Continuing the race conversation | Local News

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Editor’s note: The the second part in a series of columns.

Morgantonian Edward Phifer sent a letter asking about race relations to people in the local Black community, including his friend John Fleming, who was born and raised in Morganton, but no longer lives here.

Fleming graduated from Olive Hill High School in 1962 and Berea College in 1966, and earned his Ph.D. in American history from Howard University in 1974. He wanted to be a missionary, but as a Black man, he met numerous roadblocks from religious organizations. He became, instead, a museum director, curator and historian. He married Berea graduate Barbara Durr, who later earned her Ph.D., and is an author in her own right. Presently, he is working on a memoir about his time in the Peace Corps in Malawi, Africa.

The letter below is one person’s opinion. Fleming did not write it as a representative of his race. Furthermore, I condensed it significantly for word count and can only hope that in doing so, I did not change his meaning.

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“I believe that you are a good man and have a good heart. I think your essay is your first step to rid yourself of unconscious bias and prejudice that we all share. We have had 400 years of becoming who we are today and it will not be erased in one or two generations. And it certainly will not be erased by people who do not even see that there is a problem that needs to be solved and cured. I certainly admire your efforts as reflected in your narrative.

“Your statement that ‘times are better now for Blacks than any period since the Civil War,’ must be qualified. Better for whom? It is certainly better for me and my family, but I belong to a very small group of Black Americans who could be classified as in the upper 10 percent of Americans.

“The Black family is in worse shape than ever: 72 percent of all children are living with a single parent. What this means is that they are more likely to be living below the poverty level, less likely to perform at grade level starting in the lower grades and never being able to catch up, more likely to live in substandard housing, attend segregated schools and live in less desirable neighborhood.

“The destruction of the Black family over the last half century has had a devastating impact on the Black community. Up until the 1960s the vast majority of Black people lived in two parent households. [Many] Blacks owned their own homes until the crisis of 2008-9, [during] the subprime home mortgage collapse [that impacted] Black home ownership.

“[We] all know that legal segregation had to end, but few of us gave very much thought to the impact ‘integration’ would have on the Black community: the destruction of black schools, businesses, many organizations, neighborhoods, etc. There was a consistent and deliberate policy to run highways through the middle of black communities…a deliberate effort to infuse these communities with drugs.

“[The] omnibus crime bill of the 1990s increased the imprisonment of black men by the hundreds of thousands. While integration benefited many of us in a position to take advantage of new opportunities, it also left many behind with few role models (Black middle class escaped to the suburbs.) So I and many educated blacks are much better off financially, but large groups are not.

“Your paragraph on law enforcement made me think. While we all want police protection and not have to fear the police, our encounters with the police too often are negative. I cannot tell you how many times I have been stopped by the police for no reason. Even while in the middle of a caravan of cars, it was me who was pulled over by the police (driving while black).

“[B]efore the Civil War, ‘Pattyrollers’ could stop any Black on suspicion of being a runaway. During Jim Crow, police were allowed to beat and kill Blacks with impunity. It was not until the iPhone and body cameras do we have any idea…Just imagine how many beatings and murders went undetected and were unpunished. I do not believe that most policemen are bad, but do believe that policemen tolerate bad apples.

“We need to understand that systemic discrimination is endemic to our way of life. I think you are right that within recent generations, Hollywood is making a special effort to show what a fully integrated American should look like. We are not there yet, but getting closer to the goal.

“I believe as you do, that we can achieve a truly integrated society. As you say, we can do it, but it will take time.

“Edward, I have a lot of respect for you and appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me. I look forward to continued conversation, and hopefully, in the near future, we will be able to talk over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

This letter troubled me. The early response to the letter by other people troubled me. How could I be part of publishing things that might cause people to get angry?

Besides, things are better than before. My husband’s and my family is multi-racial. At a local Black Lives Matter protest, white policemen talked and laughed with Black and white protesters who mingled on the street and did not respond to the rare, but occasionally angry words. Interracial friendships exist.

Churches of a variety of denominations are eager to welcome people of all colors; people. Pastor George Logan, Black minister, of New Day Christian Church works for justice with white people.

“I love what Brian Stevenson says,” he told me. “Any kind of effective change requires proximity.”

So why bring up ancient history? Because more than 66 years later, Emmett Till’s memorial sign is still being vandalized. Because African Americans of a food truck that comes to Morganton have received online angry, undeniably racist, comments. Because I dread publishing a letter written by one African American.

In February’s Burke Coalition for Reconciliation meeting at Calvary Lutheran Church, Allen Fullwood, a Black man who will turn 81 this month, admitted he was tired of the subject, too, as he told again what happened at the sit-ins so long ago. “Here it is 62 years later,” he said, “and we’re still having to talk about it.

Maggie McKinney is a member of the Morganton Writers Group.

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