If the City Council Chambers walls could talk, I don’t know what they’d say. But I realized, Monday during Sandy Springs' ninth annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration, that I have had some memorable experiences in that space.
And they often relate to diversity.
During her keynote address for Monday’s event, former WSB-TV News anchor Monica Pearson twice noted, humorously, “I’m not gonna talk about this room.”
It seemed she was referring to a lack of diversity of the crowd, which was mostly African American. [On the other hand, the Spalding Drive Charter Elementary Choir represented a rich mix of students from varied cultures, during their performance.]
As the program continued, Pearson and others talked about Dr. King’s legacy – getting to know your neighbor, being a voice for change, and understanding that we are more alike than we are different. I started to think about the room. City Council Chambers.
Something different can be going on there on any given day.
My first experience in the room was in 2009. I was there on a summons for Municipal Court. I had a traffic ticket for running a red light on the Northridge Road exit of Ga. 400.
While I waited my turn with the judge, I heard all sorts of cases. The most memorable were the DUIs; inmates escorted in from the Doraville jail wearing orange jumpsuits; and some non-English speaking folks who needed interpreters to appear before the judge.
That was a diverse room. The most diverse I’ve seen.
Five months later, I was in Council Chambers again, as Sandy Springs Patch editor, trying to get acclimated to the business of the city.
By January 2011, Sandy Springs City Council was contemplating a local Gwinnett Tech campus. The City Council meeting was a standing room crowd and it was palpable. Then-Mayor Eva Galambos wanted the campus and many city residents did not.
To be honest, there was a sentiment that some folks did not want a Gwinnett Tech campus in Sandy Springs because that could draw students, likely black students, that would spell trouble, such as crime.
During the meeting, a person behind me uttered the word, “lynching.” When I left the meeting, at the four-hour mark, I sat in my car, sighing and repeating out loud, “Wow…wow.” I was emotionally drained, as I’m sure folks on all sides of the issue were.
In a split vote, City Council approved a local campus of Gwinnett Tech, but it was for not, because ultimately Alpharetta was chosen for the new site.
In 2011, Sandy Springs and the country was rebounding from the collapse of the economy. The more I covered Sandy Springs, the more I came to believe that race was not as much a factor with people, as the fear of losing what they had.
In my unprofessional opinion on these things, I think, perhaps, when we become really fearful of someone impacting our way of life in a negative way, it can be common to fall into stereotypes.
The years have passed and countless agenda items have come across City Council during meetings in the Chambers, and it has always struck me how few people of color attend the meetings. In fact, unless it’s a hot topic affecting a particular neighborhood, few people overall attend.
The Chambers filled last spring and summer during Planning Commission and City Council meetings on the 21-acre gateway development planned at Roswell Road and Windsor Parkway. Concerned neighbors had a lot to say about how the project could impact their property and streets.
Ironically, to me, there was no one there, to represent the residents of Chastain and Versailles apartments, who are mostly Hispanic, and will be displaced by the project.
After City Council approved the project, I visited the apartment complexes to get reaction from the residents and learned that they were not aware of the plans. I also realized that I could have visited them before the vote and reported on the issue more feverishly; then perhaps residents would have attended a meeting that so obviously affected them.
Martin Luther King Day 2014, was yet another experience. Monica Pearson said, “I’m not gonna talk about this room,” Mayor Rusty Paul addressed race head on.
He told the crowd how he witnessed the Civil Rights Movement growing up in Birmingham, Ala. “I was very close to my grandmother and she never drove a day in her life,” said Paul. She always took the bus. “And I’m of an age where I can remember people getting up to let us sit down.”
Paul said, racial tensions are not an abstract concept for him.
“So when you talk about civil rights. It’s not an extraction with me. I knew those places. I touched those places. I breathed the bus fumes of the Birmingham bus station," he continued. "I knew that the police department was across the street when John Lewis was getting his head beaten in; that the police were only about 40 or 50 steps away and could have intervened at any time…I want to let you know that's [civil rights] an important part of who I am and what has motivated me in my life, to do what I do today."
By the end of the program everyone in the room was holding hands with locked arms, swaying side to side, singing "We Shall Overcome," a sacred song in the black community.
Perhaps if those walls could talk, they would say that the room shows that Sandy Springs is not one thing. It's many things that reflect many different types of people. Diversity.