From his office on the edge of Mechanicsville, Will Roberts can see the skyline of his adopted city. Born in Detroit and raised in Los Angeles, the attorney has lived in Washington, Dallas, and Nashville, but moved here late last year to become executive director of Knoxville’s Race Relations Center. When he’s in, he answers the office phone.
“Right now, it’s just me,” he admits, though he has hopes of hiring an administrative assistant soon. The organization, one of the few intact remnants of the 9 Counties 1 Vision days—it actually had earlier origins as the Levi Strauss racial-harmony initiative known as Project Change—was in disarray when Roberts arrived about a year ago. At the moment, he’s trying to reconstitute the nonprofit’s nine-member board (it currently has only five) while responding to daily requests for help with race-related challenges in the broad community. The KRRC has lately been conducting diversity workshops with the Girl Scouts and helping post-parole ex-convicts learn how to recover their voting privileges.
A former mortgage banker (he worked in Dallas for Fannie Mae) and public defender, he says, “This job seems to combine everything I’ve seen. It touches everything from accessibility to housing to criminal defense to voting rights. This job serves everything I’ve worked in in 20 years.”
He describes our region as enduring a “mid-level crisis,” no disaster but in urgent need of monitoring and improvement. “People have stopped talking to each other,” he says. “Conversations are not taking place that should be taking place. We need to re-open dialogues with all parties.
“It’s not a war zone,” he says of Knoxville. “And it’s not a haven. It’s a place that recognizes that there is an opportunity for everybody to live together.”
For two centuries, race relations in Knoxville have been defined in terms of black and white, but depending on the day, Roberts may be talking with Jewish families about bullying incidents in Knoxville schools—he also mentions a recent event concerning a mixed-race kid in Jefferson County—or about the area’s still-new Hispanic minority: “Some are fundamentally refugees from the drug war, just south of the border.” On that subject he does not feel obliged to seem neutral. “Every dialogue that does not include discussion of a pathway to citizenship is a hollow conversation,” he says. “People say, ‘We’re being overcome, displaced.’ Well, no, you’re not.”
He adds, “Our legislators are not helping the dialogue.” With vague rhetoric about “values,” he says, some promote “a fear-based retro view of America.”
Roberts’ childhood hero was Cesar Chavez, the influential labor leader whom Roberts later got to meet in person. “He was a hero since I was 10, in Los Angeles, when I stopped eating grapes because of this guy”—in solidarity with Chavez’s strike against inhumane conditions for grape pickers. Roberts was the chief speaker at a recent event honoring Chavez at Maryville College.
Fifty years after the dramatic summer when sit-ins desegregated some Knoxville lunch counters, the city remains segregated in many ways. “What concerns me is I still get the distinct impression that there are sharp divisions in this community,” says Roberts, “though certainly not to the degree it was 50 years ago. There are still strange divisions in this city.”
He does see reason for hope. He was heartened by the community’s response to the murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. “You could not miss the racial overtones in that case, but they were not made prominent, never pumped up in the press, or on television. The facts of the case were horrendous, and there was the possibility of emotions to run high.” Lesser crimes have spawned riots and lynch mobs, and not just in the South. Roberts, the lawyer, noted the judge’s calm determination that “We will enforce the law. I was very much impressed with that.
“You’ll have hardcore people, to be sure,” he says. But over the years, “both sides have learned to ratchet down.”
Roberts was also here to experience other unusual events, like the recent Nazi demonstration downtown opposing immigration, and the local counter-demonstration. His reaction might not have been one you’d predict. “I felt sorry for these Nazi guys. They came there to stir up trouble, and the protesters were there to oppose them,” says Roberts. “What’s really missing is the clergy.” He thinks the Nazis needed some better guidance. “But I kept wondering where our clergy is, to help you cross over. To say, ‘We’re here to help you bridge the gap.’”
“I’ve been a big history student for a long time,” Roberts says. (As it happens, earlier in the summer, he was spotted at a downtown cafe, lunching alone with a thick biography of Mary, Queen of Scots.) “I have always been impressed with how something like Nazism could have grown in Germany in the 1920s. Germany was, before the First World War, the most progressive nation in Europe. A vibrant democracy...allowed themselves to be corrupted that way, and to believe that it’s okay to be harsh. It just got them into a place they’re still apologizing for.”
Helping society’s pariahs seems to be a recurring theme with Roberts, who speaks of his efforts to help ex-convicts return to society. “These are convicted felons, served their sentence, went through probation.
“It’s one thing that’s very important to me personally,” he says. “I really think democracy works best when everybody’s involved in it.”
But the old black-white conflict, the traditional American racial conflict, is still alive and kicking.
“We’re not post-racial,” he says, with audible quotation marks around that recent catchphrase. He talks about a recent incident at the University of Tennessee. “African-American prospective students were touring the campus, and someone tossed bananas in front of them. I was consulted on that.
“What I’m finding so far, when you have issues, you can find people willing to listen and work toward a constructive solution.”
He sometimes catches himself when his terminology starts to soar, and he laughs. “I’m beginning to sound like a politician,” he says.
“I’m seeing a willingness to listen. It doesn’t mean we stop demanding.”