After 2016’s wakeup, can 2017 be Charlotte’s year of racial reconciliation?

The Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice was among the leaders of a December March for Love, which began and ended in Marshall Park.
The Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice was among the leaders of a December March for Love, which began and ended in Marshall Park. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

After 2016 jolted Charlotte’s racial equilibrium, some ministers and civic leaders say 2017 is the time to begin the work of reconciliation.

The Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice, which announced plans to create a Commission on Reconciliation and Equity in the days after the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott sparked riots, says it will start holding public meetings on that process in January. The idea is that a truthful accounting for the role race plays in Charlotte – one that includes voices that often go unheard – lays the groundwork for real progress.

“We want to move quickly into healing, but until there’s reconciliation there will be no healing,” said Rev. Amantha Barbee, coalition president and pastor of Statesville Avenue Presbyterian Church. “It didn’t happen overnight, and it certainly can’t be rectified overnight.”

Reconciliation refers to a process of publicly acknowledging society’s wrongs in order to move beyond them. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed in the 1990s after the abolition of apartheid, is the model.

Calls for American versions have echoed across the country recently, stoked by police shootings, protests and an election year that brought racial tension to the foreground. For instance, after riots broke out in Ferguson, Mo., in the wake of a 2014 police shooting, the nonprofit Truth Telling Project was created to “share local voices, to educate America, and to support reconciliation for the purposes of eliminating structural violence and systemic racism against Black people in the United States.”

We need to encounter the raw feelings that people have, both in the black community and in the white community.

Former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt

Former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, who visited South Africa several years ago, says Charlotte needs its own model for confronting racial rifts and getting beyond polite talks among the like-thinking people who normally attend public forums. “We need to encounter the raw feelings that people have, both in the black community and in the white community,” he said Wednesday.

Gantt, 73, was a pioneer in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He said he’s not sure what today’s reconciliation movement should look like or who should convene such gatherings, let alone what policy changes might result. He only feels certain that progress will be thwarted without a chance to “share our deepest thoughts about race and the culture of Charlotte.”

Rattled into action

Racial tension and efforts to improve racial justice are hardly new to Charlotte, a city that has seen countless discussions and conflicts related to race and criminal justice, education, economic opportunity and housing.

But a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer’s fatal shooting of Scott on Sept. 20, landing amid a stream of national news about police violence against African-Americans, unleashed a wave of rage that shocked much of establishment Charlotte. Uptown Charlotte streets filled with tear gas, shattered glass, police clad in riot gear and protesters shouting obscenities. Civic leaders vowed to address root causes.

Then the November election and December’s battles over power in Raleigh and House Bill 2 grabbed the spotlight. Now several groups say the new year brings a chance to revive the quest to confront racism.

Everybody must come to the table. We can’t point fingers anymore.

Rev. Amantha Barbee, president of the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice

The clergy coalition, formed in 2015 and representing about 70 congregations, was literally on the front lines during the September protests. Several members stood between police and protesters, trying to encourage peace on both sides. Within days of the Scott shooting, that group called for a reconciliation and equity process as part of the long-term solution.

The coalition held a handful of fall meetings to talk about a reconciliation process, including one that featured Johnson C. Smith University President Ron Carter, who was involved with the South African hearings, and the Rev. Nelson Johnson, co-founder of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Greensboro panel was created in 2004 to examine the events and aftermath of the 1979 “Greensboro Massacre,” in which five people were killed during a civil rights march. It produced a 2006 report that explored the city’s racial history and called for such steps as public apologies and monuments, anti-racism training for government employees, reform of jury selection, increased funding for social services and creation of a citizen panel to monitor news reporting.

However, a recent article in Yes! magazine cited it as an example of a reconciliation project that had little impact. The reasons ranged from lack of government endorsement to pushback from critics who said the project only inflamed racial antagonism.

The 2016 sessions held by the Charlotte coalition were closed to the media, but Barbee said follow-ups in January will be open. The coalition still plans to appoint a commission that will lead long-term discussions of ways to deal with systemic racism, she said.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” Barbee said, “and we did not want to go into it unadvisedly.”

January plans

Several groups plan January events to ensure that Charlotte keeps talking about race and criminal justice. They include a new exhibit on police-involved shootings at the Levine Museum of the New South and discussions at churches and community forums (see accompanying box).

Patrice Funderburg, a diversity and social justice consultant, will start a third round of facilitated book discussions based on Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” which outlines the idea that mass incarceration and the war on drugs have created a racial caste system that leaves many African-Americans locked into an underclass. Her first session began in July and concluded the week of the Scott shooting.

The discussion includes strategies for individuals to take action. Funderburg says for about 40 previous participants that has ranged from taking part in Charlotte Uprising protests to hosting home gatherings designed to get people talking about race.

Major public action to dismantle institutional racism still seems a long way off. Barbee urges people not to wait for someone else to solve the big problems: “Tell people to go purposely look for something to make a difference in this world.”

Gantt, 73, says this may be another turning point when a younger generation needs to take the wheel. The biggest mistake, he said, would be to get distracted, then be surprised by the next crisis.

“It’s easy for us to get comfortable and say it’s gone away now,” he said. “It has not. I can say that.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

Scheduled events

Tuesday Breakfast Forum

Community Relations Director Willie Ratchford will lead a facilitated dialogue on the Scott shooting and its aftermath at the Jan. 3 meeting of the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum, a west Charlotte community gathering that is open to the public. The meeting is at 8:30 a.m. at the Belmont Regional Center, 700 Parkwood Ave.

Community dialogue series

The Women’s Inter-Cultural Exchange at Covenant Presbyterian Church will hold a five-session discussion on race, culture and opportunity from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays from Jan. 11 to Feb. 8 at the church, 1000 E. Morehead St. The talks are open to the public; dinner is available from 5 to 6:30 ($7 adults, $5 children); make reservations at 704-333-9071 or reservations@covenantpresby.org.

Mass incarceration discussion

Patrice Funderburg will hold a five-session facilitated book discussion of Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” at The Third Place coffeehouse, 1609 E. Fifth St. The first meeting will be from 6-8 p.m. Jan. 12, with weekly gatherings through Feb. 8. Details: @Edu2Engage on Facebook.

Levine Museum exhibit

The Levine Museum of the New South will open an exhibit about police-involved shootings and protests in Charlotte and nationwide on Jan. 13. For details about the “K(NO)W Justice, K(NO)W Peace” exhibit: www.museumofthenewsouth.org/exhibits/know-justice-know-peace