Call for councilwoman’s resignation provokes anger
African-American pastors who belong to the Pulpit Forum, including one who is the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, assembled on March 1 at a southeast Greensboro church to condemn a recent call by Florence Gatten for the resignation of her fellow Greensboro City Council member Dianne Bellamy-Small.
They were joined by Luther Falls, a former electoral rival of the embattled councilwoman. Falls said in a written statement that he denounced a recall request and felt “the citizens of District 1 should decide who should represent them.”
Statements made by several of the pastors contained an undercurrent of disappointment with the news media for its extensive reporting on Bellamy-Small’s recent imbroglios, and its purported eagerness to relay Gatten’s accusations to the public. For their part, reporters have expressed frustration among themselves about Bellamy-Small’s unwillingness to return phone calls or give her version of events – with the exception of faxed statements.
“Ms. Small is a good representative of her district,” said the Rev. Eva Ratliff, president of the Pulpit Forum, reading from a prepared statement. “She has demonstrated both courage and integrity. We are persuaded that, not only should she not resign, but if she is so led, she should run again to continue her good work.”
On the same day, Bellamy-Small faxed a statement to media organizations stating: “I have tried to be a voice for those who have felt they could not speak, did not know how to speak or need to be encouraged to speak regardless of race. I have been an ambassador for the city, giving out maps and other promotional items that were provided for that purpose everywhere I have gone. Our city maps have been used in adult ed basic math classes at GTCC to teach adults math and to read a map.”
The pastors indicated they believe that Gatten’s campaign to remove her African-American colleague is rooted in a civic culture of racial paternalism, characterizing the call for Bellamy-Small’s resignation as “a political lynching.”
“Ms. Small was not elected to satisfy the political aspirations, priorities, or style of Ms. Gatten,” the statement reads. “The day is gone when someone outside of our community dictates who our leadership should be. We would caution our brothers and sisters in City Council District One to take the time to meet and talk in detail with Ms. Small before rushing to judgment on the basis of charges by a person who has opposed almost everything positive from our community perspective.”
Gatten did not return calls to YES! Weekly seeking comment on the controversy.
In addition to Gatten’s resignation call, a group of citizens has launched a petition drive to try to have Bellamy-Small recalled. Web designer Tony Wilkins said on March 2 that he developed a website for citizens in District 1 to gather signatures for that purpose. Wilkins, who lives in the Adams Farm neighborhood and takes calls at the Furniture Connections store on High Point Road, does not live in Bellamy-Small’s district. He declined to say who was on a recall committee or how many signatures had been gathered.
The pastors questioned whether Gatten’s public criticism of Bellamy-Small was “an early mayoral campaign move to appeal to the worst prejudices within white culture and confuse a few blacks” and said the white councilwoman was “appealing and giving voice” to “the massive accumulated effects of decades upon decades of unrepentant racism.”
Gatten deflected a question about her possible mayoral ambitions when she summoned the press to Governmental Plaza on Feb. 26, stating, “I won’t be announcing my political plans until May first.”
The frustration in the small meeting room at New Light Baptist Church, where the Pulpit Forum held its press conference, was palpable.
The Rev. Nelson Johnson, pastor at Faith Community Church, suggested that Gatten had been hypocritical when she cited Bellamy-Small’s disrespectful attitude towards fellow council members as a reason she should resign.
“Mayor Keith Holliday used a ‘white citizens’ council’ approach when he consulted with white members of the city council and consulted with none of the black members of the city council to secure a decision not to discuss the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report,” he said, referring to a citizen initiative to examine the repercussions of the fatal 1979 Klan-Nazi shootings. “The ‘white citizen’s council’ or ‘white power,’ not only made the decision not to discuss the commission’s report without consultation with the black members of the council, but also without even informing the black members of the council that a decision had been made. We note that Ms. Gatten has not asked Mayor Holliday to resign for this disrespect and disregard of an entire sector of our community.”
In an interview with YES! Weekly the next day, Holliday expressed contrition for his handling of the decision, while emphasizing that it was a mistake rather than insensitivity on his part not to seek input from the three black councilwomen.
“Without a doubt, I was wrong,” he said. “I apologized profusely.”
He added that he does not support Gatten’s call for Bellamy-Small’s resignation.
“I don’t think it is our place,” he said. “I may not agree with everything Dianne does, but she is not beholden to me, just as I am not beholden to her. People didn’t elect me to get along with any councilmember just as people didn’t elect Dianne to get along with any councilmember. I would never have asked for her resignation. That’s not the way the system was put together. They should know I was very clear about that.”
Holliday said he believes the recent Guilford College altercation, divisions over the truth and reconciliation process and the ongoing scandal in the Greensboro Police Department, coupled with unhappiness with the national government have contributed to a heightened sensitivity about race relations in Greensboro.
At New Light Baptist Church, Johnson said he believes “there is a deep and growing culture of arrogance in this city, especially among our white leaders.” He continued: “With the black-white divide growing, will black folk have to seek to overcome the challenges of racism and the related injustices without a viable partnership with our white brothers and sisters? Will it require a level of grassroots organizing that we have not yet had? Will it take non-violent marches and massive disobedience?”
The pastors called for a rally at the Melvin Municipal Building on Tuesday, March 6 to demonstrate support for Bellamy-Small. A community meeting will be held on Thursday at Genesis Baptist Church on East Bessemer Avenue.
Reporters asked the pastors how they felt about various controversies that have beset Bellamy-Small, particularly a recent revelation that she gave out bus passes to her constituents and an allegation that she used her position as a city councilwoman to intimidate a police officer who accused her of exceeding the speed limit by 15 mph and who chose to issue her a verbal warning rather than a written ticket.
Johnson said he had spoken with Bellamy-Small, and she told him she gave out an average of 12 bus passes a month. Gatten, in contrast, has accused Bellamy-Small of distributing 50-100 passes per quarter.
“I celebrate that,” Johnson said. “I wish I had a few passes to give out because I usually give out money to people because my heart goes out to them…. I don’t think you should remove the policy just to satisfy the political climate of the moment. We’re struggling in this city for a living wage. We’re struggling for decent health care.”
Following Gatten’s intervention, the Greensboro Transit Authority decided at its Feb. 27 meeting to discontinue the practice of allowing elected officials to distribute bus passes and to discontinue the practice of giving batches of 25 passes on a one-time basis to nonprofits such as Greensboro Urban Ministry, which provides shelter and food for homeless people.
Another Pulpit Forum member, the Rev. Mazie Ferguson, said Gatten’s criticism of elected officials distributing bus passes was “evidence of insensitivity” because Bellamy-Small “represents one of the poorest districts in the city.”
“Councilwoman Small needs to be given a larger number of passes,” Ferguson said.
In an extensive passage of her faxed statement, Bellamy-Small defended her use of the bus passes and explained how they were distributed.
“I used the bus passes to promote our mass transit system during our ‘Dump the Pump’ campaign,” she said. “I was the only council member who was at the kickoff of the South Elm Connector. I gave bus passes to encourage folks to ride. I gave the passes to schools in my district for parents who had no transportation to come see about their children. I gave them to agencies that had poor people who often ask staff for money to get back home. I gave the passes to homeless people to encourage them to go to welfare reform or workforce development or to [the county Department of Social Services] to get help.
“I gave the passes to a teenage homeless shelter to encourage the teens to be independent to go look for a job and a drug treatment center,” she continued. “These relatively few passes I have spread far and wide. I gave four to a cancer patient who needed someone to ride the bus with her because she cannot ride the bus by herself after her treatment. I gave the passes to people I saw standing in the rain or the hot sun waiting for the bus just to help. I asked nothing in return; I did not even identify who I was because it is not about me. I wanted to help; if helping is abusing my ‘power’ then I am guilty of caring only.”
On the matter of Bellamy-Small’s traffic incident, Johnson said the notion that Officer MJ Calvert “violated his conscience and did not give a ticket – I think that is absurd. She said he approached her in a gruff and disrespectful manner…. Given the number of black people who have been racially profiled by the police, at least the media ought to give some space to that possibility. There is a history to this.”
Johnson added that he supported Bellamy-Small’s refusal to submit to a lie detector test to clear herself of suspicion of leaking the Risk Management Associates report, a confidential city document that outlines allegations of misconduct in the police department. A forensic report commissioned by the city determined that Bellamy-Small’s copy of the report was posted on the website Greensboro101.com.
At the close of her faxed statement, Bellamy-Small said: “This has been an unpleasant ordeal for me. I hope you can express in some way my side of this unfortunate and unnecessary situation.”
The Rev. Cardes Brown, pastor of New Light Baptist Church and the president of the Greensboro chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, suggested Gatten’s resignation call might backfire.
“Dianne Bellamy-Small is endeared to our community,” he said, “and the only thing you have done, Ms. Gatten, is make her more endeared.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org