June 25, 2020 10:46:15 AM
Lowndes County Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders says he's sorry for comments he made more than a week ago saying Blacks have been "dependent" since slavery and that they are the only ethnicity that has not assimilated into American society.
In a letter he delivered to The Dispatch Wednesday, Sanders, who represents District 1, called the comments "thoughtless" and "carelessly spoken" and apologized for the negative impact they've had on the community.
But many local leaders, some of whom have called for his resignation, told The Dispatch the apology came too late and would not satisfy the local community.
Sanders made the racist comments to a Dispatch reporter on June 15, after voting with the white majority 3-2 to leave a Confederate monument in front of the Lowndes County Courthouse.
He reaffirmed the comments the next day when talking to The Clarion Ledger, saying: "Hell, it's what I think."
The comments sparked local protests and drew sharp criticism from local and national leaders and organizations. Many, including District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks, state Rep. Kabir Karriem (D-Columbus) and Lowndes County NAACP President Lavonne Latham Harris, called for his full resignation from the board.
In a departure from his attitude last week, Sanders, who previously stood by his remarks and refused to comment on whether he would apologize, said in the Wednesday letter he is sorry for the pain he caused the community.
"My ill-spoken words betrayed the trust of those who elected me in good faith and angered and brought pain to others," the letter reads. "Regardless of the signiﬁcant contributions and accomplishments made during my board service, the divisive impact of my comments cannot simply be dismissed or overlooked. I deeply regret putting Columbus, Lowndes County, the Golden Triangle and the state of Mississippi in such a negative light."
Sanders, who said he has worked "earnestly" on the board for more than 20 years in the county's interest, further called for the community to focus on the present and the future, "set aside our differences" and "create an environment of unity and harmony."
When reached by The Dispatch, Sanders did not elaborate on what those "differences" are or why he decided to apologize. He refused to comment any further on whether he would resign or step down as the board president, but had told The Dispatch last week he had no intention to resign.
Most of the other supervisors said Sanders' apology did not change their stances over his comments. The four supervisors reached an impasse last week over Sanders' refusal to resign.
Brooks, among many leaders urging Sanders to resign last week, said the only way to create "unity and harmony" within the community is for Sanders to retire from the board immediately. The remarks, he said, deeply hurt the local Black community, which accounts for 45 percent of the county population, as well as some white residents.
"The letter does nothing but shows at least he's willing to (apologize), and it's quite late to do that," Brooks said. "Lowndes County has become a household word throughout the country for all the wrong reasons, and the only way that we can restore some of the dignity to our community is that he is no longer in public office."
Brooks previously said he hoped the community could gather at the courthouse if Sanders does not resign by the June 30 supervisors meeting. As the day nears, Brooks told The Dispatch Wednesday it will be a "difficult" meeting for him but declined to comment further. Jeff Smith of District 4, who also openly urged Sanders to resign, told The Dispatch Wednesday he would not change his mind.
District 2 Supervisor Trip Hairston, who previously called for Sanders to step down as the board president, told The Dispatch Sanders' apology does not change his position but would not elaborate on why. Hairston asked for a special call meeting last week to discuss the removal of Sanders as president, but was stopped cold without enough support from other supervisors.
District 3 Supervisor John Holliman told The Dispatch on Wednesday he believes Sanders' letter was a sincere apology and should be sufficient for the board of supervisors and the public to put the controversy behind them. He said he would advise Sanders not to resign from the board, nor to step down as president.
Further, he chalked up Sanders' comments about Blacks being "dependent" to "a mistake."
"I think Harry's very remorseful over it," Holliman said. "But you look at what all Harry's done for this county over the last 20 or more years. Then he makes one mistake, and everybody wants to crucify him for it. I know it (his comments) came at a bad time."
Holliman acknowledged he at least partially understands the outrage from the public over his colleague's comments, as well as the offense taken by African Americans.
"I can see part of their point," Holliman said. "But it's kind of like, 'He who is without sin, cast the first stone.' I don't think there are many of them who can do that."
Holliman also said he took umbrage at The Dispatch reporter's line of questioning when Sanders made the now infamous comments caught on audio recording.
"(You can hear on the recording) I turned around to Harry and told him not to say anything, and (Board Attorney) Tim Hudson did too," Holliman said. "I don't know why she (the reporter) just kept on pressing him."
The only prompting The Dispatch reporter said after Holliman and Hudson told Sanders not to say anything was to tell Sanders he was still on the record.
'Keep your apology'
The apology, however, has not changed a lot of hearts within the community.
More than 100 community members criticized Sanders' letter on Facebook after The Dispatch released a copy of it online. Some deemed the letter "empty," "unacceptable" and "a feeble attempt to get back into people's good graces." Many others called for action, such as Sanders' resignation and a boardwide diversity training.
Harris, representing the local NAACP, called the apology letter "crap" and a "true insult" to the Black community.
"Keep your apology," Harris said. "All we want from Harry Sanders is for him to go and resign."
Columbus Mayor Robert Smith, in a Wednesday statement addressed to The Dispatch, said Sanders' apology was "yet another slap on the face" for the local community and that he doubted the sincerity of the letter.
"Now that Mr. Sanders has felt the sting of backlash from one of his closest friends and others in the community and State, he has seen the error of his ways and seeks to smooth over the wounds he inflicted by claiming that his comments were thoughtless," Smith wrote. "I wonder if the majority of the voters of District 1 of this County will condemn those words, uttered with obvious forethought and reaffirmed 24 hours later."
Sen. Chuck Younger (R-Columbus) said he is glad Sanders "finally came out and apologized" for the "hurtful" comments he made. But while he hopes supervisors can get back to business as usual, he thinks more may be required of Sanders before that can happen.
"It's tough being an elected official on any level," Younger said. "I think it would be good if Harry stepped down as board president. Really, I think that's inevitable."
Asked if Sanders should consider resigning, Younger said, "Probably. If I were in his shoes, I'd consider it."
Younger said he hopes everyone can learn a lesson from Sanders' words and the local reaction.
"Young people are watching us, and we all need to be careful what we do and say," he said. "Also, we all need to learn to forgive and forget, even though I know that's a hard thing to do."
Karriem, who called for Sanders' resignation, told The Dispatch he will not support any state legislation in favor of Lowndes County until Sanders is removed from the board. He further encouraged the other Golden Triangle delegation members to do so.
"I don't believe (the community) will heal until that last statue is removed," Karriem said of Sanders.
Rep. Dana McLean (R-Columbus) said she could not comment at this time when reached by The Dispatch this morning.
Joe Max Higgins, CEO of The Golden Triangle Development LINK, told The Dispatch the organization believes the letter "was not sincere" and that it does not "change or remove what Harry said."
The LINK CEO previously warned of the potential negative impact of Sanders' comments on attracting businesses to relocate to the region. Following Higgins' comments, the LINK last week issued a statement condemning Sanders' remarks as "disturbing" and "abhorrent."
Dispatch Managing Editor Zack Plair contributed to this report.
Yue Stella Yu is the local government reporter for The Dispatch. Reach her at 662-328-2424 (ext 106) or follow her on Twitter @StellaYu_Mizzou
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