How a field trip inspired thousands to sign an anti-racist Charlotte Unity Letter

More than 2,500 people have signed a “Unity Letter” in response to racist hate mail recently sent to Charlotte and Mecklenburg leaders who are persons of color.

The story behind this letter, and the people who wrote it, begins on a field trip:

David “Dae-Lee” Arrington remembers taking his seat around the table as a group of nearly a dozen community leaders from Charlotte gave their tired feet a rest.

They’d spent the day traveling to Washington, D.C., and touring the nation’s capital with 18 students from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Dinner ran late, and afterward, the students were safely situated in their hotel rooms.

Downstairs, the adults huddled around a large table in the hotel’s bar-restaurant. It seemed like a good time for a glass of wine and relaxed conversation.

But there was trouble back home.

‘Compelled to respond’

Earlier that morning, at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, many on the trip had just learned of a series of racist letters, emails and messages sent to at least 12 leaders in Charlotte-Mecklenburg government and schools. Recipients included county commissioners and City Council members, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles and newly-appointed CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston, who was there in D.C.

The messages targeted only leaders who are black and one who is Indian-American. One letter talked of blowing up a Martin Luther King, Jr. statue and said “Black Democrats should be tarred and feathered” and sent “screaming to the concentration camps.”

Another, sent to Winston, used a racial slur in all caps and said, “Do you really think you deserve to be superintendent of schools?” Police tracked down the author of the message to Winston but said they couldn’t arrest the man because he hadn’t broken any laws. He boldly told the investigating officers that not only had he written the message but that he’d do it again — and ordered them off his property.

That kind of hatred is born of ignorance and isolation, says Arrington.

“More than likely,” he said, “the person who wrote that doesn’t have a relationship with a person of color.”

For years, Arrington has been using music and creative arts to show people of all races they have more in common than they have differences, but to always underscore particular challenges people of color face. It’s that work, in part, that brought him to the bar table last month in Washington, D.C.

There, the conversation moved further than discussing why a person would send such a vile message. Arrington and the group began imagining what could be done about it.

“We could have just ended it as a conversation consoling (Winston). But we also felt compelled to respond,” Arrington said.

Someone pulled out their phone and began typing.

People leaned in a little closer to share ideas.

Others put pen to paper.

By the end of the night, they had a draft of what would become “The CLT 2019 Unity Letter” — a way for the group, and now all residents of Charlotte, to collectively reject “any and all racist and hate-filled language.”

‘This is what Charlotte looks like’

Just like the people sitting around the table that night, those who signed the letter are from all walks of life — young and old, black and white, Republican and Democrat.

Some names are recognizable — prominent Charlotte bankers, educators, insurance agents, ministers, counselors, CEOs, politicians, lawyers and non-profit leaders. Most, though, are average Charlotte residents — people who renounce, as the letter says, actions of those who want to “instill fear, perpetuate division, instigate hatred, and inflict harm.”

For Arrington, the letter is a way to harness the energy of people around that table into something actionable for the city.

“It was beautiful,” he said.

“It’s about what we are as Charlotteans. This is what Charlotte looks like.

“This is also a microcosm of what we can be.”

It wasn’t just the letter, though.

The entire three-day trip was an exercise in bringing people together. And the experience, participants said, revived their faith that Charlotte can be a role model for other cities in how it responds to racism, inequalities and injustice.

‘What are we showing our children?’

The trip was organized by Communities in Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg and had funding support from The Gambrell Foundation.

CIS supports and empowers students and families in CMS schools who live in low-income neighborhoods and frequently face systemic barriers to graduation, college and other forms of upward mobility, said Molly Shaw, president and CEO. More than 6,000 students are enrolled.

Their recent trip to D.C., with 18 students, 18 community leaders and more than a dozen staff members with CIS, had been in the works for a long time. The itinerary included a private tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and a long list of tour highlights in the nation’s capital.

Organizers saw it as an opportunity, Shaw said, “to get outside our daily lives and begin to think bigger.” The students would have deep connections with community and business leaders of Charlotte. Their voices would be heard, their ideas recognized. Together, Shaw said, they would talk about “creating movements” and challenging the systems that tend to marginalize or disenfranchise people of color.

But before they could even leave the airport, they were reminded of what stands in the way.

Shaw remembers waiting to board the plane; several of the trip’s leaders were reading news on their phones about the racist letters.

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Many in the city were incensed. Black leaders called on the FBI to investigate.

“No change happens without first acknowledging there’s a problem,” says Laura Clark, president and CEO of the United Way of Central Carolinas, who was on the trip.

“It was really the whole point of the trip — to show these students, we are trying everything we can to create a better future for you ... And what are we showing our children in our community if we allow this to happen,” Clark said.

“We have elected and appointed these leaders as a community, and we need to stand by them.”

The letter, Shaw says, is just one way — a first step — to lead by example.

“We’re on this trip to really think about how we galvanize movements ... It starts with groups of people who are taking a stand for what we believe in,” Shaw says.

‘People of goodwill’

With the first draft in hand, the next day, the group shared the Unity Letter with other adults on the trip. Then, on the last night, they read it to the students. Back in Charlotte, the letter was again circulated among community members, especially those leading diversity and inclusion efforts. The draft changed slightly each time.

The Unity Letter starts: “The recent racist and hate-filled communications to and about elected and appointed leaders of color in Charlotte-Mecklenburg are driven by attitudes and beliefs that must be rejected and resisted in the strongest of terms by people of goodwill throughout our community.

“They pose a threat not just to the individuals to whom they were sent, but also to the overall fiber of who we are as a community. Their racial hostility, ignorance and insecurity is reflective of a time to which we must refuse to return. This refusal must be both individual and collective.”

Those who helped write the letter are planning to collect signatures until Wednesday and plan to buy advertising space in local newspapers to reprint the letter in full, along with a list of everyone who signed. There’s no one group or leader behind the effort, Shaw said. But all community organizations currently involved are in talks about what comes next.

“In the context of America and the context of Charlotte, it’s an opportunity for the community to rally together,” Arrington said.

Already, Clark said, the letter has given her something that’s been in short supply lately.

“My only expectation for the trip,” she said, “was to come back with some hope. And I did.”

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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.