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Charleston’s mayor on confronting racism with honesty

Long-serving Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley is leading his city through the tragedy and aftermath of the Emmanuel AME shootings. Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault interviews Riley about effective policing, race relations and reaching Americans who don’t think that racism is their problem.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Tonight, we continue our series we’re calling Race Today.

    Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault, formerly a full-time member of the NewsHour family, returns with a conversation with Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley.

    Elected in 1975, he’s one of the nation’s longest-serving mayors, holding office for 10 years — 10 terms as a Democrat.

    He sat down with Charlayne today at his office at Charleston City Hall.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    Mr. Mayor, thank you for joining me.

  • MAYOR JOSEPH RILEY, Charleston, South Carolina:

    It’s a pleasure.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    The horrific crime that took place in your city has the country once again focused intensely on race and racism.

    Now, in the 40 years that you have been mayor, I hear praise from all around for you. Can you tell me, what is the most important thing you have learned during that time about racism and how to deal with it?

  • JOSEPH RILEY:

    Well, you deal with it honestly, not politically, just honestly.

    We have worked hard to produce positive race relations. Most white people back then had had no professional relationship with an African-American. Only a small percentage had gone to school or in public accommodation with an African-American.

    So it was a process of getting to know each other and getting people comfortable with knowing each other, African-Americans knowing whites, whites knowing African-Americans. And so it was just continuing to push.

    The more people are engaged and the more opportunities they have to communicate and to become friends, and then in — in the African-American neighborhoods, it was very important that they knew that this government was their government.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    So you went there to convince them of that?

  • JOSEPH RILEY:

    I went — I not only went to convince them. We acted.

    We — people call me behind my back LBJ, Little Black Joe, because they said all I was interested in was the black people and their votes. Well, that wasn’t the case. What I knew was, for this to be a great city, it had to be a just city and that we had to begin with citizens who had not been a part of the governance before and had not felt like the government is for them.

    So, whether it was affordable housing, restoring neighborhoods, your public places, getting the police in the neighborhoods as friends. Our police operate summer camp with kids. The kids hug them at the end of summer camps. They become their role models. And we have 180 neighborhood councils. It’s a small city, so that every neighborhood is connected with government.

    So they began to realize this was their government, as we are affirmatively acted to do that.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    The police, by all accounts, performed admirably. And even last night, when there were demonstrators out there in a different mode and mood from the people in the church Sunday who said they forgave, they have shouted, no justice, no peace.

    And I’m told that the police escorted them in a most efficient way. Now, how do you explain that, and what do you share with other police chiefs and mayors and others around the country to get that to happen?

  • JOSEPH RILEY:

    I think we have the best — best police department in America.

    But we know that their goal is to serve the citizens of our community, to make them safe, but do it with — not just with justice, but with kindness and — you know, and good communication. We treat everybody nicely.

    And they — I mean, the bad people, we arrest them and all of that. But the police are there as friends of the community. And they know and they’re well-trained to be respectful and courteous. And we have to enforce laws.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    But how different is what happens here from what happened just a few miles away when a policeman shot an unarmed black man who was running away in the back? Walter Scott, that’s who I’m talking about.

    What’s the difference?

  • JOSEPH RILEY:

    Well, our police chief and our police officers are highly trained. And they…

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    Is that the key?

  • JOSEPH RILEY:

    I think it is.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    But you set a tone. You have to also set a tone. Right?

  • JOSEPH RILEY:

    You set a tone. And they work very hard.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    How different is what is going on in here than in the rest of the country, in as far as racism?

  • JOSEPH RILEY:

    Well, you know, the young — the killer was not from Charleston, 110 miles away. So, but he was from America.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    Right.

  • JOSEPH RILEY:

    That’s — he wasn’t — he wasn’t from another planet. He was from America. And…

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    And he was a Southerner.

  • JOSEPH RILEY:

    And he was a Southerner.

    And it shows that there are these pockets of evil and racial hatred that we have to put under a spotlight. They have to be in sunlight. We have to find ways to know. You got the First Commandment. You can say bad things and believe bad things if you want to. But we have got to work as a country to find out where these cells of hate are, and at least bring them into public consciousness, because it’s — if somebody is hateful and believes all of this kind of stuff, and working via the Internet and spreading all this, it’s good if we find out who it is.

    We can at least expose that, so that their neighbor knows. And, all of a sudden, you’re not operating in darkness. But we have — we are still a work in progress in America.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    But how do you reach people who don’t think that racism is their problem? And there are a lot of them.

  • JOSEPH RILEY:

    Yes.

    Well, this tragic event should reach most everybody, but hard racists, that racism was a problem. I think it is — to many Americans, is shocking. And I think it shows that there is work to do in our country, not in the South, but in our country.

    We need to — we have more work to do to understand each other, respect each other’s differences, embrace each other. We have made — we have made huge progress, when we consider where we were, in my lifetime, in the 72 years — 72 years I have been alive.

    But it shows that this is a work in progress. And we need to put our shoulders to the wheel and keep moving it forward.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    Mr. Mayor, thank you so much.

  • JOSEPH RILEY:

    Thank you.

     

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