Grudge matches and shared prosperity

Published 9:51 pm Saturday, May 3, 2014

By Dennis Edwards

Suffolk voters are watching a political drama play out months ahead of Election Day.

The rhetoric from City Council and School Board members proves that sometimes it’s best to take a look at what’s not being talked about, instead of what is.

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The discussion about privatizing cleaning and maintenance in the public school system illustrates how politically charged even simple issues can be. For those who pay close attention to local political history, there are lessons best not forgotten. People who lived through that past are wary of setting troubling precedents that are also reminders of the past.

Understanding Suffolk’s racial history makes all the difference. In the ’60s, the issue of integration created divisions on every strata of personal and political life. It split families and destroyed friendships.

Out of that struggle came public schools where administrators like Superintendent William R. Savage; principals like Bill Peachy, J. Fenton Peele and Leon N. Patton; and community leaders like Moses Riddick made decisions and offered advice that helped ensure successful integration of the schools here.

The right people with the right attitudes were put in key administrative, classroom and athletic positions. These men understood their communities and led Suffolk into and through integration with one of the best track records in the nation.

But in their day, the word “private” evolved, among many people, into another word for “segregated.” For many, even today to use the word “privatization” signals the potential resurrection of segregation.

There are those who rightly argue the definitions have changed, that integrated private schools play an important community role. But have perceptions really changed? More importantly, has the experience changed? Broadening a word does not necessarily alter ongoing experience. But the greater and perhaps politically fatal miscalculation is not to understand, appreciate, value and respect the still sensitive meaning of a community’s shared experience.

The final act in this election year play has to do with political baggage. How do candidates plan to bury their hatchets and where? How many political hurts are candidates willing to forget? Could past redistricting battles have left major wounds in the spirits of those left out in the cold? Could the redrawn districts no longer play to the strengths of some incumbents?

Former presidential candidate and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson once told me, “What I like about politics is that relationships are always renegotiable.”

The system works best when relationships are renegotiated, when enemies are transformed into allies and allies into friends.

The truth of growing up in Suffolk is that many of my best friends today are among those I had spats with as a child. We played, fought, forgave and went back to playing. Sometimes in the same day or hour.

Great leaders understand how converted adversaries can make the best friends, how those who’ve opposed us are uniquely positioned to know us, to develop a genuine respect and admiration for who we are and what we’ve achieved.

Those who practice this gift on the stage of politics have a unique opportunity to move the city beyond grudge matches to a shared prosperity.

Dennis Edwards is an Emmy Award-winning television news reporter and anchor, He is a 1974 graduate of Suffolk High School. Email him at dennisredwards@verizon.net.