I drove from Atlanta back down to my island for the sole, “soul”, purpose of attending a meeting. That’s five hours of driving, on a good day, in moderate Atlanta Connector traffic. But it was important to me.
The occasion was the Glynn County Clergy gathering of people across racial lines. We began this work in the wake of the Ahmaud Arbery killing on Feb. 23, 2020. It took several months, and some luck to get an indictment of these three vigilantes who took it upon themselves to administer what they deemed as “justice”: as they took on the role of police, judge, jury, and executioner. These three boys, and I am using this appellation deliberately, because these were “good ol’ boys” that give “boys” a bad name.
They chased down Ahmaud with two trucks, killing him with three shotgun blasts. I have written about this several times over the last two years, if you are wanting more details. There was a certain smell of arrogance that comes from an inbred sense of privilege that flooded the minds and souls of these three, allowing them to kill a black person running through their neighborhood. That disregard for the Law was spawned by a belief that they could get away with it in this country. They had connections!
Unfortunately for them. one of them recorded a video tape of the chase and the killing. If he had not bumbled and allowed the tape to surface, my bet is that these “boys” would have walked. But the tape emerged and sort of forced the issue. After a state and federal trial, two of the boys, father and son, have two life sentences, without chance of parole. That’s what they call the deep, dark dungeon sentence. The “videotape dude”, got life with a chance of parole, which probably will not happen before he dies in prison.
So when this event fueled outrage and foment, the clergy of Glynn County took action to try to avoid the societal unrest that has seemed to plague our country. We planned for dinner gatherings at a variety of houses of worship to promote dialogue and discussion about this incident and the racial climate in our county. Due to Covid, we were forced to go to a Zoom link, making the small group discussions happen online. While not ideal, we had several meetings with good interaction among the citizens of Glynn, notably across racial lines.
Having just moved here to Glynn County, I had no measure by which to judge the interaction, but I was taken by clergy who were proactive, and not merely reactive, which characterizes much of my experience of the church’s typical response. My mentor, Carlyle Marney, used to quip that the Church was usually “a minute late, and a dollar short”. He was being kind.
Rather, the clergy led by calling for prayer vigils at the start of the murder trial, maintaining a presence on the courthouse square, gathering when the dramatic verdict was read, and then again at the sentencing. At many predictable “breaking” points, it could have exploded, but our vigilance was rewarded with a peaceful presence, when it could have all gone to hell. It was a good moment for Glynn County.
The clergy group had been strangely quiet, inactive, for a while. Maybe it was out of fatigue. I don’t know. But an honest-to-God in-person dinner was scheduled for last Thursday, to be held at Sistah’s restaurant in Brunswick. The clergy got busy and begin sending notices out, inviting people to show up for this dinner, followed by discussion. There were around a hundred people that showed up at 6 PM on a Thursday night. We sat at tables of ten people, with a facilitator at each table to prompt and guide the discussion. The table I was at had six whites and 4 blacks. We talked about our history, where we had grown up, how long we had been in Glynn County. There were a couple of home town folks, a couple of recent transplants, and the majority being from elsewhere but having resided here for a good while.
People were very friendly, setting a good mood of trust from the word “go”, sharing their experience of race here in South Georgia. And, there was a clear sense that we were all leaning in to listen to each person as they told their story.
For me, the most powerful stories came from a black couple who were pretty new to the area, both having served in the armed services. They settled here, beginning a new business, with hopes for a good future for their family. But the power came when they got real honest about their children, growing up here in Glynn Country. They had had “the talk’ warning their children about being “careful”, of being “smart” as they interacted at school and in the community. They received instructions as to how to act if they were pulled over by police. You could sense the pain, particularly in the mother, as she described the necessity of “the talk”.
An older black professional spoke softly as he described some abuse in some of his interactions in the community, but noting that these were the exceptions to the rule. One black professional woman remained mostly quiet, particularly when our table facilitator asked her for an opinion on a particular subject. She smiled, and shook her head, indicating her preference of remaining quiet. Her wishes were honored.
The whites around the table had a wide range of ages. Many had a history of involvement in civil rights work, and came to give support to this effort of listening. One white woman volunteered that she was 81, having moved to St. Simons Island many years ago. I was lucky enough to sit next to her and was amazed at her energy for listening to others, really trying to understand the role of race in our community. One community development worker from Atlanta who had retired to Brunswick had a lot of common sense in terms of the involvement of citizens in bettering our area. One woman was a retired Lutheran minister who served as our facilitator. And there was one old broken-down bearded quixotic looking figure who looked as if he had seen better days, but he’s really not worth mentioning.
We met for two hours, and the conversation and transparency were surprising to me, invigorating, hopeful, and respectful. The group expressed our common thought that such moments of dialogue allowed us to break out of our normal patterns of relating to only those we know, in our immediate neighborhood. One white female attorney noted that this event allowed us to break out of our “flight patterns” that tend to limit the opportunities for interaction. We all agreed that such occasions were of benefit and voiced the hope that we should schedule more frequent gatherings like this.
In a moment of weakness, I shared an experience I had when chairing the race relations task force in Tyler, Texas. It was in the 1990s that we gathered interested citizens to come to various houses of worship, once a month, to simply listen to people recount their experience of race in their life in East Texas. We loosely followed Bishop Tutu’s model of hearing the pain and experience of racism, offering opportunities for gaining awareness and promoting understanding and reconciliation. I told my table about how proud I was of my efforts as an organizer, to promote truth and sensitivity.
And then, I had to admit to how humbled I was by the gentle intervention on my self-satisfied smile one night in Tyler after a particularly successful, well-attended meeting. Velma Mosely, a black Earth Mother if there ever was one, had become a dear friend during my time in Tyler. She took me aside from the crowd, not subjecting me to the public embarrassment that I deserved. When we were alone in the hallway, she asked her searing question: how many people of color have you had to your house for dinner? The answer was “one”, a friend and co-worker who came regularly for staff parties. But there were no social interactions at my home, ever, with people of color. It was not intentional, but it was neglectful, and actually meant that I was missing an opportunity to experience the diversity of my community. Her point, graciously but firmly offered, made a huge impact on my consciousness and actions. I was wondering, as I told the story, if my friend, Velma, could reach across time, miles, and death, to speak to a group gathered to improve the interaction of our community. I was hopeful. Velma was one powerful person. We’ll see.
After the meeting was over, the clergy group was helping to put the table and chairs back to their normal position as we had promised the owner. One of the clergy, the pastor of a local congregation, walked past me and offered this remark, “There’s the troublemaker!” Initially, his words cut into me, then turned to anger at the name that he put on me. Uncharacteristically, I decided to let it go, After making that long drive, having invested the time and effort, I did not feel appreciated, and that both hurt and infuriated me. I’m not quite sure what he meant by that remark (your guess is as good as mine) but it flew all over me.
I drove back home with that comment riding on my back. But it occurred to me that regardless of what his intention was, there was a richness of meaning encoded in the word “troublemaker”, I decided to use it to remind myself of my love of another troublemaker, John Lewis, my former Congressman, who walked heroically across the Pettus Bridge in Alabama, who marched with Martin, who put himself on the line for justice, “making good trouble.” That would be a name that I could wear proudly, regardless of the minister’s intention. I found myself surprised in offering thanks for the words of this Glynn County minister.
Troublemaker. I guess I have been. Starting in high school, pushing back on Miss Pagett’s imperious style. Protesting the war at Emory. Finding my way into civil right work in race, sexuality, and gender. He, said Glynn clergy person, got it right in his call, Troublemaker. I think that’s right.
And I hope I will continue to find the courage and commitment to “make good trouble” as I move on down that proverbial road. Making GOOD trouble, that’s a calling I am proud to share with my hero. “Maker of Trouble”…..hopefully good trouble.