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Viewing race through prism of riot, stories, an election
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Viewing race through prism of riot, stories, an election

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"Gangs Riot, Loot, Set Fires Downtown;

Police, Patrol and Guard Check Rioters."

That was the huge headline in the Journal on Nov. 3, 1967. The numerous stories below it weren't about rioting in some far-off metropolis. They were about rioting by blacks 41 years ago this month right here in the Twin City.

While cleaning up the editorial office the other day, we came across that paper, along with a copy of the Journal's 1998 series on race relations, Dividing Lines. Reading the stories about the riot and re-reading our series about race relations in these days after Barack Obama's win got me thinking about where Winston-Salem stands on race relations today.

The rioting must have made those relations seem abysmal in the first days of that long-ago November. It broke out on Nov. 2, a few weeks after a black man, James Eller, died after being hit by police officers who said they were trying to arrest him for drunkenness.

Several policemen and civilians were hurt in the rioting. At one point, in what might have been the biggest understatement of that first night of rioting, Police Chief Justus Tucker said there wasn't any indication the rioting would end quickly. "As Tucker talked, police officers were fired at by a sniper hidden in a building at 14th Street and Patterson Avenue," the Journal reported.

At the corner of Third and Church streets, Dick Creed, then the Journal's city editor, was assaulted. "I was strangely more aware of a sharp ringing sound than of the blow," Creed wrote shortly afterward. "Then other blows came, in the jaw, under the eye, on the back."

The rioting continued for a couple more nights. Eller's death was the precipitating event, but it brought to a head frustrations blacks had long had about justice and equality.

Leaders like the Rev. J.T. McMillan of the local NAACP probably helped in ending the violence. "This rioting is adding insult to the city, to the race and to racial understanding," McMillan said.

Indeed. As a Journal editorial noted at the time, "the real trouble in the streets came from ‘300 to 500 hoodlums,' " not "the vast majority of Winston-Salem's Negro population."

Compared to many other Southern cities, Winston-Salem had been relatively progressive in conceding to demands to integrate.

The major violence over race relations here ended with the riot. But whites continued to call the shots. Many whites distrusted blacks about as much as many blacks distrusted them. The distrust seethed beneath the surface, often erupting into heated arguments over issues such as the naming of the coliseum for a local black soldier who became a hero in the Vietnam War, Lawrence Joel.

By 1998, when we worked on the Dividing Lines series, some blacks and whites in Winston-Salem seemed burned out by the years of tension. Others were just plain burned out with trying to lower racial barriers. Still others continued to hammer away at the divide. By the time of the series, black citizens were starting to share power with whites in Winston-Salem, and blacks have gained more influence here in the years since.

The series revealed the best and the worst of race relations. So have events in the years since. One example of progress is the effort by citizens, black and white, who came together to finally get Darryl Hunt freed and exonerated of a wrongful murder conviction -- a case that had long divided the races in the city.

Obama's campaign and election also brought out the best and the worst in race relations here and across America. However you feel about his politics, it is remarkable that this country, which has been torn apart by race for so long, has elected a black president. At the same time, the racial taunts against Obama keep coming.

There's no easy answer to where Winston-Salem stands on race relations. Many people here, like so many other Americans, know that it's both practical and right that blacks and whites share power and work together for the common good.

They may not believe that Obama's election has ushered in a "post-racial" America. But they do know that, step by painful step, our country is gradually living up to its promise of equality and freedom.

■ John Railey writes editorials for the Journal. He can be reached at 727-7357 or at jrailey@wsjournal.com.

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