Slimantics: A spirit of malaise in Columbus

 

Slim Smith

 

 

On July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter addressed the nation at a time when the country was reeling from an energy crisis, a prolonged economic downturn that caused deep divisions in the nation. Carter expressed concern that American democracy was threatened by a "crisis of confidence" in which cynicism toward government had eroded faith in the American way of life. A spirit of "malaise" had fallen over the country, he believed.

 

I thought about that address, now known as "The Malaise Speech," as I considered the weekend events in Starkville and Columbus, where marches were held to protest racial injustice and police brutality directed toward black people.

 

On Saturday, the Starkville march drew a crowd that rivaled that of the protest in the state's largest city, Jackson. Conservative estimates place the number at 2,000 or more. About a quarter of that crowd, if not more, were white citizens.

 

 

On Sunday, the Columbus march drew only a fraction of that turnout - perhaps 300 people - even though police brutality in Columbus "had a face," that of Ricky Ball, who was shot and killed by a Columbus police officer in 2015. When state attorney general Lynn Fitch dropped the charge against the officer, Canyon Boykin, on May 28, most citizens were shocked and many were outraged.

 

Given the heightened emotions the Ball case represents, it's hard to understand the disparity in the two communities' reactions, if such a thing can be judged by how many people turned out to voice their anger, grief and determination to fight against racial injustice.

 

It's not that the 300 or so people who participated in the Columbus march showed any deficit of spirit. It's just that there were so few of them. There may have been 50 or 60 white citizens in the crowd, which suggests some substantial degree of indifference. But the same could be said of the black community, too. Given the circumstances, a crowd every bit as large as the one in Starkville might have been expected.

 

I honestly don't know the answer for that, but like Carter 40 years ago, I wonder if the city of Columbus is suffering from its own form of malaise. Have our citizens, black and white alike, grown comfortable in the status quo? Or have they simply lost hope?

 

If so, what can be done to stir the consciences of all those thousands of Columbus residents who seem perfectly content in what should be considered, "the winter of our discontent," as Shakespeare called it.

 

We may have seen an answer during Tuesday evening's virtual Town Hall meeting at the Municipal Complex, which featured a panel including Columbus Police Chief Fred Shelton, Mayor Robert Smith, Dispatch Publisher Peter Imes, Lowndes County NAACP President Lavonne Latham Harris and District Attorney Scott Colom.

 

The panel discussed crime and policing and, of course, the Ricky Ball case.

 

But the most compelling speakers were a couple of black men in their 20s, neither of them household names, who spoke as representatives of the grassroots group "Justice For Ricky Ball."

 

David Horton II and Jermaine Shanklin made cases for overhauling the police department's standard operating procedures and encouraged city leaders to get behind the effort to replace the current state flag, which is adorned with Confederate imagery.

 

They also called for something that, to my knowledge, no one has ever demanded -- the removal of the Confederate monument located at the Lowndes County Courthouse.

 

There are 67 such monuments scattered throughout the state and while the monument on the campus at Ole Miss is perhaps the most notorious, the Lowndes County monument has an infamy all its own.

 

I was alerted to this odd feature of the monument six years ago. Someone told me that when viewed from the east, the soldier at the top of the monument looked as though he is wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood. I had to see that for myself, of course. The similarity was undeniable, so I decided to write a column about it.

 

Naturally, I asked two of our most prominent black elected officials -- Lowndes County supervisor Leroy Brooks and Mayor Smith about the monument. Both said they had known about the curious optical feature for years. I was surprised, though, that neither seemed particularly upset about it.

 

Their attitude seemed to be, "You just have to shake your head. It's just the way things are."

 

I am certainly not questioning how Brooks or Smith feel about racial injustice, but I do wonder about their lack of fire.

 

Perhaps their attitude toward the Confederate monument is a reflection of a city-wide malaise, an attitude of "that's just the way things are around here."

 

It seemed clear to me that if our city is going to escape that defeatist attitude, the torch will be carried by a new generation of Columbus citizens, people like Horton and Shanklin, who are not content to accept the status quo.

 

Things can change, they say. Some things must change, they say.

 

We look to our young people to lead the way and to shake the rest of us out of our contented slumber.

 

 

 

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

 

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