Slimantics: Juneteenth has a transcendent opportunity

April 17, 2013 10:16:35 AM

Slim Smith - [email protected]


By my estimation, it took the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau Board of Trustees almost six months to say no to Leroy Brooks. 


This alone speaks volumes about the clarity and efficiency of the board and contributes much to the rift that has developed in our community that threatens to fall, inaccurately, along racial lines. 


The final verdict came Monday, when the CVB Board refused to reconsider last month's vote not to provide a quality of life grant for the Juneteenth Festival, an event founded and operated by Brooks since its inception in 1998. 


That vote did not fall precisely along racial lines. While all of the black members of the board voted to reconsider funding not all of the white members of the board voted against reconsidering the matter. 


Even so, two of the black members of the board strongly implied that the decision was based on something other than the merits of proposal. 


Board member Whirllie Byrd, a candidate for city council, suggested race was a factor. 


"The person who is not big enough to overcome a racial issue ... has no place on this board," Byrd said. 


Board member Bernard Buckhalter suggested the decision was based on a bias against Brooks. 


"I don't know if it's something personal," said Buckhalter, who then proceeded to strongly suggest it was very much personal. "But every time something comes up that concerns Mr. Brooks, (members) oppose it, regardless of what it is." 


Those statements are worthy of contemplation. Was the board's decision based on race? Was it based on a bias against Brooks? Was it both? 


Brooks himself was the first to introduce race into the discussion when, during a December meeting, he compared those opposed to funding Juneteenth to the racists of the 1960s. 


"Let me say I'm not surprised," Brooks said. "I thought about when I was nine years old and growing up in the southern part of Lowndes County. What's important about being nine years old is that it was 1962 and James Meredith attempted to go to Ole Miss. People in this county and throughout the state of Mississippi went to Oxford -- they had lost their minds. Even here, there was a call for people to take their guns and go to Oxford and try and stop James Meredith from going to Ole Miss." 


Those inclined to view the dispute from only one point of view could certainly make a case that the board's decision was based, at least in part, on race. 


After all, the neighborhood festivals for which funding seems to be in jeopardy as a result of the board's recent changes in its bylaws are predominately held in black communities and operated by black organizers. 


But the decision-by-race argument is seriously compromised by two other facts that cannot be disputed. 


First, the CVB board seems to have no racial bias where Dream365 in concerned. Funding for that event, a celebration of the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy, is funded each year without dissent from the board. 


More specifically, if the board's decision in regard to Juneteenth was indeed based on race, when did race emerge as a determining factor? Certainly, it did not emerge in November, when the board voted to provide Juneteenth with a $15,000 tourism event grant, a grant Brooks rejected in that infamous December board meeting because he was opposed to the stipulations that came with the tourism grant dictating no more than 25 percent of the CVB grant could be spent on entertainment. 


In light of those points, I am certain the board did not make its decision based on race or a personal grudge against Brooks. 


I am also certain that there are those in the black community who will continue to believe race was the decisive factor. 


For 16 years, Juneteenth has received CVB funding. 


Suddenly, that funding has been pulled. 


What changed? Is it any wonder that some are wondering if race is at the heart of the matter? 


The real issue, the first cause, is a CVB that seems to be staggering about in the dark in defining and implementing its mission. Should the CVB, funded by tax dollars to promote tourism, be supporting neighborhood events that do little for tourism but are nevertheless important in promoting goodwill in their communities? 


It is a question that should have been settled long, long ago. 


The CVB's equivocation over what events should or should not be funded has been the key factor in this whole affair. 


Meanwhile, Brooks said Tuesday that this year's Juneteenth Festival will be held despite the lack of funding from the CVB. 


I applaud that decision. It should go on, not as an act of defiance but because it is important to the community. 


Juneteenth organizers will be scrambling to fund the event, and while I don't expect Juneteenth will resonate among white residents any more than the Columbus Pilgrimage resonates among black residents, I do hope that both the black and white communities will rally in support of this year's festival. 


I do not believe events such as the Pilgrimage and Juneteenth should be viewed as exclusively black or white. I believe each race can learn about, and appreciate the significance of, each. We are all the better for it. 


The best outcome, then, would be a safe, family-friendly Juneteenth that invites, encourages and embraces all Columbus residents, regardless of race. 


In that very important sense, this year's Juneteenth Festival can be a means of easing racial tensions rather than exacerbating them. 


It is worthy of our support.  


Because it's not a black OR white issue. 


It's a black AND white opportunity.

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]