December 1, 1998
by Elliott Lauderdale
When I meet someone from the North and tell them I am from Mobile, they often act or say something to express their sympathy. We are the city where a lynching occurred in recent memory and live in the state where dogs were set to civil rights marchers. What our northern friends sometimes forget is that we are also the home of most of the civil rights marchers, both black and white.
The goal of a series of town meetings and a regional summit entitled Unfinished Business: Overcoming Racism, Poverty, and Inequality in the South was to formulate a Southerners' collective definition of the new South, an approach to replace that of Bull Conners and the Dixiecrats. The majority of citizens in the South have quietly changed their minds about segregation. This meeting was in part called to commemorate a mid-November meeting in Birmingham sixty years ago to address basic human needs and to hear speakers such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Justice Hugo Black. While Police Commissioner Conners ordered the meeting segregated, the conference promoted ideas of accessible health care, racial equality, public education, public defenders, and equal pay for equal work.
Bill Lan Lee, the acting head of the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, in his moving presentation to the Unfinished Business summit, questioned the name of the conference because racism, inequality and poverty are issues for the nation, not just the South. A goal of the conference was to suggest that the South can take a leadership role in overcoming this injustice.
The Center for the Study of the American South, the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund, the Southeastern Council of Foundations, the Southern Education Foundations, the Southeastern Regional Council and our local Mobile United joined together to convene community dialogues addressing racism, poverty, and inequality in our region. The Mobile United Race Relations committee invited the public to a series of town meetings at the release of a report prepared by G. David Johnson entitled Mobile County in Black and White: Results from Studies of Racial Inequality and Race Relations. Mobile sent a diverse delegation of the participants in local meetings to Birmingham.
The local meetings were based on a Hard Talk design of the Kettering Foundation. This approach to deliberation which focuses on action had its origin in Mobile discussions about educational change. David Matthews of the Kettering Foundation reported his frank discussion of educational problems in Mobile in a conversation with Mayor Mike Dow. The mayor labeled the discussion hard talk. and Kettering adopted the phrase. Trainers of facilitators met in Montgomery to review the hard talk process. Facilitators were trained to lead meetings in as inclusive a community as they could find. In Mobile we made a special effort to recruit and consider the views of young people and those typically less concerned with civil rights. One attraction of the approach is its focus on finding a common ground for action.
The forums established ground rules then asked participants to consider basic questions modeled after the Hard Talk design: What do we value most in our community? Why? What future do we envision? What has been your history of racism, poverty and inequality in our community? What can we learn from our histories? What is working in our communities to address racism, poverty and inequality?
Participants were first asked to develop ground rules. Facilitators are neutral and charged with ensuring rules are followed. All are encouraged to participate, no one or two people should dominate. No personal attacks are allowed. We agreed not to attribute comments of individuals in the meeting to others outside of our meeting. We will listen carefully to each other. We will disagree respectfully.
All the meetings drew diverse citizens and in general the hard talk design appeared to encourage productive conversations. Some degree of community was established as participants noted how much they shared values such as security, educational and employment opportunity, family and fairness. This rough consensus and focus on change in the future usually allowed groups to learn from personal histories of injustice.
It was hard to think of what we value in a community without balancing areas where our community falls short. Promising participants that the second step would be to review injustice allowed us to begin with a focus on what we valued in common. Often groups would argue about whether what another member of the discussion said was either true or valuable. The rules we had established about disagreeing respectfully proved important. A group could differ about both what is valuable and what is unfair, but each person's voice deserved to be heard.
The general conclusion at the Mobile meetings was that we do indeed share common values and goals for our children.
If finding a shared sense of community was reassuring, asking about individual histories of racism, poverty and inequality in our community was painful. A large number of white and black citizens felt their parents sheltered them from racism. Many people spoke of blatant insults and a desire to avenge such disrespect toward their families. Soldiers from the Second World War vividly recalled returning to the States to be abandoned by friends and to face segregated colored and white facilities. Painful stories brought forth other painful recollections. Some participants simply wept. Most reported being profoundly moved by such personal stories of injustice. There also was a tendency to counter our sad history with some hope for change.
Participants mentioned the Fair Housing Office, the City rule of ten and other equal opportunity programs for hiring, some church efforts toward bringing people of different races together to address community problems, experience working together at work, mentoring programs, Bayfest, the International Festival, and individual efforts to befriend others and to teach their children as some indicators that positive change is possible.
After participating in meetings in Mobile, delegates met on a rainy day at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where Alpha Robertson's daughter died in the 1963 bombing. Ms. Robertson focused on the future saying "Time can be a great healer of things."
Several black participants were impressed by how Governor William Winter of Mississippi emphasized how he had learned of white privilege during his tenure on the American Presidential Commission on Race and how, when charged by a questioner with publicly supporting segregation, humbly apologized. Merceria Ludgood noted that Governor Winters statement was prior to his service as Mississippi's governor and contrary to his years of struggle for justice. Congressman John Lewis, Dr. Raymond Windbush of Fisk University, and Reverend Will Campbell were members of the opening panel.
Twenty small groups convened after the meeting in the Sixteenth Street Church across the street at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. After long travel and a moving panel discussion, participants got down to the work of getting to know each other and defining their goals for the conference. Four themes were compiled from the small group statements: education that provides an accurate history of all peoples; guaranteeing fair access to resources, technology, and economic opportunity; including the diverse talents of everyone in community decisions; and ensuring human rights.
Many participants mentioned how their faith moved them to keep working for justice. There were inspiring presentations by the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who noted that no one faith has a monopoly of morality, and the Rev. Markel Hutchins, a 21 year old senior at Morehouse, who saw himself carrying forward the work of his predecessor, Julian Bond.
After a morning session on best practices and an interfaith worship service, small groups reconvened the next day to consider how to foster regional collaboration. Groups mentioned the need for clear mission statements, the importance of dialogue in small groups, change that starts from the local, a need to analyze systems that perpetuate power imbalances, a recognition that models are not necessary mobile, the helpfulness of a regional network or clearinghouse of resources, the crucial importance of involving all groups in change, the efficiency of using and connecting existing groups, the importance of sustainable economic development, and finally several groups advocated that some product be published from the conference.
At a meeting of facilitators Sunday night John Egerton presented a rough draft of what such a manifesto might look like. The idea of such a petition being added to the agenda of the conference at the last minute caused a great deal of consternation. It was nevertheless decided that on Monday the small groups would be given an opportunity to consider Dr. Edgerton's manifesto. Discussion took place in small groups and in state caucuses. At the final Luncheon after Acting Attorney General for Civil Rights Bill Lan Lee spoke so powerfully of our future civil rights work, the four hundred delegates approved the edited version of A New Southern Agenda. This draft of a redefinition of what it means to be southern is proposed as an appropriate replacement for the Southern Manifesto that was read in the U.S. Senate chamber on 12 March 1956 after having been signed by all but three of the senators from the former Confederacy; and 82 of 106 members of the House. This earlier manifesto vowed resistance to the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
The New Southern Agenda commits its signatories to "eliminating racism, poverty and inequality" and "to the realization of human rights for all members of our community." The agenda includes five top-priority issues: education, access to affordable health care for all, a living wage and employment opportunity for all, access to safe affordable housing, and basic justice.
Delegates returned from the conference with some hope, a network of new friends, commitments to act, and a knowledge that region-wide efforts to determine a South of which we can be proud are underway.
Elliott Lauderdale, Ph.D. is assistant professor of the Adult Interdisciplinary Studies program at the University of South Alabama in Mobile.