From her office on Leighton Avenue, the Rev. Laura Hutchinson can gaze out the window and figuratively see most of Anniston. The stately homes of Glenwood Terrace are a stone’s throw away. Noble Street and Anniston High School sit nearby. So, too, does West 15th Street, the entranceway to the city’s historic black neighborhoods.
She loves the city, its people, its possibilities.
She sees what most of us see — a city burdened by political grandstanding and score-settling that’s brewing racial divisions and retarding Anniston’s future.
She wants to help.
That’s what pastors do. They seek solutions and offer solace, to one and all. The day this week I visited her at Anniston’s First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), she was counseling a homeless man who had knocked on her door.
One and all, indeed.
“I’m the kind of person who likes to provide opportunities for positive change,” Hutchinson said. “And if I have something to offer, I’ll step up and do it.”
Hutchinson is the brainchild behind a Nov. 3 private seminar — “Understanding Racism” — that she says Anniston Mayor Jack Draper and City Council members Ben Little, Jay Jenkins, Millie Harris and David Reddick have agreed to attend. She’s trying to secure commitments from other city employees, particularly heads of the various city departments.
As a member of the Anti-Racism Team of the Christian Church of Alabama and Northwest Florida, Hutchinson believes frank, open dialogue about racism and its effects is missing on Gurnee Avenue. She could be right. The chaotic opening months of this City Council’s term caused Hutchinson to contact her colleagues on that anti-racism group and offer their guidance.
When they convene in two weeks, Anniston officials will be guided by a diverse group of clergy — two black, two white — who specialize in fomenting communication and understanding between people who, for whatever reason, are the human equivalent of oil and water.
Hutchinson is quick to point out a few things: The get-together won’t include proselytizing or politics, it’s open only to invited city employees and officials, and it’s not a magic cure. “One seminar in Anniston is not going to end the pain of disenfranchisement or segregation,” she says.
It’s also not centered solely on improving the tattered relationships between the black and white members of Anniston’s council, which surprises me. “This is a beginning,” she said, a move toward rebuilding trust between the city and its elected body. “It’s less about them getting along than it is taking action and steps toward understanding their constituents and their wards.”
What’s more, “We’re not singling anybody out. We’re not targeting anybody.”
She’s wise to say that, of course, since Anniston politics in the Second Era of Ben Little often bog down with finger-pointing, name-calling and worse. Little’s baseless, quasi-legal crusade against Harris and Jenkins has endangered the council’s effectiveness and threatens to drown Anniston with a recurrence of the Grand Inquisition. In Little’s view, all city matters boil down to racial inequality and the actions of Anniston’s white council members. Exceptions are rare.
I’m not sure what would please Little the most: Anniston becoming an irreparably damaged place that he could lord over from the council dais, or Harris and Jenkins being forcibly removed from the council as affirmation of his unproven complaints.
If you were at this week’s council gathering, or if you read The Star’s coverage, you heard Anniston resident Larry Thomas tell the councilors: “Every disagreement is not a black and white issue ... it’s going to take everyone sitting here to come together as one and make this thing work. We look at you as leaders, to make the right decisions, not to divide us ... People are watching.” That’s powerful stuff. And Thomas, by the way, is black.
Hutchinson’s goal isn’t to sand down the worst edges of the councilors’ antipathy. Instead, it’s something much more noble — to offer those representing the city a better understanding of systemic racism, subtle racism and other racial attitudes that still exist, often in our own selves. She calls it a first baby step. I call it a lesson in enlightenment that has merit. On paper, at least.
But what happens if the seminar mimics the decorum of council meetings? Or if council members stay home? “If they choose not to show up,” Hutchinson said, “all that tells the community is that they don’t care about helping make this better.”
She doesn’t think that will happen, by the way. She’s optimistic. On that, her answer never wavered. She has hope.
“I feel like we have people on the City Council who care an awful lot about the city, but they have spiraled into a situation where everyone is defensive and finger-pointing,” Hutchinson said. “I don’t think anyone there is a bad person, I just think they’re not speaking the same language.”
Remember, she loves the city, its people, its possibilities. In time, she may prove to be one of its saviors.