[Continued from Part I]
Passing Through the Refiner’s Fire
Orange County was simply not ready to deal with its history the night in 1998 the Democracy Forum first held up the mirror for Ocoee to see its then 78 year old Shadow.
But things change, even in an Orange County with a once virulently racist past. The county in which the Ku Klux Klan felt free to parade in city streets by torch light a mere century ago is now just under 41% white non-Hispanic in composition. Those of African descendance now make up nearly one quarter of the population.
Ocoee, which just elected its first person of color to its City Commission in 2016, is today a diverse city its ancestors could have scarcely conceived of. The US Census report of 2017 estimates the population of Ocoee to be just above 50% white, non-Hispanic.
However, demographic changes alone do not do the hard work of owning a collective Shadow. Embracing a bloody past rooted in a racism which has abated in its virulence but never completely gone away is the stuff of hard work, of gut checks, of conscience wrestling, of letting go of worldviews that oriented their holders to what they saw as reality.
All of those very human behaviors were on display last week as the Ocoee City Commission engaged in an act of repentance, redemption and resurrection. Its Mayor, Rusty Johnson, a white man emerging from the simmering stew of Southern racism in which many of us here were raised, issued a proclamation that acknowledged the dark events of November 1920 and asserted that they would never happen again here or anywhere else.
The proclamation designates November 2 as a day of solemn commemoration in Ocoee and reflects the Council’s decision to place a state historical marker in its civic plaza to remember those events and to inform those who do not know of them. It is scheduled to be dedicated Nov. 2, 2020, the one hundredth anniversary of the Election Day Massacre.
While the proclamation could have been issued by the Mayor alone, it was striking that he took the initiative to have the entire Commission vote on the proclamation. It passed unanimously. Much like the Brown v. The Board case decided by the 1954 Warren Court, it was essential that the decision makers be recorded as unanimous in their determination to repudiate this history and to vow to head in a new direction. The proclamation explicitly rejected its history as a “sundown town” and embraced a new identity as a “sunrise city” marked by diversity and acceptance.
The people of Ocoee have done some remarkable soul-searching. It is not easy to first embrace and then distance oneself from a history that implicates one’s town and one’s ancestors in terrible acts. No doubt, not every Ocoee resident shares the willingness to do so. But this event took courage, the leaders of Ocoee proving willing to pass through the refiner’s fire. The end result, noted by Bill Maxwell, the African-American voice of the Diversity Board, was a measure of redemption.
All of them are to be commended.
“For he has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
It would be easy to tell this story and focus only on the official, historical aspects of this event. Some historians are prone to do so. But when you are an eyewitness to history being made, your perspective is a little more fleshed out, a little more immediate, than mere dates, names and events can convey.
When the vote on the proclamation was complete, the Commission opened the floor to speakers to respond to their action. What followed was one of the most remarkable events of my life.
The Mayor would begin the process of truth telling, offering his own story of how he came to recognize the need for this proclamation. Much of it centered around the voyage with his Diversity Board to the opening of the EJI Lynching Memorial in Montgomery. But the Mayor referenced his faith, citing scriptures from Hebrew and Christian sources, evidencing how the faith expressed therein inspired the faithful to “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with G_d.” (Micah 6:8)
Thereafter, speaker after speaker rose to relate their responses to this action. Some of the descendants of families who lost their homes and their loved ones related the pain of unacknowledged suffering, of seeing a once vibrant history simply erased as if it had never happened. One of them pointedly responded to the Commission: “I accept your apology.”
What resulted was an eruption of justice, mercy and humility that was striking in its similarities to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made famous by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu in post-apartheid South Africa. As the speakers told of their pain from years of injustice, the Commission and audience, including some descendants of those who had caused that pain, listened attentively, some dabbing their eyes.
All around me, people wept tears of joy, tears of relief, tears of redemption. And at that moment, with tears in my own eyes, I realized how incredibly privileged I was to be present for this incredible event where truths were spoken and reconciliation sought.
Hard Work Still Ahead
For many of us who have been working toward this day, the proclamation was both a bit of a surprise even as it was a wonderful affirmation of the hard work so many have done over the past four decades.
The heavy lifting on this project was done by the Diversity Board of Ocoee whose work for two decades was praised at the commission meeting. They, in turn, had been brought into being as a result of two groups that began the initial work toward owning this Shadow beginning in the late 1980s, the Democracy Forum and the West Orange Reconciliation Task Force.
The local Orange County Task Force of the Equal Justice Initiative which last spring dedicated its new lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery was also instrumental in this accomplishment. For the past two years placing a marker in Ocoee has been a primary goal. Seeing it soon to be realized is heart-warming. Recognizing that the achievement of that placement ultimately came from within Ocoee itself is even more so.
The work of the Task Force is not completed, however. Our soil collections from the sites of the massacre in Ocoee and the lynchings in Orlando will soon be placed on display in the museum in Montgomery. We are working out the details on placing markers in Orlando to mark the two lynchings there we have been able to document, one of them July Perry.
We are also hard at work developing our many town hall forums across the region into an educational-curricula for local schools. Our children must know their heritage, ALL of it. Toward that end, the task force is overseeing a scholarship essay competition at five of the Orange County high schools.
Finally, its collection of artifacts and documentary evidence will soon form the basis for an exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Center during 2020, the centennial year of the massacre. It will also provide the materials for traveling exhibits for events across the state.
Much hard work lies before us. But for this day, I am deeply grateful. It is the first step toward a justice too long delayed which has finally begun to arrive.
EJI-OTF soil collection, possible lynching site of July Perry, Orlando
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston 2018