pledged to serve in each area of the city, she said. The volunteering options on the cards include planting trees, improving education, cleaning up neighborhoods and joining one’s local neighborhood association.


“This is a movement where you’re indicating on that card where you can be best used to help us move forward,” Washington said. “Please answer our call to serve.”


Washington said her office would follow up with people who sign up in the coming days. One of her assistants, Billie Minton, said roughly 100 people had signed up prior to the meeting and she expected the number to grow afterward. The mayor said there would be a citywide cleanup event Saturday morning.


This year marks the 50th anniversary of ICVR as an organization in Pine Bluff and its 33rd year hosting KingFest, according to its executive director, Rev. Jesse Turner. Turner said the organization currently needs more volunteers for its Pen or Pencil program, in which mentors steer students toward positive goals in school as a way of breaking the school-to-prison pipeline. The program features tutoring, public speaking and life skills as students are encouraged to stay in school. Turner appealed to the audience to sign up to mentor a student for one hour per week.


More than a dozen students from the program were in attendance. Codney Washington, the adult son of Mayor Washington, introduced three students from Jack Roby Junior High School and one from Pine Bluff High School whom he mentors in the Pen or Pencil program. The students addressed the audience of roughly 100 people about what the program had meant to them, as an exercise in public speaking.


Jack Roby student Christyle Smith said she looks forward every Thursday to the Pen or Pencil program, which she said has had an impact on her life and her character. Chandler Rather said the program has motivated him to make good grades, “stay one step ahead” and aspire to be a role model. Cason Blunt, who aspires to be a professional baseball player, said his school performance slipped a year ago when he devoted too much time to sports. The Pen or Pencil program helped him improve, he said.


Pine Bluff High School freshman Kaitlyn Peterson defined a mentor as someone who imparts their experience to “help someone not make the same mistakes they did,” and provides a safe environment for a student to confide in.


Washington identified his mentor as his mother, Mayor Washington. During his childhood she told him that whatever he chose to do, do it the best he could. If he became a street sweeper, “you should have the cleanest street in the city,” he said. He remembered thinking that doing so, using a broom, would require a lot of sweeping. But her insistence on striving planted a seed that stayed with him to adulthood, he said.


“Now she’s our newly-elected mayor, and she has a lot of cleaning up to do,” he said. “I think she’s well-fit for the job, so I’m looking forward to Pine Bluff having some really clean streets.”