Racial reconciliation still needed in Georgia

by Tomi Morris Johnson   

© WingcomLtd 2007     All Rights Reserved.

(1st interview in a series on “Racial reconciliation in America”)

December 6, 2007, Marietta, GA…If you are wondering whether race relations have improved in Georgia over the last five years, one of the state’s SuperLawyers, who has openly fought on the side of civil rights, says there has been no improvement. He says some people would like to turn back the clock on race relations, especially in Georgia’s rural areas. On the question of racial harmony, as Georgia goes, so can the rest of the country.

Former Governor Roy Barnes recently argued before the Georgia Supreme Court, challenging the state's voter ID law, saying it was discriminatory. He lost the case. Student population is 51% non-White and 49% White in the Cobb County School District, yet board members and top administrative officers are all White. Local business and community organizations, like the Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs, do not have diverse memberships.  Church hierarchy and pews are still predominately segregated. Are cards stacked against power sharing? Is the hope of better relationships between races in Cobb County a pipe dream?

Barnes is optimistic that racial reconciliation can become a reality if community leaders demand and teach tolerance while setting the right examples for youth. Barnes says keys to overcoming obstacles to racial reconciliation include openly talking about race, admitting past wrongs, leveling the economic playing field, increasing the number of role models, and building interracial relationships.

Tomi Johnson conducted the following interview with Barnes whose stance against the Old Georgia Flag led to his gubernatorial defeat in 2002 but also won him the 2003 JFK “Profiles in Courage” Award. A caring gentleman who also handles indigent cases, Barnes is currently a partner with The Barnes Law Group in Marietta, Georgia.

Barnes:  Good afternoon.

Johnson: This is Tomi Johnson with WingcomLtd.

Barnes:  Yes ma’am.

Johnson:  I want to thank you in advance for agreeing to this interview.

Barnes: Sure.

Johnson: The topic is “Racial Reconciliation in Cobb County,” and in preparation for this interview, I read your Foreword to the book “FREEDOM” by Michael Thurmond…

Barnes: Yes.

Johnson: …and also your acceptance speech from your “Profiles in Courage” Award…

Barnes: Yes ma’am.

Johnson: I’ve also had a chance to look at your Internet bio on Wikipedia.

Barnes.  Ok.

Johnson:  I’d like to start out by asking you, how’s Marie? (Barnes’ wife)

Barnes:  She’s doing just fine.

Johnson: Well, that’s good.

Barnes:  We’re busy raising grandchildren these days.

Johnson: Oh, that’s wonderful.

Barnes:  It is. We enjoy it.

Johnson:  This interview will be placed on our WingcomLtd Internet News website and may also be included along with other interviews on the same topic which may be picked up by other news outlets.

Barnes: Alright.

Johnson: Governor, with all the talk in the news about achievement gaps, injustice in the justice system, covenants, and hate crimes, I thought it would be a good time to address the subject of racial reconciliation. Now, there are three things that some people say you should never discuss in polite company: religion, politics, and race.

Barnes: Yep.

Johnson:  Why do you think there remains such a taboo surrounding race in America? Should this be an emotional subject?

Barnes:  Well, it’s a taboo because, (sigh) ah, it is one of the painful parts of our past. The way that African Americans and others – those of Chinese and Oriental descent – have been treated and the struggles that they have had in becoming accepted in American society… I guess the best way to explain it…our children are all grown now, but when they were small and started to come along and grow up, we had discussions about the fact that I never went to an integrated public school. I always went through public schools, but they were segregated at that time, and there were separate drinking fountains and separate seating arrangements.

Roy Barnes poses with Tomi Johnson, Ayron Johnson, Daniel Johnson, and Ilea Johnson following his Baccalaureate message to the Sprayberry High School Class of 2005. The hymn for the event was “Here I am Lord, Send Me.” (Photo by Kurk Johnson)

They (my children) didn’t believe it. They thought that it was just one of my fairytales that I told them about, and I said, “No, it’s true.” And I think that it’s difficult for some people, whether it be Southerners or not, to try to discuss a time that they look back upon and say, “Why did we ever do that? Why was it that way?”

I read an article a few years ago about one of the famous photographs taken at the integration of Little Rock, at Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas, and there is a young white woman there that is screaming racial epithets, you can tell it from the look on her face, at this young African American woman that was entering, and the reporter had gone back and found this white woman who was now approaching elder status, and they had asked her about it, and she at first denied that she was the one who had ever done that. Then they showed her the photograph, and she was so ashamed. And I think that that type of reaction is, particularly among those that are white, say, “You know, those were bad times. We just need to forget ‘em and move on.”

Johnson: Uh-huh. Well now, do you think race relations have gotten better or worse since you left office? (2002)

Barnes:  Well, that’s a very short period of time to judge, but I generally think that they have not improved, let me put it that way. I think this whole idea of promising to bring back the Confederate flag which was a part of the Georgia flag, of requiring some type of voter ID which is clearly aimed at African Americans, lower income folks, and the elderly, has not improved racial relations in the state. 

Johnson:  You brought up the Confederate flag, and some people have said that they thought the reason you lost (the gubernatorial race) to Sonny Perdue was partly because of the flag issue. Some others say they thought it could have been because of your position on the Northern Arc Development, and then others say that it was just the tide of conservatism that swept the South by the Republican Party during that particular time period. Do you really think it was because of your stance on the Confederate flag?

Georgia state flag from 1956 to 2001
Georgia state flag from 2001 to 2003
http://www.theinmatelocator.com/Georgia.html
Old Georgia Flag
Barnes’ Georgia Flag
Present Georgia Flag
The flag in the in the middle was a compromise flag hoped to appease both African Americans and Confederate sympathizers. It featured historical flags of Georgia but still contained the Confederate Stars and Bars.  

Barnes: Yes, all of those things are true, about there being a tide of conservatism, all that other during that time, but I would have withstood that if it had not been for the flag. I think that the flag was the deciding factor in my defeat, and all you have to do is just look at the voter turnout among rural whites, and you see that it was very high and that it was very strong, and that is directly attributable (to my defeat), not to the Northern Arc for those who voted in the southeast part of the state. In the metro area, I ran better than I did before, when I was elected. Where I was defeated was in rural white areas, and I think it was the difference.

Johnson: Do you think it was a distraction from the good that you were trying to do?

Barnes:  I think that… (chuckle) the Confederate flag was a symbol on both sides. To those white Southerners who never really fully accepted African Americans in the community, it was a symbol of, well, one more thing that we’re losing. But of course the stronger symbol to me was that for African Americans, it was a symbol of a time that certainly should not be remembered.

That does not mean that we should not honor those who fought for the Confederacy even though they may have fought for the wrong cause. As I have said in speeches before, my great grandfather was captured at Vicksburg, and he was not wearing a blue uniform at the time he was captured. At the same time, we should recognize…this goes back to reconciliation… slavery was wrong, segregation was wrong, all of these things…prejudice and hatred are wrong, just because a person is of a different skin complexion than someone else. So reconciliation, in my view, is a part of... listen, there have been some mistakes here made; they were wrong. We admit they were wrong. Let’s move together forward which is what I’ve been trying to say over a period of time. Then, that’s good, but to keep having symbols that are rubbed in the face of a substantial part of our population that glorifies a time when they were held in slavery and blood was being shed to preserve slavery is not the symbol of an entire state.

Johnson: Governor, the definition of “reconciliation” is changing for the better a relationship between two or more persons. “Racial reconciliation” in Cobb County, then, should be an attempt to better relationships between whites and non white persons. You have said a little bit in your previous remarks about what you would like to have happen. In your opinion, in Cobb County’s history, has there been an imbalance?  I believe you’ve already talked about that, but the thing about it is…talking about the past is one thing, but I have been talking to a lot of our youth in the school system, and some of the white students, even in 2006 when I talked to them, still think of some black kids as being lazy and stupid, and they say the reason why is not because of slavery but because “blacks don’t want to get ahead, and they don’t want to work hard.”

On the other side of the equation, some non-whites that I have talked to have said, “Why try when we feel like we are going to fail?” They say that there are few non-white kids in honors classes even though a lot of them are smart, and they still believe that if they try to go and get a job somewhere, that the white person will be picked over the non-white person. It might not be racism, but some of them believe that it’s part of the psychology of people and the way the brain objectifies people and then the way we’re conditioned by the educational system and the media. What do you think about those kinds of reactions?

Barnes:  I think there needs to be some education on both sides of that issue. The idea that an African American or any person would be stereotyped as lazy or not as smart…I mean, do the white children, boys and girls, do they want to be stereotyped as Southerners when many times white Southerners are considered or stereotyped as redneck, slow, and lazy, and other things like that which is just as wrong as white kids trying to stereotype those African American kids?

The greatest thing of racial reconciliation is this, or the greatest movement towards racial reconciliation is personal relationships between African American and white kids. I find that that overcomes everything and it helps. But this idea that they’re lazy or there’s something in their genetic makeup I think is absolutely wrong.

There’s a young fellow that worked for me, his name is Meadows, Chuck Meadows, in the Governor’s Office. I met him when I went…he was raised in Atlanta, an African American kid. His daddy was a professor at Morehouse. I met him when I went to speak at Harvard, hired him, and brought him back. He worked in the Governor’s Office the whole time I was governor. He was a bright, bright kid. This idea that African Americans can’t excel, listen, that’s crazy.

Chuck Meadows was Barnes’ Deputy Policy Director. He is presently Vice President for Transportation for the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce as of November 2007.  Meadows is a graduate of Morehouse, has a Master’s degree in public policy from Harvard, and was formerly head of Atlanta’s Office of Budget and Fiscal Policy.

Johnson: I’m glad you talked about growing up and never going to school with African Americans because I was almost in a different situation growing up in Alabama. I was in the first school that was integrated in the state, and it was a Catholic school that was integrated from Black to White, and the Whites that came to the school were members of the Redstone Arsenal community of people who wanted to come there instead of having to come there. But the personal relationships that you mentioned are very important. But on the other end, in the financial world, as far as Blacks and Whites interacting on investment projects or things where money is concerned…you know, they always used to tell me, Governor, that “green” is a great color.

Barnes: It’s a great equalizer.

Johnson: Uh-huh.

Barnes: And listen, my deputy chief of staff, a fellow named Jerry Gray; he is one of my best friends. We went to Africa together. Our families went. He took his children, and I took my daughter  and my wife. His wife and two children went. We traveled all over East Africa together after I left the Governor’s Office.

Jerry L. Gray was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Office of External Affairs under Barnes. Mr. Gray received his B.S. degree from Morris Brown College and is presently Director of Government Relations for Chitwood Harley Harnes LLP in Atlanta.

Johnson: I wish you had of invited me! (Laughter)

 

 

Barnes: We had a wonderful time. We stayed gone for two weeks. But Jerry is a good example of a fellow that came from nothing in Arkansas. They were sharecroppers, and he had six or eight brothers. He worked himself through college by being a part-time barber and playing ball. He has blossomed out to be one of the most prosperous young businessmen around. He worked for me around two or three years and now is a business consultant. We have to have those role models. Unfortunately now, let me tell you this, all of our kids, whether they be black or white, don’t have, in my view, some great role models, and they starve for these role models, you know, to show them that being a nerd is good. You know, I was a nerd, but being nerdy pays great benefits in the future.

Barnes as a high school senior.

 

 

My daughter practices law with me, and I have two granddaughters. The nanny that we have is from Liberia, and she’s got a little girl. She’s almost the same age as my oldest granddaughter, (Clockwise from the back left) Harlan Barnes, First Lady Marie Barnes, Gov. Roy Barnes, John Salter, Allison Barnes Salter, Alyssa Barnes, Amy Crist Barnes three years old, and they’re inseparable. They have been raised together since they were infants. About two or three weeks ago, I was watching them leave, and they were holding hands. And they go to each other’s house and spend the night with each other. I was watching them hold hands, and when I got in the car, I thought to myself, that proves to me right there that hatred and prejudice is something that we teach children, not what they come with, not something they come wired with.

Barnes’ family photo from 2002 campaign.

Johnson: That’s very good. Now, one last question, Governor. A lot has been said recently about the ineffectiveness of human rights and civil rights organizations to really get some changes made. Some people have been saying that the NAACP is ineffective, that Rainbow PUSH is washed up. Al Sharpton is too loud or whatever. What, in your estimation, do out leaders, both Black and White, need to do to make racial reconciliation a reality?

Barnes: Well, I’ll tell you what our leaders need to do. Our leaders need to understand that this is an issue that has to be discussed openly and has to be confronted rather than just ignored. I’m a big believer in that if people would just talk together, build personal relationships, that they will never be able to have the cruelty towards a racial group that they thought they could. And I think that open discussion is part of that. Now, I still believe that the NAACP and others like that provide that open discussion and at least push it along. So I wouldn’t fault…and they’re an integral part of this whole discussion. But, our youth need to be taught that tolerance, and understanding, and putting yourself in the shoes of another is as important to the future prosperity and well being of this nation as making an A on an Algebra test.

Johnson:  Very good, Governor. I appreciate your candid comments and thank you so much. I’ll be talking to you later.

Barnes: Alrighty.

Barnes received the JFK “Profiles in Courage” Award from Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, a year after his gubernatorial defeat. Barnes’ “Profiles in Courage” acceptance speech can be read at:

http://www.jfklibrary.org/Education+and+Public+Programs/Profile+in+Courage+Award/Award+Recipients/Roy+Barnes/Acceptance+Speech+by+Roy+Barnes.htm