Mayor: Trust building and racial reconciliation in LaGrange

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 1, 2015

By Mayor Jim Thornton

Guest columnist

Editor’s note: This letter was originally solicited from and printed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It is re-printed here with permission.

To say we have racial issues in LaGrange is not newsworthy. The same could be said of thousands of cities across the United States. We have watched long-standing racial issues erupt in Ferguson, Baltimore and now Charleston. But in LaGrange and Troup County, we are trying to do something about it.

Over a year ago, the mayors of LaGrange, West Point and Hogansville and the chairman of the Troup County Commission met for lunch, as we often do. The subject of race relations was raised, and we all agreed that racial issues plague our community. It was time to face and deal with them.

We identified Southern Truth and Reconciliation (STAR) (AJC, “Atlanta Forward,” 3/26/15) in Atlanta and Hope in the Cities (HIC) in Richmond, Virginia, as racial reconciliation experts and enlisted their help.

The theme of this work is “trust building.” The initial goal is to get the community working together to overcome our past struggles and to speak a new language that is not poisoned by the past but is eager to explore our common history and to seek new solutions to our ongoing challenges. If we succeed, our culture will change in ways that will benefit all of us.

We need to work on issues with public education and crime; we need to think about our economic development strategies to make sure no one is left out; we need to make sure our historically black and historically white areas of town have comparable infrastructure. But we desperately need our conversations – and our genuine debates – to be based on trust rather than suspicion across racial lines. We need to find a new way forward that is inclusive, trusting and friendly.

In March of this year, 30 local community leaders from Troup County gathered at a two-day forum hosted by LaGrange College and facilitated by STAR and HIC to begin the conversation. We began talking openly about our history of racial division, and the terrible effects it has on us even today. We agreed to work together to create a new community vision.

The discussion was honest and sincere, lifting the issues without assigning blame. The conversation was real. It was not always pleasant, but things were said that needed to be said. We left inspired to share this work and this experience throughout our community.

Working with the consultants, co-chairs Carl Von Epps – recently retired after 22 years in the State Legislature – and Ricky Wolfe – recently retired Troup County Commission chair – have developed an 18-month training program that will expand the original 30 participants to 200 people from all walks of life.

I’m a realist, and I know we will not fix all our racial issues with this initial work. The problem took centuries to create and will take many more years to solve. But when faced with a problem that has kept us divided and impoverished spiritually and economically for centuries, we are not willing to ignore it. Instead, we are working toward creative solutions. We intend to improve race relations in our community.

I look forward to 18 months from now when I can give a report on the work. I am hopeful we will have built a more trusting community where our history of racial division is not ignored, but has simply become less relevant to our daily lives.

Jim Thornton is mayor of LaGrange.