12 Jan 2011
Not just a Spike Lee film, "Do the Right Thing" is also this Columbia leader's motto
COLUMBIA, 12/11/11 (Op-Ed) -- In every community there are moral voices urging better choices, and in Columbia, William "Gene" Robertson is one of them.
Robertson starts off our extended profiles of Columbia's Top Ten Black Leaders.
In dozens of editorial columns over the years for both local newspapers, the Columbia Missourian columnist and Mizzou community development professor emeritus consistently argues that the highest charge of human life -- our prime directive, as it were -- is to do the right thing. That may sound like a simple mandate, but as one look at Robertson's wisdom shows, doing right by yourself and others may be the hardest job in the world.
In nearly five years at the Missourian, Robertson has urged improvements to the Police Review Board and protection of vulnerable citizens, from disabled Veterans to young people and the elderly. He's repeatedly argued against racial inequities, from subtle yet palpable workplace discrimination to the media manhandling persons of color.
He wants to do away with a common Columbia charade: City Hall starts a new "public" planning process like Visioning, only to blow it off behind close doors. "Too often [well-intentioned task force members] find out that the citizen participation process was only a ruse to give the appearance that citizens were considered when programs were developed or discontinued," Robertson wrote.
He spent the better part of the last decade writing about social justice in Columbia. Racial discrimination is alive and well at Mizzou, he opined in one of many Trib editorials. New Wal-Marts impose hidden costs on communities that offset their low, low prices.
Trib publisher Hank Waters and cartoonist John Darkow blundered badly when they compared former Mizzou basketball player Ricky Clemons to a "tar baby," sending Columbia back to its Little Dixie roots.
Given Columbia's myriad other priorities, City Hall was blowing far too much money on an extravagant addition without much public discussion, and a curfew primarily directed at black teens was misguided, something even Columbia's "secluded black professionals" weren't ready to acknowledge, Robertson opined.
Representing the First Ward, Robertson was a member of Columbia's Ward Reapportionment Committee after the 2000 census. A few years later, he was arguing to make the city's new recreation center -- aka the ARC -- accessible to low income persons who, Robertson noted, paid for it with their taxes just like everyone else.
In two recent Missourian columns, he combined the themes of our top ten list: what it means to be a leader and what it means to be a black American. Taking charge -- and doing the right thing -- are common to both.
"My designation as a black American affirms my high regard for other people of all colors, cultures and continents. I am a willing partner with every other living being. We share a common human denominator," Robertson wrote about being black in America.
"Each of us is a closet leader whose leadership potential is waiting to be unleashed," he wrote about leadership. "Our fate is in our hands. We are the leaders of our fate."