Cover Story

Where's the Leadership?

More than a year after the initial effort to rename Willow Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, politicians and leaders at every level of government have failed Lafayette.

"We need a leadership that is calm and yet positive. This is no day for the rabble-rouser, whether he be Negro or white. We must realize that we are grappling with the most weighty social problem of this nation, and in grappling with such a complex problem there is no place for misguided emotionalism. We must work passionately and unrelentingly for the goal of freedom, but we must be sure that our hands are clean in the struggle. We must never struggle with falsehood, hate, or malice. We must never become bitter. I know how we feel sometime. There is the danger that those of us who have been forced so long to stand amid the tragic midnight of oppression ' those of us who have been trampled over, those of us who have been kicked about ' there is the danger that we will become bitter. But if we will become bitter and indulge in hate campaigns, the new order which is emerging will be nothing but a duplication of the old order."

' Martin Luther King Jr., from his May 1957 "Give Us the Ballot" address at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, D.C.

Distract, divert, distort, deny.

Those four words have become the defining weapons of today's politics. But when Lafayette City-Parish Councilman Louis Benjamin introduced a resolution in September 2005 with the worthy and admirable goal of honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by renaming Willow Street, no one could have imagined that the politics of hate and division would be allowed to drive the issue.

Through a combination of inflammatory rhetoric, dismissive reactions and stony silence ' stoked by numerous juvenile actions ' Lafayette's white and African-American elected officials have allowed an attempt to pay tribute to our country's greatest Civil Rights leader to turn into a racially divided dispute fueled by the language of demagoguery.

The seeds for the acrimonious environment were set in motion during March 2005, when the Lafayette City-Parish Council voted to use the severely underfunded budgets (approximately $600,000) from I-10 frontage roads to cobble together $1.2 million to widen Verot School Road. Councilman Chris Williams claimed it was proof of the history of the north side getting shortchanged in favor of south side capital projects. Williams hammered the refrain relentlessly, telling the council, "Don't throw me a bone and tell me, 'Be happy with what you have.'" But his argument simply wasn't true. Since Williams took office in 1996, his district has received more construction money than any of the other eight councilmen.

The Advocate reported last year that records from the Department of Public Works show that $38 million ' 24 percent ' in construction money has flowed into Williams' Third District, with the other eight districts receiving between $5.8 million (Randy Menard, District 9) and $24 million (District 6, represented by Bruce Conque since 2004). Even with big-dollar items like the Natural History Museum removed from construction expenditures in his district, Williams still comes out at the top of the list, with $24 million to match Conque's district.

When Advocate reporter Kevin Blanchard asked Williams about the numbers, the councilman dismissed them as a "shell game."

Distract, divert, distort, deny.

Williams and Benjamin used that us vs. them/north side vs. south side backdrop to frame the Willow Street renaming resolution. No one should debate that honoring Martin Luther King Jr. would be a positive thing for Lafayette ' and particularly appropriate for an area with such a proud multi-cultural heritage and population.

But some Willow Street businesses voiced concerns that the change could cost them as much as $5,000 in related expenses and cause confusion with their existing business accounts. The change could be enacted if 51 percent of Willow Street property owners signed a petition, but supporters of the name change have been curiously silent about organizing a serious petition drive.

Confronted with those obstacles, Williams and Benjamin began using racially charged phrases that discourage African-Americans with possible alternatives to the Willow Street renaming proposal from joining the dialogue. At one council meeting, Benjamin said that African-Americans who weren't supporting him and Williams were "shuffling like an old shuffling Negro." And according to African-American Planning Commissioner Fred Prejean, "When a black person disagrees with Williams and Benjamin, they are labeled a 'spook by the door' or traitor sent by the white man to spy and cause disruption."

This is no day for the rabble-rouser, whether he be Negro or white.

Williams' and Benjamin's white counterparts on the council didn't need to respond to the race-baiting with equally disappointing actions, but that's what they did. Councilman Marc Mouton flippantly referred to Williams' supporters as "the peanut gallery" during a council meeting. Councilman Bobby Badeaux called Williams and Benjamin "schoolyard bullies." Councilman Rob Stevenson even said the reason the street name couldn't be changed was "a safety issue," citing possible confusion in future 911 emergency calls.

Then Chris Williams wrote "Martin Luther King Jr. Drive!" on the council credenza with a permanent marker. It was a remarkably immature display for an elected official who also is the head of a state public school, especially one ostensibly using Martin Luther King Jr. as his inspiration. (At his recent press conference, Williams apologized ' but only after saying that the removal of frontage road money and Rebuild Lafayette North money drove him to do it. Distract, divert, distort, deny.)

Leave it to the rest of the council to turn one foolish act into a full mini-series. Weeks of wrangling over possible felony and misdemeanor charges against Williams, contract estimates for credenza clean-up and repair that were treated like secretive multi-million dollar Defense Department bids, and numerous discussions of Formica all ultimately resulted in $60 worth of damage.

Even 15th Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson, who has a history of avoiding tough calls that may cost him votes, joined the political three-ring circus. Rather than gather the facts and objectively apply the law to Williams' actions, he tried to get the council ' which he called "the victim"' to sign off on a pre-trial diversion program Williams could enter to avoid possible prosecution on charges of criminal damage to property. After the council refused to vote, Harson shifted gears and instead filed three misdemeanor charges against Williams.

Councilman Bruce Conque is the latest councilman to embarrass himself and further inflame the situation. When Williams allegedly threatened Conque at a recent council meeting, Conque chose not to immediately handle the matter in full view of the cameras that record every council gathering. Instead, Conque assailed Williams in a secret letter he wrote to District Judge Marilyn Castle prior to Williams' sentencing for the graffiti incident. Conque wrote: "I would assume that Williams' character will play a factor in your decision. And that brings me to the point of this communication. Whatever demeanor is displayed by Williams in court on Friday, please consider the latest episode in which he has exhibited a trait that I have frequently witnessed during my tenure on the Council and during which some of the time I have been the focus of his malevolence.

"During last Tuesday's Council meeting, I challenged a statement made by Williams and his response, as is his style, was to launch a personal attack on me," Conque continued. "It has occurred so often in the last two and a half years that I ignored him rather than become embroiled in a non-productive verbal confrontation. It was after his tirade that I was walking across the Council floor that he threatened me by stating that I was to stay out of the affairs of his district and the Northside and that 'your ass is mine.' Unfortunately, this threat was not overheard by any other Council member. However, you know me well enough to appreciate that I am not given to hyperbole.

"I do not feel threatened by Williams," Conque said. "I merely consider him to be a schoolyard bully who is accustomed to getting his way and believes that he can continue to intimidate others without consequence."

Distract, divert, distort, deny. If Williams is the schoolyard bully, then Conque's the schoolyard tattletale.

Local NAACP Chapter President Je'Nell Chargois (whom The Independent Weekly honored for her work in the NAACP in its 2003 "Women Who Mean Business" issue) has also seized recent events as an opportunity to issue sweeping, divisive statements. At Chris Williams' Oct. 6 press conference, Chargois said: "I want to say to the media while you are here today: You have been the most unfair group of people I have ever met in my life. What you have done to Chris in your constant, constant, constant using him in a negative way has really, really affected the community as a whole. ... I'm just saying to you today that this issue is important to this whole community. And you can go get all the folks you want to try and separate and divide us, it's not going to happen, not this time. OK, not this time. You know, I think there's a very simple request that we are asking this community. It's very simple. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Respect me, and I will respect you. And that's really all it's about."

There have been instances where Chargois' feelings are absolutely justified ' like when The Daily Advertiser last week turned over its editorial page to "guest columnist" Donna Greco, who wrote: "To Louis Benjamin: drop the Martin Luther King thing. Everyone is just Kinged out in this town. We have a national holiday; it is celebrated widely with parades, speeches and other types of tributes. The schools participate like it is the notation of the Second Coming and the media spends several days touting its coming, its doings, and its going. Drop it!"

"Everyone" is "Kinged out"? Ms. Greco doesn't speak for the people of Lafayette. And her not-so-subtle denigration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day ' "The schools participate like it is the notation of the Second Coming â?¦" ' is offensive and revolting.

This is no day for the rabble-rouser, whether he be Negro or white.

But for Chargois to denounce all local media like The Independent Weekly and The Advocate, Acadiana TV stations KATC TV-3, KLFY TV-10 and radio stations like KPEL and KVOL is merely the time-honored political bait-and-switch ' blame the media. Distract, divert, distort, deny.

At the press conference, Councilman Chris Williams and Chargois welcomed their latest ally ' New Orleans Rev. Raymond Brown of the National Action Network and the new Black Panther Party. Brown was in New Iberia last week addressing the tear-gas incident in an African-American neighborhood that occurred after the Sugarcane Festival ' a serious and disturbing event that deserves a full investigation into the New Iberia Sheriff's Department's actions. But here are the comments Brown made to The Advocate, beginning with his opinion of Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

"Gov. Blanco, as you know, she was slow to respond to [Hurricane] Katrina. The governor, excuse the expression, is a no-good bitch. That's not a curse word, we say that in church. She's no good."

Church? Whose church?

The article continued: "Brown also ripped the local clergy who have worked with the city and Sheriff's Department in the West end, calling them 'Uncle Toms, bootlicking and tap-dancing, scratch-where-it-don't-itch preachers.'"

The governor's husband, Raymond "Coach" Blanco, was one of Williams' earliest political mentors, and he and Williams worked for years together at UL Lafayette. What could Coach possibly think about Williams now aligning himself with a man that refers to his wife and our governor as a "no-good bitch"? How will Lafayette African-American clergy who have worked with Lafayette Consolidated Government feel if Brown returns here and labels them as "Uncle Toms, bootlicking and tap-dancing, scratch-where-it-don't-itch preachers"?

Brown further threatened the use of violence to address the sheriff's actions, saying the Black Panther Party knows how to use weapons of warfare.

Is this the kind of voice Lafayette needs if it's going to move forward toward a positive solution to this issue?

This is no day for the rabble-rouser, whether he be Negro or white.

Consider the reaction at the New Iberia town hall meeting the day after Rev. Brown made those comments. New Iberia Mayor Hilda Curry said, "We are going to work through these problems in a non-violent way. We need to get everyone in the community involved." Following the meeting, African-American Councilman Ernest Wilson, who represents New Iberia's District 2 along with Raymond "Shoe Do" Lewis, emphatically noted, "I heard what he, Rev. Brown, had to say, and he needs to go back to New Orleans and tend his matters there. We will solve our own problems, and we are against violence."

Is it so hard for the Lafayette City-Parish Council to follow that example?

Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout, "White Power!" when nobody will shout, "Black Power!" but everybody will talk about God's power and human power. ' Martin Luther King Jr., from his August 1967 "Where Do We Go From Here?" annual report delivered at the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Which leads to the biggest disappointment: Why has City-Parish President Joey Durel been so invisible on this whole matter? Durel deflected the matter early on, saying it was up to a majority of Willow Street landowners to enact the renaming of the street to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. That's in keeping with the platform Durel used to get elected: the run-government-like-a-business approach. But that approach has backfired in the MLK Drive instance.

When relations on the council started to severely deteriorate over the issue, Durel could have stepped up and publicly chided the council and urged council members to work together to find a solution. He could have led the effort, updating residents on progress, and this might have been solved a long time ago. But by primarily staying silent on the sidelines, Durel has ' rightly or wrongly ' come off as detached and unsympathetic to the ultimate goal of honoring Dr. King. And after reaching out to the African-American community for support on the Lafayette Utilities System's fiber initiative, he's left them twisting in the wind on the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive initiative. Does he really think they'll welcome him with open arms if he asks for their support for his Nov. 7 sales tax for road construction? What few comments he's had on the issue have been primarily non-committal or negative in tone; he told The Advocate that the north side needs better leadership from "people who aren't angry and bitter," and said the MLK Drive issue could be resolved by "people who are sincere."

We need a leadership that is calm and yet positive.

Part of the blame for Durel staying in the shadows lies with Lafayette City-Parish Government Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley. As a respected veteran local television anchor and newsman before accepting his job with the Durel administration, the media-savvy Stanley knows better than anyone what a forward-thinking media campaign can do to advance a positive agenda.

There is no denying that anyone willing to advance an opinion on this politically radioactive matter risks being labeled a racist or demagogue by opportunistic supporters on both sides of the debate. It was almost a year ago that respected African-American community activist Joe Dennis told The Independent Weekly, "This thing is not going to go away, and a lot of people are thinking, 'Well, I'm going to stay on the sideline, and I'm not going to be pulled into this.' But you'll be surprised what something like this does. It's going to wind up involving everything else."

Dennis was right. Lafayette's community representatives and leaders from all walks fear scorn or reprisal if they enter the debate. Numerous people contacted for this story ' from African-American media members to white pastors ' refused to speak on the record. Off the record, three main refrains were clear:

â?¢ Members of the African-American community feel the inability of the root issue to be achieved ' honoring Dr. King with a major street name ' is a sign of disrespect and symbolic of larger race-relations issues in Lafayette.

â?¢ Councilman Williams squandered any political capital he had left with white voters when he wrote on the council credenza.

â?¢ Lafayette residents are disgusted with their local officials, and this council's term can't end soon enough. In the meantime, residents don't want our politicians and community leaders to let this continue festering.

It's time to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Lafayette, with an appropriate acknowledgment of his legacy. If the logistics, money or politics make renaming Willow Street a futile effort, the parish's leaders ' and the constituents they serve ' need to get creative. And Durel needs to lead the way and welcome input from the whole community. He's asking voters to approve a sales tax that could generate almost $500 million in infrastructure improvements. In a recent pitch for the tax, Durel said, "You can't lump all taxes into one category. It's not an emotional decision; it's a business decision."

Why can't the two be combined by allocating part of the projected revenue to a worthy project to celebrate King's legacy?

Maybe our local leaders ' white and black ' could heed the example set by Martin Luther King Jr. in his February 1968 address at a Southern Christian Leadership Conference titled "To Chart Our Course for the Future," where he said: "On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' And Vanity comes along and asks the question, 'Is it popular?' But Conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right."