Juneteenth Reflections from Local African-American Leaders

George Floyd Protest, Knoxville, June 2020
First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

For a number of people, particularly white people in our country, the word “Juneteenth” has only recently become known. In the wake of the George Floyd protests and President Trump’s initial plans to hold a rally on that date in Tulsa, the holiday has gotten much more attention.

This past Friday, the Beck Cultural Center hosted a town hall, including a number of community leaders, to discuss racial justice. They have held such town halls in previous year’s, but given the context of both a pandemic, which forced the event to be virtual, and the current protests, this year’s event took on greater significance.

I am going to step out of the way as much as possible and try to present some of the statements made as they were made by our friends of color on that occasion. Happy belated Juneteenth.

The meeting began with Rev. Renee Kesler who discussed the origins of Juneteenth. She noted that the first question after freedom from slavery was, “Where are we going next?,” which she noted is still the question. She told the story of the Race Riots of 1917 and of a Ms. Beck who died in police custody in 1970 after being arrested for being drunk, though in fact having a medical emergency.

Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, December 5, 2014

She introduced the panel whose bios you can find here. I wrote this in real time, so some words may be paraphrased. I apologize for any errors in accuracy. She asked each panelist to open with a two minute response starting with “Racial justice is . . .

Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie called racial justice a privilege and an obligation. Vrondelia Chandler said it is equal opportunity and noted support tends to be withdrawn when the questions get hard. She said there have been many initiatives to bring racial justice, but this feels different because of the wider support and the youth support, also pointing out that our families look different now than ever before.

Dr. John Butler said racial justice is complicated, but very simple. Color is very recognizable from the outside. No matter how you dress, how educated you may be, the color remains. Racial justice means being treated the same and being treated fairly, as all others according to written and unwritten rules.

Mr. Phyllis Nichols said racial justice is freedom to have all the privileges of being an American citizen, safe neighborhoods, access to good education, good jobs and to fully participate in our democracy. Ms. Deborah Porter said it is Black Lives Matter, education, access to capital, to job opportunity for all. The scales of justice have to be balanced by truth, social reform and integrity. They must be equal for everyone.

Imani Mfalme said racial justice looks like liberty, it is freedom from persecution and the freedom of movement and to life. It is the freedom to be who you are unapologetically. LeKenya Middlebrook said it is freedom and equality. That the color of her skin should not impact how she must live or how she dies. She said it was intentionally excluded from our founding and that accomplishing it has to be as intentional and excluding it has been.

Pastor Daryl Arnold, said racial justice is giving the car keys to his sons without fear they will be killed by the police. It is the ability to be allowed to succeed in life by my efforts. It will not come for free. It is expensive. Bishop Perry added it is needed, necessary and non-negotiable. It has to be intentional. It isn’t automatic. It is everyone’s responsibility.

Reverend Harold Middlebrook said it is equality and equity. For some who have been denied their rights, it means working harder or being provided help to gain an equal chance to participate. The scales must be balanced. Those who administer it must be blind. Dr. Theotis Robinson said it means not having to run twice as fast to go half as far. It means our white brothers and sisters must examine themselves for white privilege.

Dr. Daymond McDuffey noted racial disparities in health care has made the current pandemic worse for black people.

George Floyd Protest, Knoxville, June 2020

Reverend Kesler asked the panelists to expound on the health care issue. Asking how do we get to a place of equal health care.

Dr. McDuffey said it begins with trust in the system. He said we need more medical professionals who look like their community. He also said insurance or providing free health care is necessary. As long as unemployment is higher for African-Americans and health care is tied to that, there will be inequalities.

Dr. Robinson said the disparities in wealth and income have to be reduced or eliminated in order to provide more access to health care. Vice Mayor McKenzie said the need for a living wage is necessary for people to access health care before their illness becomes more serious. She added that expanding Medicare in Tennessee would be a good start.

Imani Mfalme said until the equity comes, each person must be an advocate for themselves as African Americans do not get equal medical treatment. Phyllis Nichols added that one of the obstacles is the fact that many African Americans work for low wages with no access to insurance through their employees.

Candlelight Vigil for George Floyd, Organized by the Public Defender’s Office, City County Building, Knoxville, June 2020

Reverend Kesler asked about the short and long-term impact of racial inequality on education.

Vrondelia Chandler said in the short term she is concerned about the loss of educational time and the impact of the fear of disease and violence black children are experiencing. Many of them were already behind. She said long term, we need high quality teachers, access to good internet and skills with technology which is going to be used ever more heavily.

Ms. Porter asked if black children would be able to compete going forward. She said there has been mis-education of black children for many years. They need to be able to compete globally. She said who we put into office at the state level matters greatly at a local level as they make decisions that impact our children.

Dr. Robinson brought higher education into the conversation, noting that recent judicial system has made it more difficult for black students to gain access to higher education. He quoted Lyndon Johnson on inequality of students competing with better prepared students because of inequities before they even reach college.

Candlelight Vigil for George Floyd, Organized by the Public Defender’s Office, City County Building, Knoxville, June 2020

Reverend Kesler asked what it means to defund the police and are you for or against it? If you are for it, what does a defunded police world look like.

Vice Mayor McKenzie said she does not advocate defunding, but for reform. She is open to discussing shifting funding to social workers or others. She said she plans to look at local police training regarding cultural competency and other issues. She noted we may simply be hiring officers with little previous contact with those who do not look like them.

Ms. Mfalme said she is in favor of defunding the police, by moving money to fund mental health specialists, education, trained community patrol and more to avoid as many interactions with the police.

Ms. Middlebrook said the phrase shocks some, but we need to examine what we want public safety to look like and where we are allocating resources. She pointed out that many functions the police fulfill do not require a person with a loaded gun. She noted that we use the word “war” to describe their function like a “war on drugs,” and that requires an enemy.

Candlelight Vigil for George Floyd, Organized by the Public Defender’s Office, City County Building, Knoxville, June 2020

The conversation turned to prisons.

Ms. Middlebrook said we must reconsider how we are incarcerating people, producing people whose lives are unlivable after their release. Ms. Mfalme pointed out that privatization of prisons means people must be imprisoned for the arrangement to make money. She noted that more people with black skin are sent to prison for similar offenses.

Rev. Middlebrook said he had seen an interview with Rayshard Brooks in which he talked about the difficulty getting a job after being in prison, often leading to a return to prison for violation of parole because you haven’t gotten a job. Vice Mayor McKenzie noted problems with laws and sentencing guidelines. She said we need programs to help former prisoners have a change. She said voting rights should be restored once a person has served their time.

Candlelight Vigil for George Floyd, Organized by the Public Defender’s Office, City County Building, Knoxville, June 2020

Rev. Kesler, noting that many African American women are starting new businesses. She asked what we need to support them.

Ms. Nichols said they start them out of necessity because they can’t get hired. She said they need marketing resources and they need access to capital, though she feels that is improving. She also said more people need to support black businesses, even if it is more expensive than Walmart.

Ms. Porter said she believes in entrepreneurship. She mentioned that many businesses started around 1999 when their was an empowerment zone, but they struggled to last. She said gaining capital is a challenge.

Pastor Arnold said he is excited to see that black people are beginning to work together to revive black entrepreneurship. He said supporting each other and pooling support for each other. He said owners need to hold themselves to high standards in order to provide a quality business.

Dr. Robinson said part of the problem is the way the government works. Many black contractors are shut out by regulation of bids, etc. He said requiring subcontractors allows for smaller companies to have a portion of state business.

Gay Street AFter the Candlelight Vigil for George Floyd, Organized by the Public Defender’s Office, City County Building, Knoxville, June 2020

Rev. Kesler asked what one word comes to mind when she reads the names of those who have died recently:

Pain. Unacceptable. Murder. Lynching. Brutality. AmeriKKKa. Rage. Common. Anger. Realization. Education. Tragedy.

The forum was then opened to questions from those tuned in via Zoom.

  • Can you speak on the problem of slumlords and gentrification?

Phyllis Nichols said renters should be aware of their rights to report slumlord issues, particularly through the Tennessee Human Rights Association.

  • I’m taking my children to the Juneteenth Rally tonight sponsored by Black Lives Matter, I would love to hear what a white woman should say to her white children.

Pastor Arnold said he would challenge her not to have all the answers, but that they all need to listen. So many are listening and that’s important. Ms. Middlebrook thanked the person for bringing them and asking the question. She said answers must be honest about what is happening, why and how long it has gone on. She encouraged the parent to have it be an ongoing conversation.

She noted that whites in this country can operate much of their lives without contact with black people, but not the other way around. Ms. Chandler said to listen even when it is uncomfortable. Bishop Perry said to question the children as to what they have heard or inferred and build on that and to re-teach them, if needed. Dr. Butler said lead by example and not let one event be all that they see. Continue the discussion about how we treat each other. Vice Mayor McKenzie added that we need to teach our children not to be silent, to stand up for what is right.

  • Please talk about the disparities in schools with African American children.

Ms. Nichols said a Knox County task force found that black children are being suspended and expelled at higher rates than any other groups. Some progress was made, but then the results got worse again. Our children experience racism and need to be supported. Ms. Mfalme said the same is true nationally and those children are being pushed into prisons. Dr. Butler added that he was on that task force. He said a steering committee was formed, but they have not fulfilled their function. He said this and similar groups need more power.

Dr. Butler said disparities in classes offered has been a concern for years as the classes to prepare for the future are not put at predominantly black schools. He noted that the new technical classes being developed need to be placed in east Knoxville schools. Ms. Porter noted that she experienced great teachers when she was young who prepared her and her classmates to compete. That isn’t always the case today. She said they need the best teachers.

George Floyd Protest, Knoxville, June 2020
  • Why isn’t the black church showing up more at rallies in fighting for justice?

Bishop Perry said there are churches doing the work. He said any institution from police to pastors will have some who do more and some who do less. Pastor Arnold added that we can’t get everything by marching and that there are people doing less visible work. He said he feels that some of the attacks on black churches come from those who don’t know the black church.

Vice Mayor McKenzie pointed out that everyone does not know all that is going on behind the scenes. You don’t have to be at protests and rallies to do the work. She also reminded people to be careful if they attend rallies, to wear masks and she said she is getting tested. Rev. Butler said no one can do everything. We all have a part and we need to not cast stones at each other.

Ms. Nichols said infighting is a vestige of slavery. She said she hopes we learn to uplift each other. Reverend Middlebrook said ministers are not only called to lead, but to enable and encourage others to lead.

  • For those who are not speaking out, what does their silence say? Are the statements being made by companies genuine?

Ms. Nichols said about 34 companies have contacted her over the last few weeks. For some she said it is like the veil has been lifted. For others, she said they seem to be wanting to check off a box. She said we can see who is real and who is not and that will be called out. She wants to see proof of change.

Dr. Robinson said they should be judged by their deeds. He brought up black on black crime, noting that white people are six times more likely to perpetrate crimes against white people than by black people. Ms. Middlebrook responded that she no longer says “black on black crime,” but refers to community violence which is in every community. She said she doesn’t care what companies say if they are not backing up the words with behavior. What happens when no one sees what you are doing? Who is in your front office? How are you investing your money.

George Floyd Protest, Knoxville, June 2020
  • Noting that there was nothing on the front page of he paper regarding Juneteenth, she asked about media.

Ms. Porter said it isn’t sensational enough. She pointed out that George Floyd played widely as did the looting and devastation, but not as much the peaceful marches. Vice Mayor McKenzie said the Knoxville News Sentinel did not have anything, but Compass did. She also noted that other media had done interviews and she feels like it was perhaps wider than other years. She noted there are more reporters of color, which is encouraging.

Dr. Robinson said they he doesn’t feel the black community uses the media as well as it should. He said the News Sentinel is going “down the tubes” because of loss of money. He noted they might be responsive to guest columns or comment on how they are doing their jobs.

  • What are we doing going forward?

Ms. Mfalme, said holding people accountable for what they are currently saying. They say “Black Lives Matter,” but do they act that way? Ms. Chandler added that there has always be room for allies, pointing out that we celebrate Harriet Tubman, but she had allies and the movement needs to embrace those. Reverend Blutler noted that education and voting are critical, saying we have to vote in November and then demand that people who get elected do actually work for us.

  • What is the call to action? What should people who want to help do?

Dr. McDuffy we want to call for racial justice across health care, education, policing and other areas. As a black doctor he said he is torn when he sees protests, due the virus, he urged people to do what they feel they can do.

Dr. Robinson recalled a frustrating conversation when he was councilman and the topic was budget for black contractors. He said few showed up for that while thousands went to a local basketball game. He said the black population is small, so it must work together to be heard, particularly through the vote.

Dr. Middlebrook said he is happy to see so many people talking and getting involved. He wants to see the commitment and communication to continue and that everyone work together.

Bishop Perry noted that we sometimes start well, but it is critical that we finish and that the work will be long. It is time for intentional, continued, sustained discipline to do the work.

Pastor Arnold agreed we have to finish the race. He added that we must use our influence to speak up and not be silent even if it costs us. Finally, he said we must invest into the lives of the next generation.

Ms. Middlebrook said there must be an honest reckoning nationally regarding our past and our systems. At an individual level, everyone must find their place of participation, whether it looks like someone else’s activism or not. Finally, she said to vote and be involved.

Ms. Mfalme said the call to action is to email the District Attorney to not re-charge Reginald Wilson with resisting arrest. The story is on the Community Defense of East Tennessee Facebook page.

Ms. Porter said action is needed at the ballot box, in education reform, in systemic reform, in wealth creation, with a systematic business plan and that we have address racism and classism in Knoxville. Find where you fit in. There is a place for everyone.

Ms. Nichols noted that this conversation was had in the context of a murder. We need reform around police brutality. We need body cams, but we need a revision of our culture. All leaders need to join us in forming policies that lead to racial conciliation.

Dr. Butler said we must move from anger to action for a better future. He noted the NCAAP has a list of expectations for changes in both KPD and Sheriff’s Office policies and behaviors.

Ms. Chandler said take the time to learn your history, don’t come to the table expecting affirmation.

Vice Mayor McKenzie said the time is now. We can’t let the moment pass or the lives lost be in vain. We have to continue to work together. If we don’t love each other we’ll talk about the marches ten years from now, but realize nothing changed. We must remain active and march this momentum to the polls and vote. We need to be honest if what we are doing is helping or hurting.

Rev. Kesler read the Beck Center’s call for action. She asked for a resolution from City Council asking for exoneration of Maurice Mays 101 years ago. She also requests August 8 Emancipation Day become a state holiday and Juneteenth become a national holiday.