Dr. Mallory K. Millender had almost finished his speech, a historical overview of consolidation, when I arrived at the Augusta Baptist Ministers Conference's town hall meeting at Antioch Baptist Church last week. Millender is one of the plaintiffs suing the city, the mayor, City Administrator Fred Russell and six white Augusta commissioners who voted to approve the city's revised policies and procedures manual. The plaintiffs contend it's an illegal attempt to change the city charter.
I sidled along the wall, searching for someone to move over until a man directed me to an empty front pew, when Millender said, "My friend Sylvia Cooper has arrived," as if that was necessary because I was still standing in the front pew. He said he'd asked earlier whether I was there because he talked about an error I'd made in City Ink two weeks ago, which he then repeated for my benefit.
I'd written that the ministers had failed when they tried to stop consolidation 20 years ago, which was not true. They prevailed in their lawsuit in 1989 when the U.S. Department of Justice overturned a consolidation plan approved by voters in 1988. That happened before I moved to Augusta and started writing about a proposed new consolidation plan, the one voters approved in 1995. During that time, the Rev. K.B. Martin and the ministers conference were part of the ongoing debate.
After Tuesday's meeting, I spoke to Millender and Martin about the matter, and Millender said they had approved the 1995 plan. Martin, however, just smiled and said some of the local politicians had sold them out.
Anyway, I was wrong. I did not do my homework and sincerely apologize to the good reverends, who I'm sure will forgive me because, after all, they are in the forgiveness business.
A SIGN OF DISRESPECT: Now, I can go on to what else was said at the meeting and what the folks being sued had to say about it. I'll have to hit the high spots, though, because it lasted more than two hours with the speeches, questions and comments, singing, praying and collection to help with legal expenses.
The overall message I heard was, "Wake up, or the white people will screw you over."
The Rev. Melvin Ivey said the government never intended to put Georgia Supreme Court Justice John Ruffin Jr. 's name on the new judicial building. He said he found it "somewhat offensive" and "somewhat disrespectful" that -- considering all that Ruffin has done for the community -- the four white commissioners present during the voting had voted no on naming the building in his honor.
"So I'm not going to believe you're going to put Judge Ruffin's name up on that building until I see it with my own eyes," he said.
The contributions Augusta's black citizens have made to the city have not been respected, he said.
He also asked whether anybody was at the table when it was decided that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas would dedicate the building. Ivey said he respected Thomas' position but was sure Ruffin would disapprove of his philosophy and ideology.
THE FIGHT GOES ON. AND IF IT DIDN'T, WHAT WOULD ITS LEADERS DO? Dr. James E. Carter , who worked at the Medical College of Georgia for 28 years, spoke on closing Laney-Walker Boulevard, a move proposed by President Ricardo Azziz .
"The new president up there says, 'We want to beautify the campus, and we want to recruit because an attractive campus brings in more students.' One of the greatest lies ever told. What attracts students is, number one, the programs you offer. Number two, the accreditation of your school. Number three, the aid you can give me for coming. I used to recruit. I know. I had good students who wanted to come, but they wouldn't give them anything. So they went somewhere else.
"A promenade down the middle of the street so that folks can sit and contemplate, and they can look at the birds and the trees. They can listen to the trickle of water in the fountain. They can meditate. First of all, if you're a medical student, you ain't got time to sit down in a park. If you're a researcher or faculty member, you're in that lab, or you're home reading and researching. If you're an administrator, you're out west side and out in Columbia County.
''You can't (leave) fast enough to get in your Cadillac to go home. So who's going to be sitting out there?
"Not us, because if you walk up there now, if you're black, you're automatically suspect. They're going to make you show an ID and identify your reason for being on that campus. ... Just remember, 'Don't go to sleep. The fight goes on.' "
LOOK WHAT THEY'RE COMING AFTER NEXT: Carter also said that before he retired from the medical college there was a plan to expand across the railroad track on R.A. Dent Boulevard.
"Now if you're looking down on it -- if you look at Dent Boulevard, Augusta Avenue and Wrightsboro Road -- that's a perfect triangle. Perfect triangle. That's next. So when you hear about it, don't be surprised. ... But if we stand up for it, do what we need to do, then perhaps we can save the integrity of this neighborhood. But, if you don't stop it, they'll get it. ... You sit back and relax. God have mercy. They'll take your soul."
WE'LL KEEP ON KEEPING ON: Barbara Gordon , the publisher of The Metro Courier and the plaintiff in the lawsuit, said if the Augusta court rules against them, they'll appeal it, and if that fails, they'll go all the way to the Supreme Court. She also called on black people to pack Augusta Commission chambers in coming meetings and said they'll mobilize for next year's election to defeat elected officials who have insulted them.
During the questions and comments section, a man asked whether Augusta's black leaders, commissioners and legislators are in agreement with everything that was said.
"Absolutely," Gordon said, adding that they were not present because the lawsuit has been filed, and they didn't want to do anything to jeopardize the suit.
AND WHAT DO THE DEFENDANTS HAVE TO SAY ABOUT THE TOWN HALL RHETORIC? Mayor Deke Copenhaver : "They're losing it. That's just not pervasive anymore. I'm just not going to worry about it. I'm trying to focus on Augusta's future, and not its past."
Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles : "All they want to do is divide this community, and I'm sick of it. I'm sick of the race baiting. Why don't they give us a solution to get out of this $9 million deficit? Why don't they come up with a solution for that? We've got a 10 percent unemployment rate, and all people want to do is raise taxes and run off any businesses looking to come here.
"K.B. Martin is the same person who said a white person can't represent District 1. They're violating their tax-exempt status and doing shakedowns. All it is is hatred for the white race by that group."
Commissioner Grady Smith : "I'm very disappointed in the black ministers of Augusta not staying in the pulpit and helping with their community and the problems we have with murder and drugs and child abuse instead of focusing on city government.
"Where is their tax status going to be? I say they don't deserve a tax-free status if they're going to do political business in the church. And if they're going to raise money, why wouldn't it be to help the people in their community where children are taking food at lunch to save, so they'll have something to eat at home?"
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle : "They're misinformed."
Commissioner Jerry Brigham : "They're trying to read something into it (personnel manual) that's not there."
Reach Sylvia Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org.