Letter: Addressing racial past determines future

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 29, 2015

Letter to the Troup County Board of Commissioners:

From the beginning of the racial reconciliation initiative I have been privileged, as the president of LaGrange College, to be involved with a courageous group of individuals committed to this work. Pastors, volunteers, civic leaders, elected officials, business and nonprofit leaders, policemen and educators were drawn together by a shared conviction that establishing habits of candid, trust-building dialogue across racial boundaries was essential for the future health of our communities.

I was grateful for the college’s opportunity to host two of the early exploratory meetings, and the early participants were grateful when Carl Von Epps and Ricky Wolfe agreed to our plea to become co-leaders of an organized, long-term project.

Let me be very clear that – especially for those who seem to take pleasure in slurring one or both of these gentlemen – these two RETIRED elected officials did not seek this role. It sought them.

They are volunteering their valuable time because fellow citizens they hold in respect asked them to. They will receive no compensation other than the satisfaction of serving their community, the gratitude of their many fellow citizens and, yes, the scorn of a few.

Accepting that call to civic duty, Ricky and Carl looked to other communities that had tackled issues of race successfully. They found two organizations experienced in establishing such endeavors, Hope In the Cities (HIC), which has been operating in Richmond, Virginia, with striking success for more than 20 years, and Southern Truth and Reconciliation (STAR) in Atlanta.

With their guidance, this initiative will provide a framework and training for a diverse array of citizens to get to know each other better, to understand the perspectives of those who have experienced their cities and county in ways different than their own, and to appreciate the impact that our racial history has on our present and our future.

It is our hope and it is the experience in Richmond that once established, such relationships and such lines of communication may also serve to relieve tensions in general, and, hopefully, to relieve them in the event of a crisis – God forbid.

In addition, bringing more than 150 citizens into the conversation will, hopefully, allow us to begin to develop solutions to enduring challenges that are either grounded in the lingering effects of our deeply troubled racial past, or that more immediately emanate from less violent, more subtle racial bias and prejudice.

A simple drive around the county or any of its cities paints two distinctly different pictures. While our citizens may vary in their explanations for the causes of this, and while people will predictably fall into their usual places on the political spectrum when they offer such explanations, there is no question that two images exist, and they are painted in hues of black and white.

In every significant discussion on every significant issue – whether about public education, health, economic opportunity, unemployment, crime, incarceration, housing, poverty – in every such discussion I have had in this community, and in others where I have lived previously, there has been a component informed by issues of race. This is so whether it remains unstated beneath the surface or overtly brought into the light of day.

What could encourage us to believe that our cities and Troup County, of all the communities in this country, somehow have avoided the racial challenges that plague the rest of the country, even in those communities which, like Richmond and Charleston, have long been working toward exactly the opening of dialogue, lessening of tensions and development of solutions we seek?

It is worthwhile to consider the recent experience in Charleston. Because its enlightened mayor and the citizens of that community have long worked toward these goals, we witnessed in the aftermath of this tragedy one of the most unequivocally racially motivated massacres we have seen, a community prepared to come together, to join hands, to decide on next steps together and to take them in peace. And indeed, through its example, the tragedy in that city and the city’s solidarity served to lead its state leaders toward the removal of a flag flown on the capitol grounds since the 1960s as a symbol of the state’s commitment to segregation and fight against the civil rights movement.

We have an opportunity to follow that example of intentional proactive engagement. Let us take that opportunity now rather than later.

Because I believe that how our cities and Troup County address the racial past and present will ultimately determine their future, because I believe that how our communities are defined so is LaGrange College defined, and because I am committed to our vision to transform the lives of our students and our communities, I have committed the college to support this initiative.

I am grateful that the city councils of our three cities chose to do the same. I encourage the Troup County Board of Commissioners to join in support of this most important effort. I am certain that in five years, 10 years, 20 years – we, our fellow citizens, our children and our grandchildren will be grateful you did.

With great respect for your service to Troup County and its citizens,

Dan McAlexander

LaGrange College president