Stone Mountain, Georgia, is no stranger to civil-rights unrest. One hundred years ago this November, Ku Klux Klan members, inspired by D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation, celebrated the “rebirth” of their group by climbing to the summit and burning an enormous wooden cross. Since then, the 825-foot-tall peak has become a public park, theme park, and Confederate Mount Rushmore, featuring the world’s largest bas relief: the likenesses of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson carved into a three-acre triptych on the side of the mountain.
Since the murder of nine black worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina, in June, such Confederate symbols have come under attack. “Those guys need to go,” the head of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP declared in July. “They can be sandblasted off.”
Symbols can be erased. Eliminating the real-world legacies of racial injustice is harder work. At a time when violent racial clashes still happen with disturbing frequency, it is important to celebrate the places where this work is underway.
One such place is the mentoring organization 100 Black Men of America (“the 100” for short), whose national headquarters is in Atlanta, just twenty miles from Stone Mountain. The group began in New York in 1963, a turning point in the civil rights movement—the year Alabama Governor George Wallace proclaimed, “Segregation forever!” and Martin Luther King declared, “I have a dream.”
The mission of the 100, which is concentrated in the South but has more than 100 chapters in 30 states, is to support African-American children and teens through one-on-one and group mentoring with inspiring black professional role models drawn from both public and private sectors. Though more than a half-century old, that mission could not be more timely or urgent today.
Although females are involved as participants in the chapters’ programs, three-quarters of the 100,000-plus mentees and youth participants are young men. “We recognize that those young men have a challenge that is like no other,” says Brian Pauling, the group’s president and CEO.
One of the 100’s goals is to prepare their young charges for interactions with law enforcement. “We are having conversations with our youth, helping them to understand that the perception that someone may have of you may not be the reality,” says Pauling. The groups’ leaders are also talking to police officers, prosecutors, judges and police review boards about not leniency but understanding. Pauling is emphatic about that: “No one is telling law enforcement not to do their job.”
Pauling says that the number of recent violent incidents around the nation does not surprise him. “There are a number of below-the-surface circumstances that could create a Ferguson in literally every city across our country,” he says. “The question really becomes, what will be the spark that ignites the powder keg.” He points to a number of societal conditions for African-Americans that exacerbate the problem, including systemic inequalities they face in gaining access to quality education, jobs and health care.
For results, Pauling and his leadership rely on their 8,000 members in the field. Wayne Copper, 61, an Allstate agency owner in Stone Mountain, Georgia, is one of them. Copper, who volunteers with the Atlanta chapter, knows from experience how hard their work can be and what a difference mentorship can make.
“A lot of these kids operate from impoverished conditions like you would not imagine,” he says. Copper credits his success at surmounting the problems of his own youth to the constant support of adults when he was young: “I always had an older gentleman saying, ‘Son, I can tell you are not a child that really belongs around here. Keep on doing good work in school, and I know that one day you will be something.’”
Copper works with grade-school students and young adults, some of them enrolled in college, and his mentorship is full-spectrum: He leads a large class of kids in a weekly discussion to talk about “life issues and current events”; he teaches a class on Saturday to help students with study skills and test-taking; and he is mentoring two young professionals about business practices. He and his wife Jan have taken their young charges to church, brunch, the theater and into their home for meals and holidays.
At an Atlanta public school with a high poverty rate, Copper has also been involved with an alternative kind of juvenile-court system to find new approaches to disciplinary issues—avoiding suspensions whenever possible, for example, because being on the street invites more trouble. The men who volunteer for the 100, he says, are likely to understand better than most the sources of bad behavior. “Sometimes it’s that these kids didn’t have anything to wear or didn’t have anything to eat,” he says. Or they could be grappling with family problems and “get in trouble for attention.”
To prepare their protégées for the racism they will likely encounter, Copper says he and his colleagues in the 100 “just share our experiences. We say, ‘You know, guys, this didn’t just start today. We’ve experienced this for our whole lives. Not a day goes by that there isn’t some way most of us feel we’ve been discriminated against. You learn to deal with it.’”
Although 100 Black Men of America has no formal relationship with the Black Lives Matter movement, its chapters have marched with them in places like Ferguson. The approaches of the two movements, however, are dramatically different. While Black Lives Matter utilizes social media and public protest to advance their cause and express their dissatisfaction, the 100 utilizes its core competency of mentoring, private meetings and forums to advocate for the youth they serve. The group has attracted such formidable figures of the civil rights movement as Andrew Young and Georgia Rep. John Lewis, and has mobilized stalwart support for such White House initiatives as My Brother’s Keeper and the Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African-Americans.
That said, the 100 is no less committed to change than their more publicly vocal counterparts. Pauling calls for “creative destruction,” the kind of change that can move society and public institutions “to create something new that will provide better outcomes rather than changing things just for the sake of change.”
More than a half-century after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” less has changed than he might have hoped but more perhaps than he might have feared. In 1963, there was no Civil Rights Act; segregation and the poll tax were still legal; and the policemen of Birmingham, Alabama, turned dogs and high-pressure water hoses on young children before federal troops were called in to combat a wave of bombings and riots.
In the closing passage of that speech, King declared, “Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that: Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia….”
Freedom is ringing a little louder today thanks to people like Wayne and Jan Copper and his 8,000 colleagues in the 100, as they work to fulfill the dream of the civil rights movement, one life at a time.
“That’s the legacy of giving,” says Wayne Copper. “Having the opportunity to be right in there and being shoulder-to-shoulder and putting your arms around these kids.”