ROCKINGHAM — Racism is still alive even though it is not as direct as it used to be.
With Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday coming up, many look back to reflect where we have been and where we are going.
J.C. Watkins, 91 and chairman of the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration steering committee, arrived in Richmond County in 1943.
Since he has been here, he has served in education for 41 years, was elected to serve on Rockingham City Council from 1973 to 1990 and then served 18 years as a county commissioner from 1990 to 2008.
He has seen blatant racism and racism that, today, is a little more subtle. No matter the year, it is clear to him that race still does matter.
“Today I don’t experience it (racism) as directly,” Watkins said. “But I know it’s there. I see racism in government, in education, in the private sector.”
When looking at the leadership positions here in Richmond County, the African American percentage in the county is not as represented as they should be in key leadership positions, said Kim Harrington, 43, of Hamlet. Harrington serves with Watkins on the steering committee.
Watkins looked to the board of education, city councils and even private businesses for examples of how skin color affects the opportunities afforded to people in Richmond County. In so many instances African Americans are passed over when considering job promotions or appointments. Watkins said it is not always the “best qualified person” that gets the job or the promotion.
“In Richmond County … whites will be quick to say we have a black sheriff, we have a black register of deeds or other people in those kinds of positions,” Watkins said. “I guess in that respect Richmond County is to be commended, but there are other key jobs in other public areas and departments of county government.”
Looking at the Richmond County Board of Education, there’s not a black person that is on the board to represent the many African Americans in the public school system.
“Why is that?” Watkins asked.
Watkins acknowledged that it took a black person to run for the position in order to get on the board, but he said it wasn’t as easy as that. Just looking at the history of the superintendents in Richmond County, there has not been one black superintendent.
Watkins was involved with the Richmond County school system heavily back in the early 70s and late 80s. Watkins said during that time the top three positions in the school system were superintendent, associate superintendent and assistant superintendent. Back when the schools integrated, the first African American was given the title of assistant superintendent. The problem was the new assistant was given no duties.
“It was a waste of money,” Watkins said. “There was no work involved in it.”
That changed, however, when Watkins was appointed to the position of assistant superintendent in later years.
“The board passed on that I would have duties, and I was given some duties, but was undermined very much,” Watkins said. “There were things that were going around me and being done without my knowledge.”
The real kicker for Watkins was when the associate superintendent retired.
“We’ve had that happen several times and in every case when the associate left the assistant was promoted to the associate position,” Watkins said. “Well I was assistant superintendent when the associate retired and everyone said I was in line to get that position because that was the tradition. Well, it didn’t happen. One of the principals of the school system was brought in and made associate superintendent which was above the position I had.”
‘Leave … and don’t come back’
While what Watkins experienced took place many years ago, Harrington thinks a scenario such as this still influences people today in the county.
“I think that’s the mindset today, that you can only go so far here,” Harrington said. “You might be qualified, but you’re only going to get so far.”
Harrington said the population in Richmond County is growing older with hardly any youth to carry on the county. Part of that might be due to the belief that opportunities are limited here, especially for African Americans.
“I think people know right away that there’s this whole unspoken good ol’ boy network in this county and so the goal is to get your high school diploma and leave, and that is the message that a lot of parents send to their children,” Harrington said. “There’s no opportunity here, and if there is you’re not going to get it — leave, go to college and don’t come back.”
Harrington has felt the sting of the networking that exists in Richmond County. Being a college graduate and having difficulty finding work can discourage anyone, but it doesn’t help if there are lingering questions in the back of your mind as to why it takes so long to obtain a job.
“I have been unemployed for almost a year, and I feel like sometimes if I had someone to go to maybe if I was a different color and had someone to go to in a leadership position, I wouldn’t have been unemployed for this long,” Harrington said. “I’m not saying that’s the reason, but it crosses my mind sometimes.”
To combat the idea that racism is an issue and could play a factor in the job market here, Harrington focuses on being excellent in her talents and work ethic, but the trouble of finding a job does drive people away from the county.
“I’ve always said excellence is the best deterrent to racism,” Harrington said. “I believe if you’re excellent then your gift will make room for you, but if you want to stay here in Richmond County it’s much harder. I would have to leave the county in order to find a job that was comparable to what I was doing.”
Harrington said the ability to approach someone who looks like you in a leadership position is very comforting. When Harrington worked for The Richmond County Daily Journal, from 1998 to 2006, she experienced this first hand as she immersed herself in the black community in Richmond County.
“When I became a reporter here they (African Americans) felt more comfortable coming to me so we did more stories that featured African American culture and because of that I was often time labeled as a racist,” Harrington said. “I would get letters from the members in the community saying that I was racist simply because I promoted black culture in my writing.”
The letters that Harrington received were an example of a more personal, individualized racism, but Harrington sees racism that is buried underneath the service in laws and politics.
Even in Richmond County, the site of the all-white Rockingham and Hamlet city councils may raise an eyebrow for many. Harrington refers to the good ol’ boy network here in the county as one of the reasons why these groups lack diversity. Sometimes, though, those reasons by transcend skin color.
“When it comes to politics … they don’t want people who are independent thinkers who might rock the boat,” Harrington said. “When I was covering councils (as a reporter), those people who spoke their mind and went against the others their political careers didn’t last long, and when I would speak to them afterwards they would say (the reason is) they thought for themselves and they weren’t told how to think or how to vote.”
Harrington sees the issue with government and policy on the state level as well.
“I look at it on a state wide and national level,” Harrington said. “Racism is more imbedded in public policy and decision making so we can’t put a finger on it. It’s not as blatant as it used to be, but it’s in public policy such as the Voter ID law or cutting education. It’s now more in our policies than it is in our faces.”
Though race still matters in today’s society, things are getting better. Watkins and Harrington are hoping that things continue to get better as society grows and changes. Back in 1944, Watkins was not allowed to even vote at the Beaver Dam No. 2 precinct, now that precinct is the church he attends.
“It’s getting better,” Harrington said. “But there’s always room for improvement.”
Building a bridge
Richmond County set up a Human Relations Council back in May of 1999. It was set up by Watkins during his time as a county commissioner. The point of the council is to get together to discuss and work on different issues that affect all members of the community no matter race or gender — essentially setting up a bridge to make racial relations better in Richmond County.
While the council was set up with good intentions, it has become difficult to get whites and those with different backgrounds to become part of the council. Watkins wants to make sure that people understand that it is a council for all types of people. Watkins and Harrington have hopes for the future.
“We live in a colorful world,” Harrington said. “The younger generation, they don’t see race as much anymore. They offer hope.”