2001-04-01 Holland Sentinel Impact of cross burning echoes in Holland

Impact of cross burning echoes in Holland
Holland Sentinel

As an African-American historian who moved to Holland less than a year ago, Fred Johnson isn’t naïve enough to think there isn’t racial strife in Ottawa and Allegan counties.

The Hope College professor said with America’s history of racism and unrest – and the nature of West Michigan’s demographics – it’s almost a prime location for ethnic intimidation or racially motivated acts such as two cross burnings in Allegan city last month.

“Did I expect something like this? No. Am I surprised that this happened? No,” Johnson said. “As an African-American with my personal and professional experience, my initial reaction – I was indignant. I did a shoulder shrug and said ‘what else is new.’”

Johnson, however, says in the short time he’s lived in Holland he’s been impressed with the quality of people and groups striving to promote diversity and acceptance.

“People here seem desperate to find a solution and it’s in motion right now,” said Johnson, who as a teen says he was beaten by Maryland policy because of his skin color. “I’ve lived in communities where the problem is greater and nobody was trying to do anything.”

Four white males between the ages of 16 and 24 have been arrested and are jailed on charges of ethnic intimidation stemming from the cross burning.

Police allege the group built the 6-foot crosses and burned them in the yard of each a white and black family. The suspects say there was no racial malice in the act. The accused men have said the cross burnings on the city’s west side were in retaliation for a fight which occurred near the homes targeted.

Johnson says otherwise.

“It’s one thing to toilet paper someone’s trees as a prank, but you can’t burn a cross by accident,” Johnson said. “The act itself was indicative that they’re aware what it stands for and know it’s an emotionally powerful symbol for black folks. A cross burning signifies there are very threatening elements in their midst.”

The Rev. Ron James, pastor of the Antioch Christian Center in Ferrysburg, is well aware of the threatening nature of a cross burning as he and his family had a cross burned in their yard nearly five years ago.

James, who is black, said the Allegan incident doesn’t bring back personal memories of his encounter with a burning effigy, but rather serves as a reminder of racism that does exist.

“People are surprised by such overt acts, but there’s underlying racism people of color experience on an everyday basis,” he said. “People don’t want to believe or admit it’s here, but it is and it can’t be ignored.”

James said although the area is changing with efforts by Gail Harrison, the director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, and others, “There’s still a long way to go.”

“There is hope because there are people of color and whites who are working on this,” he said. “But until people are ready to admit the covert racism that exists, I won’t be surprised if it (a cross burning) happens again.”

Harrison, who for four years has directed a group promoting ethnic unity and harmony, said people should be outraged by both the burning and the potential for a similar act of hatred.

She says the people of Allegan County should be outraged, but so too should people in the entire region.

“Anytime you hear about something as blatantly hostile and overt as a cross burning it is certainly saddening” said Harrison. “People have a perception that for there to be a hateful and ugly incident there needs to be an organized group. This shows it’s just as likely to happen in a act by individuals.”

Harrison said the way to overcome such racial attack is through grassroots initiatives such as the town meetings held across Ottawa County and the Summit on Racism held at Hope College in February.

An act like the cross burning so soon after hundreds of people gathered to discuss racism in the community, doesn’t at all waylay the efforts made.

“I don’t think it diminishes what we’ve done or what we’re continuing to do,” Harrison said. “We can’t stick our head in the sane and present this doesn’t happen.”

Johnson, the Hope professor, is hesitant to say good can come from a racially motivated act. He considers an attack on one person’s civil rights an attack on every American’s civil rights.

“It’s very dangerous to think there won’t be a residual impact from this,” he said. “If there is a healing dynamic, however, it’s that people are now involved in discourse. “