MONROE — Nearly a year since local organizations and faith groups organized a Unity March in downtown Monroe following the death of George Floyd — a victim of police brutality — the Enquirer-Journal reached out to Bishop Osco E. Gardin, Jr., of Elizabeth Missionary Baptist Church (503 Maurice Street) to see if he felt Monroe had moved closer toward racial harmony since the march.
Gardin helped lead the march down Hayne Street the morning of Saturday, June 20, 2020.
He wrote a letter to the Enquirer-Journal expressing how he felt.
He started by sharing his first experience of racism in the city which was on a wintry Sunday afternoon in 1996.
“As I was traveling home at the end of our 11 a.m. morning worship church service, I was held up on Maurice Street at the five-point intersection, only to soon notice the local Ku Klux Klan was being escorted by a Monroe police cruiser for what was apparently their annual march through downtown Monroe,” he wrote.
Gardin was “flabbergasted” and “time seemed to stand still” as he watched the men “parade” down Franklin Avenue — a stark contrast to the Unity March held 24 years later.
In the 26 years that Gardin has been a resident of Monroe, does he believe the city has progressed toward becoming more inclusive?
“I think the best response I can give, in the paraphrased words of Attorney Jerry Blackwell, one of two prosecutors in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derrick Chauvin for the senseless murder of George Floyd. Progress in the city of Monroe, NC rolls like a brick, and each one has to be flipped over each time,” Gardin explained.
One of the indicators of progress that he looks for is the make-up of city government — including all departments and entities. Does city government reflect the population of the city? Gardin does not believe it does.
“What I can say definitively is this City of Monroe, NC government does not represent the citizens it’s supposed to serve. I’ve had several conversations with city leadership regarding the disparities of employment and frankly speaking, I continue to not see very much progress, if any at all,” he wrote.
But he continued to say, “In fairness, there have been a few conversations in an attempt to address racial concerns in our city but until recently, they’ve all felt like nothing more than a pacifier.”
The Enquirer-Journal reached out to the City of Monroe to give them an opportunity to address the concerns raised. Peter Hovanec, the City of Monroe Communications and Tourism Director had the following response. “While on the surface, it seems like Rev. Gardin’s question and points are easy to address, but the reality is, it is very difficult for any organization to exactly mirror the local population they serve. Finding the best qualified candidate for specific jobs is a very difficult and complex process. The city is prohibited from using ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation as a basis for making personnel selections or hiring decisions, but does encourage diversity hiring in the process. The city has developed and adopted a mechanism that uses a hiring panel (a minimum of three individuals with at least one member from outside the hiring department) to evaluate and interview the candidates (these panels are also encouraged to include diversity when available). In addition to placing job openings in traditional “help wanted” mediums, the city also proactively places job openings in minority media outlets to encourage diversity in applicants.”
Last August, a committee within city council was created to address concerns of race, diversity and inclusion called The Open Conversation of Racism Committee. The council members were selected to lead it — Surluta Anthony, Angelia James and Freddie Gordon.
“One conversation that seems to be getting traction was started by Councilwoman Sulutta Anthony, and there has been great discussions about how to make the City of Monroe better with regards to its black and brown citizens. I am hopeful the conversation will continue and I am grateful that the City of Monroe has agreed to fund this effort. My only prayer is that it, too, will not fall by the wayside,” Gardin wrote.
Hovanec said that “For more than a decade, the city has hosted a Diversity committee of city representatives that meets monthly, and hosts a diversity roundtable of community stakeholders, meeting annually that discussed and makes recommendations on various diversity-related issues and projects.”
For Gardin, if the City of Monroe wants to take being a progressive city seriously, then it’s hiring of local government employees need to better reflect the city’s minority population so that minority voices can be an integral part of the city’s future. “I believe if the City of Monroe is serious about being a progressive city, from the top to the bottom, there must be a concerted effort to recruit and hire qualified black and brown people to fill other than service jobs in our local government.”
He continued to write that he is “exhausted with the excuses that our government hires people who are degreed and have job experience. That’s nothing more than another way to keep black and brown people from being given the opportunities to ever qualify for the jobs,”
“Furthermore, how can a person have experience if they’re never given an opportunity to gain experience. I used to say the system is broken, but I stopped saying that sometime ago, it’s not broken, it was designed that way and it needs to be done away with.”
The Enquirer-Journal requested the city’s racial ratio of the city’s employees. While those were not immediately available before press time. Hovanec said hiring practices are more complex than simply trying to mirror the city’s existing population.
Hovanec continued, “The city has a great deal of diversity throughout every department and especially at the department director level. Additionally, the city manager implemented diversity goals at the department level to increase their respective department diversity, and the manager provides quantitative feedback annually to his direct reports on their progress.”
Though the Confederate Monument in downtown Monroe (located at the Historic Courthouse facing Main Street) is county property, Gardin said if, again, Monroe is serious about being a progressive city then it needs to make a concerted effort between multiple races to encourage the county to remove it.
“Finally, I am grateful that in the last election the citizens of Monroe elected another African American to City Council, thereby giving us three persons of color for the second time in the history of Monroe, yet we still have a long way to go, to be dubbed ‘a progressive city,’ ” Gardin wrote.