Wednesday, February 6, 2019

He walked the talk

By my desk there is a photograph of Walter T. Kenney, the former mayor of Richmond, who died in January. The portrait features on the very large printed program for a 1995 banquet honoring Kenney’s 18 years of service as a councilman. The text reads, “Politicians seldom get their just desserts, but Walter Kenney will get his tonight.”  

Rev. Dr. Paige Chargois, a lead organizer of the event, comments on the picture:“It symbolized his stature and capacity. But the measure of the man was never his height (although he stood well over 6 feet); it was, instead, the depth to which he loved Richmond which reflected in all that he lavished upon its citizens!” 

Chargois writes that Kenney’s civic concerns took him well beyond his official duties into the corners of citizens' lives that many political leaders consider not safe for their political careers. “Although Richmond's racial dilemma had been around for decades with many politicians preferring a ‘hands-off’ policy, Mayor Kenney did the opposite, including a deep dive into the work of racial reconciliation.” At his invitation, delegates from cities across the US and from 25 countries came to the former capital of the Confederacy in 1993 to launch “Healing the Heart of America: An honest conversation on race, reconciliation and responsibility.” The landmark event was jointly sponsored by the City, Hope in the Cities, and the Richmond Hill ecumenical retreat center.

Two years later I was with him when he spoke at Brooklyn Borough Hall about the Richmond community’s courage in coming together to tell the truth about our history by marking sites associated with the city’s history of slavery: “It is often the thing from which we hide that eventually wounds us – from the inside out – and such had been the case in Richmond….We did not highlight these places in an effort to hand out guilt or to vent anger. We wanted to acknowledge their existence so that we could close the door and move forward.” He continued, “The mentality of victimhood or guilt-ridden shame anchors us in inaction...Regardless of past or present injustices, we are all responsible for shaping our common future."

Walter encountered Initiatives of Change soon after joining the city council in 1977. One of the IofC network, a retired secretary invited him and his wife to tea. Walter said it was the first time he had been invited to a white home. He had worked for many years in the US Postal Service, rising to become the first African American to be elected as a national officer of United Federation of Postal Clerks AFL-CIO, and then one of Richmond’s first black councilmen. When my dad, a former trade unionist from Scotland, came to visit me in Richmond he would call on Walter who joked about being a labor leader and elected official in such an anti-union state.   

He entered politics when the city was experiencing a dramatic and sometimes tumultuous transition and as the white establishment confronted the reality of power sharing for the first time. He understood that trust is built by those who are prepared to look at their own leadership style:"If I change, if I learn how to care more deeply, or listen more intently, then I bring that to virtually everything I touch, whether it is regional discussions, the national agenda, or settling a neighborhood dispute," he once said. Henry Marsh, Richmond’s first African American mayor, said of his long-time friend and colleague, “He had no hate for anyone.”

It was Walter Kenney's inspiration to create the annual Metropolitan Richmond Day, a breakfast forum which for many years convened hundreds of representatives of non-profit organizations, corporations, local government, educational establishments, and faith communities.

At a celebration of his life, fellow church members, politicians, friends and family stressed his care and support for every individual he dealt with. As one person put it, “When he talked with you, you felt you were the only one in the room.”

His care extended to his car which, according to his family, he washed every day. When my wife and he were both serving on the IofC Board he would often pick her up in his prized Lincoln Town Car for the drive to Washington. And no day was complete without an ice cream stop!

Walter was a man of infinite grace. Shortly after losing his city council seat by just a handful of votes, I travelled with him and a few other Richmonders to Chicago where we were preparing for a national Hope in the Cities forum. Among the group was the person who had defeated him at the polls, Shirley Harvey. I will never forget the sight of Walter and Shirley sitting contentedly side by side watching sports on the airport TV monitor during a layover. Another member of the city council was in the arrival area when we flew back to Richmond. His face registered shock and disbelief as the two former political opponents exited the flight together.

After leaving office Walter continued as Richmond’s ambassador, taking Richmond’s message of healing across the US and Canada as well as to Europe. In 1996, I travelled with him to South Africa where he shared his experiences with newly elected black leaders. I also recall a meeting in Paige Chargois's home with Rajmohan Gandhi and the famed civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill. 

He was a man of deep integrity. In a loving tribute a granddaughter said, “He walked the talk. He taught us to do the right thing all the time.” His executive assistant, Cricket White, told me that on one occasion she was given an envelope said to contain damaging information about a potential political rival.  When she put the sealed package on his desk, Kenney was visibly angry and told her to destroy it immediately. 

Walter believed in the power of presence. You could always count on him to show up at an event, even if he had no official role to play. This probably accounts for the remark I heard from one elderly African American woman: “He will always be my mayor.” As his brother said, “He was a man in love with his city.”

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