The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

August 19, 2012

Unsupported allegations are divisive to city

The News Courier

— Members of the Limestone County NAACP have appeared at the previous two Athens City Council meetings to address concerns over the hiring of minorities and alleged misconduct on the part of Athens Police officers.

While we applaud the NAACP for taking a stand on an issue its members feel is important, we also wonder if their concerns have the potential to create an atmosphere of divisiveness in the city, thereby accomplishing the opposite effect.

We agree the city needs to do everything it can to actively recruit minorities, whether it is women, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians or Native Americans. The workforce of any municipality should accurately reflect the community it serves, and Athens should continue to work toward that end.

On the other hand, a city — like any business — should employ the person who is most qualified for the job. The race and gender of a person don’t matter if he or she cannot fulfill the duties required of the position.

NAACP officials feel the city missed an opportunity to hire a qualified African-American for the position of fire chief, and that may be true. The final applicants for the position all had impressive credentials and appeared qualified for the position. At the end of the day, however, the City Council chose to hire a qualified person who just happens to be white. The council felt he was the most qualified person for the job.

We feel safe in assuming that anyone who is experiencing a house fire or medical emergency gives little thought to the skin color of the person who comes to help. We just want help from the most qualified person, whether black, white, green or red.

The NAACP did not endear itself to City Council members by alleging “back-room deals” are made when considering the hiring for department heads. A frustrated Councilman Jim Hickman asked for an apology from Limestone NAACP President Wilbert Woodruff over the accusation. If “back-room deals” are truly being made, the NAACP should offer hard facts to the council and the media and not rely on allegations only. The same could be said for the group’s allegations of police misconduct brought up at last Monday’s meeting.

The group cited several instances of misconduct allegations, all of which they said occurred before Floyd Johnson became police chief in February. Earlier this week, State NAACP President Benard Simelton said he had no reports of abuse allegations since Johnson became chief.

No police department is perfect. Carrying a gun and a badge does not ensure high moral fiber and those officers who exhibit bad behavior should be held to public scrutiny. However, citing instances that date back “several years” and with no specific dates or names mentioned, the allegations are reduced to inflammatory comments and media sound bites and do nothing to further the NAACP’s cause — to see more minorities on the city’s currently all-white police force.

Our current political landscape is getting more divided by the day. Our society is fast reverting to a time of the haves versus the have-nots, but Athens is better than that. The city leadership has repeatedly said this should not become a “black and white” issue, and we agree wholeheartedly. The city should work toward being a beacon of unity, not a dull flicker of divide.

Each year, to mark the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., black and white citizens come together to pay homage to a man who devoted his life to the idea of unity and brotherhood. The two ceremonies, one held at the Alabama Veterans Museum and the other at Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church, are both joyous occasions for people of all races, and serve as a reminder of what a special place Athens is to live in.

We applaud the efforts of the NAACP for taking actions to address what its members feel is an injustice with the city’s government, as we applaud any group for standing up for its principles.

However, we must ask — Will the end justify the means? Are broad strokes of negative rhetoric and unsubstantiated allegations worth the possibility of greater division?

We hope the NAACP and city leaders can continue to work together to reach a solution that will not only lead to a greater recruitment of minority applicants, but also provide more oversight for the city’s police department. However, we hope it will be done in a way that fosters unity, not division.

Athens is better than that.