August 6, 2008

Uncivil rights activist - A civil rights leader is disciplined, sparking outrage among supporters

The Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression has suspended longtime member Gracie Lewis for three months following an altercation with a fellow activist and the woman’s 13-year-old son.

A student volunteering with a summer camp at the Kentucky Alliance claims that on July 21, Lewis yelled at him for getting in her way, waved her finger in his face and warned him not to speak unless spoken to first. The boy’s mother says that after approaching Lewis about the incident, she was verbally abused and even threatened.

In response to these aggressive encounters, the leadership of the Kentucky Alliance has decided Lewis should take what they are calling a “three-month sabbatical,” according to K.A. Owens, co-chairman of the organization. The difficult decision was made after taking into account both the gravity of the accusations and Lewis’ long history in the civil rights movement.

“We hope the people in the community have confidence that we will deal with these internal matters in a fair and just manner,” Owens says. Although he refuses to provide details about the incident in question or the suspension, Owens acknowledges that the Alliance issued a formal apology to Attica Scott, the woman who Lewis allegedly accosted. 

Meanwhile, Lewis publicly maintains she has done nothing wrong, despite the fact that she, too, sent a letter of apology to Scott last week. Scott provided LEO Weekly with copies of both letters. 

“I did not intend to offend you or your son,” the letter from Lewis reads. “Moreover it was wrong for me to call you and leave messages you may have considered offensive or threatening.”

The letter is referring to an irate message left on Scott’s office answering machine the day after Lewis reportedly screamed at her son. The recorded message says: “This is Gracie Lewis you black bitch. You better not never bring your skinny, narrow ass and get in my face again because I will kick your black ass. Peace.”

Though the letter acknowledges wrongdoing, Scott doesn’t believe the apology is sincere, given recent public comments made by Lewis.

Last week, Lewis called into “News & Views,” a local radio program on WLOU 1350 AM, and angrily complained that the entire incident was a conspiracy to catapult her out of the Kentucky Alliance. (Disclosure: At the time Lewis called, the writer was a guest on the hour-long show, which centered on the story about this incident in the July 30 LEO Weekly.) She went on to deny any wrongdoing, contradicting her letter of apology sent just two days earlier. 

At this point, Scott says she is just ready to move past the incident, which she considers a diversion: “Gracie is not going to tear our work down.” 

Although Lewis did not return calls seeking comment for this story, she did call LEO Weekly on Monday, demanding that the newspaper stop printing stories about the incident and accusing it of being racist for publishing a story containing a negative portrayal of an African American. 

Some supporters of Lewis believe younger activists have unfairly targeted the iconic social justice advocate in an attempt to usher out veterans of the civil rights movement. 

“It’s some stupid young folks trying to take over the Kentucky Alliance,” says Mattie Jones, interim director of the Justice Resource Center. “It’s a group of untrained, unskilled, arrogant and disrespectful young folks.”

Saying she is “damn mad about it,” Jones believes the decision to suspend her longtime friend is the tipping point for an organization she feels has been on the decline. “There is no Kentucky Alliance,” she says, adding that since the death of its founder, Anne Braden, the organization is a shell of what it once was. “It died with Anne.” 

Another legend in the local civil rights movement, Jones took over the Justice Resource Center after the sudden death of the Rev. Louis Coleman last month. Not only is Jones frustrated with the Kentucky Alliance, it turns out she also is upset with LEO Weekly. In fact, because the newspaper is publishing this story, she plans on using her new position to call for a boycott, saying, “We want this to stop.”

Echoing that sentiment, Sarakia Johnson — another fellow activist and longtime friend to Lewis — says she will take part in any protest of the newspaper. It still is unclear exactly when or why they might protest. 

“We can’t throw our elders away,” says Johnson, who has marched with Lewis on several occasions. Unhappy with the Alliance’s decision to impose a three-month suspension, Johnson points out that Lewis has devoted her life to an organization that now is punishing her.

“We’re not saying she didn’t do anything wrong,” says Johnson, suggesting the matter is personal, not worthy of disciplinary action or news coverage.

Finally, she says the movement needs people like Lewis: “Don’t throw away the Gracie’s of the world.”