‘Don’t surrender’: Harrisburg’s civil rights champions sort out challenges, simply as late chief would’ve wished

2020, as it has been in so many ways for so many things, has been a star-crossed year for race relations in Harrisburg and central Pennsylvania.

The year began with local Black leaders focused on trying to win bigger pieces of the economic pie on major public contracts for the new federal courthouse building, a new state archives center, and a new Harrisburg University academic tower.

Then, the coronavirus hit America, and the ensuing economic lockdowns revealed a chasm in different economic classes’ ability to withstand crises – who can and cannot work from home, who can make remote education work and who has access to health care. The pandemic vividly illustrated the persistent economic opportunity gap faced by many Black residents here and elsewhere.

As the weather warmed and virus cases dropped, reaction to George Floyd’s death while in custody of Minneapolis police on Memorial Day brought a generational level of interest to issues of racial inequity, and led to rallies and renewed dialogue not just in cities like Harrisburg and Lancaster, but in surrounding towns like Carlisle, Chambersburg and Hummelstown.

We had a high-stakes presidential election.

And the year closed, sadly, with the death of one of the region’s leading racial justice voices — sometimes shouting from out front, many times just whispering off-stage: Reginald Guy.

With Guy’s passing, and everything else that’s happened in the last 12 months, how do those who have been most active in the region’s civil rights movement see the fight today? PennLive took a fresh look through a series of conversations over the past few weeks, and we found some interesting developments and needs.

A funeral is held for Reginald A. Guy Jr. Guy was a civic leader, activist and attorney in Harrisburg.
December 7, 2020.
Dan Gleiter | [email protected]

Shifting focus from diversity to equity

Many leaders say Harrisburg and other communities do show an increasingly diverse face in government and business ranks. But what Black and brown leaders still say they lack is appropriate representation at the top levels of decision-making, to ensure minority interests are baked into decision-making.

As Homer Floyd, retired executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, put it: “Part of the civil rights movement in the sixties concentrated on trying to get laws on the books so when that when something (blatantly discriminatory) occurred,” there were legal protections with teeth.

But those baseline protections in housing, employment and voting rights, while essential, are just a start.

“You can have a right, without necessarily having an opportunity,” Floyd said. “And that’s kind of where we are, is (needing to) create the opportunities so that we all can move forward together.”

A much bigger army

Because of the variety of issues that arose in 2020, the movement was joined by a lot of new recruits and a lot of new energy this year. The challenge, as has been faced before, will be to keep those new voices engaged and working together for the long haul.

“I haven’t ever seen the Black and brown community more ‘woke” than it is today,” said the Rev. Earl Harris, former pastor of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Harrisburg and a longtime soldier in the civil rights movement. “I’ve never seen it this alert to where they stand in America, and how they are perceived and how they are viewed in America. … It’s a good time to be alive, because I’ve been waiting for this awakening.”

There are a lot of new and younger faces who are energized to play bigger roles in racial justice here. Some said it will be necessary to give them the grace to grow into larger roles, and the time to amass the kind of contact list that someone like Guy had.

As some said, true civil rights leaders can’t be named, chosen or promoted. Rather, they are forged through the combination of pressure, experience and time.

‘We’re still fighting the same battles’

There is plenty of frustration about the intractability of old problems.

The numbers bear it out.

In 2018, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, for every dollar earned by the typical white household, the typical Black household earned only 59 cents. And that showed regression from 2000, when the typical Black household earned about 65 cents for every dollar earned by a white household.

In the Harrisburg-Carlisle Metro area, which includes all of Dauphin, Cumberland and Perry counties, the income gap is slightly worse, with Blacks earning just 57 cents on the white dollar.

Roughly one in four of Pennsylvania’s Black households (26.1%) had income under the federal poverty level that year, as compared to 8.7% of whites.

But the differences don’t just show up in numbers.

Brent Lipscomb, an Alabama transplant who arrived here in 2018 for doctoral studies at Penn State Harrisburg and found himself a de facto emcee at several of the region’s racial justice rallies in the wake of Floyd’s death, said he sees and feels signs of race-based tension regularly in the midstate.

Lipscomb said he believes one of the problems is a tendency to treat incidents in isolation, rather than as symptoms of long-term flaws such as disparities in generational wealth.

“This is a major issue right here in south central Pennsylvania and a lot of times I feel like it doesn’t get the attention that it needs,” Lipscomb said. “People and some organizations look at these situations as moments and they’re not looking at them as (issues that need a) long-term resolution.

“After a while, there’s no policy changes and we’re still fighting the same battles.”

‘Fresh leadership’ emerging

'Jericho March' against economic injustice held at new federal courthouse site in Harrisburg

The Rev. Franklin E. Hairston-Allen, Harrisburg’s NAACP president, second from left, speaks. Third from left is David Madsen, Harrisburg city council economic development chair. A ‘Jericho March’ against economic injustice is held at the new federal courthouse job site in Harrisburg, March 4, 2019. March organizers insist that the General Services Administration hire local workers to build the new 243,000-square-foot courthouse at Sixth and Reily streets.
Dan Gleiter | [email protected]PENNLIVE.COM

Expanded economic opportunity was one of the areas that Guy intentionally focused on through much of his career. He fought for minority employment in major public works such as construction of Harrisburg International Airport, the renovation of City Island and Harrisburg Senators ballpark and the rising federal courthouse. And he called for the inclusion of minority interests in the city’s next comprehensive plan.

Civil rights leaders acknowledge people with such accrued experience and connections cannot be replaced by appointment or election.

“There were a number of leaders in the community who did not agree with Reggie. That said, anyone would take his call when it came. At least hear him out,” said Harrisburg attorney Mary Powell. “There are few Blacks or browns who command that type of respect… who are not in a political office.”

But she and others believe those connections can be built over time.

And one thing in Harrisburg’s corner is that there is a deep and growing bench of Black leaders. They include those who have been walking the walk for years, such as the Rev. Franklin Allen, president of the Greater Harrisburg Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Floyd, and Harris.

There is also a new generation that is clearly eager to step up.

It includes folks like Kevin Maxson, leader of the grassroots Voices for the Voiceless group focusing on conditions at Dauphin County Prison; Brandon Flood, current secretary of the state Board of Pardons with its emphasis on providing second chances for those with criminal records; and Mikell Simpson, founder of the non-profit Capital Rebirth.

One promising thing about this moment is that the two generations not only appear to recognize that they need each other, they appear to be welcoming the chance to work together — even if strategies and priorities may not always be exactly in sync.

Harris sees direct parallels to the national confluence of groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP with new organizations like the late John Lewis’s Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s.

“That’s what’s happening now, is that you’re having fresh leadership come up… which is needed and necessary,” Harris. said.

“Because older groups get stagnant. They get used to doing what they’re doing. They’re not as creative, so you need that creativity. … And what SNCC did (in the 1960s) is the same thing that they’re doing, is that they’re bringing a bolder, more audacious, in-your-face approach and breathing new life to the movement.

“So it’s not so much a changing of the guards as it’s a natural ebb and flow of leadership and of organizations and of interest and of time. And it’s healthy.”

The younger leaders in Harrisburg, for their part, see themselves as additive to the cause, not replacements.

Ironically, Guy was also one of the best at binding people into common cause across those various interests, and up and down the establishment ladder from the bonds of Sigma Pi Phi, a fraternal organization of Black professionals aimed at elevating and enhancing their communities, to the grassroots protestors picketing outside Dauphin County Prison.

“This past summer, as I began my own journey in racial justice, he was one of the people who reached out to me and let me know that I was doing the right thing by taking a stance against racial injustice and encouraging other people to educate themselves on how to bring change to Harrisburg,” said Simpson.

His group, Capital Rebirth, has been focused on quality of life improvements in Harrisburg that he believes, in time, will bend youths away from violence.

“I didn’t even know he was watching me until he started connecting me with other people in this fight who could help me and who I could help,” Simpson said.

Protest outside Dauphin County Prison over health conditions

Voices 4 the Voiceless CEO Kevin Maxson and his group join members of Black Lives Matter to protest inmate conditions at the Dauphin County Prison in Harrisburg, Pa., Aug. 8, 2020.
Mark Pynes | [email protected]

Maxson said he too received Guy’s personal encouragement.

“When I first set out with my activism at the Dauphin County Prison he actually placed a call and he told me: ‘Listen, I’m proud of you. I love everything you’re doing. But don’t give up. No matter what you do, don’t give up. It’s going to be a rough road. Don’t give up.’

“I know the way I do things is a little bit contrary to the way everybody else does them… And encouragement from individuals from him (Guy) and Tom Connelly and Brandon Flood and all the different leaders in our community, it really means something to me and I listen to them.

“And when I’m wrong and they contact me and check me about being wrong I accept the criticism because that’s the only way I can grow and evolve as a leader,” Maxson said.

‘We have to let the walls down’

As everybody plans the best ways to maximize the next set of opportunities, including the fresh start offered by the incoming Biden Administration in Washington, one challenge will be trying to knit the disparate strains of the Black community — the numbers and resources represented by the NAACP; the energy brought by newer groups like Voices 4 the Voiceless; and the personal touch provided by the Black clergy – into one larger chorus.

“You see a lot of lanes here in Harrisburg,” said Lipscomb. “We have to let the walls down when we have lanes. And it’s OK to stay in your lane, but there needs to be a clear visualization across where I can see what’s going on over here and you can see what’s going on over there to make sure that we are still traveling in the same direction.

“I think that’s what we often have difficulties with in the city of Harrisburg is identifying what’s truly going on and are we all traveling in the same direction.”

There are many serious priorities, to be sure.

Allen said one goal the NAACP has for the immediate future is developing people of color in the city into a more cohesive and reliable voting bloc; one that’s able to flex its muscles into grabbing a share of power in local government that’s more proportionate to its population. By most recent U.S. Census estimates, Blacks account for 51.8% of Harrisburg’s population.

“We have to be able to show the importance of being able to vote a mayor in, or vote a mayor out,” Allen said.

Many parents of school-age children are devoted in their quest to improve the Harrisburg schools.

As the crowds marching through Harrisburg this summer showed, there is a palpable ache for policing and criminal justice reforms.

Powell had yet another take. “Beyond civil rights and criminal justice reforms, the larger picture is economic opportunity,” she said. “All of these other things need to occur as a consequence of not having economic opportunities.”

This is where white political, corporate and business leaders also need to step up and step in, agreed Joseph Robinson Jr., executive director of Harrisburg’s Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Development Institute.

“As long as those with access to power, capital, and wealth insist on barring people of color — especially the professional class of lawyers, accountants, architects, engineers — from the table, we will continue to experience the poverty, lack of education, incarceration, mental illness, and in far too many instances with our youth, a nihilistic attitude of despondency.”

Everyone interviewed for this story agreed that whatever the agenda becomes, those engaged need to do their best to regularly communicate with each other on structure, game plans and end goals, and then make sure everyone’s being mutually effective.

Lipscomb, 28, said that’s what the civil rights giants of the 1960s did so well.

“We see these pictures in the history books and everything of everybody holding hands and coming together as one. But behind the scenes, they didn’t get along. It wasn’t always cake and ice cream. However they knew how to come out as a front because they took down the walls and they were able to have a visualization of what everyone’s goal was.”

‘We are blossoming’

There are promising signs of collaboration, like the more than two dozen groups – including non-profits operating on shoestring budgets, churches, businesses and civic groups – combining to sponsor weekly food distributions at various sites in Harrisburg this fall under the umbrella of Community United.

Or ongoing discussions between community members and leaders from the criminal justice system about ways to make policing safer and fairer in communities of color.

Of course, the region’s civil rights movement has evolved before. After all, the march toward racial equality has been in full swing in the United States literally since the nation’s historic divide over slavery.

In Harrisburg, it has already seen the torch passed from those who fought for abolition and aided escaping slaves in the 19th Century, to those who built a thriving Black community here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to those like Mary Yancey and Lionel Wade who gave new energy to the local movement in the 1960s.

Newspaper pages during the Harrisburg Race Riots

The Patriot, front page, June 24, 1969.

There have been ebbs and flows. According to PennLive’s files, the NAACP branch here had more than 2,000 members in the 1960s; by the late 1980s, that number had dwindled to about 300. Currently, Allen said, membership sits at 1,000.

And there have been serious divides. A 2000 poll conducted by The Patriot-News over a move to give then-Mayor Stephen R. Reed control of the troubled Harrisburg School District showed the city’s Black community split, with 49% in favor, and 41% against.

One factor that makes the latest surge of interest a little different, but that has been widely noted this summer and fall, as a sign of hope, is that this time it’s not just Black people who are getting involved and on the march.

“Have you looked at the Black Lives Matter marches?” Harris asked. “The whites are there. The browns are there. The Blacks are there. There’s no exclusion. That mistake is not being made. … And that’s critical.”

Robinson agreed.

“When we see how outlying communities on both the West and East shore, and as far south as Gettysburg, reacted to the George Floyd killing, it suggests that our region has the capacity to be transformative,” he said. “At issue is whether we have the collective will.”

Veteran leaders say they are looking forward to working with the new faces to raise the bar toward racial equity.

“We are blossoming. We are trying to bring in our young people, our young leaders. And to have meetings of importance to say whatever we do, we need to do it together. Otherwise, you have no strength,” said Allen, the 68-year-old NAACP president.

The next generation said they are ready to honor Guy’s work by taking on new challenges.

“He’s imparted enough wisdom upon people, whether directly through just sheer knowledge and expertise or, for some, just from watching mistakes or missteps,” Flood said. “He’s imparted enough knowledge on folks to where there should be plenty of people to step up … if they haven’t already been doing things kind of behind the scenes.”

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