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Building Bridges: Lewes woman declares ‘enough is enough,’ advocates for racial justice

Charlotte King attends March for Our Lives in March 2018. (Submitted photo)

LEWES — Charlotte King, chairwoman of the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice, has always noticed the ways racism affected her life as a Black woman.

“I was always aware of it. There were enough microaggressions, some of which I just absorbed, which certainly didn’t add to my feelings of worth,” the 82-year-old Lewes woman said. “But I think, you reach a certain time in your life when you think, enough really is enough. Don’t insult me anymore.”

Ms. King graduated from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1963, when the school was still fully segregated. There, she studied philosophy and the Greek classics. She explained that a common microaggression white people repeat to her is “You’re so articulate,” as if they are surprised.

“When people used to say to me, ‘You’re so articulate,’ I would say, ‘Thank you,’ ” Ms. King said. “Now I say, ‘That’s offensive.’”

Aside from attending marches in her youth, Ms. King said she was never a member of any racial activism groups before the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice.

What started as a study group initiated by Ms. King in 2015 to discuss a book about mass incarceration titled “The New Jim Crow,” sparked a group of like-minded Delawareans seeking out racial justice across the state.

Charlotte King

SDARJ is a Lewes-based unit focused on fighting for racial justice through conversation and education. According to Ms. King, there are currently more than 900 people signed up to the group’s email list.

The alliance’s mission statement can be summed up in one phrase: to educate, inform and advocate for racial justice.

The group hosts informational meetings monthly and gives out yearly $500 college scholarships to 10-plus high school seniors in Sussex County who can demonstrate concern for racial understanding and justice. Additionally, SDARJ established the annual Rehoboth Beach African American Film Festival, and members have hosted several expungement clinics over the years to help minors with nonviolent criminal charges get their records cleared.

SDARJ is also behind the construction of two billboards on Del. 1 in Lewes, a prime location where there is often stopped traffic heading into town on the weekends. The double-sided billboards read, “Enough is Enough” and “Racism Hurts Everyone.”

Ms. King expressed her gratitude to the Schell Brothers, a local construction company, for donating the two billboards.

“I couldn’t afford those billboards. They would’ve cost me $3,500 a month. We don’t have a budget; we don’t do fundraising; we have no memberships dues,” Ms. King said. “I asked … the Schell Brothers if they would turn two of their billboards into something for us. They didn’t even question us; they just did it.”

Ms. King said the use of the term “enough is enough” refers to racism, also clarifying that SDARJ has no association with Republican state legislators who used the term in a letter addressing Gov. John Carney’s COVID-19-related public health measures in May.

Charlotte King with Milton civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson

“We are saying enough is enough. Enough to 400 years of oppression, enough to discrimination, enough to the disparities in our incarceration system. Enough is enough in terms of poverty, in terms of being forced into inner cities, in terms of the school-to-prison pipeline, in terms of systemic racism. It’s all about racism,” she said.

Ms. King believes that the most powerful way to fight racism is through education, which is why the group regularly hosts town hall meetings with guest speakers. Most recently, they hosted a virtual town hall on Juneteenth with 350 viewers in attendance, including guest speakers Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings and state Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha, D-Wilmington.

“The two things that white American society held for years from Black America, and still continue to hold in some degree, is education and voting, because they are two of the most powerful weapons in the terms of power and control,” Ms. King said. “And so, I decided if they’re that powerful, then let’s use them. Let’s educate everyone about American history.”

SDARJ hosts town hall meetings once a month, and they typically see a turnout of 40 to 75 people, according to Ms. King. Usually, they are held in person, but the group has adapted them to the online format due to COVID-19. In the past, the group has hosted much of the Delaware General Assembly, police chiefs and even formerly incarcerated individuals.

Ms. King said she welcomes anyone who wants to learn more about racial justice to attend the town halls and to continue conversations of race within their communities.

“I want them to take that impact and take it back to their communities,” Ms. King said. “When you’re having luncheons in your community and so on, keep the conversation going. Because that’s what has to happen.”

Ms. King spoke at length about the ways she believes Black Americans have been wrongfully characterized throughout American history, starting with the Three-Fifths Compromise, which defined Black Americans as only three-fifths of a person under the Constitution.

“Black Americans have made great contributions to America, and most people are unaware of those contributions. Don’t forget (the misconceptions that) Black equals criminality, Black equals the drug trade, Black equals inferiority. Remember, in the original Constitution, Blacks were only defined as three-fifths human,” she said. “And so, all of that misinformation has to be corrected.”

She explained that many people who hold racist beliefs were taught those beliefs, which is why it’s important to educate people on Black history.

“Half the people out there who are racist were taught to be racist. They were taught that Black people are inferior. They were taught that Black people are criminals. They were taught that Black people have nothing to add to this society, and so, we do have to talk about their contribution,” Ms. King said.

In the wake of the protests surrounding George Floyd’s death in police custody in May, Ms. King said she is excited to see a diverse group of people waking up to the racial injustices in our world.

“I think it’s really hopeful to see the diversity of the protesters,” she said. “I’m very pleased that it’s a diverse group and in some areas, a predominantly white group that’s saying, ‘We no longer accept this’ or ‘We weren’t aware things were this terrible.’ I’m very hopeful about that.”

SDARJ originally sponsored the Del. 1 protest in Rehoboth Beach near the Tanger Outlets on June 5, but pulled out of its sponsorship before the event due to rumors of violent instigators planning to make an appearance. No instigators appeared, but Ms. King and other members of SDARJ still attended the protest to show their support.

Ms. King also acknowledged the reactionary legislation being passed as a result of protests, but raised concern about the loopholes that legislation may have. For example, Delaware House Bill 350, a measure to ban police use of chokeholds, states near the end of the bill that “the use of a chokehold is only justifiable when the person reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to protect the life of a civilian or a law enforcement officer.”

This wording leaves room for law enforcement officers to potentially still use chokeholds under the protection of self-defense. Despite this clause, the bill passed the state House and Senate.

“There’s always a caveat which we miss,” Ms. King said “The legislation has been passed in Delaware that says no more chokeholds. But there is a comma. ‘Unless someone’s life is in danger.’ As soon as you put in that caveat, you weaken the legislation.”

Ms. King referred to legislation with these caveats as “appeasement legislation.”

“Think of the 13th Amendment. It said, ‘There will be no more slavery, unless someone commits a criminal act.’ Well, that allowed local governments to create laws to make unemployment a criminal act. Or loitering and vagrancy a criminal act. That’s how we got into convict labor,” she said. “Somebody called it ‘appeasement legislation.’ And I don’t want to see the attorney general or the Black caucus do appeasement.”

Ms. King said the next long-term goal that she and the SDARJ are focused on is stopping the demolition of what used to be the Nassau School for Colored Children, built by the Dupont family in the early 20th century. The school building, which sits on the property of Ace Hardware, on Lewes-Georgetown Highway, was purchased by the Delaware Department of Transportation with plans to expand the highway. Ms. King says she hopes SDARJ will be able to successfully move the building off the property, so it may be preserved for historical purposes.

Ms. King reiterated her appreciation for the rest of the board of SDARJ, stating its accomplishments would not be possible without their combined efforts.

“We wouldn’t have an alliance without the board. They bring in all of the federal connections, federal work experience and knowledge. They’re broad in their understanding, and they’re truly committed,” she said.

The Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice will host its next virtual town hall July 14 at 7 p.m. The topic of discussion will be police and law enforcement reform, and the panelist will be Nathaniel McQueen Jr., the newly appointed secretary of the Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

Information about how to tune in to the town hall will be posted in the events section of the group’s webpage, sdarj.org.