True Confessions of a former mayor: What I’ve learned about race relations.
When I first ran for mayor and for nine years in office one of my primary focuses was to heal the racial divide here in Augusta, GA. It has always been my firm belief that a house divided against itself will never stand and that in spite of our differences citizens in local communities everywhere should never take an “us and them” attitude towards the places they choose to call home as at the end of the day its ultimately all “us”. Loving our neighbors as ourselves has nothing to do with categorizing people as our black neighbors, our white neighbors, our rich neighbors, our poor neighbors or placing labels on any other group who we think fit with in the context of what our neighbors should or shouldn’t look like. In the end people from all walks of life who live in communities are all neighbors in my book as the street that runs in front of my front door is connected to yours and the wind doesn’t stop blowing nor the river flowing along any perceived political, racial or socioeconomic lines.
To put in to context my views on race prior to taking office I’ll share with you a very personal story. I grew up in the south and hearing racial epithets used on a regular basis was something that was commonplace and never truly registered on me as it was just the world I lived in. That all changed for me in the early nineties when I was living in Atlanta and working for what was then Nations Bank and what is now Bank of America. During that time my best friend at the office was a true gentleman by the name of Mark Jones who happened to be African American. I say happened to be because it didn’t really matter to me what the color of his skin was, he was simply just a very cool, very intelligent, very laid back cat that was a real pleasure to be around and who I couldn’t imagine anyone not wanting to hang out with. Ultimately Mark and I, as sales assistants for the securities division, had the opportunity to spend a week together in a hotel to join in a cram course to get our Series 7 securities license. After dinner one night after an extremely exhausting day of learning the intricacies of financial transactions during the midst of the week Mark made a statement that would change my life forever when he said “You know what, if my skin color was your’s we’d be the same people and if your skin color was mine it would be the same way.”. At that seminal moment in my life I came to the realization that any racial epithet I heard from that point forward was not only directed at any given race, but was also directed at my friend Mark. Ironically, although I voiced it loudly to certain friends, the people around me somehow cerebrally understood after this moment in my life that the use of racial epithets in my presence was not something I put up with or appreciated. To this very day I constantly thank my lucky stars for my friendship with Mark and for the impact it had on my life.
Years later when I ran for mayor in 2005 I was extraordinarily blessed to have been invited to speak at a multitude of African-American churches. I always realized the poetic irony in this in that having grown up a shy kid from Canada, I always felt more at ease in these situations than I ever did at any club I had ever been a member of. On my 38th birthday I had the opportunity to spend six hours in two different church services where I once again found a tremendous appreciation for being welcomed in, warts and all, to a congregation that truly got what it meant to be a part of something larger than yourself and to be a part of a community. I’ll never forget standing before the congregations of Macedonia Baptist Church and Beulah Grove Baptist and sharing with them my unwavering opinion that I would be more pleased to see one hundred percent turn out at the voting booth than to be elected and the impact the fact that I was totally sincere had on their church families.
In Augusta we formed a community prayer breakfast that brings together all races, denominations and faiths in a monthly meeting which has become an intersecting point for all walks of life that has further strengthened the fabric of our community. People who never may have met have formed lasting bonds of friendship and over a decade later the monthly meetings are still going strong.
In the end I was blessed to have been elected by a large majority three times in a predominantly African-American southern city. I firmly believe that I was blessed to have this opportunity by being sincere, speaking from the heart and by spending quality time in all parts of the community I was honored to serve. I also fully believe that the issues created in other cities, although Augusta continues to have it’s own issues to deal with, are fostered by sections of communities often times being pitted against each other while having no meaningful interaction with each other. Where there isn’t interaction a sense of mistrust begins to build which can often create a powder keg that’s just waiting to ignite. The more leaders can bring together people of all walks of life and differing backgrounds on common ground the better as I’ve witnessed firsthand that constant interaction builds bonds of trust while replacing the walls built by mistrust. Ultimately the choice is ours: do we build walls or build bridges? It’s our choice to make.