The fact that Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner, Jr. could deliver a stronger condemnation of racial hatred than the President of the United States suggests that small-town America might have more of what it takes to combat systemic racism in our nation.
Besides, small-town America is just where this work needs to happen anyway.
Joyner’s comments came after two white local teens spray-painted a racial epithet on the back of the Rev. Jason Mitchell’s truck parked at Collierville High School Tuesday while he attended a private event. He posted a photo of his vandalized vehicle asking, “Y’all believe it’s real yet?!?!”
The hateful sentiment landed just as a confused nation watched President Trump fail repeatedly to denounce white supremacy with false equivocations about how “many sides” were responsible for the violence occurring at the Aug. 12 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. That is where peaceful counterprotester Heather Heyer, 32, lost her life after video shows several people being run down by a Dodge Challenger driven by Jason Alex Fields, 20, an Ohio resident.
In the wake of this racist act by a now-identified Collierville Middle School eighth-grader, 13, and a Collierville High School freshman, 14, Joyner stood with Mitchell Tuesday saying: “This is an appalling and offensive display of ignorance. It is an affront to the Collierville we know and love; it is alien to the community that I grew up in. This cowardly act in no way represents the character or culture and sentiment of the Collierville community at large.”
Of course, responses to Mitchell’s Facebook post suggested something altogether different. Some commenters expressed empathy, but a larger number indicated they still do not believe racism is real yet.
It’s real, folks.
Collierville clergy thought so, too, responding to hate with a unity meeting Saturday morning at Collierville Christian Church, a predominantly white congregation a mile down the road from the high school. About 115 people showed up for an ecumenical service of solidarity, about 50/50 white and black. Clergy and community leaders, including Mitchell, spoke about working for community healing from racism and division, and they encouraged those in the congregation to take this message of unity and reconciliation back to their own congregations.
It’s a wonder this event occurred in the first place considering the studied silence of national mainline or evangelical Christian leaders in denouncing a racist ethos that has taken center stage in public life. The act of practicing unity and indivisibility in one of our most segregated spaces — the church — is a miracle in itself.
But there’s a lot more work to be done.
Although Joyner believes this “in no way represents the character” of our town, if you ask black people in Collierville if this was an isolated incident and if racist hate-speech is “alien” to this community, the answer is “No.” They’ll tell you this kind of thing happens all the time. Mitchell said parishioners whose children attend the high school told him, “Their children have experienced similar hate crimes, but for fear they kept their mouths closed because they didn’t want retaliation.”
So, you know how President Trump spent the entire week gas-lighting the nation by failing to acknowledge racism? Well, get this: Confederate Park — named by the United Daughters of Confederacy — in historic downtown Collierville was designed in the shape of Confederate flag. The park is a rectangle of greenspace with sidewalks crisscrossing in a great, big X. While folks across the country — and down the road in Memphis — are rallying against pro-slavery Confederate monuments, busts and flags in public spaces, pretty much no one is talking about changing the name of Confederate Park. In fact, Mayor Joyner denies that is even its name.
Despite some pretty significant challenges to get this event going, such as resignation and cynicism on the part of local residents, what happened Saturday was pretty radical, for Collierville, anyway.
This is the first step in what I hope will be an ongoing conversation in our churches and schools about recognizing and ending systemic racism. Joyner has committed to working with Mitchell and others to implement a task force on racial reconciliation that will examine the Collierville school curriculum and other town policies that hinder progress on these issues.
After Saturday’s service, I am cautiously optimistic: “The message was clear: We are bound together as people of faith, and we will not tolerate racism,” said the Rev. Ron Buck of Collierville Christian Church.
Amen to that.
Emily Fulmer is a social justice activist and resident of Collierville, Tennessee. She holds a master’s degree in theological studies from Vanderbilt University Divinity School and is pursuing a masters in political science at the University of Memphis.