August 31, 1999
by Elliott Lauderdale
A series of town meetings entitled "Unfinished Business: Overcoming Racism, Poverty, and Inequality in the South" have been held in Mobile and throughout the South. Activities leading up to a November 1998 regional summit in Birmingham were reported in a past issue (http://entropy.me.usouthal.edu/harbinger/xvii/981201/lauderda.html).
Excitement was high after participants returned from the summit in Birmingham. On January 26 a follow-up meeting was held at the Dumas Wesley center where the Mobile delegation summarized their experience. They were surprised to meet so many diverse people committed to social justice and fairness. They endorsed efforts in "A New Southern Agenda" to work in areas of education, health, housing, employment, and justice to make a difference. A petition to that effect is available from the Center for the Study of the American South (Box 3355, UNC-CH, Chapel Hill, NC 27599) or from Mobile United. Delegates and citizens participating in this meeting determined to continue to meet and to act.
A lengthy article by Roy Hoffman in the Mobile Register (05/18/99), introduced the Unfinished-Business process and announced a follow-up meeting at Central Presbyterian Church on May 20. The large meeting room was full, half black, half white, half male, half female.
Unfinished Business meetings ask six questions of the participants: what value do they share in common, what injustices have they experienced as individuals, what works to overcome this unfairness, how can more people become involved in solutions, and what can they as individuals and as organizations commit themselves to do? The goal of the meeting was to focus on steps people might take to move forward.
Past meetings had clearly demonstrated that people share common goals for their children. Even though they lived and sometimes still do live separate lives, many meeting participants were pleased to find through dialogue that they want the same future for their children and share the same values of integrity, honesty, trust, family, fairness, and faith in God.
Participants were given a list compiled in past meetings of some of the actions and organizations that have proven effective in promoting fairness and mutual respect. The goal of the May 20th meeting was to commit the people or their organizations to doing more of what are working. Their suggestions were collected and are part of a list that has been forwarded to political leaders. Sadly, despite a very genial tone, the press report singled out the most divisive comments made at the meeting.
On August 4 the Race Relations committee invited Unfinished Business participants and city and county political leaders to meet in the Government Plaza. County commissioners Sam Jones and Freeman Jockisch, Bert Eichold of the Mobile County Public Health Department, and city council member Fred Richardson participated. In addition to hearing a description of the unfinished business process, these political leaders were given the list of issues and actions. They discussed community building aspects of diverse neighborhoods, the city’s human relations commission, a need for recourse, race baiting, ways to broaden participation, habitable housing, and racial profiling.
As Commissioners Jockisch and Jones discussed their working relationship, the arbitrary and overly simplified nature of public opinion became evident. One clear visual oversimplification is the assumption that putting black and white politicians’ photographs next to each other on a newspaper is somehow considered sufficient to damage both in the eyes of their "natural" constituents. Many people may remember the use of a photograph of an African- American mayor sporting an Afro with a white politician in Birmingham during the last election.
Freeman Jockisch and Sam Jones smiled as they noted how many times people have attempted to attack them by noting their cooperation. They asked, "Can we rely on the public to expect to have a three person county commission do anything without cooperation?" As Commissioner Jockisch noted, "Would county resident like us to take away a recreation center because Commissioner Jones helped build it?"
Another over-simplified public opinion is the assumption that people cannot talk about race without rabble rousing or enflaming emotion, which will impede rational discourse, prevent action, or, worse, incite riot. This issue recently came up when City of Mobile police chief gave this response to questions about racial profiling: “We do not do it.” A second close parallel was provided by a former school superintendent who noted after the Birdie Mae Davis case was finally settled, "Our schools have no racial problems."
In each case, the leaders of the city assume that the public has neither the understanding nor the patience to listen to and deliberate these complex issues which involve emotional and intellectual components. In each case they are selling themselves short by not recognizing that other communities have been successful in addressing these issues. Profiling was already on the national agenda, so city leaders need not assume Mobile is doing worse than other communities. They will do worse if they avoid addressing the issue; avoiding issues will likely prolong the resolution of the problems.
One more point which came up in several discussions but which has proven difficult for the public to understand is the power of inclusiveness. People do not hear facts about how Proctor and Gamble made more money by making better decisions, because more voices are heard at the table. The public does not hear that large markets are reached more effectively when everyone is heard. The clearest example of the positive power of embracing cultural diversity is Mobile’s Bayfest. Vince Gill doe not sing "Ain’t nothing but the real thing” with Gladys Knight just to be nice or moral or fair. Both Ms. Knight and Mr. Gill are musicians that listen. Trisha Yearwood and Aaron Neville sing "I fall to pieces" together because their voices together are more powerful and more importantly because they can learn from each other to be more powerful yet..
Unfinished business meetings are opportunities to discuss hard issues civilly and enjoyably. In New Orleans "erasism" meetings are popular opportunities to get together with people of a different culture. Mobile United (432-1638) is collecting materials for use by community groups that are interested in such discussions. The Race Relations committee is also working on the Envision Mobile Baldwin County Quality of Life strategies, conflict resolution programs, and other unfinished business. Y’all come.