During Black History Month, the News + Record is featuring discussions about issues related to the African American experience in our Chatham Chats. This week, we speak with W. Robert Pearson about …
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During Black History Month, the News + Record is featuring discussions about issues related to the African American experience in our Chatham Chats. This week, we speak with W. Robert Pearson about the work of Chatham’s Community Remembrance Coalition. Pearson, who lives in Fearrington Village with his wife, Maggie, was an innovative diplomat, leader and crisis manager at the top levels of the U.S. government. He was U.S. ambassador to Turkey and completed a 30-year career in 2006 with the Department of State as Director General of the Foreign Service. He is a frequent writer and speaker on diplomacy, foreign policy, Turkey, NGOs and development, and served under six presidents (four Republican and two Democratic) and 11 secretaries of state.
The local committee you help lead, the Equal Justice Initiative Community Remembrance Coalition — Chatham, has its roots in the work of attorney and author Bryan Stevenson. How did your knowledge of the work of the EJI (which is based on Montgomery, Alabama) inspire the creation of the CRC-C?
I’m a trial lawyer by training, a negotiator by experience since I was 25 years old, and a senior American diplomat with service in China, Europe and Turkey. After that, I headed up an international humanitarian non-profit organization working in difficult circumstances in eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
I came to that work inspired by a conviction that our country was better than its worst days — a phrase often used by Stevenson. I saw how his meticulous, patient, persistent challenge to conventional wisdom and deep-seated bias dissolved what looked like an impenetrable web of law, culture, custom and hate to reach victory.
His book was a great inspiration to me. His work at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery showed me that truth has to be told no matter how painful in order to make progress. Otherwise, truth — and with it understanding — is lost. Six people died by lynching in this county from 1885 to 1921 without one person ever arrested, indicted, tried or convicted. That was truth that people wanted never to hear, but it was truth that had to be told.
What are the goals and objectives of the CRC-C?
Our mission statement is on our website and aims to improve race relations, enhance comity, empathy and understanding across and within Chatham County’s races, faiths and communities. We aim to do this through conversations and actions. A full 99% of the issues in our lives are solved by conversation. To start with conversations about race, we have to know how we got to this point. History’s truth is our only reliable guide. Knowing the history of Chatham County’s Black community — and of Black Americans across the country — gives us our starting point, our process and our goal.
It’s been seven months since the CRC-C’s large public event at the Chatham County Justice Center. Speakers described the gathering as a push for “an America that works for all,” economic justice and a public recognition and memorialization for the county’s six lynching victims. What’s happened with the CRC-C since?
Together with the critical support of the county NAACP branches, whose leaders are also our leaders, we’ve set up our EJI charity, recruited new members, organized a grants committee to look for funds and projects to carry out, and planned a day to participate in Chatham 250 in September to tell the Black history of Chatham County.
We’ve begun a conversation with the Urban League in Charlotte and other groups in the county to create jobs for Black and Brown citizens so that young Black and Brown men and women will stay here, raise their families here, and contribute to their community. Last spring, we pressed for a listing of all Black businesses in the county, and thank the CEDC and Chamber of Commerce, who have posted that list.
We have worked with the county’s education leaders to tell the whole history of the county so that today and tomorrow our young people can discuss and decide how to shape N.C.’s future.
We have interviewed the law enforcement agencies of the county, understanding that equal justice means reforms to and support for an open fair equal system of justice in the county. That work is still ongoing.
We are grateful to the Chatham County Historical Association for their work telling the Black history of the county in a number of articles.
Our website is CRC-C.org, and it features stories of interest and a blog to foster conversation in the community. We have no interest in blaming or shaming; our experience belongs to all of us, and the obligation to move forward belongs to all of us.
We have plans to launch another series of public events as soon as the pandemic conditions permit to commemorate the lives of the lynching victims and to memorialize them.
You’ve previously written that this period in American history is the “Third Reconstruction.” What do you mean by that?
We are in the middle of the third great movement in American history to achieve the commitment we made in 1776 that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is a natural unalienable right that belongs to each and every one of us.
The first Reconstruction from 1865 to 1872 promised equal protection and equal voting rights but was swept away by the White power structure in the South and White abandonment in the North. The second Reconstruction in the ‘60s focused on integration in schools, the economy and voter protection but was not sustained. Now the third Reconstruction has arrived after the events of last summer, and is our best chance yet to clear our legal system and society of systemic bias against Black citizens. More White citizens have joined this effort, more young whites and Blacks have come to the effort, and our leadership in the county and in the country now is committed to visible, concrete and permanent achievements. The first two reconstructions shattered on indifference and opposition. Our challenge is to finally right what we see has been wrong for a long time.
We discuss this question every time we speak, but some who will read this (and no doubt many who will not, because of the subject nature) question the necessity for “remembrance,” and also suggest another “r” word — reconciliation — is unnecessary. Have you encountered that in Chatham County personally?
Sure, but there isn’t anything magic or mysterious about remembrance and reconciliation. Remembrance is the telling of the whole history of the county. I’m sure most people, thinking about it, will realize that they know very little about the 250 years of history for Black Americans in the county. Reconciliation is not about a religious conversion or an epiphany — it’s about acknowledging that our country, great as it is, did not do on the one hand and did do on the other hand things that made it very difficult, often even impossible, for Black Americans to be equal before the law and in economic opportunity. It should not be so hard to say that those gaps must be filled. No one will suffer if a Black man, woman or child enjoys equal justice before the law and has the same opportunities in education, employment and wealth creation as the next person. We will all gain, and we all understand fairness.
Who makes up the group, and are you encouraging additional participation?
We have a number of members from around the county. We welcome new members and have a link on our website https://www.crc-c.org/participate.html to encourage new members to sign up. Dues are $15 a year.
The CRC-C now has a website. Tell us about that, and how can people find out more?
Our website is CRC-C.org. It was set up before Christmas, and we are continuing to work on it. It includes articles and news of interest about Black history and events in Chatham County and the state. We feature the history of the Chatham Fairgrounds, the only Black-owned fairgrounds in the United States. We present all the names and biographical data of the lynching victims in the county. Currently we are asking Chatham Countians to sign a petition to name Horton Middle School the George Moses Horton Middle School to fully honor Chatham County’s famous Black poet. The website will be our outreach to the county and our open door to cooperation and conversation.
For more information, go to www.CRC-C.org.