Unfortunately, the mayor and three other white councilmen “amended” the street mural proposal by 18 black artists. The amendment provided that the artists could, instead of “Black Lives Do Matter,” paint “Unite Against Racism.”
It is unfortunate because the white men in power told the artists — black artists — what their artistic message should be, requiring them to redesign the artwork. Two points:
First: “Black Lives Do Matter” is a positive statement affirming the humanity of black people — following a long history of being humiliated and dehumanized. Remember the legal demolition of businesses and homes 60 years ago in the Sycamore Hill neighborhood? “Black Lives Do Matter” is a healing message the black community longs to hear.
Second: “Unite Against Racism” actually divides the community: It implies everyone is pointing fingers at words and actions deemed racist, labeling the persons behind such words and actions “racist.” The key word is “against.” Be against what others do, call them out, embitter and trigger their defensive rage. In effect, keep racial conflict enflamed.
Conservatives have attacked “Black Lives Matter” refusing to acknowledge the full horror of U.S. history in which black lives have rarely mattered and only white men of property exercised power. The mayor and other white men in power have missed an opportunity to show their humanity.
I can’t imagine the humiliation felt by the artists, being told what their artistic gift to the city must look like, take it or leave it. Who can disagree with “Unite Against Racism?” It looks righteous. Rejection by the artists will look ungrateful. White power wins. White men in power dictate what black people can do.
Even so, there is so much beauty and empathy in Greenville.
Setback for racial equality
Racism is about power — the power one race exerts over another. When Greenville’s white mayor and three white council members rammed through a vote for an alternate phrase to the one proposed by local artists and accepted by the Pitt County Arts Council to be painted on First Street, they were exerting their power. They were signaling to the black community and reassuring their supporters that they still retain power.
A hundred years ago, white people in power erected the Confederate monument in front of the Pitt County courthouse to send the same message — we have the power. Thankfully, this example of systemic racism was recognized and recently addressed. These clear examples of systemic racism must be called out. The City Council’s actions were never about the words written on the street, but rather about demonstrating who holds the power.
We all must remain diligent in recognizing, vocalizing and addressing systemic racism. I commend Councilman Rick Smiley for courageously acknowledging this recent example of systemic racism with his fitting quote: “Now is the time to give the black community a voice and let others live with their discomfort.” Mayor Connelly and Councilmen Litchfield, Meyerhoeffer and Bell are on the wrong side of this issue. Sadly, their decision is a setback for racial equality in our community.
Masterclass in oppression
The recording of Nov. 9’s City Council meeting should be viewed by all citizens of Greenville. Listen to the public statements of artists and their supporters. Watch the agenda-guided councilors ignore what they say. This is an open letter to the Greenville City councilors who voted against the proposed ‘Black Lives Do Matter’ street mural approved by Pitt County Arts Council two months ago.
Among the 11th hour excuses for obstructing the art installation was that they had “as many” people call in opposition as they did in support. Did Will Bell in fact recruit the opposing views on his Facebook page where he invites comment? Regardless, consider how important the project was to people in the different groups.
To Litchfield and Bell, words matter. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” has a specific meaning to our African American neighbors. By telling the artists what they can and cannot say in their art, you suppress their voices. Dictating what they should write changes the meaning and deprives them of their freedom of expression.
Reading a Raleigh newspaper during the meeting, Meyerhoeffer claimed he noticed a new BLM movement was registered nine days earlier. However, the artists had already agreed to compromise, by changing the wording so as not to conflate their art project with any political group.
Mayor Connelly, you cast the deciding vote. In meting out this injustice, you showed lack of compassion for members of our community, human beings for whom this project was fundamentally important to their self-worth. Where is your humanity? This was a shameful failure of leadership.
The artists and the African American members of the council who spoke courageously in support of their community deserve better. We need leaders who will speak out in support of artistic freedom, diversity and inclusion.
Black Lives Do Matter
The Greenville Town Common is a sacred space. I frequently walk there and marvel at its great beauty. I am aware of the African American community that once lived there and feel sadness for how their neighborhood was destroyed. The proposed mural on First Street would be a perfect complement to the recently opened Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza.
I am deeply disappointed that City Council did not approve the words “Black Lives Do Matter” for the mural. Greenville has missed an opportunity to be progressive and bold in its response to bigotry. As Mayor Pro Tem Glover said, “We don’t move because we are stuck in the past.”
To Ms. Glover and Councilpersons Daniels and Smiley, I say thank you for representing those of us who have a vision of an inclusive city that dares to face the truth — Black Lives Do Matter. In this time and place, these are appropriate words. The fact that they have disturbed so many of the privileged is testimony to their power.
The Christian scriptures quote Jesus saying over 300 times, “be not afraid.” My question to the mayor and Councilpersons Litchfield, Bell and Meyerhoeffer is, what are you afraid of?