People come into our lives for a variety of reasons and seasons. In January of 2016 I returned home to Johnson City and over the next year I learned just how much Ralph Davis, President of the Washington County-Johnson City NAACP branch, had given to this community. The loss of his light will be deeply felt. There is a hole in our community.
Ralph’s quiet, patient leadership is different than my own. I’m much louder and more upfront. He would join the Black/White Dialogue meetings and share the discrimination he’d faced, the injustices he experienced, and he yet never lost hope in the ever bending arc towards justice. When he spoke at Washington County Democratic Party events, he taught us the importance of building bridges and celebrating small wins, even if the wins didn’t go as far as we needed them to, they were still something to celebrate and build upon. For me personally, Ralph taught me that humility and forgiveness are lessons we can all carry forward as we work as activists, advocates, and community members towards shared goals.
The first time I remember working directly with the local NAACP and Ralph Davis was when the Johnson City Planning Commission decided to oppose renaming a section of University Parkway or State of Franklin Rd. after the late Martin Luther King, Jr. in 2017. I stepped up to the mic and spoke about the importance of being an ally by recognizing our own white privilege. Ralph didn’t speak that day. But instead he organized speakers from the black community, including Reverend Charleton and Bill Coleman, to speak about the heart and the need of the black community to see that their heritage and their history was equally represented in our community.
The movement for MLK Jr. Memorial Parkway was voted down by the Johnson City Planning Commission. It was the Johnson City Commission who stepped up, worked with the Tennessee House, to ensure that MLK Jr. Memorial Parkway would receive a prominent location, and shepherd its passage in the Tennessee House. And not to diminish the social justice calling of any of Johnson City’s Commissioners at that time, I know those bridges were built and those relationships were cultivated by Ralph Davis.
It’s because of Ralph’s efforts that the Langston Education and Arts Development is a reality. The historically black school from the era when schools were segregated is becoming a community center. Through the local NAACP branch, he organized the voter drive, Souls to the Polls; working to ensure that all eligible voters participated in our democracy. He also served as President of the UMOJA committee to bring a successful cultural festival to downtown Johnson City.
In a November 25, 2018 Johnson City Press article, Breaking Down Comfort Zones Needed to Help Understanding, Ralph Davis said:
“I have always chosen to think of this community as our community,” Davis said. “People are friendly and for the most part accommodating. I feel we tend to stay in our so called lanes too much. We need not fear each other. Let’s reach out and see each other as more alike than different.
“I want you to get to know me for who I am,” Davis said. “If you spend a little time with me, and I with you, those things take care of themselves. There are a number of groups trying to get us all to break down these walls of fear. I believe most of the problem is we do not take time to learn about each other. We have too many groups that we feel are only for white community such as Rotary and Lions and groups that are only for African American, such as NAACP and Urban League. Let’s get out of our comfort zone.”
Ralph led the way while advocating for racial and social justice. Our hearts are aching as we figure out how to carry the torch he left for us to carry forward. His call to action to step out of our comfort zones is how we heal the divide. Thank you Ralph for teaching me, for teaching us, about humility and patience. Thank you for showing us how to effect change together. Your legacy will never be forgotten.