I was covering the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march in Selma, Ala., when I received an intriguing message on Facebook.
It came from one of my neighbors, who said he liked the coverage and wanted to talk.
"Should you want to hear from a typical 'white boy,' (who was) 22 years of age living in Alabama at that time, let me hear from you," he wrote. "I think I may have some interesting stories that relate to that time and place."
So I replied and we agreed to get together soon.
Two Sundays ago, my neighbor and his wife came to our home. It was just a few days before the racially motivated shooting in Charleston, S.C., and we had no idea that the South's racial history would soon headline the news. We were just neighbors getting to know one another.
My husband and 17-year-old daughter sat with us in the family room, and the conversation began.
First, we exchanged the usual pleasantries and a little information about our backgrounds. Then we talked about race.
The couple shared with us how they came of age during the volatile '60s. At the time, they didn't participate in protests, but resented people trying to force integration on the South.
However, they changed their views after moving north for employment opportunities. There they developed friendships with people of other races and now they believe integration was the right thing to do. They only regret that they didn't reach that conclusion sooner.
I found the conversation fascinating -- because, let's face it, we don't see transparency like that every day.
Discussions about race are usually avoided like the plague. We fear hearing things we don't want to hear and saying things we don't want to say. It's much easier to bury our heads in the sand and pretend the problem doesn't even exist.
But race is still a volatile issue in American society. If there's any doubt, just reflect on the recent Charleston shooting.
What possessed 21-year-old Dylann Roof to walk into a church and kill nine innocent people is beyond comprehension. But his racist ideology didn't foment in a vacuum. There was enough racially charged rhetoric in society to fuel his nefarious ideas.
So what, if anything, can we do about it?
We can't legislate racial harmony. We can't change people's hearts. We can't integrate churches, schools, neighborhoods, and expect that everyone will automatically get along. After years of racial strife, there's healing that needs to take place.
To improve race relations in this country, it will take conversations like the one I had with my neighbors.
I'm talking about constructive conversations that sometimes make us squirm, but help us get to the heart of the matter.
Talking about race can be risky, it's true. But it's well worth the price.
Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.