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Durham's Black Mayor ˜Shocked' at Recent Cross Burning Incidents

Durham's Black Mayor ˜Shocked' at Recent Cross Burning Incidents
Date: Thursday, May 26, 2005
By: Monica Lewis,

In the nearly 40 years that Bill Bell has lived in Durham, N.C., he's never experienced the horror he felt after hearing that several cross burnings had occurred in the relatively progressive community he's overseen as mayor since 2001.

Even during his first few days in Durham, which came on the heels of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bell told, racial tensions were kept to a minimum.

"During that time, we were able to maintain relatively calm," Bell said of Durham residents of all races. "We tend to pride ourselves on diversity and the ability to be able to agree to disagree."

It appears, however, some of the city's roughly 190,000 residents may not be so willing to get along. Wednesday night, three large crosses were burned in separate locations within the span of one hour. Near one cross were fliers with sayings attributed to the Ku Klux Klan, according to Durham police.

Neither Bell nor his city's police force have any idea of who could be responsible for thess racially insensitive acts.

The first burning cross was reported to police shortly after 9 p.m. in front of St. Luke's Episcopal Church. Some 40 minutes later, a cross was spotted on a heaping pile of dirt near a construction site. The final cross was found burning along a busy downtown intersection, ironically named Martin Luther King, Jr. Parkway.

No one has yet to confess to the burnings or offer any tips as to who might have been involved, but law enforcement officials are not taking the matter lightly.

"We're working with the FBI in investigating this, but right now we don't have any leads," said Kammi Michael, a spokesperson for the Durham Police Department. According to Michael, the crosses, which were approximately seven feet tall and four feet wide, were doused in flammable liquid and wrapped in burlap.

In North Carolina, burning a cross without permission is a misdemeanor, but a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed for cross burning when there is no intention to intimidate.

It's no secret to those in the black community that cross burnings are largely associated with the Ku Klux Klan and often used as ways to threaten or harm people of color. An Associated Press report states that the ritual has been around since the early 20th century when Klux Klan members in Georgia celebrated the lynching of a black man.

Bell, who is black, said he thought things were different now.

"I don't understand why or what kind of message they are trying to send," Bell said, emphasizing that Durham has been free of such insensitive demonstrations.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, whites made up 45.5 percent of Durham's population, compared to the 43.8 percent blacks comprised. Bell is confident, however, that these incidents will make relations between all Durham residents stronger.

"I think that the community is bringing itself together. I've heard nothing negative, just shock from everyone," Bell, who has been in politics since 1972, first as a county commissioner before being elected to the DUrham mayor's office, told Despite the fact that he is the chief executive of the city known as home to Duke University and North Carolina Central University, Bell said he has been affected by this on several different levels.

"I guess I wear three hats. One as resident of Durham, two as the mayor and three as an African-American male," Bell said. "I'm not even sure if I would feel any differently if I wore just one of those hats.

"However, I think we need to find out a bit more information," Bell said, stressing the importance of being patient and allowing police to find and punish those responsible. He added that he is unsure if any community outreach efforts will be done to prevent potential racial problems.

"In some cases, you can raise [incidents] to a level where it does more harm than was originally created," Bell said, adding that he is undoubtedly pained by these recent turn of events.

"There is no question that people don't feel inhibited about exhibiting any racism in them," Bell said. "People do things for different reasons, and I don't have the slightest idea why anyone would do this."
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