DeKalb County’s population is now majority/minority. DeKalb’s county commission, school board, office of sheriff, county clerk and tax commissioner are all either held by African-Americans or are majority black. A school district of more 100,000-plus students has more than 75,000 of African-American or mixed racial descent. And although in the day-to-day world, in many ways our race relations are better than any other major city in this nation, in many respects every conflict or dispute at hand of a political nature comes down to some aspect on the finer points of trust and race relations.
DeKalb County’s elected CEO, Michael Thurmond — one year into this job, and a lifelong public servant — has had successful tenures as superintendent of schools, labor commissioner and director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services as the state converted its welfare program to a work-based training program.
Born a sharecropper’s son, and elected in 1986 as the first African-American state representative for Athens and Clarke County, Thurmond is accustomed to building bridges, relationships and connecting people of like minds and thinking. Thurmond has long understood that black or white, all our citizens want safe neighborhoods and quality public schools and effective and efficient government, and with DeKalb County having once been a bastion for all of that, he is on track to move the county back to where it belongs. But that may be about as easy as that walk up Stone Mountain, or finding uniformity of opinion on what to do about that carving.
But Thurmond is also a historian, he believes we learn in part from where we have been, and we can move forward, with incremental steps, if we share and build trust, if we review even the more painful facts of our past to understand where our brothers and sisters are coming from, there may not be uniformity of opinion, but there will be better understanding.
Thurmond, who lives in the shadow of Stone Mountain Park, also believes in the importance of smaller symbols and structures. On the backside of Stone Mountain Park, across Stone Mountain Lake is Indian Island, accessed by crossing a historic covered bridge, first relocated to the park in 1965.
That covered bridge once crossed the Oconee River in Athens, designed and built in 1893 by W.W. King, an engineer and part of a well-established family of African-American bridge builders and contractors. King was a freed slave.
In Athens, the bridge had a colorful history of its own, connecting the south-side of College Avenue on the far side of downtown to Hobson Street. It was across that bridge that many a young University of Georgia student went to visit Miss Effie’s, a famed house of ill repute. Thurmond did not attend UGA, but he is a historian and author of three books. The bridge’s story is just another interesting chapter in the story of Stone Mountain. Thurmond also understands that it is often times of crisis and conflict which drive people of disparate interests and background together. Does 9/11 ring a bell? But DeKalb’s CEO is hoping instead that he can better convince the 700,000 residents of the county that working and building things together is in their mutual best interests, especially during good times.
Stone Mountain Park has become by some taken for granite (pun intended), but that park, the W.W. King bridge, the historic square, Cross-Roads Village, mountain walk-up, et cetera, have become so much more than just the carving or its Confederate history. Just as Rock Mountain the burial and holy ground became a granite quarry and later a memorial — the rock is evolving.
Thurmond, also recently appointed as the sole African-American member of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, the state agency which oversees the park, wants the park to be one of many bridges which bring DeKalb in all of its diversity together, whether on the lawn for a laser show, or having an old style family reunion and picnic. As folks get to know one another, labels and demographic identities begin to fade into the face of friends, co-workers and neighbors. But it does take effort, and letting go of more than a few chips on each shoulder. Get a piece of the rock, sit a spell and get to know someone that you already don’t. What have you got to lose? Or perhaps more importantly, what kind of world do we leave our children, on this 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. if we don’t at least try?
Bill Crane is a senior communications strategist who began his career in broadcasting and has worked at the state capitol and in Washington in both political parties. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.