Harding High School grad, music teacher, first black City Council president, state representative, state senator, an involuntary five-year vacation from politics, followed by a second-chance message and now back on the City Council while assimilating ex offenders back into the work force, Ernie Newton is a survivor’s tale that inspires his supporters and irritates his detractors.
Thirty years ago he overcame a substance abuse battle that printed others on the obituary page. He doesn’t go away easily, a point he makes in a Black History Month commentary sharing a flashpoint encounter with a guidance counselor with blurry vision.
My first experience that I recall about how racism impacted my life occurred while attending high school. I must have been a junior or senior at the time of the incident, as I was planning for a life beyond high school.
This vocational advisory session involved a trip to the guidance office to explore my journey in life. I was excited to meet my guidance counselor and to talk about my dreams and aspirations of attending college. I was confident that she was filled with ideas and suggestions that would help me select the perfect college of my dreams.
As a way of background, my guidance counselor was a middle age white woman. She was working as guidance counselor at my school for several years. By all accords she was pleasant and knowledgeable about the many resources available. Upon sharing my dream with her about attending college, she immediately recoiled in her seat and boldly announced that, “You’re not what colleges are looking for.”
These words went through me like a hot blade through butter. This woman doesn’t know me or what I am capable of. How can she just summarily dismiss my dreams? Why did she even say this? Is she afraid of what an educated black man can accomplish? Whatever her intentions, it did not matter. For I was not going to let this middle age white woman stand in my path to success. Throughout life, I have always met people telling me what I can or cannot do because of who I am, where I came from or because the color of my skin.
People think they can build walls in front of me, but I use those wall to keep the negative ones out of my life. I surrounded myself with positive role models like the late Ernie Parker who mentored me as a student in the University of Bridgeport Upward Bound Program. Because of his support and many like him, I was accepted into Winston-Salem State University, in Salem, North Carolina. The education that I received in college laid the groundwork for my career in politics.
As a local and state elected official, I was part of landmark legislation that helped build and stabilize our community. I became a voice for those in need and a champion for education and economic development. Unfortunately, later in my political career I made a bad decision and served time for this indiscretion. While the court was just in finding me guilty the judicial system was inherently biased with the sentence, for I ended up being sentenced to five years with three years of probation. Compare this sentence to former Governor Rowland who was convicted of a worse crime and ended up with a one year sentence with three years of probation. You cannot tell me that race was not involved.
While racism is an inherent part of society it only thrives if we allow it to. Racism is promoted by ignorance and fear. As a proud black man, who has faced many injustices in this world, I could have easily become angry and bitter, but I didn’t. I use the world’s ignorance and fear to propel me forward and to lift others as I go. I will not allow systemic racism to win nor will I allow it to hold any brother or sister back, for together we shall become a beacon of hope in a storm or ignorance.