A “Teachable Moment ?” The “Burn … Edna…” Incident ANOTHER CALL FOR ACTION

Shirley James
Shirley James

Here it is, three years later, and I am once again compelled to speak out. In August 2012, I was appalled about a billboard posted by a local Savannah businessman which I thought was insulting, disrespectful, disdaining and denigrating to the President of the United States, President Barack Obama, the leader of our country and its highest elected official. Now in October of 2015, we have another incident in Savannah, GA, which I also think is an example of insult, disrespect, disdain and denigration. This time it is directed to the leader and highest elected official of the City of Savannah, Mayor Edna B. Jackson, who is also a candidate for re-election to the office. The scenario is somewhat different. Young people – high school students who happen to be Caucasian and attend one of the Savannah Chatham County Public Schools (SCContinued CPS) – are the perpetrators. However, in both cases, the leaders and high level elected officials happen to be African Americans.

As I reflect on this most recent incident, it causes me to wonder if there is a thread of connection between 2012 and 2015 based upon an ideology that uprooted itself and resurfaced immediately after the 2008 Presidential election – an ideology that has been rapidly growing in this country and has a voice among a few, but outspoken persons, including national figures.

I went back to the introductory paragraph to my editorial, published in The Savannah Tribune, on August 21, 2012, where I wrote, “We, at The Savannah Tribune, have made concerted efforts to print positive news, and to conduct ourselves with some sense of integrity. The decision to print the photo of this … billboard in the newspaper was not an easy one, but I think it is of importance in this case because it can serve as a teachable moment for our community as a whole, and especially for our youth.” Let me re-emphasize my 2012 statement, “…but I think it is of importance in this case because it can serve as a teachable moment for our community as a whole, and ESPECIALLY FOR OUR YOUTH.” So, I ask, what was the teachable moment in 2012? What has actually been “learned” since 2012, if in 2015, a group of Caucasian high school students, professing “freedom of speech,” acted on behalf of the “Cult” to defame an African American elected official and proudly posted the incident through social media? In my opinion, they acted irresponsibly, and I believe their actions were based upon some misguided information about Mayor Jackson.

I just have a few questions and concerns that I am asking us, as a community, to consider. Maybe you can help shed some light and give the answers, or suggest some solutions. For starters, if the faces and hands were a different hue – that is, if the young people were African American SCCPS students, who had insulted, disrespected, shown disdain, and denigrated a Caucasian elected official or candidate in the same manner as the “Greetings from the Cult – r i p to Edna Jackson ….Sacrificing….. Burn in H_ _ _.Edna” incident (Chants and Twitter postings included), would there be the same “forgiving” and “Oh, these are the-antics –of- misguided youth” feelings and comments that have been expressed in the past week; or instead, would there have been an outcry and a call for swift, public reprimand and / or punishment (Suspension? Incarceration?) along with demand for a statement and plan of action from the SCCPS Superintendent, Board members, principal, teachers or local law enforcement? Are there current inquiries or an investigation about the “Cult” to see if it is an established organization that has functioned over a period of time with a following, or is the “Cult” a term used by the students as a happenstance to add excitement and bring attention to the incident? Does exercising “freedom of speech” on property other than school grounds release SCCPS students from consequences or the expectation to exhibit responsible and considerate behavior that should reflect the values, morals, and critical thinking skills being taught in our school system? Are our young people processing what is being taught about freedom, government, the democratic process, and civil methods of protest?

What are some expectations that we, as taxpayers who support our public schools, have of our students? If we muffle our voices, or just give a “tapof the-hand,” are we setting a precedent and relinquishing our ability and responsibility to influence, teach and guide our youth? Just a word of caution to all of us. Let’s be careful and not box ourselves into a corner when it comes to handling situations such as this in the future that involve our youth. Hopefully it will not happen again. However, in the event it does, or something similar, and all in the name of “freedom of speech,” let’s make sure that the same equal justice, as in this case, will be applied, regardless of the race of the perpetrator( s) or the victim(s). Are we, as adults, at fault for not demonstrating to our youth through our examples, that with “freedom of speech” comes responsibility; that “freedom of speech” entails mutually respectful behavior and discourse where conducting oneself and voicing disagreement through the exercise of civility and without defamation of character and acts of hate; and most importantly, that “freedom of speech” includes a measure of self-respect, dignity, accountability and respect of persons, including those in positions of authority?

My last questions relate to volunteer service. Was the volunteer service, proposedly rendered in one of the political campaigns with which the students were engaged, associated with school-related recognition or credits? If so, does SCCPS have a code of ethics by which students are held accountable while volunteering whether on school property or not? I believe strongly in the merits of volunteerism, but I also think that orientation and training, coupled with a code of ethics, serves both as a learning tool for the volunteer and a source of protection for the integrity of the respective agency or organization.

So, what is the “teachable moment” in 2015? When I observe, read and listen to the continuing and disrespectful actions and words (especially those referencing our country’s leader, President Obama) that are displayed in media and by some of our national and state leaders and others in positions of influence who are role models for young people, a glimmer of light sparks as to what I think is happening. DISRESPECT, NOT MUTUAL RESPECT, IS BECOMING THE NORM. So where do the “teachable moments” apply, and how are “teachable moments” defined today? I was taught and believe that “teachable moments” usually reform and redirect one’s behavior in a positive direction to achieve positive outcomes. It appears, today, that the outcomes of “teachable moments” may not always be positive, according to my definition.

I applaud Mayor Jackson for reaching out and meeting with the parents and students involved in the “Burn…Edna” incident. I hope the meeting results in the kind of “teachable moment” that will materialize into lessons learned and positive outcomes, as opposed to the students involved, or any any other SCCPS students for that matter, thinking they now have license to repeat this type of behavior because there may be little to no consequences.

Young people take on the values and ideas of those adults around them whom they respect. I know that I did. So it is incumbent upon us, as adults and role models, to teach by example and exhibit moral character, mutual respect of others, and respect of positions of authority through our speech and actions with others. Let’s show how to “agree to disagree” with civility, respect and dignity.

HERE IS MY CALL TO ACTION. One way that we can “agree to disagree” with civility in this country is through the VOTE. I hope that each of you who are registered to vote will utilize this privilege and right, and let your agreements or disagreements be head at the ballot box in the upcoming elections on Tuesday, November 3rd. There is still time to Vote Early through Friday, October 30th. You can submit an application for an Absentee Ballot. I suggest you hand deliver the application to the Elections Board at 1117 Eisenhower Drive, no later than Wednesday, October 28th, so that your ballot can be mailed to you, and you have time to complete it and return it by November 3rd. If you need assistance, call the Savannah Branch of the NAACP at 912-233- 4161.


I am Shirley Barber James, Chairman and Publisher, The Savannah Tribune, and I approve this message.

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