Brainerd High Principal Charles Joynes offered a stern wake-up call to a group of self-described "white guys" Thursday night when he spoke to the Chattanooga Tea Party.
"What if you had been born to a single mother in the Harriet Tubman projects?" he asked. "If it were not for the grace of God, that could be you."
"Amen! Amen!" some yelled, as if they were in church.
Joynes told the group that, even though Schools Superintendent Rick Smith has chosen to move him from Brainerd, he is not going to stop fighting to turn around the lives of young black men and women in schools.
After his speech in the Century Club Banquet Hall on Harrison Pike, the whole room gave the inner-city principal a standing ovation, and some men put wads of cash in Joynes' hands afterward. They told him to use it for the students at Brainerd, for the ones who didn't have a cap and gown to graduate, for the ones who can't afford the field trips or the sports equipment.
"I'm just a white guy," said Tony Rubik, a Bakewell resident. "I don't know a lot about the black community. But I'm going to find out now what I can do."
In the last three years, although test scores and graduation rates have remained disappointing at Brainerd, Joynes has quelled the number of gang members at the school. This year, he changed his focus to tackle apathy among students, who are mostly poor and black.
Several weeks ago, he held an assembly with the young black men at the school and told them they needed to rethink what it means to be African-American and reconnect with their rich heritage. They didn't have to go to jail; they didn't have to drop out of school, he said.
He was also instrumental in bringing national education activist Fluke Fluker to speak to students and the community. Joynes' goal has been to start a mentoring program at the school modeled off Village Nation, a successful program started by Fluker in California.
But on Wednesday, Smith announced that Joynes would be moved so the school system could receive a grant that would give the system $500,000. Under terms of the state grant, principals at schools that perform in the lowest 5 percent must be reassigned if they've been at the school for two years or longer.
"God knows what he has in store for me," Joynes said at the Thursday meeting. "Wherever I go, it doesn't matter. I am going to do the best I can."
After the meeting, the president of the Chattanooga Tea Party, Mark West, called the group to action.
"What can this 53-year-old white guy do?" he asked Joynes. "Let's not walk out of here with just our T-shirts and bumper stickers."
Pray, Joynes said, and get involved.
West said he was touched. It made him think about some bigger issues in the city.
"Unfortunately there is a wall, a racial wall," he said. "It doesn't exist when you get people one-on-one, but it exists theoretically. It keeps people from stepping across the street. It's fear and ignorance."