GAINESVILLE - While the Trayvon Martin case was the catalyst for a meeting sponsored by the Gainesville-Hall County NAACP Thursday night, the verdict in that case was not the only topic of discussion.
The meeting, which was held at Antioch Baptist Church on Mill Street, featured a seven-member panel representing the NAACP and the International Black Ministers Association (IBMA), as well as leaders from area schools. Billed as a "community conversation," the meeting drew about 100 members of the local African-American community.
Panel members told participants that they were there to listen to concerns from the community and then take those concerns and develop an action plan to present to local government and law enforcement. The panel spent about an hour-and-a-half listening to concerns - and offering up a few of their own.
Initially, the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida was the focus of the Thursday night meeting. Rev. Evelyn Johnson of Bethel AME Church wanted to know what advice the NAACP had for the local community to ensure the same thing that happened to Martin would not happen in Hall County.
Panelist Johnny Smith, regional coordinator for the Georgia NAACP, told the audience that it was up to the community to be involved and it was up to the churches to start that involvement. He fired back at Johnson, wanting to know what action local churches were taking to ensure African-American church members were actively plugged in to the community.
Antioch Pastor Rodney Lackey appealed for unity, noting that a variety of groups were represented at the meeting.
"I applaud having this meeting," said Lackey. "I don't think we're going to solve our issues tonight, but we can get our issues on the table."
Following that, a number of audience members spoke to the panel, expressing concern about a variety of issues - disparity in sentencing for African American men who are convicted of crimes, voting rights, parental responsibility and black-on-black crime, to name a few.
Several people spoke about the need for mentors for African American teenagers - men in particular. Brandon Evans is a mentor to five high school students, some of them at-risk, and he said more people in the community need to take on the role of mentor.
"Being an African-American man in this community, in society period, is very difficult," said Evans. "Me being 26, I didn't have a mentor when I was their age, and you always need someone there that you can talk to that's not your parents."
Phyllis Brewer, President of the Gainesville-Hall County NAACP, moderated the meeting, and she said she was encouraged by the results.
"We heard a lot of concern, a lot of frustration that's been building up for a long time, not just with the Zimmerman case, but in our community period," Brewer said.
She said the meeting will not be the last, and the next step is engaging other segments of the local population.
"My goal has always been for us as a community to continue to talk. That's what we need, to continue to talk. We can't sit back any longer."