At the end of May, The Charlotte Observer and PNC Bank hosted an historic gathering of several former Charlotte mayors. There, former mayors Richard Vinroot and Gov. Pat McCrory bemoaned what seemed to them to be the death of “The Charlotte Way.”
Most Charlotte natives and those who have lived long enough know exactly what The Charlotte Way is, whether they can accurately describe it in words or not. Folks around these parts are simply accustomed to a certain way of life, of speaking, of civic engagement, of decision making and of “activism” and “advocacy.”
Anything outside of that norm is usually ostracized and shunned — characterized as “fringe” and “militant.” Here in the Queen City, protests and pickets are rare. So are strong and public demands that seek to right long lists of grievances and wrongs. Holding elected officials accountable during and after campaign season? Don’t even count on it.
Instead, the magic Charlotte Way is marked by closed-door, behind-the-scenes legislating with later rubber-stamped votes, if any votes at all are taken. Our special way means bureaucrats, not elected officials, can make decisions as our chosen representatives skirt the issues and refuse to take votes on important matters. It also means that a large portion of our communities here are relegated to the sidelines, oftentimes voiceless and powerless to effect change or see their full list of grievances given the public hearing and debate they deserve.
The Charlotte Observer’s Mark Washburn described The Charlotte Way’s essence in a May 25 feature detailing a side of Charlotte’s Civil Rights-era history cast into the shadows of the more popular Charlotte Way version of events. He defined The Charlotte Way as “public-private partnerships” and the “willingness of civic and business leaders to step in for the betterment of the city” — “an unseen hand [which] guided growth through the unifying vision of powerful leaders with everything from commerce to philanthropy at their command.”
Translation: Don’t rock the boat or make waves. Don’t speak out on controversial issues and, certainly, don’t let all those noise-makin’ radical riffraff have a voice at the table. We know what’s best for everyone else. We’ll pick and choose which issues and problems get addressed. We’ve got it all under control. Now, you just sit back and calm yourself down and stop worryin’ your pretty li’l head.
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Charlotte’s historic top-down approach to community change and empowerment has been harmful to our city’s growth. It has maintained power and privilege for those who already had it. It has kept traditionally marginalized and oppressed people firmly “in their place.” It has been a sweep-it-under-the-rug, lack-of-public-debate choice of discourse that has all-too-often silenced minorities and important voices for change.
Leaders like Reginald Hawkins, of whom Washburn wrote in May, and his more outspoken pushes for change have been set to the side as the more popular white-washed and corporate-and-economy-friendly story of Mayor Stan Brookshire and The Charlotte Way has captivated our imaginations. I’d dare say that many folks have heard that “cleaner” version of events, but how many know more? How many folks think bombs only ever went off in Birmingham and burning crosses were relegated to Mississippi?
How many know about Charlotte’s more rocky and embarrassing Civil Rights-era past? Do they know about the sit-ins and marches that saw lunch-counters here integrated? I’m betting many don’t know about Dorothy Counts, the first African-American to integrate a local school. If they are aware of her, are they also aware of all the jeers, spittle and racial slurs she endured from white parents and their kids as she entered Harding High School in 1957? How many Charlotteans know about the Nov. 22, 1965, bombings that rocked the homes of four Civil Rights-era Charlotte leaders, including Hawkins? Do they know that Mayor Brookshire, too, was the victim of racist hatred, finding a burning cross in his front yard on Aug. 26, 1966?
The Charlotte Way has clouded our history and our way of thinking. It has enabled a continuous trend of non-engagement and overly conservative caution. Ultimately, it has resulted in very, very little tangible change or discussion on a variety of social issues today — whether we’re talking about LGBT equality, an issue on which City Council last publicly voted, and defeated, 21 years ago, or whether it is neighborhood safety, employment, transit or any variety of issues that affected poor and largely African-American and Latino neighborhoods.
So, while Vinroot and McCrory are mourning the decline of the Charlotte Way, I, for one, am rejoicing at what could finally be the death of Charlotte’s Good Ol’ Boy System. It has had a ridiculously long time in power, but now we can all finally say good riddance to this awful relic of the Old South. Millionaire bankers and sports team owners have had more than enough time at the table. It’s time for a new way, Charlotte — one that includes and empowers all people. This time, let’s build it from the bottom up. : :