Dwight Mullen in Mars Hill: Reparations will ‘fix the country as a whole’

Dwight Mullen, chair of the reparations commission, addresses a crowd at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Mars Hill.

MARS HILL – The joint Asheville City Council/Buncombe County-composed Community Reparations Commission has some big plans for Asheville’s Black residents, according to its chair.

Dwight Mullen spoke at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Mars Hill last month, speaking to an audience of more than 30 people in an event facilitated by Mars Hill University’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion Jonathan McCoy and the Madison County Racial Justice Coalition.

Mullen is chair of Asheville’s historic Community Reparations Commission, a 25-member board intended to make short, medium and long-term recommendations that will make progress toward repairing the damage caused by public and private systemic racism going back 400 years to the time of slavery to the Jim Crow era and even today with large gaps in wealth, education, health and more between Black and white residents.

Mullen and his wife, Dolly Jenkins Mullen, both retired from UNC Asheville in 2018.

The Mullens moved to Asheville in 1984 to take teaching jobs with UNCA.

The discussion centered around reparations, and Mullen said he anticipates the commission will submit its final report to the city and the county in April 2024.

Mullen referred to his work as chair as “without question, the hardest thing” he’s ever done.

“Reparations have to be personal because I can’t wait a lifetime, I’ve already lived a lifetime,” Mullen said. “I can’t forever. It’s already been forever.”

According to Mullen, the couple’s experiences working in Nigeria and South Africa afforded the reparations commission chair a working background on governments’ attempts at issuing reparations.

“I’ve been on both sides of the struggle,” Mullen said. “I’ve been with Black folk looking at, ‘How do we liberate ourselves from this clear oppression that will never end on its own? Colonialism will never end on its own. Apartheid will never end on its own. So we have to create it for ourselves.’

“And I’ve been on the white side, as I am now, bridging and trying to explain what we’re doing and why, let alone constructing the plane as we’re flying, because we’ve never done this before. Reparations in terms of after the Civil War, didn’t take the form that we’re doing now. It was a federal level operation. This is a local operation.”

The reparations commission chair recalled his first experience in Madison County, in which he received hate letters when he returned to his office on a Monday.

“If you know UNCA’s schedule, Friday is lecture day. It’s humanities day,” Mullen said. “We were out on the quad with a community marching band out of a public housing community … and just as the students were getting out of humanities lectures, we greeted them on the quad.

“My introduction to Madison County occurred over the weekend, because when I got back to my office on Monday, they left me love notes – the militia, the Klan, the Nazis. If you remember, Madison County was a place for training. These paramilitary folks would come here on the weekends and train. They found my office, and that was my first batch. We received alternate notes saying, ‘You should go back to Africa.’ But this was personal, and it was life-threatening.”

Mullen’s Madison County experience served as a harsh reminder that he was going to be forced to fight for equality just as hard in his home country as he did in Africa.

“That’s when I realized that rather than feeling exiled to the islands, I was actually in the heart of the fire, that it wasn’t just in Africa, it wasn’t just someplace else in my graduate school experience,” Mullen said. “It was much more along the lines of, wherever you are of insisting on equality and the liberty of the human spirit. For me, to repair the damage that prevented me from ever thinking of how to do that, other than in a defensive way, is part of what reparations has to account for.”

According to the commission chair, the discussion on reparations cannot simply be reduced to the economic aspect.

“Another way of defining reparations is defining it in terms of housing damage, the educational damage, the health and wellness damage – the damage not just to our economic well-being, but to the economic standing of our children,” Mullen said. “There’s no hope for economic equality, of massive transfers of wealth, in this country, and it’s not because folk are looking for handouts, it’s because of the massive maldistribution between the 1% and the 99%. Black folk are just, as with everything else, on the tip of the spear.

“So, when I’m talking about reparations in terms of the redistribution of wealth, I’m talking about not racially exclusive and what has to be primarily aimed at fixing these racial disparities, I’m talking about something that’s going to fix the country as a whole. You can’t have democracy as a massive maldistribution of wealth.”

Dwight Mullen, chair of the reparations commission, spoke at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Mars Hill last month.

Madison County Racial Justice Coalition

Mullen was invited to speak in Mars Hill by McCoy.

“Since 2020 the fight for racial and social justice has drawn increased interest. Terms that explain the reasons and goals in that fight like; reparations, critical race theory (CRT), woke, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are used constantly by many people who do not understand their meaning, history and/or purpose/goal,” McCoy said in an email to The News-Record. “Emotion dismisses education. Untruth distorts understanding. Contempt derails comprehension. This was an opportunity to provide some clarity regarding reparations and open the door for an honest and respectful discussion.”

Jonathan McCoy

McCoy also serves with Madison County’s Racial Justice Coalition chapter.

McCoy said he was optimistic about the direction of the county’s Racial Justice Coalition organization, particularly after a number of workshops, such as the April 2022 diversity training workshop hosted with the YWCA, are bringing a renewed focus to the group.

“I’m happy with the different workshops and discussions the MCRJC has provided over the past two years,” McCoy said. “The challenge the MCRJC faces is encouraging interest and action regarding social/racial justice among the community. Encouraging those who may not see and/or experience interactions like profiling, racial slurs, or intimidation to work to strengthening their understanding that social/racial justice increasing the sense of belonging for everyone which creates positive economic, political, and social impacts for the whole county.”

Johnny Casey is the Madison County communities reporter for The News-Record & Sentinel, part of the USA TODAY Network. Reach him at jcasey@newsrecordandsentinel.com.

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