The small town of Carbon Hill, Alabama made international news in recent weeks after Mayor Mark Chambers posted a meme and comments on social media exposing his feelings about the LGBTQ community and other marginalized groups. My immediate reaction was to organize a petition calling for the mayor’s resignation and encourage people to attend the next City Council meeting. On June 17 we delivered the petition bearing nearly 700 signatures. We were largely ignored by the Mayor and Council, and left resolved to continue our call for his resignation while working for solutions to protect all Carbon Hill residents, workers, and visitors. We connected with organizers to schedule a peaceful march and die-in before the July 8 council meeting, bringing continued attention to the situation.
Small town issues that suddenly make international news are far too often neglected in the long run - especially in these days of fast-moving political news. People in small towns need support from allies outside their immediate area, and we must work together to develop place-based, sustainable solutions to prevent further injustices.
Monday afternoon I received an unexpected call from Mayor Mark Chambers asking to meet, saying he wanted to "clarify" what had happened and "explain" what he meant. We agreed to meet shortly before the march, and I invited Sav Miles and local resident Rawsy McCollum to join us to share their perspectives.
Our meeting with Mayor Chambers was very disappointing, albeit not surprising. We insisted he take responsibility for his comments, while he continued trying to blame the media for what were clearly his own hateful actions. When he asked what he could do to make us happy, we reaffirmed our demand that he resign. Sav spoke from the heart about how people in Carbon Hill deserve equality, just as people in cities like Boston and Birmingham do. Ms. McCollum gave no corner to the mayor she's known for decades, citing the need for inclusion and representation on the City Council. After a dissatisfying conclusion, we dashed to join the enthusiastic group marching hand-in-hand to the Carbon Hill Community Center before staging a die-in on the lawn.
As we entered City Council chambers I was relieved to find some speakers would be allowed – but only those already listed on the agenda. Rawsy McCollum spoke with a vision for change needed in her community. Carolyn Jones spoke of what the Mayor’s comments have done not only to people on a personal level, but to her local business. Mr. McCollum spoke of how he sees a community still broken and suffering pain that originated long before any recent memes, without mentioning he was the victim of a Klan shooting in downtown Carbon Hill 30 years ago. Ms. Shirley Mitchell, a dedicated public servant and educator, spoke powerfully on behalf of Walker County NAACP. I have no praise for the final speaker, who chose to target the people of color present - saying they had nothing to complain about and talking at length (unchallenged by the Council), as if he was testifying in court about the racist attack on Mr. McCollum. This final speaker was shouted down by many people in the room.
After accepting letters of resignation from two absent Council members who left their positions in protest of the Mayor’s recent actions, the city council meeting was quickly adjourned. This time the Mayor and Council’s rapid exit did not go unchallenged. Andrea Hayes confronted the Mayor directly, asking him how exactly she should be killed. Naomi Colvin called him out for not looking us in the eye as he tried to leave the room, and I exhorted him to say it to our faces. Iraq War Veteran Travis Jackson started a chant of "No Justice, No Peace" and we continued until taking up "Resign, Mayor Chambers" as we departed council chambers.
Seeing it all on the evening news and social media was powerful. The pain in this community is very real and raw, and is a palpable thing. As Carolyn Jones said, “if Carbon Hill is to survive, they must embrace all people and move forward, not backwards.”
I meant it when I told the media I am not giving up. We are determined. We are full of grit and empathy and passion and fire and love and ready to get to work in Carbon Hill - and anywhere else in Alabama we are needed. We are all in this and everything else together, and we all lift each other up in the fight.
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