Chipping away at wall of racism

Chipping away at wall of racism
January 21
00:00 2016
Photo by Tevin Stinson
Hundreds of people filed into the Benton Convention Center on Monday, Jan. 18 for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast Forum.

By Donna Rogers

The Chronicle

“Racism, America’s Berlin Wall?” was asked at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Breakfast Forum last year. The question remained the theme for the 2016 breakfast at the Benton Convention Center. The event was sponsored by The Chronicle and The Ministers’ Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity on Monday, Jan. 18.

Before 1,200 people, various speakers answered the question, telling what their organizations and agencies are doing to try to tear down the wall of racism in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County.  The main speaker, Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., looked on. Chavis, who is now president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, worked in the Civil Rights Movement with King as a young man.

Gayle Anderson, president and CEO of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce, encouraged employers to hire people who have criminal records. The Chamber supports efforts to expunge people’s records.

James Perry, the new president and CEO of the Winston-Salem Urban League, said that despite past troubles of the organization, “The Urban League is back; the Urban League is strong” and ready to serve the community. He mentioned 230 older workers have trained through one of the organization’s programs and are ready to work. He mentioned Vincent Blackmon, who was trained in photography through the Urban League. Blackmon was taking photos at the breakfast forum.

Dr. Beverly Emory, superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, said that employees of the school district are using data to help them improve education for students.

“Some of that has been incredibly painful,” she said. “But unless we look at the numbers, we will never do anything about it.”

Emory said that government officials look at the status of third-grade reading skills to determine how many prisons to build because odds are that if students can’t read on a third-grade level, they will end up in the criminal system.

“So I ask you to keep holding these schools accountable,” she said.

Dr. Elwood L. Robinson, chancellor of Winston-Salem State University (WSSU), said the university has embarked on a five-year strategic plan that started with the question: Why can’t WSSU students get a high-quality education comparable to attending Harvard University? He said the students at WSSU have improved graduation rates and rank high in social mobility.

“So they are making a difference, carrying on the dream of Dr. King” in education, Robinson said.

The chancellor appealed to the public to help the Winston-Salem Choir go to Carnegie Hall this summer to perform. The choir performed at the breakfast forum.

Camille Banks-Payne, a district judge who oversees the Mental Health Treatment Court in Forsyth County, said the court helps those who have been charged with crimes and deemed mentally ill to go through a program to eventually expunge their records. The program kicks in before any conviction.

“I’m very proud of the way that court is being run,” she said, adding that “wonderful things happen in that court.”

Jim O’Neill, Forsyth County district attorney, also talked about expunging criminal records. He mentioned a short-lived program to expunge certain criminal records to help people get their driver’s licenses back. He said the program helped more than 2,000 people. He also talked about the diversity in his office and a bill in the General Assembly that deals with expungement of criminal records. He urges people in the community to contact their legislators to help get the bill passed.

O’Neill believes education is a key to keeping people out of the criminal system.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to keep everybody in school,” he said.

District Court Judge Denise Hartsfield, who was the breakfast forum’s mistress of ceremonies, said Wake Forest University also handles expungements. It has a division in its law school that does that.

“I thank God for Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement,” said Bishop Todd Fulton, president of the Ministers’ Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity. He said the conference backs empowerment, such as when people grow their own food. The ministers are helping black farmers. They also are helping students. The conference will be giving 10 scholarships of $1,000 each.

“I want to say to Winston-Salem: Don’t you get tired. We’ve got work to do,” Fulton said.

Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines spoke about how his office partners with the Ministers’ Conference regarding the My Brother’s Keeper project started by President Obama. Joines also mentioned support for the Moral Monday and Black Lives Matter movements.

“It’s all about people getting together across the table to listen to one another,” he said.

The Ministers’ Conference has demanded that the city release videotapes regarding the arrest of Travis Page, who died in Winston-Salem police custody on Dec. 9. Joines said ONeill has said he will release the video as soon as the investigation is done.

Joines also said city officials support African-American businesses and are trying to cut the 22 percent poverty rate in the city.

Hartsfield said: “We’ve made some small holes in that wall” of racism.

Chavis marveled at what he heard from the leaders. He said that Winston-Salem has changed since he grew up in Oxford, N.C., and that it appears Winston-Salem is part of the North Carolina that wants to move forward.

“That’s the North Carolina that we all should be striving for,” he said.


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Donna Rogers

Donna Rogers

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