By Greg Wilson
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.”
- Dr. Seuss
The power of one man’s vision offered the citizens of Anderson County the opportunity to shine some light on the issue of race relations right here at home. On a chilly Saturday morning, a crowd of a little over 150 gathered at the civic center to participate in guided exercises, encourage discussion and understanding, and to find common ground on issues related to race and culture.
“If we are going to begin to love our neighbors, we have to love our neighbors even when they don’t love us,” said Bakari Sellers, the keynote speaker for the event. “Only then, can we mend the fences that have been broken so long.”
The get together put on display an honest approach to discussing issues, and allowing anyone who was on every side of the issues to have their say. Passionate, but civil discussion ruled the day.
I grew up in Anderson at a time when there were plenty of “Whites Only” signs downtown. I attended segregated schools until late elementary school, and vivd remember those signs as well as the “Colored Only” signs scattered around the county.
I was discussing this with friends recently, some of whom also shared similar memories of growing up here. However many of them have reached the conclusion that since the signs are gone, schools are integrated and voting rights laws have opened up the polls to all Americans, racism is no longer a serious issue. Their reaction is shaped by their experience, those of white people on the outside looking in.
Anderson County now has about 195,000 residents. Just under 33,000 of those citizens are African-American. Another 6,000 are Hispanic. We’re still a very white county, something easy for white folks to forget.
A quick look at history shows that changing the world it is not only about changing the laws. During the segregation era, Southern states had the Jim Crow Laws which enforced racial segregation, but in many places in the Northern states without such laws on the books racial segregation was culturally enforced in restaurants, businesses and schools. Laws don’t change hearts. (Even God’s 10 Commandments did little to change the hearts of his people).
While such behavior is no longer allowed by law, it is impossible to miss the discrimination that we still have a long way to go in regards to judging people by the content of the character. Forget the sensational headlines, it’s happening somewhere every day, in ways less blatant, but equally insidious.
If you don’t believe it, ask someone of color who has experienced suspicious or accusatory looks in a place of business, or who has been stopped by law enforcement with dubious reason.
S.C. Senator Tim Scott not so long ago said that in his first year in Washington, he was stopped seven times by law enforcement. Most of those encounters, Scott said, were due to “nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or some other reason just as trivial.”
As a white person, I have little frame of reference for such experiences on a day-to-day basis, but I have seen the ugliness in full vitriol as late as the civil rights marches in the 1980s. Men and women holding their children in one hand, while holding signs sporting racial epithets lined the march route in Cumming, Ga. Some threw rocks and bottles at us as they screamed out hateful things.
I also know, from decades of interviewing men and women of color, we still have a long way to go, including right here at home.
As neighbors in Anderson County, we took a step in the right direction Saturday with the racial relations conference.
And we were able to take that step forward because of the vision of one young elementary school who, as Dr. Seuss wrote, cares a lot and believes things can be better.
Justus Cox is a graduate of Anderson University and a former intern at Anderson County. Cox was not discouraged when a similar event last November was poorly attended. He used that event as a strategic planning session to make Saturday’s conference a reality. He also plans to continue his effort and maintain momentum.
It is hard to overstate how important such a commitment is to our community. To watch a young man in his early 20s, one who is busy establishing a career devote his time and effort to making our community a better place is, sadly, uncommon. To witness one who does not easily grow discouraged, who believes things can be better and is willing to work however hard necessary to see it through is even more rare.
Perhaps is is born from his experience. Raised by a single mother, often homeless, Cox found a path through his faith and the support of his church. In college he became a part of Anderson University’s student-led “Connect” program, which seeks to take a sensitive approach and honor the differences and similarities of all races.
He sees continuing such dialog as important to the community, promising Saturday is only the beginning of what is to come.
“He is the man who made this happen,” Sellers said. “Justus cannot be given enough credit for putting together this event. When he asked me to be a part of it, I considered it an honor.”
Sellers also said Anderson’s racial relations conference is part of the recipe for a better future.
‘We’re going to dedicate ourselves not about what this country was or is, but what it can be. That is how we will make America great.”