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Race, Rosenwald and Shaundra’s Screed 

HERE WE are again, Savannah, staring down the long, cold barrel of another election.

Maybe we’ll finally get some rest after the three run-off seats are decided on Dec. 1, but I’m afraid of how much might be undone in these weeks of waiting.

As Jim Morekis pointed out in his Editor’s Note last week, “there is every likelihood that this will be one of the most brutally racially polarizing election years here in quite a while.”

He knows this town better than most, but oh, how I hope he’s mistaken. While it’s true that the run-offs appear to have come down to the White Guys (Eddie Deloach, Brian Foster and Bill Durrence) vs. the Black Ladies (Edna Jackson, Alicia Blakely and Mary Osborne), we might recall that this election cycle began with a momentum to push out incumbent power.

Obviously, that didn’t take.

Only one alderperson was unseated outright and four more hung on to their plush leather chairs, but only in District 3, where Kim Dulek’s campaign didn’t manage to topple the reign of John Hall, could the outcome be attributed as simply black and white.

Now it may come down to what for many are primal allegiances. Some, however, continue to advocate for change over fealty: Dulek and Post 1 challenger Linda Wilder-Bryan—whose son was murdered in Augusthave joined forces in the Savannah Peace Initiative.

Detric Leggett, who is African American and came in third behind incumbent Osborne in District 2, has announced his support for Durrenceinvoking the ire of many in the black community.

Shaundra McKeithen lost by 106 votes to 5th district incumbent Estella Shabazz, but that hasn’t dimmed her activist’s zeal.

In her viral Facebook post titled “The Racial Divide is Genocide in Savannah,” Shaundra addresses what many see as the elephant that’s been tiptoeing around the room in tap shoes for years: That Savannah’s black leadership has failed its constituents, and that it’s time to cast votes based on record rather than race.

Maybe you’ve read it. Maybe you cheered. Maybe it made you uncomfortable, because you find discussing your last pap smear less awkward than trying to find the right language to talk about race when yours is the one with inherent privilege.

One of Shaundra’s points is how Mayor Edna Jackson—who has been on City Council in some form for 16 years—continually cites her participation in the Civil Rights Movement but does not appear to understand that her legacy, at this point, is not one to brag about.

Two generations after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lauded Savannah as one of the most integrated cities in the South, the poverty level among African Americans is more than 35 percent in some parts of the city, the high school dropout rate is below the state average and local job prospects are pitiful. (Not to mention it seems that the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum hasn’t updated its exhibits in almost 20 years!)

“Have we really overcome when the median income for a black family in this city is about $18,000?” rails Shaundra.

As a social justice groupie who winces every time Pharrell drops the N-word in that kickin’ new Missy Elliot song, I would so rather skate over the divisive questions and just get to the solutions. But I still have to wonder why anyone—black, white, purple, green—would continue to support a status quo that has failed them over and over again.

Shaundra’s Screed—as it’s become known—rang in my neurons as I went to meet with Bob and Jeanne Rosenwald, who retired to Savannah a couple of years ago after careers with the NSA (they promised me they weren’t spies and that I was the only one recording our conversation.)

A fit and energetic couple, they’ve thrown themselves into Savannah civic life, volunteering with various groups and asking themselves what they can do to help the greater good.

It kinda runs in the family: Bob is a descendant of Sears & Roebuck co-founder Julius Rosenwald, a quietly prolific philanthropist who was inspired by his friend Booker T. Washington to help fund more than 5300 schools for African American children in the rural South between 1912 and 1932. Washington insisted that the communities themselves help raise a portion of the expenses, creating partnerships between black and white Southerners where there had been none. Over 240 Rosenwald schools were built in Georgia, including one at Pin Point and another on the grounds at Savannah State.

Over 30,000 children came through those bright clapboard buildings, and many went on to inspire and lead in highly public ways, including W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Huston, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and painter Jacob Lawrence, who famously interpreted the migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North after WWI.

(FYI, a marvelous collection of Lawrence’s work is at the SCAD Museum of Art through Jan. 25.) The return on everyone’s investment came generations after this historic collaboration, when the children of those educated in Rosenwald schools marched in the 1960s, demanding equality and dignity.

But few know about what late Civil Rights icon Julian Bond called “a great American saga of interracial cooperation.”

Perhaps if we were reminded of such efforts, we might pivot from a backslide towards racial divisiveness in our city and on college campuses across the country. A place to start could be Rosenwald, a new documentary from director Aviva Kempner (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg), opening this weekend at the Eisenhower Square 6 Theater.

“This is a piece of social history that’s been lost. This film, in my mind, is the best vehicle to begin spreading the word,” says Bob.

Bob and Jeanne have reached out to Van Johnson for help in promoting the film to Savannah’s African American community because they believe it “might remind people where they came from and show how far we can go together.”

“I’m not a kumbaya guy, I don’t necessarily think everyone’s ever going to get along all the time,” says Bob. “But we’ve got to take a long view in Savannah.”

Conversely, I am totally a kumbaya girl and maintain fantastic hope that one day we will overcome whatever prevents our beautiful city from becoming the diverse, prosperous and peaceful place many of us would like to inhabit. And though I’m not a particularly patient person, I’m willing to accept that it may take generations to reap the seeds of cooperation that we sow now.

Speaking of the long view, no matter what happens Dec. 1, everyday is a new opportunity for civility and progress. Also, Shaundra isn’t going anywhere: Last week she announced her intentions to run for Chatham County Commission against Yusuf Shabazz in 2016.

In the meantime, let’s keep on trying to find the language that creates bridges between us all. cs


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Jessica Leigh Lebos

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Bio:
Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.

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