“We will not go back,” Barbara Coleman-Brown, president of the Halifax-South Boston NAACP branch, said as she addressed the group of protestors gathered at the Halifax Market Place on Sunday evening holding up signs calling for an end to racism in the community and racism in the community’s leadership in particular.
The protestors called for the resignation of Halifax Town Councilman S.J. “Jack” Dunavant Jr., in response to his letter to the editor “Killing America” published recently in both local newspapers, which was perceived by many community members as having a racist message.
“We will no longer suffer in silence when they use their privilege to insult and demean black people on an individual basis or collectively as a community,” she added.
The labeling of Black people as less than stops now, she said.
Nevaeh Hodges, one of the protest’s organizers with the Halifax-South Boston Unity Project, said, “We are not going to stand for racism in leadership, and we demand change.”
After the protestors rallied at the Halifax Market Place, they marched through the center of town past town hall and the Halifax County courthouse up to the War Memorial and back down to the market.
“I think it was very symbolic for us to march in front of the courthouse and the town hall,” Hodges said. Dunavant makes decisions for the town of Halifax each month in the meetings at that town hall in his leadership position as a town councilman, a position that some members of the community believe he should no longer hold. Dunavant’s current term on council will expire in December 2022.
“We want Jack to resign. He’s openly racist. We don’t want anybody who thinks like him representing our county,” said Beverly Smith of Halifax, one of the protestors at the march. “These people thinking like him, their time (in leadership) is over.”
Smith’s husband, Lee Smith, added, “The reason I’m out here is because racism is normal, and it shouldn’t be.”
Lee, who is African American, said the activism of his wife, who is white, inspired him to take a stand alongside her at the protest.
“If you can fight for my race, I can at least come out here and stand with you regardless,” Lee said.
Dunavant responded to the backlash from his letter to the editor, and said he would be happy to “sit down and talk with anybody out there” about the message in his letter.
“My intention is to improve race relations in this county. I have a great deal of affection for people of all colors,” Dunavant said. “There is not a racist statement in my letter. There was no intent to offend anyone.”
Dunavant added, “I’m trying to make people aware of the issues and problems we’ve got. You can’t solve problems unless you talk about them.
“We are killing America, you and I. We are paying able bodied men not to work and paying poor mothers to have illegitimate children out of wedlock — and the more she has the more money she makes,” Dunavant wrote in his letter. The letter goes on to state, “Sadly today, nine out of 10 black children are born out of wedlock. Everyone knows that it takes two good parents and a heap of community support to properly raise children. The money we spend on welfare would be better spent providing job skills and jobs for the poor and needy; that would strengthen poor families, cure obesity and type 2 diabetes, and repair our crumbling infrastructure…So, who’s responsible here? The blame can be squarely laid at the feet of liberal politicians, black and white, who have sacrificed the poor and defenseless in a quid-pro-quo scheme for political gain (votes)--shame and double shame.”
Along with the protestors at Sunday’s march who advocated for Dunavant’s resignation, an online petition calling for Dunavant’s resignation from Halifax Town Council had been signed by 750 people as of Monday. But Dunavant told The Gazette-Virginian on Monday he had no intention of resigning as a town councilman.
Coleman-Brown said Dunavant’s letter to the editor “infuriated” her, in particular because he is a public official.
“How can you make such broad generalizations about people? You know nothing about them,” Coleman-Brown questioned, referring to Dunavant’s letter.
“We’re here today because of attitudes that people hold onto that cause them to act in ways that are not productive to the community, and sometimes they don’t know their attitude is racist because it is so engrained,” Coleman-Brown said.
The NAACP president added that people seeking public office should ask themselves whether they want to hold public office for the benefit of the whole community or for their own personal reasons.
“If you’re not for the community, you don’t need to be holding public office. You serve all the people who elected you, not just the ones who voted for you,” Coleman-Brown said.
Detra Carr, first vice-chair and former president of the Halifax-South Boston Chapter of the NAACP, shared his thoughts on Dunavant’s letter to the editor, as well.
“We shouldn’t allow situations like this in 2020, especially people who are elected officials. They should be working to make us all part of the community,” Carr said. “We want to work together, as a united community, not be divisive. This is where we live, and I want to live in the best place possible.”
Elizabeth Blair Trent, a local attorney and one of the founders of the Halifax-South Boston Unity Project, shared her disappointment in Councilman Dunavant’s letter as well, from a different perspective as a white woman acknowledging her white privilege.
“I think there was a great failure in leadership in that letter,” Trent said. “Recent events made it clear that there are individuals who don’t want to acknowledge their advantages and they don’t want to use those advantages to help those people they’re supposed to represent.”
As she spoke in front of the crowd of protestors at Sunday’s rally, Trent urged white people to use their white privilege to speak out against racism.
“It is unfair the way the system has been created. As white people we can say things that other people can’t be heard if they say,” Trent explained. “That’s why we have to take a stand (against racism).”
She added it is not enough to not be racist; it is imperative to be “anti-racist.”
Another protest organizer, Hope Harris-Gayles, co-chair of the local group One Community, shared that it was nice to see a diverse group of Halifax community members coming together at the protest to advocate for change.
“I hope this sends a message that it is time for change and unity,” Harris-Gayles said. “We have to take a stand against racism wherever it is and wherever we see it. I think if we all do that, we can make progress and make the world a better place.”