Hundreds of residents attended the first of several community conversations on race relations Monday evening at the Alabama School for Math and Science auditorium.
The first of the conversations, titled “Why we need to talk about race,” featured guest speakers the Rev. Dr. Robert Allen Turner, assistant program director of the Dave Matthews Center for Civic Life in Montgomery and pastor of St. Paul’s AME Church in Mobile and Stephen Black, grandson of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black and founder of the University of Alabama’s Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility.
Before the forum took place, audience members were anxious to see what might come of the series of conversations.
Mobile resident John Davis said he came to the event because he was interested in the dialogue that could be begin from this first conversation.
“I’m here to see how it will affect me as an African American and how it will affect my grandchildren,” he said.
A survey conducted by Mobile United, the host of the event, showed that nearly 70 percent of the 600 respondents believed that a conversation on the topic of race relations needed to take place. Nearly 80 percent of respondents admitted race relations in the city needed to improve, said Dr. Rob Gray, co-chair of the Conversations on Race Relations Committee and director of the film “Mobile in Black and White.”
Gwendolyn Darty, also of Mobile, said while she wasn’t sure if the event would lead to a solution to race issues in the city, she wanted to be part of it.
“I want to understand what’s going on in our community and I can’t do that if I’m not part of the solution,” she said. “Again, I don’t know if we’re going to get anything out of this, but I want to walk away saying ‘I was there and tried to make a difference.’”
Turner spoke first at the event, highlighting the history of the south and the struggles of blacks in the south before and after the Civil War. He said after the war, the federal government forced the south to abide by the law, but when southerners regained power they took those rights, like the right to vote, away through the black codes and Jim Crow laws.
“The hearts and minds of the average southerner had not changed,” Turner said.
He said once whites regained control of the south they locked blacks up for the smallest crimes, which led to the “mass incarceration of blacks.”
“In my humble opinion, it’s disingenuous to talk about prison overcrowding without talking about the racist history of the criminal justice system,” Turner said.
Mobile needs to have a discussion on race, he said, because it has its own set of problems. He told those in attendance to look at the number of black-owned businesses and the number of African Americans in upper management in the city. He said there is no representation.
He reminded the audience that the city still has segregated Mardi Gras societies and other organizations.
During his time to speak, Black brought up a fight in Hoover over the cutting of busing for the school system.
Black compared that issue with the success of Mobile’s George Hall Elementary, where he said despite 100 percent participation in free and reduced lunch, the school’s students have flourished and have test scores to prove it. The scores beat out many suburban schools, including all the schools in the Hoover district, he argued.
Black said part of the reason for the school’s success is the community started an education foundation that had the ability to make changes at the school and start a rebuilding process. He said the new principal at the school was a “special kind of woman, who attracted like-minded teachers with the mindset that every child has the ability to learn.”
“Ninety-nine percent of Alabamians don’t think George Hall Elementary exists,” Black told the crowd. “At George Hall Elementary you can smell the high expectations. It’s literally in the air.”
In addition, Black said more and more people today are losing personal connections with people that don’t look like them and this is causing people to lose the ability to talk to one another.
“Not only do we not know what it’s like to lead a life like someone else, we forget the concrete facts of transformative success,” he said.
For change to take hold, Black said Americans have to be more open-minded and make a commitment to the possibility that there’s new information that may change your mind.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson first proposed the idea of a forum on race relations, after the council split along racial lines on the appointment of former Mayor Sam Jones to the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System Board earlier this year.
The idea of a singular forum to discuss race relations morphed into a series of community conversations the city will co-host with Mobile United. The next is tentatively scheduled for Monday, Sept. 22, in the same location.