By Tia Lynn Ivey
We are here to be a light in the darkness,” said Crystal Ross, one of the organizers of last week’s Unity Vigil held outside of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Madison.
About 60 community members gathered outside of the church to address racism in Morgan County, prompted by the recent racist messages exchanged between Morgan County High School students in a private social media chat group that went viral two weeks ago.
“We know what has happened and we are on it, but we want to go forward with light,” said Ross. “For so long, we have fought to be treated equally and we are still not there. But God has put it together and put it on people’s hearts to do this work, to change the narrative in Morgan County.”
Speakers took the stage throughout the vigil to encourage the crowd with prayer, scripture reading, and personal experiences with racism throughout their lives.
Evangelist Deborah Massey preached and prayed from the church steps during the vigil.
“When you get up in the morning and when you get dressed, I want you to look in the mirror. I don’t want you to see black, white, Asian, or Latino. I want you to see a child of the King. Don’t let nobody tell you what you can’t do,” said Massey. “Even with what happened last week, don’t let that distract you from who you are. You hold your head up high and do not give up.”
Pastor Derrick Worrell of First St. Paul Baptist Church, told the crowd to be a force of change and goodness in the face of hate and ignorance.
“You were born for this time to make a difference in your community, to make a difference in your school, to make a difference in this world,” said Worrell. “Be yourself and be who God called you to be. We pray for Morgan County. We are One Morgan, so let us be One Morgan by showing love and showing unity.”
Shontell White, a mental health worker and one of the vigil organizers, called for calm but persistence in the face of racist double standards.
“It’s your right to have feelings and I know some of you here tonight are angry,” said White. “But let the justice system do what it is doing. Let the parents do what they are doing. Thank you for remaining calm and not making this situation worse. I promise you, I will not rest, and the parents will not rest, until we are all held to the same standards.”
Jamisha Allen, one of the organizers, told the crowd to live in kindness, even in the face of pursuing justice over racism.
“We have to treat others as we would want to be treated. That’s the real principle,” said Allen. “There’s not a lot of us here, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a huge impact on the world just with a little bit of human kindness.”
Alex Williams, junior class president at MCHS, shared his own personal experience of racism at the high school when in ninth grade, another student called him the N-word.
“I want to talk to you about how racism has changed my life,” said Williams, who said he did not allow racism to make him bitter, but to make him better. “I was mad, but I wasn’t bitter. It didn’t make me hate white people.”
Williams has become active in working against racism, even leading a youth march last summer in Madison to protest the killings of unarmed people of color by police.
Elizabeth Adkins, a MCHS senior, shared her experience as an Asian-American growing up in Morgan County schools, being bullied and made fun of for her ethnic roots, even being called racial slurs by other students.
“I realized the kids were laughing at me and not laughing with me,” said Elizabeth Adkins.
Angelina Bellebuono challenged the predominantly white churches to take the lead in tackling racist attitudes in their pews and in the community.
“This should be happening on the steps of the white churches and it isn’t,” said Bellebuono, who argued that white people need to be more proactive in addressing racism. “I am a white person, and white people need to do this work.”
Bellebuono said she has seen firsthand the racial divide in Morgan County school as a teacher. “It broke my heart,” said Bellebuono.
Two Morgan County High School guidance counselors spoke to the youth in the crowd, encouraging them to channel their anger in an appropriate matter.
“It’s a confusing time for our youth at school,” said Nicole Outroum, a MCHS guidance counselor. “It’s hard to focus on school if you are confused. Don’t be afraid to reach out to us. Anger is a feeling and an emotion that is healthy, but you have to channel it the right way. Come to us if you need to vent. We are here for you.”
“We need kindness and empathy right now,” said Sarah Robertson, another MCHS guidance counselor. “That’s the key. If you broaden your circle and get to know other people who look different from you, you will find that empathy and love.”
Pastor Doug Adkins, of Madison Baptist Church, also addressed the crowd and said the best way to enhance racial unity is to forge deep relationships between all races.
“We can’t be united if we don’t know each other,” said Adkins, who has worked in various ministries to bring together youth of all races in an effort to combat stereotypes and racism. “We have to get to know each other, listen to each other and learn about each other. If we don’t do that, then we are just playing church.”
The vigil ended in prayer and a promise to continue working toward racial harmony in Morgan County, as well as working towards creating fair and just standards of conduct in the school system and under the law that are applied to all people equally.