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Seeking a better Liberty
NAACP looks to be proactive on gun violence, more
Semaj Clark tells his story at Sunday's justice and education teach-in and community mass meeting at the Liberty County Performing Arts Center in Flemington. The event was sponsored by the Liberty Branch of the NAACP. - photo by By Lawrence Dorsey

Many people spent Sunday afternoon enjoying the last hours of the weekend.

Some had other plans.

Semaj Clark, 19, described how being shot in Savannah led him to found Project FIRE (forgiveness, introspection, respect and education). The former Los Angeles resident is now confined to a wheelchair.

Many people spent Sunday afternoon enjoying the last hours of the weekend.

Some had other plans.

Semaj Clark, 19, described how being shot in Savannah led him to found Project FIRE (forgiveness, introspection, respect and education). The former Los Angeles resident is now confined to a wheelchair.

The Rev. Dale Thornton, senior pastor of Hinesville First United Methodist Church, talked softly about the shooting that killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. His mother-in-law was a school counselor to one of the victims, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who Thornton once spoke to about Pinckney’s interest in joining the ministry.

They and others were at the Liberty County Performing Arts Center Sunday to talk about gun violence and poverty at the invitation of the Liberty County Branch NAACP. Its third community mass meeting also delved into the role churches should play in helping solve problems.

Billed as a justice and

education teach-in, the event started with a discussion between elected and appointed officials and community leaders, most of whom stayed for the mass meeting, which featured six speakers and a Q&A with the audience members.

The discussions lasted about 2-1/2 hours and are a step in an effort by the NAACP to address violence and complaints of police abuses around the U.S., Branch President Graylan Quarterman said.

He compared today’s political and social climate to that in the 1960s and praised leaders who participated. They made up the bulk of those who attended, and they did much of the talking.

"Our leaders have shown they won’t hide," Quarterman said. "They will lead by example, not by compelling or arguing, but by working toward the common good of all our citizens."

Speakers were introduced by Genese Baker-Lane and Craig Stafford, and included Cordell Williams who spoke about the "culture of disconnect" among young African-American males.

"They feel they’re under attack," he said. "They’re judged by how they dress, the people they hang around with and they’re judged by the communities they live in."

Williams said that’s not fair since many kids aren’t being taught better at home.

"A lot of parents have not educated their youth on the same thing we’re deeming they should already know," he said. "These same parents who allow in the house these TVs that come from nowhere, and have merchandise that comes from nowhere hid in their bedroom. The kids are already in their room figuring out what’s going on. We blame the youth, but we’re not educating adults."

Williams, the son of state Rep. Al Williams, said he was lucky to have a mother he once considered nosy.

"I needed somebody in my life who’d ask ‘where did you get that?’ and tell me, ‘don’t wear your pants like that’ and ‘don’t do this and don’t do that,’" the younger Williams said. "All it did was set a structure as I was growing up."

He also spoke of the need for police to get out and talk to kids in communities.

Following Williams was Clark, whose story has been widely publicized. He grew up "in the wrong place at the wrong time," in a Los Angeles neighborhood full of "ballers, gang bangers, pimps, showoffs and drug dealers."

"That’s all I saw, that’s all I soaked in," Clark said. "Growing up I was dealt a bad hand, born to a teenage drug addict prostitute, dropped out of high school and ran with hoodlums, my first arrest for burglary at 14."

Clark was shot when he as 15 and decided he wanted out, and his struggle to escape the streets made national headlines and led to a meeting with President Obama. Clark’s story brought him to Savannah, where in October after speaking to a group at a community safety program he and a friend met some kids while touring River Street.

Later, one of those kids pulled out a gun "and tried to kill us because we had nothing to steal," Clark said. "My friend and I ran. I took two bullets in my arm and one in my back. It ripped the vertebrae in my back and the prognosis is I’ll never walk again, but through Jesus Christ all things are possible."

That turned to a discussion of guns in Georgia, which has been called part of an underground gun pipeline because it’s easy to buy weapons here, remove the serial numbers and then sell them elsewhere.

That brought Rep. Williams to his feet.

"I support the right to bear arms," he said. "But it was written at a different time when we had to call up folks to fight the British right quick, and we haven’t adjusted it since."

He said the pipeline is fed through Georgia because there are no rules "on how many times you can buy a gun."

"We eliminated all those rules in the legislature," he said. "And you buy guns not for your collection, but because it’s a very lucrative business to sell guns. And once a gun starts moving and it moves, it’s gone."

Williams, who was asked to speak on community relations, said the roots of the problems are poverty and hunger, and an inability to have honest dialogue and relationships.

"Everybody needs to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes," Williams said. "Until this community starts to talk about the issue of race, and talk about it realistically and takes off the Sunday morning mask, then we won’t have open dialogue. We need you to discuss things that hurt me and I’ll discuss things that hurt you … and then we can talk and begin to peel back the layers and begin to heal."

Williams was followed by Thornton, who spoke about "that horrible night in Charleston" when he and his wife watched the coverage of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church after "Clementa Pinckney and eight others were savagely mowed down by Dylan Rooth."

"When my mother-in-law called she was crying, she had shepherded that young man through his adolescence and their families have been friends for generations," Thornton said, before noting that "in the Bible, 450 time in the Old Testament and 150 times in the New Testament, more than salvation, more Jesus Christ is mentioned, God says in some way shape or form ‘I am the God of the alien among you, of the stranger, of the widow, the orphan."

That resonated with Thornton.

"People like me who have had privilege and advantage, and whose denomination gives me privilege and advantage, have not been very willing to acknowledge that our history among African Americans, our history among those who are poor, our history among those who find themselves in very troubled places, is terrible," he said.

He pointed to the more than 3,000 lynchings of African Americans from the end of the Civil War to 1980 and that many were attended by what he called "good church folks."

"We have failed. We haven’t embraced the god who tells us to do something."

Thornton was followed by the Rev. DeRon Harper, an NAACP member who also spoke on the faith based community.

"People ask, where is the church in all of this? Why is the church not speaking up?" he asked, and said that churches are the voices "everybody should hear."

"Back in the civil rights movement they used preachers for a reason," Harper said. "I believe our churches need to get to work."

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