David Lauderdale

Racial divide reminds newcomers of idea that worked in Charlotte

Joe Martin heard a powerful message as a boy when his father preached racial equality from the pulpit in a small South Carolina town.

As an adult, he used his own voice to encourage human dignity, justice and moral courage -- even after he could not speak at all due to Lou Gehrig's disease.

The inspirational story of Joe Martin of Charlotte was relayed to me this week by two of his good friends, the Rev. Scott and Scottie Lindsay, who have recently moved to Bluffton from Charlotte.

When Martin spoke, people listened. His brother, Jim, had been governor. And he was in the inner circle of Hugh McColl Jr. as he parlayed the North Carolina National Bank in Charlotte into NationsBank and then the Bank of America.

Like his father, Martin spoke for those with little voice. He fought for diversity in employment, and grants to rebuild inner-city neighborhoods and help traditionally-black colleges. Under Martin, the bank's annual philanthropy grew from less than $500,000 to more than $30 million. McColl called him the bank's conscience.

When Martin was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, he found a new audience, insisting the disease could not take the spirit. Before he died in 2006 at age 65, Joe Martin wrote books of encouragement when he could use only his eyes to spell out the words on a special computer.

The Lindsays say that during this 12-year battle with mortality, their friend came up with a practical idea to improve race relations. They reached out to me with it because they think that idea could help heal the wound opened recently in the Trayvon Martin case in Florida.

The idea is simple. Joe Martin urged people of different races and religions to simply go to lunch together. He set it up for Thursdays, and he called it "Race Day."

The Lindsays saw it work for years to help people of different backgrounds better understand each other.

Scottie Lindsay said, "It's not just about Trayvon Martin. I feel like we're living in a time when people think their way is right and nobody else's is."

President Barack Obama said last week that personal responses are more important than official ones.

"In families and churches and workplaces, there's a possibility that people are a little bit more honest," the president said, "and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy."

Lunch together doesn't take nearly the courage it took to preach racial equality in South Carolina in the 1950s. But its impact could be just as lasting.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.