All this turmoil after the death of George Floyd has made me think of Wylie Yelverton, the outspoken Houston County commissioner and longtime city of Dothan building official.
Yelverton was something of a lightning rod. He enjoyed stirring the pot, particularly with regard to matters of race. As such, he was constantly at odds with many people in the community who didn’t care for his politics or his manner.
On the other hand, I liked him. He would drop by, entering the office loudly and greeting some of us in the office with the same warm exhortation — “Grandson!” — and would sit and visit a while. I had a great deal of respect for him. I didn’t realize he returned that respect until I saw him walking across a cemetery many years ago to the graveside service for my father, who Yelverton never knew.
Our relationship was business — reporter and public official — but he and I had many conversations about the past. He would be in his 90s today, having grown up in the Jim Crow era, when a black kid in Dothan would have to leave to get an education.
And he did. This was a revelation to me, and it would not be the last from our conversations. There was a time when the area around Chickasaw and Lena streets was a bustling hub of commerce catering exclusively to the African American community — a town within a town. I grew up here, and I never knew.
Years ago, the Eagle got a new publisher. The editor’s slot was open, and we soon had a man to take that position. He’d worked with the new publisher at other newspapers, so the transition would be smooth. Yelverton had asked me about our new leadership, and I shared what I knew — where our new editor had previously worked, what his journalistic background was, and that I thought he would be a good fit for the newspaper and the community.
Several days later, Yelverton dropped by to see me. I could tell by the look on his face that he had a bone to pick with me.
“You didn’t tell me your new editor was a man of color,” he said, punctuating his accusation with finger jabs to my shoulder.
“Well,” I said. “I figured it didn’t matter.”
I saw the new editor as a colleague with whom I’d be working closely. His personality, character, news sense and editorial philosophy mattered to me, and those attributes were solid. That was how I had described him to Yelverton.
“It does matter!” he replied. “The editor of the daily newspaper is African American! It is important to me!”
I was puzzled at the time. But on reflection, I’ve come to realize that in the context of the arc of history, it is remarkable.
Years later, I found myself in a situation where I was chasing a thief through a neighborhood near downtown. I’d tried to creep up on a young man who had just stolen a wallet, and as I was reaching to grab him, he took off. I followed — across backyards and over fences and through overgrown brush. Soon I realized a friend was running with me. I was sweaty, scratched and bleeding; he was younger and fit, wearing a dress shirt, tie, slacks and dressy shoes, and he wasn’t even breathing hard.
As we walked back, I started to cross the street, and he grabbed my shirt and pulled me back. “We cross at the corner,” he said, adding, “I grew up in this neighborhood. Trust me, it’s better that we cross at the corner.”
In the neighborhood where I was raised, there was no concept of jaywalking, let alone awareness of minor infractions that might invite police scrutiny.
I’m grateful for these moments, as they’ve given me some insight into the experiences of people around me. I like to think it gives me a starting point toward understanding. It certainly makes me see things differently.
Last week, I was scrolling through social media when I saw a post from an old friend who was dismayed that George Floyd was being celebrated when his background was less than stellar. She isn’t alone. An Alabama congressman, Rep. Mo Brooks, tweeted something similar, albeit cryptic: “#FakeNewsMedia & #Socialist #Democrats deifying druggie & thug for political gain is wrong. #GeorgeFloyd = armed robber (gun versus lady) + deadly cocaine, fetanyl, methamphetamine, marijuana user. Hmmm.”
From my perspective, they’re missing the point. Floyd the man isn’t being celebrated. “George Floyd” has become a metaphor for years of systemic racist oppression.
I usually stay out of such debates, but since the Facebook exchange included several friends, I cast an opinion:
“For what it’s worth, I think George Floyd’s history is irrelevant. His death represents a tipping point in a long-festering social conflict. He is a touchstone, so to speak, representative of all people of color who have been mistreated by police, or by workers at the DMV office, or through systemic societal practices, or even people in our own neighborhoods who become suspicious of a black person walking down the street. How George Floyd lived should not diminish how he died.”