LaGrange College President Dan McAlexander (left) is pictured recently with Curtis Brown, LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar, and former state Rep. Carl Von Epps. CONTRIBUTED BY LAGRANGE COLLEGE
Photo: Contributed by LaGrange College
Photo: Contributed by LaGrange College

LaGrange putting in the work to build better black-white relationships

Early in 2014, Jim Thornton was out enjoying lunch with Troup County Commission Chair Ricky Wolfe, Hogansville Mayor Bill Stankiewicz, and U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson (then West Point mayor) when the sticky issue of race relations entered the conversation.

It wasn’t all that unusual. For as long as they could remember, whether they were talking about zoning or library services or policing, race seemed to be present.

But that day, Thornton, the newly elected Republican mayor of LaGrange, decided something had to be done to improve relationships between the city’s mostly black population and its white residents.

“Everyone talks about how race is an issue, but nobody does anything about it,” Thornton said.

That was about to change.

While the men, all upper-middle-class whites, weren’t under any illusion that they could completely heal their cities’ race relations, they were convinced they should make the effort.

Thornton tapped Wolfe and former state Rep. Carl Von Epps to look at addressing the issue.

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This was prior to the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that catapulted #BlackLivesMatter into a national movement.

Although LaGrange, a city of some 30,000 located 60 miles southwest of Atlanta, hadn’t made headlines, Von Epps, who spent more than 22 years in the Georgia General Assembly, said there was the perception that government operated exclusively for the good of whites and that segregation persisted, particularly in schools.

“Things hadn’t reached a crisis,” Von Epps said. “It was every day. (Police) stopped me because I was black.”

Ernest Ward, then president of the Troup County NAACP, said the consensus was they needed to create a sense of wellness in the community, to somehow facilitate trust around race relations.

What they came up with was the Racial Trustbuilding Initiative.

Its mission?

To build trust through research, community collaboration and action in order to remove barriers that prevent full access to opportunity for all.

LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton (left) speaks at a recent trustbuilding event at LaGrange College for state police as Carl Von Epps listens. CONTRIBUTED BY LAGRANGE COLLEGE
Photo: Contributed by LaGrange College

Thornton told me recently that for too long, race had been lurking, clothed in language like inequality and poverty. He wanted people to trust each other enough to have honest conversations without coded language.

In March 2015, with help from the nonprofit Southern Truth and Reconciliation or STAR, which works to promote best practices for restorative justice, the city hosted its first trustbuilding training session.

For two days, about 35 city and county leaders — half white, half black — gathered at LaGrange College to, well, talk.

Since that time, we’ve heard a lot about LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar’s decision to apologize in 2017 for the decades-old lynching of Austin Callaway and the encounter with an elderly black woman that set it in motion.

“As LaGrange police chief, I sincerely regret and denounce the role our police department played in Austin’s lynching, both through our action and our inaction,” Dekmar told the assembly. “For that, I’m profoundly sorry. It should never have happened.”

Dekmar was joined that day at Warren Temple United Methodist Church for a service of remembrance by Mayor Thornton and other town officials.

It was a big moment, no doubt. But it wasn’t the only moment of reckoning that would come.

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Von Epps recalled a similar moment when Wolfe, speaking at a LaGrange College graduation, admitted having been remiss in loving his neighbor.

“I knew when he said that publicly in front of 2,000 people there was a spiritual motivation to what we were doing,” Von Epps said.

Former state Rep. Carl Von Epps speaks during a panel discussion held last month at LaGrange College to promote racial healing. CONTRIBUTED BY LAGRANGE COLLEGE
Photo: Contributed by LaGrange College

Funny thing is neither admission might have happened had it not been for Thornton first acknowledging the racial tension, and the training sessions that followed.

“The trust initiative helped set the stage for the apology,” Dekmar said. “I often get the credit but it wasn’t a one-man show.”

Dekmar’s apology, of course, made international news.

The trust initiative went off without any mention. Five years later, more than 300 people have gone through the training sessions, Callaway’s lynching was acknowledged for the first time, and an education task force has been formed and is working to address the racial disparities in student achievement. Dekmar’s police department has focused on community relations, established a biracial community relations task force including local churches and civic groups, and added full-time community relations officers to its staff.

“We really haven’t been trying to solve world peace but to make marginal improvements to get people talking,” Thornton said.

Some people tend to play up racial issues more than others.

Thornton admits he tends to play it down, but he said, “We’ve been dealing with racial issues in America at least 400 years. We’re not going to fix this overnight. That’s not a cop-out, but my goal is to try to make incremental progress. My belief is there is a lot more common ground than division, and that has been my experience so far.”

He points to the relationship between Dekmar and Ward, who have each other’s cellphone numbers and talk often now.

From the beginning, Thornton and the other mayors got pushback.

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Whites asked why they were bringing race up. Blacks said the effort was simply window dressing and doubted they’d ever do anything different.

The same thing happened, Dekmar said, when he offered the apology for the Callaway lynching.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

To the white community, he was simply opening old wounds. To blacks, it was just another hollow effort to gloss over past injustice, Dekmar said.

But it’s his contention that this history impacts the way marginalized communities think about institutions generally and the police specifically.

“I think whites too often look at the issue of race and historic harm through the filter that I’m personally not responsible and haven’t done anything racist so there is nothing compelling for me to address,” Dekmar said. “When we look at the historic harm, we realize the impact this still has today. It compromises public safety because some communities don’t want to partner with the police, they don’t trust the police and would rather tolerate crime than deal with a law enforcement agency they fear.”

Both Thornton and Dekmar rejected the notion that talking about racial issues doesn’t help.

“We knew there was an issue,” Thornton said. “What harm would it do to talk about it in a truthful, honest, dispassionate way and acknowledge the underlying issues? We don’t have to all agree or come to the same conclusion, but we will get the issues out on the table.”

The results have been overwhelmingly positive, particularly among community leaders, elected officials and police.

“If nothing else, we can talk about these issues openly and honestly,” Thornton said.

The downside?

“I think we are fighting against larger societal pressure that makes this work very difficult,” he said. “We live in a divisive time. We have elected leaders who use divisive language and rhetoric that is trickling down to the local level, and that’s a problem. The same language is being used in LaGrange by people who are capable of being better, kinder — and it’s sad.”

Yes, it is.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com, and read the full This Life Race and Religion series (ajc.com/this-life-race).

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