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St. Petersburg City Council chairman sees need for forum on race issues

ST. PETERSBURG — Two white police officers are shot by a black man who dies in the standoff. A few cry racism.

A middle school with a majority of black students makes news for unruly behavior, and observers vilify an entire community.

A handful of white neighborhood leaders talk about black people in a trail of insensitive e-mails, and there's anger and embarrassment on both sides.

In a climate of resegregating schools, joblessness and discourse that's less than civil, St. Petersburg City Council chairman Jim Kennedy is proposing a forum for open discussion about race. His proposal calls for discussion "to establish an independent citizens group with the primary purpose of promoting open dialogue on all race-related issues.''

Council member Wengay Newton isn't sure such action is necessary. "This is January 2011. My question is, what is it going to do? Why is it needed? Why do we need it now?'' asked Newton, who is black.

"If it is to address a need or concern, I'm cool.''

Others need no convincing.

"It would help address some of the issues of race that have resurfaced both nationally and locally,'' said the Rev. Manuel Sykes, the St. Petersburg NAACP branch president who mentioned the racially charged e-mails written recently by some leaders of the Council of Neighborhood Associations.

But alarm over the CONA e-mails "really wasn't an impetus'' for his proposal, said Kennedy, who is white.

"I had been contemplating this and discussing this with other people well before that,'' he said.

"The events of CONA may have reinforced that that void exists. When that event occurred, people appeared to go into corners. Hopefully, we can have open and frank conversation about concerns and differences and it would lead to more appreciation and understanding of more viewpoints.''

Supporters of Kennedy's proposal say there's always need to talk, and not necessarily because problems exist. But when trouble surfaces, the groundwork is already laid.

"I think it's worth talking about,'' council member Karl Nurse, who is white, said of Kennedy's idea. "I think that things come up on a regular enough basis that having something in place would make sense.''

The idea is getting an enthusiastic reception from former members of the now-defunct Community Alliance, a biracial organization once described by the St. Petersburg Times as the city's "collective conscience on racial issues.''

"Any group that's going to have true communication will always be relevant,'' said Lou Brown, a Realtor and a former Community Alliance co-chair, who is black. "Even though times have changed, some things remain the same."

"There's still some need to talk,'' added former Pinellas County School Board member Mary Brown, who is black. "There's the whole thing about the Hispanics coming in without papers, Muslims. I think there is still the black-white issue. I think it's getting people together to understand that working together is the better way."

Kennedy, a former member of Community Alliance and a chairman of its education committee, said he's not trying to re-create the old group. It was, though, "a very good arena for discussion'' and "a sounding board during times of strife.''

The alliance got its start in 1968, in the wake of a historic strike by black sanitation workers for better pay and working conditions. For more than three decades after the bitter strike, black and white leaders convened regularly to address problems. They rode buses during the hate-filled early days of school desegregation, walked the halls of Dixie Hollins High School during racial unrest and played a role in firing controversial police Chief Ernest Curtsinger. In 1996, though, the group was criticized for its initial silence after the riots that followed the shooting death of a black man by a white police officer. The group, funded by the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce for most of its history, quietly faded after the chamber pulled its financial support.

Watson Haynes, a former co-chair, who is black, believes the group's demise left a void. "Sometimes we tend to look at who the president is and we look at people in our own arenas and we feel that there are no issues as related to race — and there are. It's not over when you look at the recent conversations about Lakewood Estates,'' he said, referring to the CONA e-mails.

"The Alliance served a greater purpose than on its face would appear,'' said lawyer Joe Lang, another former co-chair of the Alliance.

"The beauty of the Alliance from my perspective was that early on, you started talking about issues that had racial connotations. There was a lot of spirited discussion,'' said Lang, who is white.

The makeup of the new citizens group is generating interest.

"I want this to be focusing on race relations,'' Kennedy said, citing what he referred to as the city's history with race. "My initial reaction is, I don't want to dilute this to something that is going to try to be everything for all sections. I think it might be unwieldy.''

Nurse, who also served on Community Alliance, said a new group should represent present-day St. Petersburg. "Today, you would want it to be black and white and brown and yellow,'' he said.

Sykes said members should not be handpicked by city government and should include those who have lost children to violence and representatives from nonprofit organizations that work with children and families. "You want to hear from the single mother, people who have real testimonies of having endured certain issues,'' he said.

Haynes believes any new group should include leaders from corporations and educational institutions, as well as representatives from the NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Urban League. "It can't be people who have no power, who can't do anything,'' he said.

Kennedy wants the council to be instrumental in launching the group, but wants it to be independent. He envisions the group addressing issues such as education, employment and negative perceptions about law enforcement. "There is an opportunity to discuss why that impression exists and what needs to be done to combat that,'' he said. "I think the way you improve those situations is by open and frank discussion.''

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

St. Petersburg City Council chairman sees need for forum on race issues 01/29/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 29, 2011 3:30am]
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