Four months ago, Ahmaud Arbery was murdered here in Brunswick, Georgia. That event lit a fuse that burned through Louisville and New York to Minneapolis, there to ignite an international movement focused on racial justice. Millions have marched and some have resigned; policies have changed, and legislation has been introduced; coalitions have emerged, and a new resolve courses through much of the citizenry.
While our attention has been drawn to this wider drama, much of importance has happened right here in Brunswick.
After 74 days of inaction by local authorities, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation seized control of the situation. It took them 36 hours to arrest two of the perpetrators and a few weeks more to arrest the third. This past week, a grand jury indicted the three on multiple murder-related charges.
During this period, the entire community organized in ways unseen in recent years. Marches, rallies, and protests have become commonplace, led by an invigorated ministerial alliance. Reverend David Yarborough, pastor of the largest church in the county (a white Evangelical congregation with multiple sites) took the floor at an early meeting and declared, “This is about all of us.”
Their persistence focused initially on the passage of a state hate crime law. Georgia was one of only four states in the Union not to have such a statute on the books. That changed on June 19, when Governor Brian Kemp signed such a bill into law.
The state legislature also passed three laws that allow us as a county to vote on the future of our police force. The department has a checkered history, one that had the current police chief on administrative leave at the time of the Ahmaud Arbery murder, due to pending charges of corruption.
“There have been issues with the department through the years in our county,” Georgia State Senator William Ligon said recently, explaining his crusade to authorize the referendum. If successful in November, the vote would empower us to join the majority of Georgia counties in operating under one law enforcement agency—the sheriff—rather than two.
June 9 was primary day in Georgia;18,790 ballots were cast by Glynn County residents, at least 30% higher than normal voting rates. Hotly contested were four of the seven county commissioner seats (the other three are scheduled for a vote in two years). Of those four, one incumbent did not run for re-election, two were defeated, and one—the only black commissioner—ran unopposed. This significant turnover reflects, in part, a discontent in the way the commissioners have handled matters of public safety and justice.
Then there is the statue.
A few blocks from the old town center lies the spacious Hanover square. It was laid out by city founder and first Georgia governor General James Oglethorpe, in 1771. At one time it housed the stock yards, the courthouse, and the jail. In 1902, 37 years after the surrender at Appomattox, the 20-foot white stone monument was unveiled. A marble statue of a Confederate soldier adorned the top, his head slightly bowed, “not in defeat or disgrace but in dignified reflection”, the dedicatory program read.
That “dignity” is now being challenged, not only here in Glynn County, but in places public and private all over the country. Our current city commissioners, led by the mayor Harvey Cornell, have promised to appoint a committee of citizens to advise them of what to do with the statue.
Somebody already sent their recommendation, in the form of black paint and the words, “Black Lives Matter”. Mayor Cornell, himself a black man in year seven of his second four-year term, rebuked the defacement, cleaned the monument, and promised a fine to anyone who further defaces it.
That is the only episode of vandalism in our now four-month journey toward social justice and racial solidarity here in the southern county where, on February 23rd, a racially-charged murder served to trigger the largest national protest movement in fifty years.
We have made good progress on these things, but other significant matters—like education, employment, poverty, and health care—await our attention. We have a long road ahead, and that reminds me of the chorus to that wonderful spiritual:
“Walk together children, don’t you get weary, there’s a great camp meeting in the promised land.”