Race relations during Mobile’s biggest party of the year took center stage during a town hall meeting on race relations Tuesday night at Davidson High School.
The forum, hosted by Local 15 News, was part of a series of conversations on race relations first presented by the city and Mobile United. Tuesday’s town hall format allowed a live audience and participants on various social media platforms to ask questions of the five panelists.
The panel included Mayor Sandy Stimpson, Mobile City Councilman Fred Richardson, Dr. Joel Lewis of the University of South Alabama, Dr. John Switzer of Spring Hill College and Estela Dorn, former director of the Mobile International Festival.
A Twitter user sparked a lively reaction from the audience when he asked why Mobile still had segregated Mardi Gras societies. Moderator Mark Hyman posed the question to representatives of the Mobile Carnival Association and Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association. Both representatives agreed that they didn’t see a racial issue with the way societies are currently set up.
MCA Executive Director Judi Gulledge went a step further, saying that with more than 60 organizations, some that are all white, all black, all male, all female and mixed gender, she couldn’t think of a more diverse celebration in the city than Mardi Gras.
“It’s a wonderful celebration in the city,” she said. “It’s diverse and brings people together.”
When Hyman asked Stimpson if he thought Mardi Gras was a diverse celebration, the Mayor replied there a “diversity of opinions” on the issue. His response was met with laughter and applause.
After both Mardi Gras representatives had spoken, audience members asked them to “tell the truth.”
Switzer, who admitted he lived right across the line in Mississippi, said that any time people get together in celebration it’s a good thing.
“I think any time humans do anything human together … that’s a good thing,” he said.
Lewis mentioned a scene from a film she produced called “Mobile in Black and White,” where a woman was stunned that coworkers and friends didn’t invite her to a Mardi Gras ball. Lewis said the reason the woman wasn’t invited was because it was a white ball and she was black.
Audience member Darrell Evans said that black organizations invite whites to their Mardi Gras festivities, but white organizations don’t invite blacks to participate.
“If you’re not aware of it then I don’t know where you live,” he said in the direction of the Mardi Gras society representatives.
Evans asked the panelists what could be done to help black businesses thrive in black communities.
Stimpson said the city must make it easier for all business owners, including minorities, to do business in the city.
“It is so difficult for someone to start a business today with all the hopes to jump through,” he said. “My administration is trying to get rid of the red tape.”
Prichard Mayor Troy Ephraim asked panelists if they thought race relations have progressed. Lewis said in the making of the film, producers talked to a lot of people and found that strides have been made in terms of race relations, but she added that racial disparities still exist.
Switzer said differences among the races isn’t the problem, but the way we deal with those differences is.
The panel was asked via another Twitter user if they felt the city was more unified under the new administration in the mayor’s office. Stimpson said he thought the city was heading in the right direction.
As a follow-up, Richardson was asked by Hyman what citizens could do to help unite the city. Richardson said he’s seen a lot of progress in citizens in getting along, but said the true goal would be for the community and country to not see race at all.
“I probably have as many white friends as I do black friends, but do they think I’m the same race? No,” he said. “I’m here to tell them that Fred Richardson is a member of the human race.”
That was followed by applause from the audience.
The forum finished with a discussion on racial profiling by the Mobile Police Department. Chief James Barber responded, saying that the department is working to change the relationship between citizens and officers by getting more engaged in the community.