How Arkansas Was Chosen as the ATA Headquarters

ATA competition in Little Rock
ATA competition in Little Rock

When people think of martial arts, more than likely they are picturing Taekwondo. The discipline comes from Korea and is considered the most popular martial arts in the U.S. A main draw of the sport is the wide range of kicks used. While some other martial arts include kicking techniques, Taekwondo’s strength is founded in it. “When people see the different Jet Li or Jackie Chan movies and they see all those kicks, the style that is generally going to be able to teach them all that is Taekwondo,” said Senior Master Jay Kohl, International Chairman of Tournaments and VP of Operations for the ATA (American Taekwondo Association).

The ATA is the largest martial arts organization in the U.S and is internationally headquartered in Little Rock, which is also home to the World Championships every year. Eternal Grand Master Haeng Ung Lee founded the organization in 1969. Lee (who was born Manchuria, China) began teaching Taekwondo in 1955 and opened a training school in Korea a few years later. He came to the U.S. in the early 1960s and started teaching in Omaha, Nebraska. After founding the ATA, he relocated headquarters to Little Rock in 1977.

So how was Arkansas chosen? “He did do a lot of traveling all across the country as more and more schools were opening and he was researching where he wanted to go and two things really seemed to be the points that stuck out for him,” said Kohl, who has been with the ATA for 31 years. “When he came to the Arkansas area he was really surprised by how similar to Korea the geography was. So he felt at home here. The second thing was the warmth of the people in this area. He was very drawn to it.”

What started with a handful of students in Omaha has grown to an organization that now includes around 350,000 members worldwide and training schools across the globe. “In the beginning in the late 60s when H.U. Lee came to this country, he had a vision of spreading Taekwondo training not only across the U.S. but the world,” said Kohl.

Kohl said the practice of martial arts has been steadily growing but the demographics of those practicing the craft has changed over the years. When he started the average martial artist was male and between the ages of 16-35. Now, he says, the junior market is much larger than the adult group. He credits this change to parents eager to instill their children with the discipline and self confidence taught via martial arts. Self defense and the physical aspect of the sport are key but Kohl says the practice involves much more and is a non aggressive and ethical system of self defense. “People can start as young as three or in their 60’s,” he said. “The essence especially that Eternal Grand Master wanted to spread across the entire world is that martial arts training is for anybody and it makes you a better person physically and emotionally.”

The training taught at ATA is known as Songahm Taekwondo and the practice has an interesting tie to the state in that there is a symbolic Songahm Mountain close to the 4-H Center in Ferndale. Songahm is a Korean word whose literal translation is pine tree rock. “This is symbolic of the ATA and the style of Taekwondo that we do,” said Kohl. “A pine tree is ever-growing. It can grow anywhere, it doesn’t matter the geography or the climate and is green all year round. So Grand Master picked that as symbolic of the student. A student can come from anywhere and is constantly growing and learning. A rock is the strength and the foundation. The organization is the foundation for the student. The organization grows by its students and the students have the strength of the foundation of the organization.”

Kohl said when the ATA started the form taught was a different system based on Japanese martial arts that did not utilize the kicking beauty of Taekwondo. So Grand Master Lee developed his own style: Songahm. According to Kohl, every year there used to be a black belt camp held in Little Rock at Ferncliff. “One morning of that camp in 1983 everybody was woken up around 4 in the morning and told to put on their white uniforms,” said Kohl. “They started climbed to top of the mountain not knowing what was happening. By the time they got up there the sun was starting to rise and they could see there was a cleared area for some sort of special ceremony. And it was at that time that they did Songahm number 1 the white belt form for the very first time for this group of instructors. So that mountain was then dubbed Songahm Mountain ever since.”

With the passing of Eternal Grand Master H.U. Lee in 2000, his wife Mrs. Sun C. Lee (ATA's Chairman of the Board) continues the legacy of her husband. The ATA opened the H. U. Lee International Gate & Garden in downtown Little Rock during the 2007 ATA World Championships. The South Korean structure honors the ATA founder, salutes martial arts and serves as a symbol of friendship between South Korea and the U.S. Lee, who was good friends with Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey, was instrumental in the city sister concept between Little Rock and Hanam City, Korea. “He was a very personable man, had a huge heart and he respected everybody,” said Kohl. ““He considered Arkansas his home. He spread the word about Little Rock and Arkansas everywhere he went.” This year Eternal Grand Master Lee was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

“There are a lot of traditions in the ATA and in a lot of cultures tradition is what brings and holds people together,” said Kohl. “Eternal Grand Master recognized that and we have many traditions in the ATA that are open for everybody to see and be part of in their martial arts training journey.”