DECATUR — The dozens of people who took to the street in downtown Decatur on Saturday came with a straightforward message: hope, unity, love.
How to get there? Well, that’s a more complex question, one that the following conversation at the Decatur Civic Center tackled as speakers examined services and programs already being offered in Decatur, problems that they see on the horizon and solutions they believe are in the community’s grasp.
“We don’t have that conversation too often,” said Jeanelle Norman, president of the NAACP Decatur Branch, which organized the event. “Hopefully it will encourage others to become more engaged in their community.”
Norman led the three-hour event, which started with a march and caravan down Franklin Street and also included an opportunity for attendees to talk about their hopes and concerns, town-hall style, and a program with representatives from various community groups.
Speakers included the International Club at St. Teresa High School, which celebrated Black History Month for the first time this year; Gail Evans, who recently retired from Decatur-Macon County Opportunities Corp. after 52 years; representatives from Macon County probation and from several area churches; and Alida Graham, board president for the Old King’s Orchard Community Center, among others.
Flanked by several students, including two who were preparing to present an extracurricular science project at Millikin University, Graham spoke of problems with violence in Decatur.
The city had 10 homicides last year, the greatest number since 2011, and it ended 2017 with the greatest number of shootings in at least six years. Graham acknowledged that the city's proponents would say Decatur's violent crime rate is lower than that of surrounding communities.
"We may hear a lot about how safe our community is compared to others," said Graham, a former member of the Decatur school board. "But when I sit in an office of young men who say ‘we can’t let kids go play outside at night because we hear gunshots every night’ in their neighborhoods — if we have people who are living like that in our community, it’s not a safe community."
Graham said the center is organizing a Decatur event to participate in the March for Our Lives, a movement organized by survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida. Students and activists plan to march in Washington, D.C., and in communities nationwide on March 24.
Norman also said that the NAACP Decatur Branch hopes to take a bus full of inner-city kids to Washington, D.C., to take part.
Among the attendees at Saturday's event, two 16-year-olds noted there weren’t many others their age. Julian Harris and Malachi Carson were both brought by Malachi’s father, the Rev. Courtney Carson, who has been mentoring Julian on recent Saturdays.
Students their age “really don’t care about this stuff,” Julian said, even though they should. “Some people just let it in one ear and out the other.”
“Some people can be with unity, with love, and then the next person keeps pushing the situation to just want to do extra stuff that’s not needed,” Malachi said. “Some people want to do right. Some people don’t.”
Both said they turn to God to help them stay on the right path.
Carson, who is also a Decatur school board member, said he brought the two teenagers to expose them to the message of the program and the work being done by others to improve the community.
“Freedom, nor a healthy education, is passed through blood,” he said. “It must be taught. It must be practiced.”
Tony Wilkins, who has lived in Decatur for 40 years, said he was happy to see some children and young people there to learn about being active in the community.
Wilkins, superintendent of administration for Ameren Illinois, said he continues to believe the community has in place everything it needs to prosper.
“I think the main reason everybody was out there is to show that we do believe in this community, and we do have hope this community can grow and prosper and take it to the next level.
“We’re not a perfect community,” he said. “We are a good community.”