Anti-racist group forges ahead with agenda

by Amy Kingsley

On a Sunday afternoon more than two months ago, the Guilford County Coalition Against Intolerable Racism was born. Days before, the Board of Commissioners had fired County Manager Willie Best, who was the first black person to serve in that capacity in Guilford County’s history. High Point Mayor Pro Tem Bernita Sims and the Rev. Cardes Brown were talking at New Light Missionary Baptist Church, and both were of the same mind about the issue.

“We were both at the point where we thought enough is enough,” Brown said. “The firing of Willie Best is the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Except that in this case instead of immobilizing the camel, the catalyzing action has led to protests, meetings, countywide organizing and a measure of criticism for the group.

Sims and Brown, the co-chairs of the coalition, dashed off a two-page Declaration Against Intolerable Racism issued on Tuesday, July 4. Fifteen black leaders from around Guilford County joined Sims and Brown for a press conference at Greensboro’s Governmental Plaza that afternoon. Later that week an evening rally in the same spot drew hundreds of supporters and speakers from civil rights organizations across the state.

By then, the initial complaint concerning Best’s firing – which coalition members contend was racially motivated – had grown into a laundry list of problems facing the black citizens of Guilford County. The coalition’s complaints ranged from the lack of a street commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. in High Point to the high rate of school expulsions and suspensions among black children. The coalition’s other examples of racism include the treatment of a black Greensboro city councilmember, Diane Bellamy-Small, who was accused of leaking a classified report, and the number of minorities working low-paying jobs.

“Our problems are huge,” Brown said. “There seems to be so much demanding a response.”

After the heady first week, the coalition started planning for the future, holding meetings at churches around Greensboro and making arrangements for another rally on Labor Day. Around that time, local news organizations also started scrutinizing the declaration and wondering aloud whether the organization had bitten off more than it could chew. Allen Johnson, the editorial page editor at the Greensboro News & Record, suggested in his blog that while the problems facing black citizens were real, the coalition’s tactics are ineffectual.

In a Sept. 3 entry, Johnson wrote: “As I see it, all of these folks’ concerns are valid: school achievement, suspension rates, the Willie Best firing, the problems in the Greensboro Police Department. All raise issues that deserve an earnest and honest public discussion. But not all of them are rooted in racism.

“As for the demonstration of buying power on a holiday? Who’s going to be open? These tactics are throwbacks to the 1960s. They are dated and will likely prove ineffective.”

John Hammer of the Rhinoceros Times has reported and editorialized about the coalition’s rallies, often fixating on controversial leaders like the Rev. Nelson Johnson and County Commissioner Skip Alston.

An editorial in the Aug. 23 issue of YES! Weekly accused the coalition of “grandstanding and name-calling” in response to the coalition’s call for the resignation of News & Record Editor John Robinson.

“We see an intentional effort on the part of the media to demean who we are and what we are doing,” Sims said.

But in the face of it all the coalition has persisted. A second rally on Labor Day attracted more than 200 participants and dozens of speakers, few of whom mentioned the boycott of white businesses that had drawn so much ire. The speakers on Labor Day came from across Guilford County, reinforcing the message that the coalition planned to be a countywide movement.

In that spirit, the group convened their latest meeting at Greater First United Baptist Church in High Point Sept. 12. Under a peaked ceiling of finished wood, the organization that has given voice to the anger of many black citizens began to take shape.

Sims described the meeting as an attempt to introduce High Point residents to the coalition. Despite its billing as a countywide movement, much of the organization’s groundwork, from marches to organizational meetings, has been laid in Greensboro. It was also a recap of the Labor Day rally in which many of the meeting attendees had participated.

“I think there is a reason to celebrate Greensboro, High Point and Guilford County doing something together,” Johnson said.

A 35-year-old who had helped organize a younger contingent of activists applauded the willingness of the movement leaders to make space for the youth, and the older activists praised them for their involvement.

Discord surfaced for a moment during the open comment section when Triad IMPAC President Karl Brustmeyer alluded to illegal immigrants threatening to take jobs from members of the black community. The discussion gained little traction before the meeting turned back to the subject at hand.

The coalition has refined the definition of that subject – racism – to subdivide it into a series of five working groups intended to devise plans for how to counteract what Johnson calls a “deteriorating condition.” The subgroups cover education, politics, criminal justice, jobs/economics and the media.

The Rev. William Fails from Greater First United Baptist Church made a plea to slow down the process to ensure that the citizens of High Point would not be left behind. He was overruled by Alston, who made an impassioned speech encouraging the coalition to move forward quickly, particularly concerning the galvanizing issue of Best’s firing.

“I want you to recognize the urgency of the situation that is upon us,” Brown added. “Basically we have not done a lot; we have just realized that racism is still alive.”

His speech started the wheels rolling on the most important piece of coalition business conducted that night: a resolution to oppose the hiring of Interim County Manager David McNeill. Alston accused McNeill of scheming with Republicans on the board to fire Best. The group reached a consensus that letters would be written and bodies assembled to protest McNeill’s application at the next county commissioners meeting.

Throughout the meeting Rep. Earl Jones, a Democratic member of the NC House, urged the coalition to adopt concrete goals that could be lobbied for and benchmarked. He warned the coalition that failing to do so would doom the group to flash-in-the-pan status. Some of the committees have already worked on coalition goals, including a proposed boycott of the News & Record and the demand for a police review board with subpoena power.

“We need to begin to have definitive demands,” he said. “At some point, people are not going to support something they can’t grab on to, something they can’t see.”

The group assembled in High Point not only agreed to oppose McNeill’s bid for the county manager position; they also decided to lobby against the construction of a new jail in Guilford County. A disproportionate number of inmates at the jail are blacks and other minorities.

“For the most part,” Brown said, “I hear us all saying the same thing.”

In the end, a plan for immediate action regarding McNeill was established alongside a long-range schedule for general and subcommittee meetings. The group that erupted from the anger of community leaders seemed to settle – like a blanket of magma bent on reshaping a society – into a more deliberate group with direction and focus. This does not mean they are disregarding the focus on institutional racism that is at the root of so many of the community’s problems, Sims said. She declined to compare the group to any other civil rights organization, and said that each is working on their own angle.

“I don’t think there’s been an organization like this,” Sims said. “I don’t know that there has ever been a countywide movement to fight racism.”

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