Charlottesville can happen here, religious leaders say

Rev. John Mendez

Charlottesville can happen here, religious leaders say
August 17
04:00 2017

The searing images of Neo-Nazis and white supremacists battling on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia,  with counter-protesters on Saturday, culminating in the tragic murder of a young white woman when a car driven by an alleged Nazi sympathizer slammed into an unsuspecting crowd, are still in the minds and hearts of most African-Americans almost a week later.

“The hate and violence we’ve witnessed in Virginia is reprehensible and has no place in our society,” said U.S. Rep.  Alma Adams (D-12-NC). “As a nation, we are better than this. It’s time we come together to stand up and boldly stamp out bigotry and hate.” 

Rep. Adams was joined in her expression of concern about the racist violence in Charlottesville by some of her North Carolina Republican colleagues, representatives Virginia Foxx, Richard Hudson, Patrick McHenry and Sen. Thom Tillis.

“The hate, bigotry and violence on display in Charlottesville is despicable and represents the complete opposite of what America stands for,” Senator Tillis tweeted Sunday.

But some black religious and social justice leaders, like Bishop William Barber II, president of the N.C. NAACP, say statements of racist outrage from Republican leaders about Charlottesville ring hollow when the policies of these same NC GOP congresspeople against the interests of African-Americans are taken into account.

“To say you are against white supremacy without standing up against the policies that embolden white supremacists reeks of a terrible ignorance or deliberate hypocrisy,” Bishop Barber said in an interview.

“[Republican leaders] and others oppose the white supremacy in Charlottesville. OK, we all do. But here is the test – will they call for [White House presidential adviser Stephen] Bannon and alt-right policies to be removed from their agenda? Will they fully reinstate the Voting Rights Act to stop racist voter suppression and gerrymandering? Will they acknowledge the racist voter suppression in 2016 and join [the U.S. Supreme Court] to condemn racist gerrymandering? Will they stop the racist attacks on immigrants? Will they challenge and stop [U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions] from ending affirmative action? Will they increase and call for support of federal investigation of unarmed blacks killed by police? Will they repent from how silent they were when Trump used birtherism [against President Barack Obama] to rally white supremacists for his campaign?”

Veteran civil rights leader Rev. Dr. John Mendez, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, agrees with Bishop Barber that denouncing extremist racists is easy for Republican lawmakers, but taking stock of the cultural and institutional racism that laces their public policy when it comes to voter suppression, redistricting, LGBTQ rights or helping poor communities of color achieve equal opportunity, is something they’re not willing to acknowledge.

“A lot of people will jump on [what happened Saturday] because they think that’s what racism is … extremism, the Ku Klux Klan, white nationalists, Neo-Nazis, etc. But they reject or deny everyday racism that goes on in subtle ways in public policy.”

Dr. Mendez agrees that it is not a stretch to conceive of the  same events in Charlottesville happening here. The election of President Donald Trump to office has exacerbated growing racial and political divisions that can only fuel even more confrontations if strong, moral leadership does not rise to the occasion.

“It’s a national atmosphere now,’ he said. “What happened Saturday was a strategic run, a test … to see if [white racist violence] could fly.”

Rev. Mendez added that unlike Ferguson, Missouri, where local police “attacked” protesters after the police shooting of Michael Brown, police in Charlottesville were noticeably restrained against the neo-Nazis and other white supremacists.

Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center of Greensboro has indeed seen Neo-Nazi and KKK violence before, right here in North Carolina.

On Nov. 3, 1979, five protesters in an anti-Klu Klux Klan march and rally were fatally shot by KKK and neo-Nazis. Rev. Johnson was the leader of that rally, and was arrested by police, who curiously were nowhere to be found once the shooting occurred. It was later determined that the white supremacists went to rally with the soul intention to kill, and yet, after two trials, none of them were ever convicted.

Now, 38 years later, Rev. Johnson looked back, knowing full well, that the “atmosphere” is ripe, for more racist violence like was seen in Charlottesville and Greensboro.

“Everything that happened in Charlottesville is relevant, and North Carolina should be paying attention to all of it,” he said in a phone interview Sunday. Johnson went on to say that there are “political and economic forces that have been out of kilter” for many years, resulting in both whites and blacks to suffer accordingly. But while there are many whites who have struggled and are struggling economically – the very group that powered Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory – there is little question that African-Americans have suffered more, and continue to do so.

Rev. Johnson believes that both groups are being manipulated to turn against each other by politicians and the wealthy, with poor whites being made to believe that African-Americans are to blame for their economic struggles.

“The fact that we are manipulated against each other is rooted in white supremacy itself,” Johnson maintains,  adding that the solution lies in “raising people’s moral and ethical understanding” about how they are being exploited by the institutional “undergirding economic forces.”

Rev. Johnson noted that beyond the documented fact that white supremacists went to both Charlottesville and Greensboro with violent intentions, another similarity was how public officials in Greensboro, and President Trump after Charlottesville, all tried to equivocate that everyone involved was responsible for the fatal outcomes.

Bishop Todd Fulton of Mt. Moriah Outreach Center in Winston-Salem says despite the dire predictions of many, we are not at a point of no return, but rather he sees the current corrosive political and racial discourse as a rallying cry for a diverse coalition of ecumenical and social justice activists to come together to bring about needed healing and understanding.

Indeed, Bishop Fulton assured that such a group is working in Forsyth County now. Religious and social justice leaders say in light of Charlottesville, and what they say is President Trump’s lack of moral leadership, there must be a coming together of people from all corners to help save this nation.

“That drama that unfolded in Charlottesville is a manifestation of the extremism and racism that is overtaking America,” said Rev. Alvin Carlisle, president of the Forsyth County NAACP. “Those who harbor these supremacist views have become emboldened by the rhetoric and policies advanced by the Trump administration. There has to be a resurgence of love in America; that is the only thing  that can drive out this kind of hate. Trump’s failure to strongly respond to these events only reinforce the reality of his alt-right views. Republicans, who through party loyalty, continue to support this administration, are complicit in its advancement of racist ideologies.”

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks white supremacist activity across the nation, there are numerous Klan and neo-Nazi groups headquartered in North Carolina, particularly in the western part of the state.

On Monday evening in Durham, anti-racist demonstrators pulled down a confederate statue that previously stood in front of the old Durham County Courthouse, and took turns stomping it. Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted in response, saying, “The racism and deadly violence in Charlottesville is unacceptable but there is a better way to remove these monuments.”

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Cash Michaels

Cash Michaels

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