LOVING OUR NEIGHBOR

ken fullerMore than two years ago I wrote a column in the Rome News Tribune concerning the state of race relations in our community. In the piece, I wondered aloud if our beautiful city was prepared to be a place where we could say with confidence that we were different, unlike Sanford, Florida or Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore, and that we had done what we could have and should have done over the years to reconcile our people to one another and to overcome the effects of America’s Greatest Sin.

Had we done enough to know that we had moved forward in the 60 plus years since the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement? Or, had we remained quietly comfortable within our separate and segregated church walls while the remnants of Jim Crow and Systemic Racism continued to deny justice and equality to the Black people we now interacted with every day in the business world?

While we Whites rested comfortably in our segregated Churches and in our largely still segregated neighborhoods, we assured ourselves and our friends that we had never personally mistreated another human being and thus had no responsibility to the denial of social justice that we knew full well still falls hard upon these “others” because of their race alone.

We told ourselves that we had not personally participated in the “red lining” of neighborhoods to assure “they” did not move in, causing our home equity to drop. This was done by those who came before us, we said to ourselves, by our fathers and grandfathers. Further, those like me and born to poverty, could say with confidence that it was not even the fault of OUR OWN fathers as we were poor just like “THEM”. We were therefore personally absolved from any burden of guilt or responsibility and, after all, guilt for racial sins is something to be borne only by “knee jerk liberals”.

I wrote my column hoping to encourage good people to look inward and to come together to work toward the goal of ensuring that our wonderful home-place, Rome and Floyd County, the place the Cherokees called “The Enchanted Land”, lived up to our dream that it would be a beacon to others in overcoming the historical barriers that had long separated us. I asked the readers to respond if they were interested in changing the future.

Those good people who responded came together and created a group now called “One Community United”. The group has met regularly together for the past two years and has divided itself into 5 small groups who continue to meet together to discuss how we might best meet the need to bring all people, of all ethnicities, cultures, and religions together so that we might hasten the day when we are truly ONE COMMUNITY rather than remaining divided by our differences.

In February our efforts culminated in a community wide event we called HUG where all people were invited to come for one purpose, and one purpose alone- to CELEBRATE ROME’s DIVERSITY. The outpouring of support was far beyond all our dreams. More than 700 people of all races came to our event and participated in what was a community embrace, a massive bi-racial HUG.

This was enough to encourage us all to keep the faith and to continue what we had started. In the 8 months since HUG we have seen much evidence that our people are responding by opening their hearts and minds to see things we were not previously inclined to see, and to work toward improving social justice, to improving our own self-awareness of implicit racism in our own hearts and minds.

We have seen an historically Black Church (Metropolitan UMC) join with an historically White church (Trinity UMC) to hold joint services. We have seen the election of the first Black Woman (Sundai Stevenson) to our City commission. We have watched with pride as our city has promoted an African American Woman as its Chief of Police.  We see clearly that good things are happening in Rome and that the good people of this community care deeply about their neighbors.

Even so, we have not yet seen over into the valley envisioned by Dr. King, that of the Promised Land where all that divides us will have disappeared and all our children can walk hand in hand knowing they are judged by their character and not by anything temporal like skin color.

Evidence that we still have far to go has come to my attention in just in the last several days and these things should shock the conscience of all of us.

Last week the memorial marker at the site of the killing of Black teenager Emmitt Till was shot up, riddled with 50 bullet holes. While many of us, me included, often take solace that such things happen someplace else, and not in my community. We are especially apt to dismiss it as just typical conduct in a place far away, quite unlike our town and unlike our good people. After all, Emmitt Till’s memorial and the place of his death is in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. We are surely more educated, sophisticated, and less ignorant, than such a historic redneck haven that exists in our memory only in Billy Joe McAllister’s famous jump.

While the news of the attack on Emmitt Till’s memorial was fresh on my mind, I had a conversation last week with a White friend in Law Enforcement whom I have known for many years. The conversation concerned my representation of a client, something I’ve done hundreds of times over the past 43 years. This time was different though.  For the first time in all my years, I was shocked when the officer reacted, in extreme anger, accusing my client of ”playing the race card”. His reaction was not in any way appropriate, was not in response to anything I said or implied, nor was it in response to any provocation, unless the mere fact my client was African American is itself provocation.

This was shocking to me since it was so “out of the blue” and not consistent with my prior dealings with this officer. The obvious thing I took away from this is that my friend, a good person from a great family whom I have long respected as being measured, reasonable and wise, has become embittered against the cause of African-Americans. Why has this happened? I have been unable to get this off my mind as it threatened my belief we had made progress in the last few years. I have considered the possible causes.

Was it the result of the Black Lives Matter movement, the wide coverage of police shootings of Blacks, and the perception that Blacks are anti-police, or is there something else that threatens to drag us back to the dark day of our shameful past? Has the Trump Campaign contributed to a growing fear among White Men, especially among Evangelicals, that their day of political domination in the USA is history if the Donald is not elected President? Whatever the answer, these two incidents-the shooting of Emmitt Till’s Memorial and my friend’s extreme sensitivity to “the race card”- are enough to remind us we have far to go before we are justified in believing racism is dead or that we can rest on our laurels.

Each of us must acknowledge the possibility the perpetrators who pulled the trigger at Till’s memorial are more like us than not, and that their conduct is evidence of a backlash against things that have threatened the status quo in present day America. This is a status quo that threatens the continuation of a world of White Privilege where we and our offspring are less likely to be stopped while driving with a broken tail light or by changing lanes without first signaling, than those of our Black neighbors.

Were the bullets fired into the sign a response to a political season that has seen a political candidate fuel the engine of his campaign bus with the flammable and combustible fuel of racial rhetoric and/or as a result of White opposition to the Black Lives Matter Movement? Is it a result of White opposition to a perceived disrespect for the Police in all the criticism of law enforcement conduct surrounding the shooting deaths of Black males over the past two years, and the ensuing investigations by the Department of Justice, an agency under the direction of an African American President and Attorney General?

Is this backlash something we can and will overcome once the election is past?  We need to begin to work now to look inward to see the condition of our own heart and to recognize that the change needs to begin with ME. That change of heart will see us begin to understand that any “slight” we may feel, ant threat to our comfort, pales in comparison to the 400 years of abuse done to our Black neighbors, abuse that is still with us today, endemic and implicit in ways we cannot even comprehend. 

One Response to “LOVING OUR NEIGHBOR”

  1. Anne Kerr says:

    Thanks for this excellent article.

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