As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The time is always right to do the right thing.” But sometimes it takes a public awakening – and a new generation of leaders – to gain a clearer understanding of what indeed is the right path.
Such was the case in Prince William County this past week when a new generation of political leaders began the process of making big local changes many believe are long overdue.
Last Tuesday, June 16, Supervisor Margaret Franklin asked county staff to initiate the process of stripping Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s name from U.S. 1, a major thoroughfare in racially diverse eastern Prince William County.
On Wednesday, June 17, the Prince William-Manassas Regional Jail Board declined to even entertain a motion to extend the county jail’s 287(g) agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which many say has stained the county’s reputation and strained immigrant residents’ relationship with local police for years.
On Monday, June 22, the county school board began hearing suggestions for renaming Stonewall Jackson High and Stonewall Middle schools, setting off a lightning-fast, one-week timeline for stripping the former Confederate general’s name from not one but two public schools in Manassas, both of which enroll mostly Black and Hispanic students.
All of this, of course, comes in the wake of nationwide protests and civil unrest following George Floyd’s killing on Memorial Day.
Each of these developments marks a sea change in the culture of a county where residents have lived with these realities for decades.
It wasn’t long ago that changing the names of the Stonewall Jackson schools and Jefferson Davis Highway, or doing away with the county jail’s cooperation with ICE, seemed politically impossible. In 2017, proposals to change the schools’ names and that of Jeff Davis Highway failed to even get a fair hearing in front of either the school board or the board of supervisors despite the fact that both were floated after the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, which, as awful as it was, proved an insufficient catalyst for change.
What seems to be different this time is that the county has elected a new set of leaders who finally reflect the county’s diversity and understand the need to react to the ground shifting beneath our feet. The county’s youth is demanding change and their votes are giving like-minded politicians the courage to act.
It was exactly those young people – now of voting age – who led the protests and rallies against 287(g) in recent weeks. They were people like Angel Romero, 21, whose family left Dumfries 10 years ago because their mixed immigration status made them feel unsafe in Prince William and unnecessarily vulnerable to immigration enforcement. His mom, Hilda Romero, said both her adult kids are activists now because they don’t want other young immigrants to live in fear.
They found common ground this week with retiring Prince William County Police Chief Barry Barnard, who told the jail board that 287(g) had a been a barrier to building trust between police and local immigrant communities and that the value of the program, which cost local taxpayers about $300,000 a year, had “run its course.”
At Stonewall Jackson High School, young leaders fighting for a better future for their school and its majority-minority students are numerous and include, importantly, renown scholar and author Ibram X. Kendi, a 2000 graduate of Stonewall Jackson High School who is now leading a national conversation on the need to be “anti-racist” to effect change.
Both examples underscore the impact of the county’s youth in directing county leaders forward toward the right path. The time to take that path is now.