Ladies and gentlemen, it is time we have an honest communitywide conversation about something we have been artfully putting off for decades.
It's going to be difficult, painful, emotional -- and in the end, almost no one will be entirely happy.
But to delay this conversation any longer, to try to kick this "can" down the road into the future yet again, carries a lot more risk and downside than dealing with it today.
It is long past time for our community leaders to step forward, to bear the burden of leadership in full public view, and take part in what is becoming a worldwide conversation about racial equality, justice and ways to achieve a much better community than we currently have.
Fortunately, here in Franklin County we are starting from a much better place than many American cities like Minneapolis or Atlanta.
We've had two marches in downtown Louisburg, both very peaceful and respectful. There were no problems -- and it's important to note that both marches were integrated.
And we also had a large downtown vigil -- with speakers who touched on some important and very emotional issues -- and that vigil came off without a hitch.
I think it's fair to say that most Franklin Countians want a peaceful, respectful path forward toward a better community for all people of all races.
The question is how do we find that way forward -- and who is going to take a leadership position in that journey.
I'm proud of the people who protested and those who held the vigil -- as well as a couple of leaders who stepped forward and our law enforcement leaders who are doing their best to run departments without the incidents we've seen elsewhere.
But, that's not to excuse others for not stepping forward.
During both the protest marches and the vigil, two community leaders made their presence known, Louisburg Town Councilman Christopher Neal and civil rights activist Armenta Eaton.
Both were front and center, supporting the reasons behind the events but urging respect and peaceful protests as a means of furthering those goals.
Amazingly, not one county commissioner was at the vigil (that I saw) even though the vigil was held in the county-owned courtyard where the courthouse stands.
Where were they? And why do they believe they can simply ignore one of the most significant events -- movements? -- in recent decades.
We Franklin County residents elected them as leaders of our community. Now, they need to do just that, help lead the county through these trying times and it's certain they can't do that by sitting at home on the couch.
It's also possible to make the same argument about the Louisburg Town Council. Where were Neal's fellow council members on those evenings. They, too, were elected to lead this town and, if anything is certain, this issue affects the town just as much as it affects the county, state and nation.
And, of course, it almost goes without saying that neither State Rep. Lisa Barnes nor State Sen. John Alexander were anywhere to be seen during these events.
They have been invisible for weeks, in Barnes' case, or months, in Alexander's case.
If this were the military, it would be accurate to say that the vast majority of our elected leaders have been AWOL -- Absent Without Leave -- as the pressure around this issue has increased dramatically in recent days.
That's inexcusable, in my opinion.
Change of focus
The need for committed, involved leadership came into sharper focus with downtown events on Saturday, which indicated just how confrontational this movement can quickly become.
Events then were focused around the Confederate monument that sits in the middle of North Main Street and which, if it becomes the focus of both sides of this issue, can be the ignition point that makes a bad situation worse.
On Saturday, there was one group of people protesting the monument and asking that it be either destroyed or moved.
On the other side were those who want to keep the monument there as a tribute, they say, to their heritage.
This time it was two groups yelling at each other -- and the police department kept things from turning really ugly.
But isn't it time we look at the overall situation and give it all the benefit of more than 150 years of prospective?
And, isn't it time we hear from Louisburg College, which has been eerily quiet for way too long about a monument that is not only a flash point but also, most people believe, part of the college campus.
Actually, the monument sits on state-controlled right of way in the middle of North Main Street -- although for anyone who hasn't done a great deal of research, it certainly appears to be part of the college campus -- and perception tops reality most days!
The monument must be viewed as part of the campus by many parents who, along with their prospective students, visit the school each year.
Even though it is reported that more than 5,000 people, at last count, have signed a petition to remove the monument, the reality is that the petition will have little to no effect because of a recently enacted and poorly thought-out state law that is likely to have exactly the opposite effect of what legislators intended in 2015.
In a nutshell, here's what the law now states:
§ 100-2.1. Protection of monuments, memorials, and works of art.
(a) Approval Required. - Except as otherwise provided in subsection (b) of this section, a monument, memorial, or work of art owned by the State may not be removed, relocated, or altered in any way without the approval of the North Carolina Historical Commission.
(b) Limitations on Removal. - An object of remembrance located on public property may not be permanently removed and may only be relocated, whether temporarily or permanently, under the circumstances listed in this subsection and subject to the limitations in this subsection. An object of remembrance that is temporarily relocated shall be returned to its original location within 90 days of completion of the project that required its temporary removal. An object of remembrance that is permanently relocated shall be relocated to a site of similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability, and access that are within the boundaries of the jurisdiction from which it was relocated. An object of remembrance may not be relocated to a museum, cemetery, or mausoleum unless it was originally placed at such a location. As used in this section, the term "object of remembrance" means a monument, memorial, plaque, statue, marker, or display of a permanent character that commemorates an event, a person, or military service that is part of North Carolina's history.
Of course that law is being challenged across that state but, in the meantime, opponents of these monuments see only one recourse: Destruction of the monument because they've seen no sign that the state Historical Commission will approve removal or moving of any monument.
Witness what is happening in other states -- or on the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill campus -- to understand what could happen here if tensions are allowed to escalate.
And that's where, I think, we need to hear from Louisburg College's leadership, its board of trustees.
That school has been part of this community for more than 230 years -- and has relied on community support, financial and otherwise, for all of that time.
The college, for all those years, has been charged with educating, shaping, molding and literally creating the leaders we rely on for this community, this state and this nation.
The school is a bedrock of the community and a place where we expect to look for leadership, knowledge and moral guidance that it imparts on its students and, ultimately, on this entire community. It's time for the board of trustees to look at the crossroads where our community stands today and offer their perspective, wisdom and guidance on how we navigate a better path to the future for all of us.
We in this community -- for generations spanning more than two centuries -- have supported that school.
Perhaps it's time for the school to help us chart a way forward that will unite the community and make us all stronger and better Americans.
As I said in the beginning of this column, this is likely to be a difficult, emotional journey for everyone -- and in the end, it's likely that no one will be entirely happy with the final result.
But, if we learned anything from the War Between the States, it should be that talking, negotiation and compromise are a far better solution than guns, bullets, death and the destruction of our nation.
We're in a good place to begin working toward a solution.
But having two groups of people shouting invectives at each other on a Saturday afternoon is not the best way forward -- and that approach is likely to end very badly.
Someone said during one of the many news stories about the shootings, looting and riots that have plagued many American cities that the issue can never be allowed to be seen as merely black versus white or white versus black.
The goal, he said, should be EVERYONE against racism, in all its forms.
A simple solution
But in all the discussions, heated and thoughtful, rational and emotional, sane and sometimes totally bonkers, one man stood before the vigil downtown nearly two weeks ago and offered a "simple" solution that would solve all of this forever and always.
The Rev. Michael Safley, who also is chaplain at Louisburg College, offered a solution I'll try to paraphrase here.
He said that whenever any of us looks at another person, we should see the image of Jesus Christ.
And, he said, we should react to that person as if he were Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
If that happened, the problems of racial prejudice, injustice and a whole host of other ills would instantly disappear!
I agree, Rev. Safley, at least the optimistic side of me agrees.
But the reporter side of me, which has covered too many riots, murders and other awful things that human beings can do to one another, makes me fear that we mere humans aren't yet ready for your solution, not matter how perfect it might be.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to get there because, obviously, we should.
But it's going to take leadership, courage, determination, a willingness to compromise and a commitment to do the right things for ourselves and for ALL the others in our community.
So, leaders and wanna-be leaders, stand up and be counted.
Our future and, more importantly, the futures of our kids and grandkids will depend greatly on how we get through this troubling time.