Kneeling during the Pledge of Allegiance and rallying to rename the John C. Calhoun Expressway, Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy may appear to many as a radical figure in Augusta politics, but he said it’s nothing new for him.
“The spirit has always been there,” said Fennoy, 69. “When I was 14 years old I went to jail in Spartanburg, S.C., because I refused to sit in the balcony of the movie theater.”
It would not be the last time as Fennoy soon found himself a Paine College student during the 1970s Augusta riots, and at one point was jailed at the Augusta Stockade.
“A lot of people felt that the people that were supporting civil disobedience were students at Paine College,” Fennoy said. “I went to jail several times.”
The “injustice” that Fennoy said motivates him to kneel during the pledge showed itself in the shooting deaths of six blacks in Augusta during the riots in 1970, he said.
“You had six blacks that were shot in the back and no charges were ever brought against anybody,” he said.
Fennoy said as he got older he opted to “pick and choose my battles,” but remained active. He began kneeling and bowing his head during the Pledge of Allegiance at commission meetings last year.
Fennoy said he was inspired by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and fellow pro football players who kneel during the national anthem as a protest against social and racial injustice.
“It’s sad that we can have documentation, have videos of African Americans getting shot and when it goes to court we cannot get an indictment; when it does get an indictment, we can’t get a conviction,” Fennoy said.
Fennoy, who is in his second term as District 1 commissioner and can’t seek reelection, said he’ll kneel “as long as my knees will hold up,” and hasn’t been threatened in any way for his recent actions.
His wife, retired Centers for Disease Control budget analyst Leisha Ware Fennoy, supports him but doesn’t kneel, Fennoy said.
“She stands for the pledge. My son stands for the pledge; the national anthem.”
Though he grew up not far from Calhoun’s plantation at Clemson, S.C., Fennoy said he never knew about Calhoun’s role in history as a prominent defender of slavery. He said he learned about Calhoun when he visited the International African American Museum in Charleston during his honeymoon in 2016.
Fennoy made a first push to change the name given to the east-west arterial in 1966 last year. After a few weeks of commission debate, he found very limited support for the measure and withdrew it.
Two weeks ago, he moved to rename the road the “Trump-Calhoun Expressway,” a facetious push he said that highlights the similarities between the president and Calhoun. A commission committee tied on a substitute motion to name the road “Veterans Highway” and the matter goes before the full commission Tuesday.
“We have cyber coming to Augusta and I would expect a lot of people, a lot of businesses would want to relocate or open up a business in Augusta,” Fennoy said. “The question I would ask if this is my first time in Augusta, what type of city is this that honors a person that said slavery is the best thing that ever happened to black people and that the white superior race did an excellent job working with the black inferior race?”
Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis has been mum during both efforts. Commissioners Sean Frantom and Grady Smith voted no last week, and Mayor Pro Tem Mary Davis said she’s unlikely to support a name change Tuesday.
“I really don’t expect any success from my colleagues, but I think we’re doing the city of Augusta an injustice by keeping the Calhoun name on the expressway,” Fennoy said.
Most commissioners did not even want to comment on the issue.
“I agree with Commissioner Fennoy. This is not what Augusta is today and we don’t think that way,” said Commissioner Dennis Williams.
Still, “it’s one of those situations where you’re going to end up in the doghouse no matter which way you go,” Williams said.
Other governments, such as Savannah, that are taking steps to remove names such as Eugene Talmadge, a staunch segregationist, from public property, are perhaps “braver” than Augusta, Williams said.
“The thinking of those individuals may be a little more progressive than Augusta,” he said.