His voice shaking and tears in his eyes as he read from a prepared statement, Augusta Super District 10 Commissioner-elect John Clarke asked for forgiveness regarding racist posts recently discovered on Facebook, as his supporters stood behind him and listened during a recent press conference.
“Those angry postings are not who I am,” Clarke said on Friday, May 25. “I ask the citizens of Augusta to give me the opportunity to serve through my service on the Augusta-Richmond County Commission over the next four years. Again, I sincerely offer my apology, and I hope and I pray and I am asking for your forgiveness. Let’s please move forward together.”
The posts, which were made in 2014, dealt with the protests in Ferguson, Mo., after the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer.
In one particular post by Clarke, which since has been removed from Facebook, the N-word was used several times along with many other obscenities and racially charged statements.
In one section of the Facebook post, Clarke allegedly wrote the following, “Now I’m expressing my freedom of speech. To the N****** of Fergusion [sic], Mo. If you don’t want to be called N******, Stop acting like N******.”
For days, Clarke denied making those posts, insisting that his Facebook account had been hacked just before the May 22 election.
But as more people learned about the racist posts, citizens throughout the community and even some of his colleagues on the commission began calling for his resignation.
Many citizens wanted Clarke to step down from the District 10 seat before even serving one day in office because the Facebook posts were so divisive and offensive.
Clarke, 70, defeated his opponent, Lori Myles, in the Super District 10 commission race by earning more than 52 percent of the votes cast on May 22 to replace term-limited Augusta Commissioner Grady Smith.
However, Clarke, a retired truck driver from Harrisburg, refused to step down.
Instead, he tried to explain himself during the press conference.
“Several weeks ago, I began receiving messages on my Facebook page that my account had been hacked, and my friends on Facebook can verify that,” Clarke said. “When the Facebook post from four years ago recently surfaced in media reports, my first thought was that it was a result of that incident. I was hasty in my first responses, and after much reflection of that time in my life, I can honestly say I don’t remember writing those insensitive and hurtful words, but I take full responsibility for them. They were on my page.”
Clarke acknowledged that he was going through an extremely dark time in his life about four years ago.
“At that time in my life, I was dealing with a massive life change and struggling with caring for my late wife of 52 years who was terminally ill with COPD,” Clarke said, fighting back tears as he read from his prepared statement. “At that time in my life, I turned to alcohol to deal with the pain that was caused by seeing the love of my life literally dying in my arms. I cannot say with 100 percent certainty that I did not write those words.”
While Clarke insisted those racist comments do not reflect his true feelings, he admitted they were on his Facebook page.
“Those comments were on my page, and I take full responsibility for the postings that appeared,” Clarke said. “I sincerely apologize for any pain and confusion this has caused my family, my supporters, my constituents and this great city.”
During the press conference, both commissioners Ben Hasan and Sammie Sias stood by Clarke and shook his hand following his statement.
Augusta Commissioner Dennis Williams also attended the press conference at the Municipal Building, but he stood near the back of the room behind Clarke’s supporters. Some of the citizens attending the press conference in support of Clarke were former local political candidates Lori Davis and Brad Owens.
After Clarke’s statement, both Sias and Hasan said they appreciated the fact that Clarke took responsibility for the posts and publicly apologized for them.
“When you get caught red-handed about things, sometimes you do try to wiggle your way out of it,” Hasan said after the press conference. “But today, I think ultimately he took full responsibility for it, and I’m willing to work with him.”
Hasan, who also recently was re-elected to the commission, said he’s been watching Clarke for the past year regularly attending the Augusta Commission meetings, and he respects his dedication.
“And I try not to get into things that are going to distract me from doing the people’s business,” Hasan said. “With him standing up before the community and saying what he had to say, I can live that and I can deal with him, issue by issue. He won’t be held hostage by anything he has done or said previously. I’m at peace with him taking his seat.”
While Sias said he wanted Clarke to take responsibility for the Facebook posts, one statement he made to WJBF Senior Reporter George Eskola last week is attracting a lot of attention.
Sias told Eskola that he believed there was a local conspiracy to force Clarke to resign so that a hand-picked candidate could take over the seat.
“They wanted to inflame the African-American folks against this gentleman, force him to resign and give them the opportunity to select — and I say that, ‘select’ someone,” Sias told Eskola.
Hasan agreed that there was something fishy going on relating to the sudden revelation of the racist Facebook posts by Clarke.
“There is a belief that this information was available for quite some time and people sat on it,” Hasan said. “I can’t prove that, but I’ve been told that the information was available and out there, so what was their real motive for releasing it? Was their motive to protect the community or get who they want to be in office? What were those people’s real motives?”
Hasan said he was skeptical about how this entire situation revealed itself.
“We all need forgiveness as a community. This is a city, sometimes it is difficult to tell, but I think it is a God-fearing city,” Hasan said. “And if a person asks for forgiveness, we need to seriously consider that, in spite of their infractions.”
When asked if he has any concerns about Clarke representing half of the entire county after writing such racist remarks, Hasan said he understands that some residents are extremely unsettled by Clarke’s Facebook posts.
“I understand the confusion over the last three or four days and why some people still have heartburn about the statements that were made four years ago. Trust me. I don’t lose sight of that,” Hasan said. “I don’t dismiss the public’s concerns.”
However, now that the racist Facebook posts have been made public, Hasan said Augusta should take it as an opportunity to discuss racism that still exists throughout the entire community.
“People probably assumed that the black commissioners — and I can’t say how all of them feel — but many people would have thought we unanimously would have asked him to resign,” Hasan said. “But we didn’t. Three of us stood with him today. It shows that we are willing to work with him.”
However, when Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams, who represents half of the county living in Super District 9, heard that Sias and Hasan stood next to Clarke during his press conference last week, he said the two commissioners are actually the ones with the hidden agenda.
“Ben Hasan and Sammie Sias are playing politics,” Williams said. “They are trying to buddy up to John Clarke. They don’t have the six votes they need to get what they want done. They know they can’t depend on me to hand over my vote if something is not right, so they are running to the wounded one, John Clarke, saying, ‘We didn’t abandon you. We are right here with you.’ Anybody can see that. I have a problem with that, big time.”
Williams described such actions as shameful.
“I’m not really surprised at all,” Williams said. “Ben Hasan talks out of both sides of his mouth at the same time. I’m not going to sit back and let the entire community suffer because Ben is trying to be slick. I don’t play those political games.”
As soon as Clarke is sworn into office, Williams said he will be keeping an extremely close eye on him.
“My feeling is, he did the posts and I’m going to be watching him really closely now,” Williams said. “I can’t trust him as easily as I would have before all of this came up.”
And while he understands Clarke’s grief over the loss of his wife, Williams questions why Clarke’s deep sadness resulted in such extremely racist statements.
“If the place he was at was that dark, he’s probably still there, so I don’t understand that,” Williams said. “If he hadn’t been caught with this, he would have never said anything about it. But since he was caught, he’s sorry about it. But if you are bold enough to put it out there like that publicly, that tells me you have some serious issues. When you publicly put it out there like that, that tells me you don’t really care what people think.”
At a time when Augusta is trying to be a progressive city and look to the future, Williams said it is difficult to see racism and hatred once again rear its ugly head.
“You have black and white people still thinking that way. It ain’t just white people, and it ain’t just John Clarke,” Williams said. “So, I will say this: I am going to talk to him face to face, just man to man. I want to see his reaction and hear what he has to say.”
But, as for his colleagues Sias and Hasan, Williams said he knows exactly what their motives are for quickly forgiving Clarke and his racist posts.
“They are trying to use John Clarke now. They are going to hold this over his head,” Williams said. “And if is John Clarke is stupid enough to fall for that, he’s done before he even takes office.”