People in white robes carrying crosses were marching around the courthouse square.
It was 1995 in downtown Lawrenceville, Georgia, a few weeks after I accepted the position as senior minister at the First Baptist Church.
My young boys asked, “Daddy, are those people Christians?”
I was speechless. Unsure how to answer, I delayed an explanation until later, while wondering to myself, “What sort of town and county is this?”
In all the years I had lived in the south, I had only heard of this kind of demonstration, but I had never witnessed any in person. There was no ostensible reason for the march apart from the obvious display of white supremacy.
I later explained to my sons that the people marching were likely members of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacy group that was formed after the days of slavery to intimidate Black people.
They both said, “That’s not right,” and I agreed. How interesting that lads ages 14 and 11 instinctively intuited the morality of the situation.
On April 8, 1911, on that same town square in Gwinnett County, Georgia, an angry mob of 200 white men viciously lynched Charles Hale, a Black man in his mid-30s.
A group of masked white men stormed the jail, dragging out Hale, who had been arrested after being accused of assaulting a white woman. He never received a fair trial, as the mob hoisted Hale up a pole with a noose around his neck and shot him.
Hale left behind a wife and young daughter.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, the City of Lawrenceville, in conjunction with Gwinnett County officials, erected a public monument on Jan. 15, 2022, commemorating Hale’s murder some 110 years prior.
This follows a June 2021 event in which soil was gathered from the town square for inclusion in the Equal Justice Initiative museum in Montgomery, Alabama.
The monument erected on town square is a very small attempt at recompense.
Lawrenceville Mayor David Still said, “Mr. Hale’s Marker will serve as a symbol of remembrance and acknowledgement of tragic events in our history but also represents our community joining together in hope and faith to educate current and future generations.”
Gwinnett County Chair Nicole Hendrickson said on this historic occasion, “Mr. Hale’s life was callously taken during a time when the weight of injustice and racism bore a heavy burden on people of color.”
The City of Lawrenceville and Gwinnett County have taken small steps toward acknowledging a racist past and small, positive steps toward racial justice.
Far too long, too many have been conveniently silent.
Thirty-seven years after the occasion when I did not know what to say to my sons, I am still speechless over the horrible racist incidents Black people experienced then and continue to endure every day.
Certainly, the murders of George Floyd, Ahmuad Arbery and Trayvon Martin, among too many others serve as contemporary examples of the worst possible outcome of crimes against Black persons, the majority of which never reach the front page.
Even more horrifying is the deafening silence of the white church both then and now, and the grief at the realization that I am part of the problem.
I did not have to delve too far in my family history to learn of complicity in racial injustice. About 15 years ago, after digging in the files of the Decatur County, Georgia, courthouse, I discovered tattoo marks for slaves officially registered in my family’s name. I was appalled and saddened.
As a small boy, I remember asking my father, “Why are there separate water fountains for Black people?” He said, “That’s just the way it is.”
While I never viewed my father as racist, I now realize that he and so many others were anesthetized by systemic racism. Unfortunately, that passes from generation to generation.
The murder of George Floyd was a defining moment for me. I began to look seriously at my racist past and the collective turning a deaf ear to the injustice of the system, and the sometimes unwitting, and other times purposeful, acceptance of “that’s just the way it is.”
I am approaching 80 years of age, and it is still not too late for me to do something. While I am not likely to participate in a street march, I can, and I will, do something.
One positive step toward eradicating racial injustice is to recognize that being kind to Black people falls woefully short of racial justice.
I fear that many white churches are filled with good people who are anesthetized by systemic racism and, therefore, are part of the problem.
I began communicating with the ministers and staff at my church and, eventually, we began a book study group on racial justice, starting with Robert Jones’ White Too Long. It was an eye-opener.
For myself, and for many in the group of 25-30 fellow seekers, Jones tells our story, the story of growing up in the south in white churches with all its ramifications.
In addition to our book studies, we held listening sessions with local Black clergy who came to our group and told us the truth.
One local minister told of his experience with white law enforcement, saying, “I hated white people!” Those were hard words – words I will never forget but needed to hear.
After a year of study and discussion (our group includes white and Black people), we are investigating ways we can make a difference in our local community, both in our church as well as the wider community.
Our plans include helping with voter registration, partnering with a local elementary school to assist students and faculty, and continuing the education of ourselves and fellow church members.
Maybe, just maybe, it is not too late to change, to make a difference in my community.