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FBI alerted after black Charlotte officials received threats, racist letters

County commissioner reads racist letter

County commissioner Vilma Leake reads a racist letter that was sent to black Mecklenburg County Commissioners.
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County commissioner Vilma Leake reads a racist letter that was sent to black Mecklenburg County Commissioners.

A Mecklenburg County commissioner says she has asked the FBI to investigate who sent her and other black elected officials a racist, threatening letter that said “Black Democrats should be tarred and feathered and run out of town” and sent “screaming to the concentration camps.”

The letter, which Commissioner Vilma Leake read aloud at a recent public meeting, was received by mail at her county office address. It is a nearly two-page-long rant that threatens “someone” may “blow up” a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., and also says, “I would love it if they would blow you up.”

At least 12 local elected officials, including black county commissioners, Charlotte City Council members who are people of color, and the black chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board, received similar letters in recent days, according to representatives of those bodies. The letter, which the Observer obtained a copy of from a City Council member, is also addressed to the local police and fire departments.

An FBI spokesperson in North Carolina told the Observer on Wednesday she did not know whether a referral had been made for an FBI investigation. A spokesperson for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department said “We are aware of the letters and (are) reviewing the material.”

“These went to only black elected officials,” Leake said.

“It grieves me. All of these years that I have lived and been a part of that movement called the Civil Rights Movement that we thought that we had won ... If you wrote it, you are not strong enough to even sign your name. I’m turning my letter over to the FBI.”

Leake said she is one of the five black members of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners who received the same letter. A spokesperson for Charlotte City Council said seven members of the council were sent similar letters. And on Tuesday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board Chair Mary McCray said she’d received two letters via email that criticized the board for hiring Earnest Winston and one letter called board members a racial slur.

“Never before with the hiring of several other superintendents while being on this board have I received such racist criticism,” McCray said. “This is not about the capability of Earnest Winston to lead this district, but it is all about the fact that he is a black man.”

The letter, McCray said, claimed Winston isn’t qualified. Winston, who has been with CMS for nearly 15 years, replaces Clayton Wilcox, who was suspended by the school board and then resigned in July.

Another letter, which McCray read aloud at a school board meeting Tuesday night, said: “So you feel you’re on a great course and want to stay the course. Sure doesn’t hurt that Earnest Winston is black, does it? You c--ns on the school board don’t even bother to try and hide it, do you? You folks are making CMS a sewer.”

The letter to Leake invoked the name of President Donald Trump, said blacks need to “assimilate” to Charlotte and the United States and blamed “twisted media” for problems.

“Nothing good will come to you if you don’t change,” the letter to Leake and other commissioners stated. “You need to go back to where you came from ... Your freedom was born on the backs of great Americans, white Americans, who fought for you, so get over it. Assimilate.

“One of these days, someone ... will round you up. All of you. And send you screaming to the concentration camps where you belong ... Be very careful.”

The person who wrote the letter has not yet been publicly identified and it’s unclear what, if any, criminal charges could result if authorities identified the author.

FBI spokesperson Shelley Lynch said she could not say whether the letter’s content is unlawful. She said she could not comment specifically on the letters sent to Charlotte-Mecklenburg government officials. In some cases, she said, the FBI has authority to investigate “when it has reasonable grounds to believe that an individual has engaged in criminal activity or is planning to do so.”

“This authority is based on the illegal activity, not on the individual’s political views, position, or any other beliefs. Hate speech is horrible, offensive, and hurtful, but the speech itself is not illegal,” Lynch said. “The FBI takes care to distinguish between Constitutionally protected activities and illegal activities undertaken to further an ideological agenda.”

Mailed in Charlotte

The letter sent to Leake, first reported on by the Observer editorial board, was anonymous, signed only as “A faithful, loyal, proud American first, and Charlotte native born and bred, second.”

Leake said she’s received threatening, hateful messages before “but not to this degree.” She recalled in the late 1990s, as a school board member helping integrate public schools through revised school bus routes, she and other minority board members were verbally attacked and harassed.

“That created a lot of heat,” she said.

But the recent letter, Leake said, felt different — more threatening, targeted and emboldened by what Leake described as “venom that’s been spreading across this country.”

“The intent is to get rid of us as black elected officials and black people in this community .... With the state of the union as it is I’m not sure they won’t try to do that,” Leake said in an interview Wednesday.

“The general public needs to hear this and needs to know this kind of sentiment is in this community. And with that, what kind of safety do we have?”

City Council member Braxton Winston said he’s wrestled with how and when to publicly address the letters. He received a letter within the last two weeks but did not report it to police, Winston said.

“I receive hate mail quite often that is racially-charged,” he said. “This one was particularly troublesome to me to be completely honest ... And it was mailed from Charlotte. There’s a Charlotte postmark on it.”

“I’m glad it’s out there (that it happened) ... This shouldn’t be hidden,” he said. “But you don’t want to continue to traumatize people who are dealing with this in different forms who aren’t a public figure.”

Both Braxton Winston and Leake mentioned concern among community members of color in Charlotte who worry the 2020 Republican National Convention being held in the city next year will create an unsafe environment. The letter, which targets black Democrats specifically, they said, is an example of why people are worried about their safety.

“It’s like an open arena,” Leake said.

In light of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton recently, Braxton Winston said, he felt compelled to talk about the letters. Investigators believe the person who killed 22 people at an El Paso Walmart on Aug. 3 had written a manifesto espousing racist, white nationalist and anti-immigrant views.

While free speech and tolerance of differing political views is important, the council member said, he believes public officials in Charlotte now have a role to play to call out hateful rhetoric and work to stop race-based violence and racist verbal attacks. Words matter, he said, “These things manifest and grow over time.”

Annie Ma contributed.

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Anna Douglas is an investigative reporter for the Charlotte Observer. Previously, she worked as a local news reporter for The (Rock Hill) Herald and as a congressional correspondent in Washington, D.C., for McClatchy. Anna is a past recipient of the South Carolina Press Association’s Journalist of the Year award and the Charlotte Society of Professional Journalists’ Outstanding Journalism Award. She’s a South Carolina native, a graduate of Winthrop University, and a past fellow of the Dori Maynard Diversity Leadership Program, sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists. Anna has lived in Charlotte since May 2017.
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