An early morning arrest at a Saraland Waffle House April 22 thrust the area into the national spotlight, one increasingly focused on racial division, when 25-year-old Chikesia Clemons, a black woman, was forcibly arrested by white police officers after an alleged altercation with restaurant employees.
In an incident partially captured on cellphone video and widely shared on social media, two officers forced Clemons to the ground and one briefly put his hand on her neck. In the scuffle, her breasts became exposed and one officer warned he was “about to break your arm.”
In the months since, after protests, boycotts and similar incidents elsewhere captured the nation’s attention, a local group has formed to help bring about more racial understanding. The Pledge Group of Mobile believes the key starts with conversation, like the ones the members started themselves, Tim Smith said.
“This is really an organic movement; it’s not a cause,” he said. “When the four of us met we realized the basic problem was trust along racial lines and so we said, ‘how can we build trust with each other?’
“We started to get to know each other through relatively candid conversations,” Smith added. “Then we began to understand each other, even though we had completely different views on certain things.”
Now, with hundreds of lay and clergy members, the Pledge Group is concerned “about the racial divisions within our communities …” according to a statement from the organization.
Former Prichard Mayor Troy Ephriam, another group member, said incidents like the Saraland situation could help jump-start conversations and help reach an understanding on both sides. He offered advice to Saraland Mayor Dr. Howard Rubenstein.
“I told him, ‘you didn’t ask for this, but it’s on your doorstep and I am praying you manage the situation as God leads you,’” Ephriam said. “You have to see the situation for what it is. People on either side are going to get galvanized.”
The group is hoping to break through to people and prevent “jumping to conclusions” on both sides, Ephriam said.
“That’s why this is so important,” he said. “The more we can get in between what one side thinks about the other side and start changing the narrative … and get them to stop jumping to conclusions. If that turns out to be the case, fine, but we should not jump to conclusions that this was racially motivated.”
Ephriam said the conversations and understanding had to start on Sundays, which he called one of the “most segregated days in a lot of places.”
“As men of faith we felt like the best place to start was in our churches,” Ephriam said. “We started going into each other’s churches and swapping each other’s congregations, if you will. Going and saying, ‘look, we all have one God. We’re all one race and we’re all one blood.’”
It was a difficult task at first, Ephriam said, but the idea is to break through the groupthink and barriers people build around themselves and around those who are like them.
“That became the whole focal point,” Ephriam said. “That helped us rally around something that is a problem in our area, and we said ‘are we going to let it continue to fester, or are we going to do something about it?’ So we began to do a series of meetings to pull ourselves together to talk about the issue.”
These “assemblies” meet quarterly and have had decent attendance, Smith said. Out of the assemblies came a pledge for members that consists of three pillars.
“Number one is just greet people that you don’t know,” Smith said. “I understand human beings; there’s a number of whites and blacks that just walk by each other as if they don’t exist.”
The second commitment is to pray regularly for “racial unity and harmony,” Smith said.
“Number three is to take an active role in spending time with somebody different than you,” he said.
The group is hosting its first major event called “Shrink the Divide: A Gathering for Racial Reconciliation” at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 24, at the Mobile Civic Center Theater.
The event will feature two “nationally known” speakers, Dr. John Perkins and Dr. Russell Moore.
Perkins is the founder and president emeritus of the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation in Jackson, Mississippi, as well as the co-founder of the Christian Community Development Association in Chicago. Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The event is one way the group hopes to share the message of racial reconciliation with the community, Ephriam said. He admitted it has been a challenge.
“The challenge for us has always been how do we take what we do when we meet on Thursdays or have our assemblies … how do we take this and put it out there so people will see who we are, why we even came together and why it’s so important that we address the issue of racial reconciliation whatever forum it needs to be addressed in, because it’s always different for people when you talk to them?” Ephriam said. “It’s never really quite the same. How do we approach them with it and how do we share the love of God and our unity of faith to try and shroud that situation?”
The “love of God” is the only way to eradicate racial division, Ephriam said.
“We’re not here to put a banner up that says ‘we solved the Waffle House situation,’ but I think when people come to … the event we’re going to have later this month, it’ll be quite obvious why we’re doing and what we’re trying to get out of it and why it’s so important for our area,” he said.