Special Note: As of August 25th, this site will be moving. Our new home will “Making News in the South,” an independent media collective covering regional issues from a working-class perspective. See you there!
Race relations in the United States, especially after the recent wave of police violence, the Charleston Church Shooting, and the Confederate flag debate that followed, are more strained now than at any point in recent memory. Far from living the “post-racial” utopia some imagine, we live a nation that continues to oppress, marginalize, and even murder people of color without recourse.
With that in mind, several articles from a news site, “The Henry County Report,” based out of Dothan, Alabama caught my attention. The site, operated by John Carroll, a white commentator and self-described investigative journalist, puts forth several articles targeting leaders and residents of the Dothan area. I live in North Georgia, and I’m no expert on community affairs in Southern Alabama, but Carroll’s attacks on Pastor Kenneth Glasgow struck a particular nerve.
Since the Black Lives Matter movement swept the country in 2014, there’s been quite a lot of white anger directed at black communities. With white Southerners defiantly flying the Confederate battle flag, churchgoers in Charleston being gunned down by a white supremacist, and black churches being burned to the ground, it’s impossible to ignore the South’s long history terror and intimidation of black Americans — and white America’s efforts to silence black voices.
With all the white anger directed at black Americans and the social movements against police violence, it’s clear that something must be done. Strong black voices are rising up in resistance, and Pastor Glasgow’s is one of them. It’s not enough for white Americans to stand on the sidelines and offer token support when our friends and neighbors of color are routinely attacked, murdered, and locked in cages. There’s certainly no room for white Americans like Carroll to attack the people of color leading these movements.
A group of protesters gathered in front of the Justice Department to speak out against police brutality. Pastor Glasgow’s group, The Ordinary People Society (TOPS), and several others are gathering in Washington on July 30th in support of the “Ban the Box” initiative and to protest police brutality and mass incarceration.
I first came to know Pastor Glasgow during a campaign to organize people incarcerated in Georgia prisons. Georgia is one of only two states that doesn’t pay inmates for their labor. Their work keeps the prison-industrial complex in our state moving along and without it, that system would likely fall apart. Pastor Glasgow’s group, The Ordinary People Society (TOPS), was one of the only organizations involved with this effort.
That campaign saw prisoners mount a peaceful work stoppage and hunger strike in several prisons across the state. The work stoppage was short-lived, but the state took the inmates’ demands for better living conditions, basic medical care, payment for their labor, and fair housing and parole as a serious threat. They retaliated against the supposed leaders of the strike, even beating one of the inmates with hammers (warning: graphic images). Several of these inmates continue to protest their conditions.
Carroll criticizes Pastor Glasgow’s attendance at “drug rallies,” which presumably refers to Pastor Glasgow’s involvement in harm reduction conferences and gatherings, at which he’s often a featured speaker. Harm reduction is the idea that, if people are going to keep using drugs or engaging in sex work, we should at least help to minimize their risk of transmitting diseases like HIV and hepatitis C and reduce the risk of overdose, until they’re ready to stop.
Harm reduction groups like the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition provide basic medical care and testing and refer clients to counseling when they are ready to quit. They also distribute and educate communities on using naloxone, a life-saving drug that reverses opiate overdoses (from April 2014 to June 2015 at least 262 overdoses were reversed in Georgia alone). The movement has been incredibly effective at reducing disease and saving lives. Criticizing the involvement of those with the most experience in these efforts only serves to further stigmatize — and endanger — those struggling with substance use disorders or mental health issues.
TOPS and Pastor Glasgow have also been involved in the “Ban the Box” campaign, including an upcoming rally in Washington, DC. The campaign aims to stop discrimination, reduce stigma against formerly incarcerated people, and open job opportunities they would otherwise be denied.
The campaign has been successful at having some employers and state employers, including most government jobs in Georgia, remove questions about an applicant’s history of incarceration from job applications, affording them an opportunity to explain their past mistakes and how they’ve improved their lives before the door can be shut in their face. Considering that black Americans are unemployed at twice the rate of the general population, campaigns like this are critical.
Pastor Glasgow has been extremely forthcoming about his past history of incarceration. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, merely surviving those experiences and overcoming a dependence on drugs, is a testament to Pastor Glasgow’s strength and determination. If anyone is fit to speak to these issues, it’s someone who’s been there and made it out.
In a country where 1-in-3 black men and 1-in-18 black women can expect to serve time in prison — and where black Americans who use drugs are far more likely to be convicted and incarcerated for longer than white Americans — demonizing those who have been incarcerated only furthers the stigma and hardships mass incarceration and the “War on Drugs” have created in black communities. Such a perspective is not only misguided, it plays into racist attitudes that portray black men and women as a burden to “responsible” white Americans and echoes tired stereotypes about black Americans and drug use.
The “Ban the Box” campaign is geared toward removing questions about past incarceration from job applications so job applicants have a chance to explain their past, and how they’ve changed — before having the door shut in their face. The campaign has found success with many employers and government agencies.
Pastor Glasgow’s experience demonstrates he isn’t just another self-serving, self-appointed community leader. He’s the real deal, with the battle scars to prove it. The work he does is invaluable, not only to black communities, but to all Southerners who are stigmatized and marginalized by past mistakes. His story and his words have inspired those of us who haven’t had a voice and those who would otherwise turn a blind eye to be involved in work that improves the lives of our most at-risk communities and saves countless others.
Carroll takes issue with Pastor Glasgow’s involvement in legal investigations and advocacy for victims of the war on drugs and mass incarceration. Convicted felons are barred from becoming licensed attorneys. Mr. Glasgow makes no secret of this. He isn’t an attorney, nor does he (at least from what I’ve seen) attempt to act as one. In my experience with people who have served time in prison, they are often more informed about the law and the legal process than many lawyers.
He finds fault in Pastor Glasgow sometimes receiving payment for his efforts. It’s unclear, though, why this is inappropriate. Most of us expect to be paid for our work. Fighting our racist and ineffective legal system is difficult work. Attempts to deny a share of settlements from injustices perpetrated by this system — a share much less than most attorneys charge — demonstrates a lack of understanding and reflects the broader sentiment that people of color are less intelligent or poorly suited to challenge the disparate conditions they face.
Carroll also attempts to paint worship services led by Pastor Glasgow as witchcraft. The acts in question refer to church members speaking in tongues, something not uncommon in many religious denominations in our region. I’m Catholic, which is probably one of the most mainstream religions in the United States, and I’ve known priests who consider the ability to speak in tongues a mystical gift that echoes some of the most meaningful parts of the Bible. Portraying this as some dark, sinister ritual not only shows a lack of understanding, it hints at white America’s view of strange and dangerous black religious practices (a perspective that’s even been adopted by some black Americans looking for acceptance) that dates back to the slave era.
The Ordinary People Society (TOPS) has been active in fighting mass incarceration, advocating for the basic rights of incarcerated people in Georgia and Alabama, harm reduction for sex workers and people with substance use disorders, and the “Ban the Box” campaign.
Through all this, it’s clear that Carroll has a strong bias against Pastor Glasgow. That a white “investigative journalist” would go to such lengths to trash the reputation of a prominent figure in the black community, in a region that has a long history of silencing black voices, is troubling enough. But the fact that he’s dedicated funds that were (according to Carroll himself) granted by groups like the Highlander Center, which played a key role in building ties between rural whites and the black community in the South during the Civil Rights movement, to this cause is shameful. Hopefully the Highlander Center, and anyone else who has considered enabling Carroll’s work, will realize the damage it’s caused and withdraw their support, if they haven’t already.
My political views tend toward favoring the power of people using direct action to collectively improve our communities rather than relying on politicians to do things for us. That being said, if anyone is qualified to serve in any local political office, it’s someone like Pastor Glasgow.
I have no insight into Carroll’s agenda or his motivation to attack Pastor Glasgow, but I do know this: It’s not the place of white journalists and commentators to criticize black leaders who put themselves out there to serve their communities.
White Americans have dictated the appropriate terms of discourse in black communities for too long. It’s time we stop sowing division among black Americans and turn the mirror on ourselves and question the role we play in reproducing a racist, white supremacist society that’s silenced powerful black voices for generations.
As the Black Lives Matter movement has demonstrated, people of color are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves and organizing their own resistance to oppression. If we’re not willing to step back and let them take charge in their own communities, we’re merely one more link in America’s long legacy of violence and oppression against people of color.