Leadership Insights from Mayor Riley

Posted By: Madeleine McGee Facing Race Together ,

In four decades as Charleston’s mayor, Joe Riley's efforts to advance race relations in many ways helped set an example for the rest of the nation.

I recently interviewed Mayor Riley as part of Together SC's Removing Our Blinders programconversations with primarily white leaders who have found ways look beyond the world they know and societal norms, to question, listen and to seek to understand.  And in doing so, change themselves and begin to work to address the racial inequities that still permeate so much of our world.

Imbedded in Riley’s commentary (link to full video recording) were leadership insights from a lifetime devoted to bringing the racially segregated Charleston community together by advancing racial harmony and inclusion and challenging all citizens to demand excellence in community endeavors. 

Early in Riley’s career, he worked to increase the participation of Charleston’s Black residents in the civic life of the city.

“This is the picture I had,” he explained, describing a place familiar to us all - a board room - and the task of bringing new and diverse voices to the table.

“You don’t tell people in the board room they’ve got to leave,” he said. “You just bring in more chairs.”

Riley made clear, as mayor, that new perspectives and ideas didn’t mean silencing traditional stakeholders.

“We wanted them to see and meet a new group of people who were their co-equals,” said Riley. “We didn’t run anybody out. We just made the board room bigger.”

Not everyone was on the same page, of course, and shaming or berating wasn’t going to get them there.

“Pushing for change, you don’t knock people in the head or yell at them,” said Riley. “You bring them along; you keep selling.”

The goal, he said, was “to create a community of mutual respect and affection,” all the while “making sure that this city was a city for everyone.”

In an atmosphere of change, missteps, misunderstanding and even hurt feelings are bound to occur. Riley’s advice: address divisions up front in an honest and compassionate way, and “never let an injured feeling linger or fester.”

Perhaps Riley’s most difficult test came seven years ago this June, in the twilight of his time as Charleston’s mayor, when an avowed white supremacist shot and killed nine people as they gathered for Bible study at Emanuel AME Church.

“The assassination of the prayerful people in the church, studying the Bible, was beyond heart-breaking and shocking,” Riley recalled. Instead of riots, as some expected, the people of Charleston came together, Black and white, in a collective expression of shared loss and grief that sent a message across the nation.

“The community responded, not in violence and anger,” Riley recalled, "but in coming together and loving each other and helping each other.” Said Riley, “It was Charleston’s finest moment.”