Former Irmo mayor learns from mistake, spends year educating self and embracing community

Published: Nov. 7, 2019 at 7:32 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Planning is underway for Irmo’s second International Festival and outgoing mayor Hardy King has played a key role in the festival’s birth and organization.

He’s come a long way in one year since sharing a post on Facebook some found offensive and racist toward Muslims. The post lists several acts of terror or violence and attributes them to Muslims.

RELATED: SC councilman brings Irmo mayor’s ‘disparaging’ comments on council agenda

This stirred up some controversy in Irmo as some people felt, by sharing the post, it was reducing Muslim people to an idea that does not represent them or their religion. The mayor offered an explanation for his actions in a 2018 taping of WIS Awareness.

"If I see a lot of stuff come across my newsfeed and then something comes along and it's like, here, gotcha! You may post that and say, ‘Stick this is your bonnet or pipe and smoke it.’ So I'm sure some of it came from that intention," King said.

While there were some people who praised the mayor, some residents felt his actions were unbecoming of their elected leader. Following the controversy, the mayor got connected with Interfaith Partners of South Carolina and has spent the last year meeting his Muslim neighbors and learning about their culture and religion. IPSC Executive Director Dr. Adrian Bird and his team helped facilitate various meetings and conversations for King with people of the Muslim culture and Islamic faith. King even attended service at a mosque. There was also a panel discussion for the community at Irmo Town Hall called "Demystifying Islam," which saw great attendance.

"It was a really great experience to witness what happens when you have those one-on-one encounters. The mayor was able to go to the mosque and meet local Muslims and that provided an opportunity to take some of those negative stereotypes and really have them shattered and then to construct new ones in their place through those relationships. The mayor was received so well at the mosque ... which was incredible. The folks at the mosque knew what he had said and yet they welcomed him with open arms," Bird said.

Artist and Irmo native Ashley Lane saw the Awareness episode and was also compelled to get involved. She had ideas of embracing more of the people who call Irmo home. Also, as a mother of two, she wanted to be a part of something that would build a better Irmo for her kids and future generations.

Lane, who was previously acquainted with the mayor on other town projects, reached out to King. After that contact was made, organizing began and many others got involved in planning the town’s first International Festival. It was a partnership among many local organizations, IPSC, local schools, and many volunteers. The festival came together in a matter of months and took place in April 2019 at the Irmo Community Park. Organizers estimate around 400 people attended.

This year, organizers had no money, but for next year's festival, they have been granted a $6,000 budget by the town. They plan to have international food, art, music, and performances by local schools and other entertainment.

"It's really been kind of overwhelming!" Lane said.

King said the process he's gone through over the last year has been challenging to parts of his identity and long-held perspectives, but he also believes he's a better man for opening his heart and his mind.

"We all go through that kind of growing period and evolution and once you meet people, you realize we're not that different. We just have things in our head that we have to come out of our comfort zone with and get used to. As you get older ... you start realizing there are more important things in life than your mentality, politics, party politics, those people, these people, your people, my people ... you just start going through that process of maturing and growing up," said Mayor King.

Irmo's second annual International Festival will be at the Irmo Community Park in April 2020. After serving as Mayor of Irmo since 2011, King was recently voted out of office.

Voters elected town councilman Barry Walker Junior to the job in the town’s recent municipal election.

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