Let’s Ignite A Movement: First Responders Recap

By Hannah Caddell

“Was the removal of the Confederate battle flag a moment in time or a movement in time?”

North Carolina Senator Malcolm Graham asked this question of the packed gallery at McColl Center for Art + Innovation on Monday evening, July 20, 2015, as part of the First Responders event, Diversity Matters, organized in partnership with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Carolinas HealthCare System. 

This question seemed to resonate through a night filled with discussions of race, the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol building, and the Charleston 9.

ART AS A CATALYST FOR CHANGE 

McColl Center Alumna Artist-in-Residence Susan Harbage-Page opened the evening, sharing questions around race and social justice that fuel her artistic practice. Images of her artwork of Klu Klux Klan capes sewn out of innocuous, everyday items like English toile patterns, blue Oxford cloth, and Walmart bags were projected onto a screen as Harbage-Page stated, “If you live in the non-dominant culture you are reminded of [race] all the time.” 

Dr. James Taylor of Carolinas HealthCare System began facilitating the evening’s dialogue by stating, “If you are here tonight then you are saying ‘I no longer want to be a voyeur, but instead I want to engage in these conversations.’” The event featured invited individuals speaking about their response to the recent events in the Carolinas, including the Charleston 9 murders, and then an open-ended discussion where the audience could contribute to the dialogue. 

Dr. Taylor highlighted the following, vital point: “Charlotte could have been Charleston. It’s just 250 miles away. Charlotte could have been Ferguson, or Staten Island. So it is out of hope that we’re here tonight to increase community engagement and create a continued desire to make a difference in the lives of others.” 

Dr. Taylor then introduced Debbie Dills and Todd Frady. Dills was the woman from King’s Mountain, NC who spotted Dylann Roof, the Charleston 9 shooter, in his car outside of Shelby, NC the day after the murders. She was on her way to work and called her boss, Todd Frady, for guidance. Dills said of herself, “I am not a hero. I‘m just a girl from Gastonia, you know? God used me.” She also encouraged that we remember the families of the Charleston 9, reinforcing that they need our support. 

Dills’ final words to the audience were poignant but potent. “Just do the right thing. It doesn’t matter who you are or what color you are. When I saw that car I had no choice but to do the right thing.”

STEPPING UP 

Senator Graham was introduced next, greeted by a standing ovation. He first told us of his sister Cynthia Hurd, one of the Charleston 9 victims – nay, heroes – to use his own words. Graham told of us of Cynthia’s life of service, gently smiling, “If we needed to find her, we went to the library,” since Cynthia worked not only full time for the Charleston County library, but also part time for the library of the College of Charleston in the evenings. 

Then, in a sober declaration, Senator Graham said, “The Charleston 9 were murdered simply because they were black. That is a hate crime.”

In a seamless step from personal storytelling to policy, and in the first genuine local call for action I have heard since these tragedies among so many empty echoes of rhetoric, Senator Graham stepped up to address larger and related societal problems. 

“The removal of the Confederate flag is not enough. We need to expand Medicaid. We need to change North Carolina law so that our black brothers and sisters can register at polling places on the same day that they go to vote, despite barriers set against them.” 

One of the barriers placed against African Americans that Senator Graham emphasized is the subtlety of everyday racism, present even in judgements about names. “Give Shakeela just as equal a shot at a job as Susan, from the resume to the interview to the hiring discussion.”

During these words about the subtle racism of daily life, I found myself, as a young white woman, agreeing with the senator’s points but unsure what to do or say. Perhaps that was part of the point – the evening wasn’t about me, but about respect, awareness, next steps, and solutions. 

HERITAGE OR HATE 

The audience voiced important thoughts surrounding the removal of the Confederate flag when posed with the query, is it heritage or is it hate? 

“I am more scared now that it’s down than I was when it was flying,” admitted one participant.

A local pastor expressed that “we try to cloak our hate in heritage, but we need to examine and call that out from within ourselves before we address it in others.” 

Finally, someone hit the nail squarely on the head: “It’s a heritage of hate.” Nods and applause followed. 

After the event formally ended there were hugs and handshakes. Conversations continued as people milled around and eventually exited through the doors of McColl Center. Watching people go, a few at a time, I was struck by a parallel. In a church turned arts center, which believes that art is a catalyst for change, activism had taken place.