Outside Agitators

Fifty years ago, the phrase “outside agitators” referred to people from other parts of the country who had come to the South to fight the good fight—to register African Americans to vote, to facilitate the desegregation of schools, to help all people turn the American Dream into an American Reality. Imagine my surprise when I heard someone use the same phrase to describe a group of African-American males who engaged in criminal activities in West Point about ten days ago.

These young men—their numbers range from five to twenty, depending on the witness—beat Ralph Weems IV so severely that doctors sawed off a portion of his skull and put him in an induced coma to give the swelling in his brain time to subside. He faces a lengthy rehabilitation. His life will never be the same.

Weems, who is white, exchanged words with his alleged assailants, who are African American, at a late-night restaurant. One witness, Weems’ friend, said they had been warned the restaurant wasn’t safe for whites because people were upset about the situation in Ferguson, Missouri. Police were called to defuse the situation. Weems and his friends went to a second restaurant about a mile down the road. After they ate, Weems went outside for a smoke. When he didn’t come back after about ten minutes, his friends went outside and found him in the middle of a crowd of young African American males who were beating him. Apparently, these men follwed Weems to the second restaurant and laid in wait for him.

Two arrests have been made. Both of the accused are from out of town—outside agitators. Even more agitators have hounded the chief of police, who is African American, and Weems’ family, to demand that hate crime charges be filed. Coverage of the event in the media has been broad. Comments from readers at nola.com and the New York Daily News have made Mississippi look like a banana republic clinging to our nation’s shores. Apparently, people need Mississippi to do America’s dirty laundry when it comes to issues of race. It’s a lot easier to point at the area that stretches from New Orleans to Memphis to Mobile and say that’s where the real problems are than it is for people to admit their own failures regarding racial reconciliation.

West Point has problems. Its schools underperform. Its unemployment rate is high. Its poverty rates for people of color often cause racial tensions to simmer. Its churches are almost as segregated today as they were during freedom summer fifty years ago. These problems actually make West Point more like the rest of the country, not less like it. But the promise of a new, large manufacturer looms on the horizon, and the tides rising with Mississippi’s gradual emergence from the Great Recession have brought all ships great and small up a level. On Labor Day, the First Baptist Church of West Point, which is home to the city’s mayor, hosted a community prayer service that allowed West Pointers from every walk of life to exchange words in a much finer fashion than those traded two weeks ago. Ministers from the town’s largest churches, both black and white, prayed for all of us to have the strength to look at West Point in general, and at the Weems situation in particular, and to see all the truths in it. Ralph Weems III praised the community for coming together to support his family, and the chief of police for conducting a thorough and expeditious investigation. In other words, West Point was nothing like Ferguson. Here’s to hoping it never will be.

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