Published 6:12 pm Saturday, June 6, 2020

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Covington County residents took to the court square to peacefully protest in support of the Black Lives Matter movement on Saturday.

Several people took the stage to talk about unity, injustice and their experiences as African American citizens.

The people that talked included Mayor Earl Johnson, Pastor Darryl Calloway, AHS alumnus Darious Davis, Andalusia locals and co-organizers of the protest Robbie and Kendal O’Neal, Pastor Tyler Ingram, Dr. William Hines, Andalusia City Councilman William Sconiers, Opp native Bridges Anderson and U.S. Congress candidate Phyllis Harvey-Hall.

“Today I want to stand up here publicly, in front of my peers, in front of people that I know and people I don’t know and I want to take responsibility,” K. O’Neal said. “I want to take responsibility on behalf of myself and behalf of all other people who share my same privilege. We have stood by and we have stayed quiet for too long. We have been idle and we have watched things go on that we knew were wrong but in fear of inconveniencing ourselves or making ourselves uncomfortable we’ve stood by and we have been quiet. Today, we are not going to do that anymore. We are going to be stern, but we are going to be kind. When we say something, we are going to mean what we say and we need to be heard. Today, I’m going to stand and I hope everyone else here stands in solidarity for our black brothers and sisters as we say, ‘I hear you. I see you. I stand for you.’”

Although Davis could not be present for the protest, he recorded a message that was played at the protest.

“I am not there today, but I know there is a heavy presence of people who are ready to make change, not only in Andalusia and the State of Alabama, but the United States,” Davis said. “Let me tell you, that change begins with you. That change begins with you because maybe the Birmingham 16th Street Church bombings prompted your activism. That change begins with you because maybe the death of Oscar Grant prompted your activism. That change begins with you because maybe the death of Trayvon Martin prompted your activism. That change begins with you because maybe the death of Tamir Rice prompted your activism. That change begins with you because maybe the death of Breonna Taylor prompted your activism. That change begins with you because maybe the death of Ahmaud Arbery prompted your activism. That change begins with you because maybe the most recent death of George Floyd prompted your activism. That change begins with you because you have taken the first step in change by being here today.”

It is time for a progressive, radical transformation, Davis said.

“Remember, we may not get there together, as this life vanishes rapidly for us, but we, as the people, who continue the good fight, will one day get there together,” Davis said. “Although we are outraged and angered, let us not allow those things to prevent us from getting to our point. In other words, don’t get lost in your anger. I often find the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., resonating within me so clearly, ‘We must continue to engage in creative protests, to break down the barriers of discrimination and segregation. I know there are people who believe in strange illusion and they don’t believe in continued protest. One illusion is the myth of time. They say wait. Don’t push it. Sit back and just pray. Time will work it out. These people fail to realize that time is neutral and can be used positively and negatively. I am afraid we will have to repent, not only for the blatant words of the bad people but the appalling silence of the good people. We must make it clear that the time is now and that the time to do right is right now.’ Andalusia and surrounding areas, today I’m challenging you. I’m challenging you to push on with legislation. I’m challenging you to open up your homes for diverse conversations that promote diversity, equity and inclusion. I’m challenging you to address racism within the church and creative religions community, where all are equally welcome and have equal access. I’m challenging you to have open workshops and seminars to come together to not only to connect but to celebrate our differences and value each other. I’m challenging you to love the people who don’t understand why you are here today. Love them on a level that allows them to see we won’t’ stoop down to the level of violence and hatred, but to convince them that the new world is emerging through nonviolence, justice for all and the freedom for the ones who are struggling from oppression. I encourage you to keep on fighting the good fight, fellow Andalusians and finish the course. Our work here is not done.”

As an attorney and as mayor, Johnson said he is sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States.

“It says that all men and women are created equally,” Johnson said. “If you’ve ever been to Washington and walked down to see the Supreme Court building, written on the front, chiseled in stone, are these words, ‘Equal justice to all,’ think about that. That’s what this is all about. What happened to George Floyd did not happen, thankfully, in Andalusia, but that it happened in America is a reminder to all of us that equal rights still need our attention.”

Johnson said this horrible event happened just as many were hoping to get their lives, their workplaces and communities back to normal in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“George Floyd’s death reminded us that as we work to recover, we need to focus on a better ‘normal’ for all Americans,” Johnson said. “In a statement he released this week, former President George W. Bush, which as we all know was a strong Republican president, said, ‘The heroes of America from Frederick Douglas to Harriet Tubman, to Abraham Lincoln, to Martin Luther King Jr., are all heroes of unity, not division,’ that’s what we are here about today. As I look out at this crowd, what I see is diversity. This diversity has drawn together in unity for the purpose you are here about today.”

Johnson’s goal for Andalusia is that the community continues to see people as Andalusians first and work together in unity so they can continue to be a very special place to live, work and raise a family.

Sconiers said it is unfortunate for everybody to be out there today to protest for this matter.

If you really look at it, we shouldn’t even have to be here today to do this,” Sconiers said. “We live in one of the freest countries in the world and we should be unified. I think sometimes we forget the name of our country, the United States of America. We are free to say and do anything we want as long as we live under the law of the land and that is so important. It is just unfortunate that we have to come together today for such an occasion, but it has to be done. Our voices need to be heard and I’m so appreciative of you all coming here today to show your support. When we have the love of God in our hearts then we know how to love. I think the Bible teaches us best. There’s no shame in God’s game. Just do it his way and we will be all right. When we allow Satan in our hearts, it just allows all evil to come in and that’s what we see is going on in our country today. We have no control of ourselves, but we have got to get back to loving and kindness.”

As a former educator, Harvey-Hall said every time there is something negative written about an educator she drops her head.

“I know that it comes and it spreads to all of us,” Harvey-Hall said. “But I know as an educator most of us do the work every day. We work hard, we serve the families and we have been put in those classrooms to serve and just the same, I know that there are good men and women in our police force who do the right work every day and we acknowledge that. We have a couple that do not do the work very well in a classroom or on a course or in the legal field. So, we know that there is good and bad everywhere. We just need the good to step up. Say something. Silence is violence. We need those of us who are in this field to stand up, be brave, stand out and do what is right. Because of movements like this, we are still the greatest country on the face of this earth and I am a proud American citizen and I am now running for office, by the grace of God because I know people like you, people like me, ordinary, hardworking citizens deserve a voice there that will not be bought.”

Hines said that change has to start from somewhere.

“Over 20 years ago, I was in high school and I was thought of as being a little bit radical,” Hines said. “I was thought of as being racial and a lot of other things but it was just the simple fact that I saw some things that were different. I wanted to be apart of some things that we don’t actually do in the school system. We don’t teach a lot about African American history. We don’t teach a lot about where we came from. So, I began to take a stand. I told my history teacher that if it is black history month and we ain’t learning no black history, then I ain’t learning history this month. A little while after that, the next year we began to do a little something about black history, but later on, as I studied Malcolm X and Martin Luther King over the years for my own self, I wanted to be apart of those movements that happened long before I was born. Still to this day, I am reluctant about being a strong black man. Sometimes, that is like a curse to me because of the simple fact, if you are a black man that will stand up for what is right and don’t mind telling them sometimes they are wrong, they will blackball you.”

With all of the looting and rioting going on in the country, Hines said he does not support it, but he does understand it.

“I do understand how frustration and anger can build up,” Hines said. “Over the past four months, I have been upset and angry at my own self. Racism and injustices don’t only affect the black man, it affects the white man, as well. Why do I say that? Because it gives you a sense of false insecurity, that because you are white, you are privileged. I’ll use those words ‘WP,’ you can call it white privileged. You can call it white power. You can call it white people. You can call it white wickedness. You can call it whatever you want. Inequality in America and even yes, right here in Covington County, hurts everybody. Right here in Covington County, there are jobs that somebody who looks like me didn’t get. Right now, there are businesses right here in Covington County that haven’t been opened because somebody that looks like me wanted to open it. Right here in Covington County, there is an education system that could be flourishing and doing great, but because somebody looks like me said it was wrong.”

Even in the shadows of the Covington County Courthouse, Hines said there are injustices in a place where there is suppose to be justice.

“How many times has somebody that looks like me went in that courtroom with one piece of crack and somebody that looks like the mayor with a whole truckload of cocaine get a different sentence,” Hines said. “Elections, restrictions, even a few years ago when we redistricted and began to do things to allow people of color to get on elected boards. We made strides, but there are still so many strides to make. Yes, there is one that looks like me, but there are four that are opposing me. Racism has been going on so long that sometimes folks that look like you even tell you that you’re wrong. At the same time, I think the art of communication is where we are. We need to really start communicating. I’m not talking about just talking about the thing. Let’s be about it. There are so many times when I’m sitting there and they will say, ‘Yes, Mr. Hines, I hear you and I understand, but,’ Lord have mercy, with the ‘buts.’ No you hear me, but you aren’t listening. You haven’t received because when you receive, what I’m saying, you receive it in your heart. That’s what brings about change. When we start communicating from the same place that God communicates, that’s when change will come.”

R. O’Neal said he wanted to talk about a thing that most people don’t think about when it comes to the Black Lives Matter protest.

“I’m a little bit lighter than most of you and I’m a little bit darker than most of you, but at the end of the day, we are all the same,” R. O’Neal said. “I tasted racism on my first day on this Earth because the skin on my knuckles and elbows was a little bit darker than they thought it was supposed to be, because my mother, a 16-year-old white woman, gave birth to me. They feared complications, but if they would have just checked the charts they would have known that my father was African American. So, I tasted racism on my first day. A lot of people look at me and say, ‘Oh, you’re half white, you’ve got it made.’ That’s not the case. To you all, I’m half white and I get a taste of that privilege, that I’ve never tasted, but on the other side of things, I’m a little too dark to be white, ‘He don’t quite fit in here.’ I’m here to give a voice to people like me because 25 years, they have stayed silent. Everybody, no matter what ethnicity, we all matter. I’m a beautiful mixture of two ethnicities joined together to form a beautiful conundrum. Today, we are here to make a change.”

While in the first grade, Anderson was part of the first class that was integrated in Opp.

“They sat all of the blacks in the back of the room,” Anderson said. “During break, they had chocolate milk and they had white milk. All of the blacks got white milk because it was free, but I wanted to taste the chocolate milk. I wanted it bad. So, I asked my mom to give me a dime. I took that dime, took it to my teacher and said that I wanted a chocolate milk. She said no because I was on free milk. But I had a dime. I didn’t get a taste of that chocolate milk, but some of my colleagues did share that milk. I’m here today to say that we have to establish a relationship. I’ve read the Bible several times and I have hardly ever seen the word ‘race’ in it. But we have to understand that we are the human race. When you take a race outside of the group and start using racism against them, then you are going to start seeing things like ‘Black Lives Matter.’ You’re going to start seeing things that are different than other races have. We have to keep God first.”

Before speaking, Ingram thought about what anybody would want to hear from a white man.

“Why would anybody want me to talk about something that I don’t even know anything about,” Ingram said. “I just began to pray and ask God about what I would say to make a difference. So, I come to you today, to talk to you about what I think Jesus would say if he were standing here today. White people like to think Jesus was white and black people like to think Jesus was black. I hate to break it to you, but he was Jewish. Jesus is black. Jesus is white. Jesus is Jewish. Jesus is Russian. He said, ‘I am that I am.’ What I want to say today is not what my flesh has to say, but I’m going to let my spirit speak. In Genesis 1:26, God says, ‘Let us make man in our image according to our likeness.’ But if we look two chapters later, we will see the first murder that took place in the Bible and it wasn’t white on white or black on black, it was brother on brother. I ask you not to see me today as a white man. When I accepted Christ, my heart changed. I’ve never considered myself a racist person. What we have today is not a racial problem, but a sin problem. The apostle Paul said it best, he said, ‘If change is going to take place, it is going to take place because I examined my own heart.’ If you look inside and if we are all honest, we have had moments of racial issues in our own life, I don’t care what color you are. We have judged people based on what they look like, the way they vote, we classify people based on what church they go to. We are the most divided people of all time. I don’t like labels because that determines what somebody is before I even get a chance to know them. How did Jesus handle death? We only have one account where Jesus was asked about death. In the 11th chapter of the Book of John, you will read the shortest verse in the Bible, ‘Jesus wept.’ What I will say today, I can’t know what you all go through, but I am here, and I weep with you, brother.”

Calloway began his speech by playing “Man in the Mirror,” by Michael Jackson.

“Most of us love this song and the words of this song are profound words,” Calloway said. “But the words to this song are about making a change. When I think about making a change, I think about the ‘C’ in change, stands for communication. We have got to be able to communicate. Talk about the sensitive issues that we have suppressed for years. We have got to communicate if we want a change to take place. We have to truly listen to one another. Honestly trying to feel what the other one feels and hear what the other one is saying.”

Calloway said the ‘H’ in change stands for honesty.

“We have got to be honest with ourselves,” Calloway said. “How honest are we when we see wrong? How honest are we when we see someone that does something not fair? Don’t lie because of your political party. Don’t go along with wrong. The ‘A’ in change stands for accountability. We have got to hold each other accountable. We have to hold ourselves accountable. Accountability means being responsible. I have got to be accountable for you because you are my brother and my sister regardless of the color of your skin. When I look at the ‘N’ in change stands for now. We have got to talk about issues right now, we have got to meet right now, we’ve got to vote right now, we’ve got to talk about the things that divide us right now. Tomorrow is not promised and if we don’t start addressing it now, we don’t know what is tomorrow for us will look like. When I think about the ‘G,’ it stands for God. I know some folks may not believe in God, but I’m just crazy enough that I believe in God. I believe that God has to touch the heart. God has to touch the mind. He has to touch the spirit and if we really believe in God then we have to let the Holy Spirit come inside of us and inspire change. The ‘E’ to me stands for endurance. It means the ability to withstand hardships in challenging times. Change is not easy. Change will have challenges. Change will bring about opposition, but we have to endure if Covington County is going to get better. We have to stop hiding and stop pretending. With time and the ability to hold it together, not becoming discouraged, continuing to press forward, by us looking at the man and the woman in the mirror, a change will come. And we must be the agent for change.”