Church killings prompt Winston-Salem residents to tackle racism

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by Jordan Green

An intergenerational, interracial group of people in Winston-Salem is committing to meet together and take action to combat systemic racism.

Molly Grace doesn’t hold a masters degree in social work. She’s hasn’t been trained in dismantling racism. And at least until about two weeks ago, she didn’t really consider herself an activist.

But when the 29-year-old middle school teacher and mother in Winston-Salem learned about the nine black parishioners shot and killed during a Bible study in Charleston, SC, a new sense of determination crystalized within her. It was a feeling of enough is enough. She no longer wanted to be the person who merely posted her outrage about racism in Facebook status updates. She wanted to do something, even if she didn’t know exactly what.

So she invited some friends to get together, even if only to acknowledge that they have a lot to learn about racism and white privilege. In between putting out the word and actually holding the event, Grace attended a similar meeting in Greensboro and heard a presentation on systemic racism by Bay Love, the chief operating officer and director of development at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. Love’s presentation both reinforced Grace’s sense of inadequacy and steeled her resolve to educate herself further. The next night, Krankies Coffee was filled to capacity with dozens of people, mostly white but including a sizable number of black people, both young and old, and all united by a desire for discussion and action.

Fleming El-Amin, a retired teacher who serves on the Forsyth County Board of Elections, also experienced the Charleston massacre as a catalyst. He was among the dozens of people who thronged Krankies on June 22 for earnest dialogue and close listening.

“Charleston represents to me what Fannie Lou Hamer said about being ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired,’” he said, reflecting during a conversation with Grace on Monday.

“My mother and father are from Darlington County in South Carolina,” he said. “They come from a small town called Society Hill. My name, before I legally changed it, was Jackson. So when I heard that Susie Jackson was one of those killed, I called my aunt and asked her if we were related to her. She said, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll check.’ My mind went back to those four little girls in Birmingham who were killed in a church bombing in 1963. These people were killed during a Bible study. Someone comes in as a stranger and is welcomed. That was like the most heart-shattering event, him blowing away innocent people, that I’ve experienced in 63 years.”

Although he’s become selective about what he gets involved in, El-Amin said his grandchildren motivate him to actively oppose racism, whether it’s organizing an interfaith unity vigil on July 11 or working with white allies like Grace.

“I want to make a personal commitment with people like Molly who want to change behavior,” El-Amin said.

“When I think about my grandchildren, I ask myself: What kind of life are they going to have?” he added. “How can I knock down the trees so they won’t have to deal with them?”

Sitting on the patio at Krankies on Monday with Grace, El-Amin reflected on his life, having been born in an all-black hospital in Winston-Salem during segregation. His father worked as a busboy in the Robert E. Lee Hotel, a namesake whose significance El-Amin only came to appreciate when he went away to college in Iowa.

“If he had not encountered institutional racism, he could have been a CEO,” El-Amin said of his father. “He was very much a socialite, very good with people, the kind of person who could bring out the best in everybody.”

With the encouragement of his grandfather, a former bootlegger who opened a store in East Winston, El-Amin pursued an education and landed a job with Chase Bank in New York City in the 1970s. The bank wanted to transfer him to Nigeria — a move that El-Amin resisted because he had always intended to return to Winston-Salem. So his supervisor put him in touch with an executive at Wachovia Bank. Thinking he had a job lined up at Wachovia, El-Amin brought his family to Winston-Salem in 1979 only to be told that the executive had been transferred to Zurich and there was in fact no job for him.

“I said, ‘Oh, okay,’ El-Amin recalled. “I thought, so this is what my father went through. The experience of discrimination, it will wear on you psychologically.”

The rebuff ended El-Amin’s banking career, but he patched together an income to support a family with five children by teaching at GTCC and doing various odd jobs.

El-Amin had shared his story during the June 22 mass meeting at Krankies. Among the white listeners who grappled with it was Grace’s father.

“You were born the same year as my father,” Grace told El-Amin. “My father is white and he grew up in Lewisville. He left for New York in 1979. He called me the next day after the meeting. He said, ‘I’m just walking around very sad today, feeling happy but mostly sad, confused and hurt about my white privilege.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s okay, Dad.’ He was born the same year as you and moved to New York the same year you moved back to Winston-Salem. My father was an actor, and he had to drive a bus and work as a concierge at D-list theaters — acting is a different line of work [than banking]. Whatever jobs he had to do, at no point in my father’s experience is that a psychological wear.”

When Grace initially had the idea to call together her friends for a discussion in response to the Charleston massacre, she had no idea that the idea would turn into a group. But many of those who showed up for the June 22 gathering expressed interest in continuing to meet. The working name for the nascent group is the Winston-Salem Community Alliance for Racial Equity.

“It’s a group of people of all different racial backgrounds, people in different networks, different skills, different talents, supporting each other as blacks and whites coming together to dismantle racism, recognizing that it is a huge responsibility for white people,” she said. “We need to step up. And we need to hear the laments of our black community members.”

The next meeting will likely be a potluck dinner and meet-and-greet, Grace said, and that anyone who is interested in attending should look the group up on Facebook.

Neither Grace nor El-Amin are pushing dialogue for its own sake. El-Amin recalled the Crossing 52 initiative in Winston-Salem in the 1990s.

“The lectures were good; sitting down and eating was good,” he recalled. “But people said, ‘I’m tired of just talking.’”

Grace said she wants the Winston-Salem Community Alliance for Racial Equality to quickly move to action after people get acquainted.

“I like the idea of coming together and [getting] people on the same page,” she said. “It’s great to focus on these subcategories and identifying how they are inherently racist. Who among us has experience working in education? How many among us work in the legal system? If we have a group of educators talking about the inherent issue of racism, is it possible to make social studies teachers between fourth and seventh grades take the dismantling-racism training? Fleming, you got African-American studies incorporated into a high school curriculum. So I think change is possible.”

El-Amin said he’s game for a frank community discussion.

“I’m driven by the idea,” he said, “that a small group of people that’s honest with each other, different from each other, that care about each other, that maybe doesn’t always agree with each other, can make a difference.”