Public radio host Al Letson had made the tour of the room, hugging friends and chatting with acquaintances. The room hummed merrily in return. But when the cameras turned on and Letson took to the stage, the room became heavy with silence.
“Chances are, you remember where you were when prosecutors released the verdicts about Michael Brown and Eric Garner,” Letson said, facing the teleprompter to film the introduction. “When grand juries cleared police of wrongdoings in their death, the nation responded — Dang it, take it back. I said ‘death’ when it should’ve been ‘deaths.’” He shook off his nerves and resumed his straight-backed stance. All eyes were pointed at him.
It was Jan. 27, a full five months after the controversial death of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Mo. But the tension remained high, not least in that very room, where more than 100 people had gathered to discuss race in America.
The free town hall-style event, called “Race in the River City,” was held at the WJCT studios in Jacksonville, Fla. Tickets had sold out quickly, with about 220 people signing up to attend.
The studio audience, however, represented only a fraction of the event’s overall reach. “Race in the River City” was being live-streamed online, and a tape of the event is scheduled to air Feb. 12 on WJCT-TV.
It was precarious situation for the studio audience to be in. The cameras stared, unblinking, at the expectant attendees. They were about to have a no-holds-barred conversation about race — one of America’s most divisive topics — broadcast for all the world to see.
Letson, aware of the pressure, switched to comedian mode. “Does my smile look goofy? Do my glasses look okay?” he asked the audience with a self-conscious smile. Then, tongue planted firmly in cheek, he added, “Do you want to go out afterwards?”
Laughter briefly pierced the silence. Letson is embraced as local, having grown up in the Jacksonville suburb of Orange Park. His one-hour Public Radio show, State of the Re:Union (which ivoh.org featured last spring) is produced with the support of WJCT.
But while Letson is well-known as a national radio personality, lately he has gained another kind of celebrity.
On Nov. 25, he wrote a Facebook post that stretched on for 784 words, recounting his experiences as a black man confronting racism. It sparked an outburst of feedback. On Dec. 4, he wrote about it again. And again, the response was overwhelming.
Together, the two posts had received 6,564 likes, 619 comments and 2,692 shares. It was evidence of a public that yearned to reach out, discuss, and be heard.
From those two Facebook posts grew a full-fledged plan to hold a televised town hall, one that would ideally bring together black and white, cop and civilian, young and old.
The aim was a modest one: to simply bring together contrasting views, not to solve racial strife overnight. “We’ve got over 400 years of race relations in America,” Letson told the crowd. “I don’t have any illusions that it will all change tonight. But there is a lot of good we can do.”
On social media, Letson had been troubled to see two vastly different narratives playing out. Some of his friends and followers were deeply enraged by the recent high-profile deaths of unarmed black men. Others seemed blissfully unaware.
“We live in these parallel Americas,” Letson told ivoh in a recent interview. “You can live in this one America and have a certain experience, or you can live in the other America and have another experience.”
“I just wanted to have a conversation to try and get both sides to look at that,” he continued. “The only way anything changes is if we get started with a conversation and if that conversation moves into action.”
Igniting the discussion, however, took a little prodding. After a few opening remarks, “Race in the River City” was officially ready for debate. But the open microphones were greeted — at least at first — with shut mouths.
Letson assured the crowd, “We can all talk. It’s a safe space.” A nervous chuckle erupted.
A curly-haired woman grabbed the mic, words tripping out of her mouth. The conversation had started, and it was off with a gallop. From then on, the microphones would zip from person to person, story to story. Speakers were black, white, and Hispanic, and many hailed from positions of authority.
On one side of the room sat a man dressed in the dark uniform of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. On the other side there was a woman who used to serve on the local school board. Between them sat a couple of pastors, a Wall Street veteran, and university professors.
But as one participant pointed out, “We need more young people in the room.”
Many participants openly confronted the police officer with tales of racial profiling by cops. Others confronted their fellow commenters for focusing too much on prison populations, or for thinking society should be looking past race.
The conversation needs to start where we disagree, Letson told the crowd. None of this was meant to be comfortable.
“I think a lot of people will probably walk out of here with more questions than answers. My hope is that they go looking for those answers to the questions,” Letson told ivoh after the event. “My job is just to stir things up and make people think, to shake people up.”
But Letson didn’t just play impartial moderator to the event. He waded in, responding to comments that “took [him] back a bit.”
“When it comes to issues like this, we’re talking about my children. I’m not going to pretend I don’t have something at stake, because I do,” he said. “But it’s not just me that has something at stake. This country has something at stake.”
More than once, Letson asked members of the audience to simply close their eyes and breathe, particularly at a moment when sparks of outrage threatened to flare. The tactic seemed to work: the conversation remained impassioned but civil.
“The reason things are the way they are is because none of you actually stand up and ask the question, ‘why is it like this?’” one black woman said, eyes flashing. “The question alone, especially coming from somebody white, would do a heck of a lot to break down what we’ve accepted.”
Even when the tone was tense, the discussion was having a positive outcome, Letson later explained. It served as a form of catharsis. “Sometimes it’s a beautiful thing just for the African American community to feel like somebody hears them,” he said.
But no reaction was stronger than what greeted a round-faced 6th grader named Savannah who decided to speak.
“My friends at school will talk about [Ferguson] and say how afraid they are that something might happen to them,” she said, shyly. “We shouldn’t have to live in fear.”
For the first time all evening, the room broke into applause. An elderly woman in the crowd turned around, eyes glistening.
“See what we did!” she said, frail voice rising with pride. “See what we did!”