A Leesburg, Virginia, Town Council member drew criticism from the president of the Loudoun County branch of the NAACP after stating that God - not government - was solely responsible for freeing America's slaves and correcting racial injustice.
"It's the . . . hand of God touching the hearts of man that will bring unity within diversity, it's not government," Leesburg council member Thomas Dunn said at a public meeting Tuesday.
Dunn spoke after a well-attended public hearing at which dozens of Loudoun County residents urged the town council to approve the creation of the Leesburg Diversity Commission.
Dunn abstained from the vote to create the citizen-led commission, which will meet monthly and will be tasked with improving outreach and communication with minority communities, encouraging minorities to apply to available town government jobs and fostering an inclusive environment in Leesburg.
The commission will not have authority to investigate or review the town's hiring practices.
In his remarks, Dunn referred specifically to a comment made by Phillip Thompson, president of the Loudoun County chapter of the NAACP. Thompson, who addressed the town council during the hearing, had said that if government had not intervened to further civil rights, he would still be "in the fields picking cotton."
Thompson told The Washington Post that he was responding to a statement made by an earlier speaker who had argued that government should not involve itself in civil rights matters.
"The bottom line is that most, if not all, civil rights matters that have been handled in this country have been handled by government action," Thompson said in an interview Friday. "I went a little over the top on it, but I used the analogy that if the government hadn't intervened, I would still be a slave in the field picking cotton. Government had to act, or I wouldn't be here."
Dunn, who participated in Tuesday's meeting via a telephone conference call, strongly objected to Thompson's assertion.
"Shame on you, Mr. Thompson, for throwing slavery into this discussion," Dunn said. "There are people who feel that. . . government is supposed to be the answer to everything, and Mr. Thompson, I don't believe that government freed our slaves we had in this country. That was an evil that this country had. It was the hand of God touching the hearts of man that freed those slaves."
Dunn also told the people gathered in the Leesburg Town Hall that only God had the ability to end racism.
For those who hope to change "any shortfalls that we have in how we handle different cultures and races, that's holding yourself up too high," Dunn said, "because that has to come from God."
He continued: "Jesus said, 'I give you one commandment, and that is to love one another.' He could have said, 'go out and create a diversity commission,' but he didn't."
Thompson told The Post that he found Dunn's remarks to be offensive and inaccurate.
"I'm an attorney, and this is basic constitutional law: The 13th Amendment ended slavery," Thompson said. "I thought it was just a callous, dismissive remark on his part. . . . If you disagree [with the diversity commission], we can discuss our disagreement. But when you try to take it to this high level and dismiss it based on 'God will fix it,' that's just being disingenuous and not constructive at all."
In an email to The Post on Saturday, Dunn acknowledged that the U.S. government acted to end slavery but said that the country's leaders were ultimately led by God.
"When you read the comments of the men who voted to pass the 13th Amendment, you will find they were led by God to correct a moral not a legal wrong. Lincoln clearly felt that way," Dunn said. "Of course there was a government document involved called the Constitution. I feel much of our government has been ordained and established by men under the influence of God."