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breaking down barriers
Story by Susan O'Connor, Photo by Dero Sanford

Ray Scales knows what it means to break down barriers of race. It is fitting that he is the motivating force behind this city’s annual parade honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Not so very long ago, in 1971, Scales began a 22-year career as a studio cameraman at KAIT. He was the first black employee at the television station.

He was chief photographer from 1975 until his retirement, winning prestigious Associated Press awards, such as the Alfred I. Dupont Award for a documentary titled “The Economics of Water.” Over the course of his career, Scales also traveled to interesting locales as a documentary cameraman, such as a Heifer Project International trip to Guatemala.

But, in the beginning, barriers in the community cropped up from time to time, according to Scales. There were times he was not allowed into certain meetings or locations in Jonesboro. The management of KAIT, however, was always supportive, he said, and arrived in person to smooth over any misunderstandings.

Ever easy going, Scales said he didn’t take these situations personally; it was the way of the world at the time. Things started to gradually change in Northeast Arkansas in the early 1970s, he noted. More blacks began to be hired for substantial positions.

“At the time, black leaders – the established black families in the community – would recommend young people for good positions,” he said. “Once they got you, they wanted to keep you.”

Scales was offered jobs in Little Rock and Atlanta that would have been a step up, he said, but he and his wife, Clarece, wanted to raise their four children in the safe environment of Jonesboro.

“I saw the growth in Jonesboro, and that was one of the reasons we decided to stay. And the station management would say, ‘We really want you to stay.’ They trained me, and I liked this environment to raise my kids. We had all that we needed.”

In 1978, Scales was called to the ministry and began what would become a lifelong vocation, which he juggled alongside his work at KAIT. He served as pastor to First Baptist Church on Hazel Street in Walnut Ridge for nine years, then built New Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Jonesboro, which he continues to lead. He has also served on the boards of the United Way, the Salvation Army and HUD.

Nine years ago, the city recreation director at the time made a comment to Scales that he couldn’t believe that a city the size of Jonesboro didn’t have an organized parade for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“He challenged us to start one – and I love a challenge,” Scales said with a twinkle in his eye.

At his first organizational meeting that inaugural year, more than 500 people showed up, interested in the effort, a response that Scales said was surprising at the time.

Scales also said that many people he encountered were afraid of the prospect of a parade - especially elderly people, both black and white. “I didn’t know that fear still existed. It really took me off guard.”

But the first parade went well and has become more successful each year. Now between 800 and 1,100 people are involved annually. The city has awarded two grants to support the parade, and Arkansas State University provides financial support, as well as private citizens. Scales said his goal is to eventually set up a scholarship for ASU students.

“I am so pleased we have come together,” he said of the community’s efforts. “The city has stepped up to the plate. That is so helpful. They had connections that we didn’t have. I’m really thankful to the City of Jonesboro for allowing us to do this.”

You said your mother raised you in the church. How much influence did her early actions have on your call to the ministry? I was given a choice by hearing the word of God at an early age. It built my faith in God. It was a great influence!

What did you study at Agricultural Mechanical and Normal College (now UAPB) in Pine Bluff? I wanted to teach English.

When you went to work for KAIT, did you know you wanted to work as a cameraman? They offered me a job writing commercials but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted a job where I could be outside where the action was. The cameraman job was created, I think. The powers that be decided to expand the news operation and hire more people. I was chosen to work in the news department and trained by attending workshops in Memphis and Atlanta.

How were you treated initially as the first black employee at KAIT? Did you feel any extra pressure? I was treated with respect because I stood my ground and treated them with respect. The entire news team was highly educated, and knew it was time for inclusion.

Besides the positive changes in racial hiring practices, what other changes have you seen during your many years in Jonesboro? Living conditions, building of personal relationships, trust, education and networking on a social level.

What is most meaningful to you about being the person to start the MLK parade in Jonesboro? Involvement in all sectors of Jonesboro and surrounding communities.

If you could take a trip anywhere in the world, where would you go? Kenya