What are you going to say about Charlotte?
Asking me that question are some friends who know my roots are in Mecklenburg County. I spent more than half of my working career in Charlotte, and I remain bound to that community by friendships and admiration for its remarkable progress.
So, I was sad when demonstrators took to the streets last month to protest the fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a police officer and drew national attention to Charlotte.
Not the kind of attention that the proud city welcomes, even craves, to show it as a progressive, pragmatic, diverse, open, and good place for all to work and live.
The fatal shooting and disruptions that followed revealed that Charlotte, like other cities in our country, has not shown to all of its citizens that it treasures them and their lives.
Looking back, I remember another time when Charlotte was in trouble. In 1977, its public schools, having desegregated pursuant to court direction, were still reeling and losing community support. The school board hired Jay Robinson to serve as superintendent of the schools. Instead of complaining about all the problems facing Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, Robinson talked about the good things. Later, he told me he believed that if you focused on the good things happening, it was easier to get people to work for even more good things. He looked for non-confrontational ways to bring diverse views into the conversation.
One of the school board members, Dick Spangler, explained, “He was completely sincere in everything he did and could eventually persuade just about anyone to see things his way.”
When Spangler became president of the University of North Carolina, he persuaded Robinson to join him as vice president for public affairs.
Another leader who taught me about the values of optimism and communication in dealing with the challenges of race was the late Bill Johnson. Johnson, editor of The Charlotte Post, which serves the African-American community, became my client and good friend. He was always seeking ways to improve the lives of African Americans in Charlotte. At the same time, he was educating me about the latent prejudices that many white people, including me, took with them.
He scolded me once for saying I thought blacks were naturally better basketball players than whites. He said that if whites grew up in the same circumstances on ghetto playgrounds, they would be just as good. And, his unspoken message was, if blacks were growing up in the same circumstances as whites in affluent homes and schools, there would be no achievement gaps.
In dealing with the challenges of race and racism today, Charlotte has an extraordinary advantage over other cities. It was the home of Julius Chambers, who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as the nation’s leading African American civil rights attorney. As a result of his and his law firm’s tenacious attacks on racial discrimination, Charlotte faced and demolished many of the legal and social barriers that kept blacks and others from full participation.
A new UNC Press book, “Julius Chambers: A Life in the Legal Struggle for Civil Rights,” by Richard A. Rosen and Joseph Mosnier, coming out later this year, shows how Chambers’ persistence, unwelcome as it was then, ultimately paid off for Charlotte and all its citizens.
“But not enough,” Chambers would say if he were still alive.
Still, by celebrating pride in Charlotte’s progress thus far, as Jay Robinson would suggest, by gently confronting our latent prejudices, as Bill Johnson taught me, and by encouraging Julius Chambers’s successors to confront injustice at every corner, Charlotteans can regain and sustain their city’s deserved reputation for progress and tolerance.