These moments are bigger than each individual commissioner.
They are bigger than local politics.
In fact, they are bigger than the city itself.
They are human moments that could change the future of Augusta forever.
This week, Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy added a proposal to the committee agenda to change the name of Augusta’s John C. Calhoun Expressway to the Trump-Calhoun Expressway.
Most people knew it must be a joke or a prank.
After all, this is the same commissioner who has stirred up some serious controversy in this city that is home to Fort Gordon by kneeling during the pledge of allegiance at regular Augusta Commission meetings.
Anyone who knows anything about Fennoy is aware that he’s not a supporter of President Donald Trump.
So, when the agenda item to rename the John C. Calhoun Expressway was introduced and the clerk began reading a letter from John Hayes, associate professor of history at Augusta University, about the legacy of Calhoun, most people in the audience thought this was a simply a political move by Fennoy.
In the letter, Hayes asked whether Calhoun, a former vice president who owned slaves and promoted slavery throughout the South before his death in 1850, is a symbol of today’s Augusta.
“Do we, in the present, endorse the ideas of John C. Calhoun?” Hayes asked. “Is he someone that we, as a city, want to publicly celebrate? Even a casual student of American history associates John C. Calhoun with the antebellum South.”
Calhoun was a vocal defender of the “elite slave holders” and owned an extensive plantation in South Carolina.
“We can do better than this,” Hayes wrote, adding that it was time for a change in Augusta. “One person with a ratchet could remove those signs in about an hour. We’d be better in their absence.”
Following the reading of the letter, Fennoy explained his reasoning behind adding the controversial item to rename the expressway to the Trump-Calhoun Expressway.
“I think, in the year 2018, the city of Augusta should discontinue honoring someone that has never lived in the state of Georgia or who has never lived in the city of Augusta, but yet we still want to pay tribute to this person,” Fennoy said. “John C. Calhoun used his position as vice president of the United States to advocate slavery. He said that slavery is the best thing that ever happened to black folks. In a city that is predominately black, that is predominately African-American, I think it is an insult to our community to continue to honor this individual by having an expressway named after him.”
Fennoy said such a contradictory honor would never be tolerated around the world.
“I don’t believe you could go anywhere in Germany and find anything named after Adolf Hitler because of who he was and what he stood for,” Fennoy said. “I don’t think you could go to any Indian reservation and find anything named after (General George) Custer because of the image he has in the Indian community.”
And that’s why Fennoy said he sarcastically suggested that the expressway should include the name Trump.
“Our president, number 45, most recently supported a person for senator who stated that America was at its greatest during the time of slavery,” Fennoy said. “Our president said that he could walk down the middle of New York and shoot somebody and get away with it. Our president defines people of color, the Mexicans, the Hispanics as people that are murders, rapists and criminals. Our president wants to send over 800,000 people that grew up in this country … this is the only country they’ve ever known, but because they were not born in this country, he wants to send them out of this country.”
Such statements should not be tolerated in this country, Fennoy said.
“I believe today, that if John C. Calhoun was living, Trump would have chosen him as a running mate over (Mike) Pence,” Fennoy said. “The two are so much alike. They have so much in common. President Trump is using his position as president of these United States to endorse racism. He, who feels that there were good people, good Nazis, good Klansmen in Charlottesville, Virginia.”
Fennoy spoke about the city of Savannah’s recent efforts to rename the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge because the mayor and the city leaders no longer believe Talmadge represents the current image of the city.
During his 1946 campaign, Talmadge ran on a platform of white supremacy, and recently uncovered files revealed that he openly advocated the lynching of black citizens.
Here in Augusta, Fennoy said he wants the city to no longer associate itself with Calhoun.
“I want to believe that this government,” Fennoy suddenly paused.
Several commissioners looked over at Fennoy.
He didn’t lose his place in his speech because anyone watching knew he wasn’t reading from a prepared statement.
And he didn’t lose his train of thought.
Fennoy paused for a moment because the emotions involved in his request took over.
This wasn’t political showboating. This was a very real moment for Fennoy.
A very real moment for Augusta.
The commissioner collected himself and continued.
“I want to believe that this government, that this city is not the same government and the same city that existed when they named the expressway after John C. Calhoun,” Fennoy said. “I want to believe that.”
However, the reaction from the public and media to his request to change the expressway’s name was extremely discouraging, Fennoy said.
“One local reporter said that I’m just wasting my time,” Fennoy said. “I’m just wasting the time of the commission by putting this on the agenda. I don’t want to believe that. I want to believe that we are bigger and better than that. I believe that the one Augusta that our mayor talks about actually exists. So that’s why I have it on the agenda.”
It was a genuine moment that everyone in Augusta should have heard for themselves.
Whether you agree with Fennoy’s position or not about the expressway, it was real.
He spoke from the heart, and his voice had an impact.
And while Fennoy didn’t get the support he needed to change the John C. Calhoun Expressway to another name such as the Veterans Highway during this week’s committees, Fennoy made his position clear.
This is important.
Not just for him, but the entire city of Augusta.