Editorial on What’s Holding Us Back

Published on June 23, 2013 in the Birmingham News.

Poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau is quoted as saying, “It’s not what you look at, but what you see.”

Even with our many challenges, when I look at Jefferson County, I see beautiful terrain with rich natural resources; I see a giving community that is one of the most generous in the United States; I see religious leaders who have opened their doors to all; I see civic leaders who believe we can do better than we’ve done in the past; and I see a business community that is open for business.

In light of all these positives, what’s holding us back? Two words: racial mistrust. Despite the progress of the past 50 years, too many whites still yearn for the passivity of the 1950’s, too many blacks still yearn for the confrontations of the 1960’s, and too many whites and blacks don’t trust each other enough to sit down at the same table and transparently share their hopes and fears for the future – most of which are the same.

Just like the piano needs both the black keys and the white keys complementing each other to make beautiful music, Jefferson County needs to elect black leaders and white leaders in 2014 who are committed to harmoniously working together to address what might seem to others to be insurmountable challenges.

Among other things, Jefferson County’s government doesn’t have sufficient revenues and/or un-earmarked resources to adequately fund needed citizen services; Jefferson County has too many children who are not getting the education they need for minimum-wage jobs, much less the high-paying jobs the state is recruiting; Jefferson County has too many of our best and brightest who are seeking greener pastures elsewhere; Jefferson County has too many poor people who are going to emergency rooms for health care instead of neighborhood primary care clinics; and Jefferson County has too many area cities competing with each other for a limited number of business opportunities and jobs instead of competing with other counties, states and nations.

President Theodore Roosevelt’s words ring just as true today, as they did when they were first spoken in 1905:

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to remain with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat. We have too much to do to sit on the sidelines. We need you to step out of the gray twilight into the bright sunshine so that we can all see the dawn of a new day.”

In 74 days, our nation, our state and our county will commemorate and celebrate one of the most electrifying and effective speeches of all time – Reverend Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. As you know, the environment was fertile for Birmingham to make civil rights history in 1963. What you may not know is that Dr. King only used the word “rights” three times in a 1,582 word speech. On the other hand, he used the expansive words “free” and “freedom” 25 times. Today, the environment is just as fertile for Jefferson County to make another step forward into civil freedom history, by electing leaders in 2014 – both Republicans and Democrats – who are committed to working together in harmony to address the many, substantive challenges in our county.

Only when men and women of good will in all segments of our community – black and white; rich and poor; young and old; and of all religious beliefs – make a conscious decision to “step out of the gray twilight” of racial mistrust and “into the bright sunshine” of racial harmony will we all “be able to join hands” and honestly sing, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”