Updated: May 8
As Georgia’s third largest city, Columbus is home to more than 194,000 people, according to 2018 U.S. Census data. The city is the original home of Coca Cola as well as home toU.S. Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence, Aflac’s North American headquarters, Total Systems (TSYS), the Liberty Theatre and the Mother of Blues, Ma Rainey, the Springer Opera House, the RiverCenter for Performing Arts, Char Broil headquarters and a plethora of additional hidden treasures. Interestingly enough, the city is one of very few in the state where African Americans, or Blacks, are the majority – accounting for roughly 46 percent of the city’s population. However, the overall poverty rate is approximately 21 percent, with Blacks accounting for 29 percent of the impoverished population – only second to the others category. The national poverty average is estimated to be 20 percent. So, how does a city that’s majority Black, also end up with a significant amount of that majority impoverished?
Locals, like Allen, say it’s in part to the city’s decades-long divide in socioeconomic status and land area, which is widely regarded as the Macon-Dixon line. Allen explains, “Anybody in Columbus, GA is familiar in Macon road. It essentially divides the city, even land wise, in half just about. It’s the Macon-Dixon line. In basic words, it’s poverty on one side and wealth on the other.” Whether it’s resources or restaurants, Allen says they can be found on the more affluent side of town. He continued, “if you look at the resources and where some of the organizations that supposedly provide resources are located – they are typically located on the northside of Macon Road. Look at most of the restaurants. There’s not even a Starbucks on Macon Rd, let alone the southside of Macon Road.” To investigate this point, I took to Zillow.com. A vacant, 1200 square feet, 3 bedroom, 2 bath home, in what’s considered Midtown Columbus, north of Macon Road, easily sells for $189K. On the south side of Columbus, a home of the same specs runs $99k.
Inequities aside, Justin has spent most of his life in Columbus, watching his family advocate for change and equal treatment in the city. “I genuinely love my city and I want my city,” he added. “I want what’s best and I don’t mind calling out whoever – black, white or indifferent. Wrong is wrong and right is right.”
As such, Justin mentors youth in the city, is a member of the Urban League of Columbus, and even worked as a resource manager for a local nonprofit that puts underrepresented individuals back to work. That’s also why, in 2017, Justin started J.C. Allen Consulting, to help minorities start, grow and maintain their own small businesses. Still, it’s Justin’s latest effort that caught our attention: jump starting Columbus’ Coalition to Combat Racial Injustice. In the wake of George Floyd’s vicious murder, Allen and dozens of others in the city, have sought to combat the disparity in the treatment and opportunities they believe are afforded to Blacks and minorities. Allen recalled, “I’ve been pulled over, with no reason, myself. I say that, but I want to be very clear in saying that I have been pulled over and I was absolutely wrong.” He continued, “I’ve been arrested four times and every time I’ve never given the police any issues and I was absolutely wrong in what I was doing. But there’ve also been just as many times that I’ve been pulled over for no reason whatsoever; riding, on my way to work, pulled over and put in handcuffs in the back of a police car because my window tint was too dark.” Allen is one of many who support the call-to-action by the city’s former NAACP president for citizen subpoena power of city agencies and leaders, an effort to hold the powerful accountable in regard to the treatment of Black citizens in this city.
Just last week, a Columbus Police Department (CPD) officer was arrested for use of excessive force and violation of oath of office. This came after the Georgia Bureau of Investigations (GBI) reviewed the 2019 arrest of Donnell Rusell, a Black man. Russell was stopped for walking in the middle of the street, which is a violation of the Columbus city ordinance. Russell failed to comply with the officers’ request to open his left hand, and was subsequently handcuffed, but continued his refusal to comply. A video later revealed the CPD officer hitting Russell multiple times, in multiple places, pointing a taser at him and throwing him to the ground. In addition, Columbus has had at least seven officer-involved shootings since 2015 and three of them were fatal. This happened around the time that I landed in the city as a TV reporter, and serves as a direct tie-in to the current climate of the city’s race relations. But let’s flashback to a different time; a time when Blacks were Afro-Americans and/or negroes.
Picture this: Summer, 1971 in Columbus, Georgia. The typical southern summer heat wraps its arms around you as you meander through your day, presumably of leisure. Yet, when the sun sets, unrest rises, as Blacks in the city protest what they feel is discriminatory police practices. This stems from more than a half dozen Black officers and firemen being suspended or dismissed; one officer for failing to testify in the trial of a man he’d arrested, others for protesting his dismissal. This was the case in June of 1971 in black sections of the city, as identified by an archived New York Times article, titled “Racial Tensions in Columbus, Ga., Bring City to the Brink of Schizophrenia.” Later that same month, Hosea Williams led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in a protest march in support of a class-action lawsuit against the city as well as the city’s failure to address lifted concerns by the Afro-American Police League. Keep in mind that, at this time, schools were not yet segregated in the city, as that did not happen until September 7, 1971, after a third Lockett vs. Muscogee County School District ruling- which failed twice at eliminating de jure segregation in public schools, before being approved. As a reference, Brown versus the Board of Education’s ruling came down in 1954. Also of note, 1971 is the same year the city of Columbus was consolidated with the county. But, let’s go back even further, to when the stockade, now a part of the Muscogee County Jail, was used to house slaves until they were auctioned. Or even to the 14th Street Pedestrian Bridge, where the very last battle of the Civil War – the Battle of Columbus Battlefield – is said to have taken place.
This gives way to the importance of bridging the gaps of inequity and mistreatment through the power of education. Although a black and white past has sprinkled doubt over pieces of the city’s progression of race relations, Allen believes the current climate could be improved by focusing on three key areas:
Education is the key to accessibility. Justin says that education will help close the school-to-prison pipeline, which is said to put troubled children on a fast-track from school to the juvenile detention and criminal justice systems. He explained, “we have to do more in teaching our kids earlier on what avenues for careers are open. Letting them know that trade school is an option, you could go to community college, you don’t have to go four-year; educating our kids on financial aid and things of that nature.” Giving Black students options could give them exposure to things they may not have access to in their home environments, which could increase interest in school and decrease the suspension and expulsion rates of Black kids, which is three times higher than their counterparts according to the Americans Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU.
Economics is more than just cooking and living a domesticated life. “Specifically teaching the basics of financing community wide,” Allen shared. “How do you balance a checkbook? How do you create a budget? I was taught early on, but I don’t think our kids are being taught some of the basics of finances. What is credit? How can a credit card help you and hurt you? Where do you look up certain information?” Financial literacy rates among Blacks are perpetually low, averaging around 38%. However, we are not naive enough to believe that personal responsibility alone is enough to combat the infrastructure(s) inciting financial disparities.
And finally, conflict resolution can keep a mountain from becoming an erupting volcano. Self-awareness and mastering emotional intelligence (EQ) are often life-long processes. Still, attempts at mastering conflict resolution and EQ, even on an elementary level, could make a world of difference in the way that we deal with differences in all groups. Masterful delivery and responses will be integral when having tough conversations to advance the whole city, and will take hard work and diligence from the entire city. But a bigger question remains, says Allen: “how do we come to a point where we can say the end goal is: we have to push Columbus, Ga forward? And you can’t push an entire city forward if one half of the city is left behind.”
To ensure no one is left behind, Allen recommends following the leads of our youth. He stressed, “I don’t want some kids to have to go through some of the things that I’ve had to go through. I don’t want there to ever have to be any young person, black white or indifferent, that is being mistreated by the very people that are sworn to protect and serve them.” Their willingness to collaborate and natural synergy are lessons we all could learn from. They’re having the tough talks. They’re ignoring the lines in the sand drawn by race, mostly, and befriending people who befriend them. Today’s youth are mobilizing with the understanding that one day soon, they will be the leaders of Columbus Consolidated Government, and they desire a technicolor world that outshines the black and white one we’ve known. Allen stresses that sentiment, and shares that children are more than a group of millennials. He looks at our youth more like great equalizers. “If they begin to create those relationships now, then the city will have no choice but to change; their parents won’t have any choice but to change, so the city won’t [have any choice but to change],” Allen assured.