The bright lights of Atlanta’s TV news engulfed our County Courthouse yet again this week, beaming out even more troubling images of our community. Sitting in the audience for the August 5 Board of Commissioners meeting. I felt a wide range of emotions after listening to more than two and a half hours of citizen and commissioner comments regarding the Facebook post by John Douglas.
The overwhelming feeling was sadness. I’d like to believe the entire matter is, as Douglas unconvincingly argued, an isolated case of righteous indignation over a disgusting and despicable photograph of a person desecrating the American flag. Unfortunately, his apology was a half hour recitation of past kind acts to African Americans, best summed up as; “I have had black friends so I can’t possibly be a racist.” The apology, if one can really call it that, was probably more offensive to the African Americans present than his now infamous Facebook post.
Members of the African American community spoke with eloquence and restraint about their deep hurt that a man who had served Newton County in various capacities for years could post a comment so openly racist and sexist. Many talked of forgiveness, some of accountability and almost all of the damage to the social fabric and reputation of the community.
But beneath the anger, frustration and disappointment voiced was the broader implication. The Douglas tirade on Facebook was symptomatic of current racial tensions and attitudes not just in Newton County, but indeed, in our nation. This event, when viewed through the camera lens which took aim at Charleston and the Confederate flag controversy, portrays a nation still grappling to deal with its past in order to realize its future.
In a night of memorable comments, two especially stand out. With eloquent resolve, Commissioner Lanier Sims cited the damage done to our county’s economic development efforts and also the need for healing and closure. Facing Douglas, he called for Douglas to resign. “If you love Newton County, you will step down.”
Many expressed the need to forgive Douglas in spiritual terms, but the closing phrase of Covington Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams captured the truth that this is larger than a single Facebook post by Douglas, when she urged that we remember who we are.
For Tuesday night to have meaning beyond exposing a small man making base, mean-spirited, racist comments, we must realize these events are more about us than about Douglas. The important issue is how we as a community deal with our leaders who fail to understand that they speak not just for themselves but an entire county composed of diverse citizens who all have the right to expect to be treated with respect and dignity.
It’s pragmatic to be dismayed at the Douglas matter for its impact on Newton County’s reputation and our economic development, but far more is at stake. If we fail to see the moral implications of this episode, we miss an opportunity to reinforce expectations for our leaders, our fellow citizens and ourselves. We missed that defining moment when only two commissioners joined the chorus of citizens demanding Douglas resign.
Couched in terms of forgiveness, but ignoring accountability, Commissioners Henderson and Maddox and Chairman Ellis chose not only to remain silent on the moral implications but to express support for Douglas and his personal growth through this experience. One is left to wonder if a simple sorry is sufficient to absolve one of personal responsibility for any actions.
It was indeed a sad night for those of us who hoped our County government would set higher standards for acceptable behavior from those elected to represent us. However, it was also a night of hope. Hope that racial and sexist attitudes will be called out. Hope that diverse citizens can together find a voice to say what hurts one of us hurts all of us. For me, however, the sadness I feel today trumps the hope I will work to feel tomorrow.
The foundation of hope was best described by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said, “The arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” What we are finding is that the arch is indeed longer than we had expected.