Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, in Memphis was yet to come in 1966 when Fort Smith integrated its two high schools.

Love, unity and hope are as important today as they were then when a proud class of Lincoln High School students in Fort Smith merged with what would become Northside High School.

While the Lincoln High students had a strong tradition of academic excellence, team sports also played a large part in a successful transition of the two schools, the Rev. Jerry Jennings told a crowd of more than 400 gathered Monday at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith for the annual Martin Luther Jr. Commemorative Celebration and breakfast.

Jennings, a Lincoln High alumnus, was part of six-person panel that discussed the integration of schools. It was the seventh year for UAFS to host the event organized by the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Association in cooperation with the university.

The panel, which was moderated by Arkansas state Rep. George McGill, also included Sherry Toliver, Benny Shepherd Jr., David Geren, Rhonda Vanlue Gray and Jim Rowland. The St. James Missionary Baptist Church Mass Choir sang.

The event was held prior to Fort Smith’s Celebrate the Dream Parade on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It was the first MLK Day in Arkansas not held as a concurrent commemoration of Confederate Army of Northern Virginia commander Gen. Robert E. Lee.

“I’m proud to be able to say that today, for the first time, Arkansas is celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his own day,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a news release Monday. “Join me as we reflect on the courage of a man who marched for equality; the vision of a man who, in the face of hate and hostility, saw what could be; and the legacy of a man who brought a nation together.”

The separation of the two commemorations was made possible by Senate Bill 519, signed by Hutchinson in March 2017. McGill spoke in favor of the bill.

Several factors were at play in what could be viewed as a successful integration in Fort Smith, including willing partners in the newly named Northside High School Athletics Department. Jennings went so far as to say that "athletes have done more for civil rights than all the legislators and mayors combined."

Toliver, president of the Lincoln High School Alumni Association, said students at Lincoln High “never had a self-confidence problem,” because they had “wonderful role models.” However, the seniors at Lincoln were “very disappointed” they would not graduate from their school.

“We were very proud to be black people and come from Lincoln High School,” Toliver said. “Our teachers made sure we knew we were somebody, no matter what we heard on the television or in the community.”

Gray said she had always looked forward to graduating Lincoln High School because “it was the cultural center” of the area, and all of her sisters had graduated there. Although Gray was one of the first 16 African-American children who integrated Alma High School, she had been bused to Lincoln in seventh and eighth grades. She would later become the first African-American woman to teach at Northside High School. It was 1975, and still, she said she “experienced prejudice … a lack of understanding ... and injustice as I saw.”

Rowland, former Fort Smith School District Athletic director, said a racially charged incident in 1974 at Northside was created by former students. But it had proven once again that harsh challenges existed for African Americans. Ignorance and bigotry did not die with the historic 1957 integration at Little Rock Central High, but there were bright spots.

Gray credited a man named “Mr. Ware” for encouraging her to take the job at Northside because she was told “they need you.” And she noted Benny Gooden, former superintendent of Fort Smith Public Schools, for encouraging her to pursue her doctorate degree.

Northside High School coach Bill Stancil was also mentioned several times in the panel discussion by Jennings and Benny Shepherd Jr. as someone who saw past the color of their skin. Shepherd was one of the star Lincoln High football players who integrated Northside in 1966. With players from Lincoln High School, Northside won three straight state championships from 1966-68.

Rowland had a unique perspective of the 1966 Fort Smith high school integration. He was a young assistant football and track coach at Northside who moved from Little Rock. It was less than a decade since he was a junior at Little Rock’s Hall High School during the 1957 integration of Little Rock’s Central High School.

“It was a very, very dark time in history for Arkansas and across the country,” Rowland said. “I had a number of friends at Little Rock Central and I’m here to tell you that for the Little Rock Nine, it was not easy for them.”

Rowland said “the redneck white parents” at Little Rock caused the most commotion.

“The expressions on their faces was of hate,” Rowland said of segregationists’ photos published in the Arkansas Gazette. “A lot of things went on that year. It was tough. When I came to Fort Smith, with what I had experienced in Little Rock, I didn’t want that to happen in Fort Smith, Arkansas.”

Rowland said Stancil was a leader in peaceful integration and spoke to local civic clubs on race relations.

“We were going to treat African-American students like they should be treated,” Rowland said of Northside’s coaches.

Geren recalled a ninth-grade, preintegration basketball game played between his team at Darby Junior High and the Lincoln team.

“We thought we had a good basketball team,” Geren said. “One day the kids came over from Lincoln, and I doubt we scored a point. Those guys were having fun.”

Geren went on to say that when those same basketball players from Lincoln integrated Northside, they played together to win.

“We just had one purpose and that was to do the very best in our athletic endeavors,” Geren said. “We had some really, really good athletes. A lot of college scholarships were generated, also. And it was just a real fun time to be in athletics in high school. Of course we won a state championship in football my senior year, state championship in basketball, conference championship in track. We worked hard and had a lot of fun.”

Four other civil rights historical figures from New Orleans and the U.S. Marshals Service were special guests of Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration: Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost Williams and Gail Etienne Stripling — “The McDonogh 3” — integrated McDonogh No. 19 Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960, six years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

Louie McKinney, the first career deputy to lead the U.S. Marshals Service, also attended the breakfast and other Martin Luther King Jr. Day festivities in Fort Smith on Monday.

McKinney said after the event at UAFS that he identified with the former Lincoln High School students. He tells his story more deeply in his book “One Marshal Badge: A Memoir of Fugitive Hunting, Witness Protection, and the U.S. Marshals Service.”

“As a black deputy marshal, McKinney helped us better understand the social instability that defines American history in the late 20th century,” the U.S. Marshals Museum stated in a news release.

Prior to the panel discussion, University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Chancellor Paul Beran spoke to the spirit of King's commemoration.

“Every single day, we need to commit ourselves to smartness and not stupidity, to insight and not ignorance, to education and not eradication, to tolerance and not contentioness,” Beran said. “Every single day we need to celebrate our diversity, and nurture our sameness as human beings … Our diversity is like a spoke on a wheel, and our sameness is a hub of that wheel that spokes spin on.”

Both Toliver and Geren spoke of a famous King quote that related to Beran's thoughts: "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish as fools."