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Tuesday, July 26, 2016
Let's all keep open and positive communication flowing and push for diversity
Blacks tend to think some progress in race relations has been made, but they quickly add that they are not naive and realize racism still exists.
The majority of whites say relations are good and that America’s election of the first black president in 2008 is proof that “significant progress” has been made.
Those different perceptions are among the reasons Decatur — as it has many times — is embarking upon a journey to talk about race. This time, a group of city and community leaders is meeting and discussing race in response to the shootings of two black men who were killed by police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota.
The initial mission of the Community Youth and Justice Forum was to teach black youths how to act if they encounter police officers, but the first two meetings have turned into a conversation about race.
Councilmen Gary Hammon and Billy Jackson are both lifelong Decatur residents and Austin High graduates. They attended the last meeting, which was led mostly by Murphy Brown of the Decatur-Morgan County Minority Development Association.
Hammon, who is white, and Jackson, who is black, agree that things are better because Decatur has moved from its segregation history. But they have different views on how far the city has come and what needs to be done to take Decatur further.
Jackson, who was called the “N word” while growing up, said the city’s racial progress can be seen through its youths.
“The young people attend school together, they play on teams together, but they also socialize after school,” he said.
As for adults, Jackson said things look good on the surface because they sometimes say the right thing. But when you look below the surface, some of the old feelings about race still exist, he said.
“It’s subtle,” Jackson said.
Hammon said race is something he doesn’t think about or try to see. He said he attended the meeting to learn.
“I think the only way we’re going to solve our racial differences is to stop looking at race,” Hammon said. “I guess I follow Dr. (Martin Luther) King’s doctrine, and I try to judge people by the content of their character.”
Decatur’s racial history is like most Southern cities, where slavery was once a big part of its economy. And, meetings to discuss race are nothing new.
The townspeople — black and white — gathered after the Civil War to talk about building a future as one, but Ku Klux Klan intimidation and the murder of a Reconstruction judge ended those meetings.
There were more meetings in the early part of the 20th century, but they could do little to stop the state from adopting its 1901 Constitution that disenfranchised blacks and poor whites.
Decatur was at the racial crossroads again in the 1930s when the trial of nine black defendants accused of raping two white women in Jackson County brought the national media to town. All of the city's prominent black citizens — some doctors and lawyers — were struck from the jury in the Scottsboro Boys trial.
Decatur was still a segregated city in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case that the concept of “separate but equal” schools was unconstitutional.
Some meetings were held following the Brown ruling, longtime Decatur resident Leo Gray said. But there was not a significant effort to desegregate schools until after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. Decatur tried a voluntary integration program, but this didn’t work to the satisfaction of the courts and in 1969 the school board closed all-black Lakeside High and moved students to Austin and Decatur.
Schools integrated, but blacks didn’t have representation on the school board or council when a mentally challenged black youth was charged with raping a white woman. Following a confrontation between the black marchers and KKK members in 1979, black and white residents met again in an effort to close old racial wounds in the city.
These meetings ended shortly after they started, but a little more than two decades later, white and black residents of Decatur came to the table again when a white game warden killed an unarmed black man at a service station near the Interstate 65 exit.
Rodney Gordon, of Decatur, was part of those meetings and has attended the first two meetings in the current movement for change.
“We have not resolved the ills of the past, and that’s why we keep meeting when something big happens,” he said.
Gordon, 51, said white pastors have to become part of the discussion and help declare war on racism in Decatur. He said black pastors have been and are already speaking out.
“They (white pastors) have the largest congregations in the city and they have to be a voice for change,” Gordon said. “If they recognize and say Decatur has a problem, that would be a big message.”
He said people can pretend to care, but they can’t pretend to show up.
“We’re going to be haunted by our past until we deal with it and stop waiting for something to happen before we have a discussion,” said Gordon, who's president of the local NAACP chapter.
A Pew Research Center survey in June found significant differences between blacks and whites about the state of race relations since Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. Sixty-one percent of blacks in the survey said race relations are bad, while only 45 percent of whites had the same feeling.
Mike Plemons, a 58-year-old white male, is not surprised at the survey’s findings.
“Unfortunately, we still have a lot of ignorant people on both sides who judge people because of the color of their skin,” he said. “I know my black friends are black, but I treat them like I want them to treat me.”
Susie Burgess, 51, who is also white, said the nation still has a ways to go with race relations. She said people have to stop looking to the politicians to solve the issue of racism and look within.
"It starts in the communities where we live,” said Burgess, who graduated from Hartselle High in 1983. “And to be honest, it starts with you, one person at a time choosing to live as God would have us live.”