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Leading on race: Communities, not elites |

Leading on race: Communities, not elites

Salena Zito
Karen Scott and four friends from St. Paul's Baptist Church in New Jersey in front of Kauffman's Farm in Bird-in-Hand, Pa.
People hug as they gather to honor the nine victims of the shooting in Charleston, S.C.
Groups started at either end of Charleston's main bridge, then met in the middle to sing hymns.


Grace always finds a way to arrive just in time.

Last week the sewer of social media and news, which often poses as a reflection of national will, reacted to the brutal murder of nine people at a prayer meeting in Charleston, S.C., while the country’s interior reeled with sorrow over the senseless deaths.

No one in the hierarchy of Washington and New York media, nor the president, thought South Carolina would consider removing the war flag of the Confederacy, representing the states that seceded from our union more than 150 years ago, from the statehouse grounds.

And yet, with dignity and respect for the procedures of law holding the flag in place, the legislature agreed to debate the issue — and many South Carolinians agreed it should happen.

In a week that began with a white woman masquerading as black, the ensuing silliness of talk about being “transracial,” and the president unnecessarily invoking the mother of all racial epithets, it was the American people who showed how to lead on race.

In a show of profound unity and forgiveness, Charleston residents responded not with the lowest common denominator of social-media commentary or violent anger, but with promise.

More than 15,000 of them, of every size and color, put Southern solidarity into perspective by gathering on both sides of the city’s Ravenel Bridge. They met in the middle; they wept, smiled, laughed, hugged, turned strangers into friends. Homemade signs with messages of outreach, love and solidarity flapped in the wind, as prayers and hymns filled the air.

There wasn’t a major network or cable news channel, only local TV crews, rolling cameras to record America doing what it does best — opening its heart; the networks always seem to be on hand for looting or rioting. Yet, for the most part, Charleston’s participants didn’t care about being largely ignored, because that moment on the bridge was about them, about their community and, above all, about how to lead.

Their response, their unity, showed leadership. The president, dropping the “N-word” to an entertainment podcast, reeked of showmanship and his signature divisiveness.

What will linger in most minds, long after the history books are closed, is how a community impacted by the deaths of nine innocent people reacted — not a politician.

Proud South Carolinian Chip Felkel said everyone knew it was time to turn the page.

“To suggest the flag on the grounds of the statehouse is only about heritage is to ignore the misuse and misappropriation of that symbol by those who do so in hate,” he said.

“It was placed on the dome in direct defiance to the civil-rights movement, not as a memorial. It’s been hijacked. It’s been misused. And its connection to those who have misused it is inextricable. Its removal is not a solution to all that needs to be addressed, but it is a much needed step.”

To suggest that those it offends should just accept its presence is, at a minimum, naive.

More than scant evidence suggests a majority of Americans would have been on that bridge — not braying like a jackass on social media — if such a tragedy happened in their hometowns. You can tell that from the pattern of most people’s routine behavior, and how they interact in their communities or those they visit.

Five women from St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Somerville, N.J., arrived in this small town late last week on a church retreat; as they explored the crossroads village, we shared an Amish donut, their first dive into that doughy delight. Their reaction was priceless.

Days later, an email that followed from that chance encounter, outside Kauffman’s Farm on Old Philadelphia Pike, was filled with thankfulness and blessings — an honest, common reflection of how Americans really conduct their daily lives, but one that the elites fail to absorb.

Our capacity not just to forgive, but to correct, always has been the core of who Americans are as a whole. We are not perfect; in fact, we are very flawed. But it is the leadership of our communities, not the professional political class, which shows that Americans are much more a repository of hope than the elites will ever understand.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media ([email protected]).

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