Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Breaking the polite silence

In 1959, Prince Edward County, Virginia, closed all its public schools to avoid integration. Classes did not resume until 1964. No other jurisdiction in the US has ever taken such action. The white elite quickly established a private academy for their own children, using resources from the closed schools and vouchers provided by the state. Meanwhile, 1,700 black children were shut out of their schools. Some were sent to be with families or friends in other counties or states; many never regained the five lost years of education.  

The struggle for civil rights – and white resistance to change – in Prince Edward County began in 1951 when Barbara Johns led a student strike to protest conditions in Farmville’s all-black Moton High School. It led to Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, which became part of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, which outlawed segregation in public schools for the entire country. 

Henry Marsh, a civil rights attorney who became Richmond’s first black mayor and later served as state senator, says, “The revolution …took wings in Prince Edward County. The spirit of blacks in Prince Edward is the spirit that fired the civil rights movement to overturn Plessy v Ferguson,” (the 1896 decision which enshrined the “separate but equal” doctrine).

Recently, I attended a preview of a new documentary in the making, They Closed Our Schools. Afterwards, three Prince Edward County natives who grew up in Farmville discussed their vastly different experiences of privilege and exclusion.   

With the schools closed, Dorothy Lockett had to walk three miles to attend a makeshift school in a church basement. Later, her father rented a derelict house in a neighboring county so that his children could attend school in that district. The house was in such poor condition that they could not live in it, but every morning they would enter by the back door and come out by the front door when the school bus arrived. Over time, children from other families joined them until finally 21 children would come out the front door to board the bus. “We had only one book in our home,” said Dorothy, whose grandmother was born an enslaved woman and lived to age 113. “But we had to read the newspaper every day and be able to discuss it.”   

Kittrell College, an African Methodist Episcopal junior college in North Carolina, offered space in its high school department and the black community’s Prince Edward County Christian Association helped 61 students to attend. One of them was Charles Taylor. (His cousin was sent to be with a family in Ohio: “They were white and vegetarian!”)  Charles was reluctant to go because it meant leaving his best friend behind, plus there was no sports program at Kittrell. “I was miserable for the first few months.” 

Many years later, Kristen Green attended Prince Edward Academy, the private school which had been set up for white children. The first black students were accepted in 1986 when Kristen was in 8th grade. Because of Virginia’s pervasive culture of polite silence, she only discovered the history of public school closings long after she left and had become a successful journalist. 

While in Oregon and California reporting on immigration and poverty, Kristen began to question what had happened in her home town. Her new book, Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County, is a compelling narrative about her family, her home town and the struggle for civil rights. It is her personal “journey of discovery,” peeling back the layers of history and acknowledging her place of privilege.   

Within months of the 1954 Supreme Court decision, the white elite met to draw up their battle plan. They created a statewide organization, the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties, and began putting in place a plan to deny state funds for schools forced to desegregate. They went on to create the Prince Edward School Foundation and collected hundreds of pledges in order to fund a white school. When the court’s mandate was finally enforced, they were ready.

Virginia’s response to integration was “massive resistance”, a phrase coined by Virginia Senator Harry Byrd who led the political opposition to integration. By 1965, thirteen private schools were established in Virginia. By 1974, the region’s 3500 academies enrolled 750,000 students. Ten percent of Virginia’s white children were attending private schools. Resistance in Virginia and especially Prince Edward County became a model for other southern states.

In the course of Kristen Green’s research she discovered that her grandfather (her mother’s father) had been deeply involved in the school closing. He was a member of the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberty and a founder of the Farmville’s white academy. Kristen was stunned. “To me he was the perfect grandfather. I rode the tractor at his farm; he taught me how to fish.  I realized that someone you love and admire could also be something else.” 

She said her parents have been supportive of her writing project but that it was hard for her mother who taught in the academy most of her working life. “The first time she read the book she said, ‘I hated it.’ The second time she said, ‘It’s all true.’ The third time she said, ‘It’s a pretty good book.’”

The panel conversation reflected the determination of black parents to get education for their children. In her book, Kristen writes poignantly that Elsie Lancaster, a black woman who loyally served Kristen’s grandparents and parents as house cleaner and child minder, and who had helped take care of Kristen herself, sent her own talented daughter to an aunt in Boston. She stayed up north for decades. This was never discussed in Kristen’s family.  

Those who experienced the school closings are survivors. Some of them even thrived. 

Charles Taylor went on to spend 20 years in the US Army, including two tours of duty in Vietnam where he was race relations consultant to General Schwarzkopf.  Dorothy Lockett attended Johnson C. Smith College in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 1972, she was hired as the first minority professional staff of the Virginia Employment Commission in Farmville, Virginia where she worked for 31 years. “Many of the people who came in looking for a job were people who had lost their schooling and who needed help,” she recalled. She is now chair of the Moton Museum Council, the site of the 1951 student strike. 

The museum, which tells the story of the Farmville student protest and the school closings, has become a place of dialogue and healing where white and black can hear each other’s stories. Charles Taylor serves as a member of the Council. He said, “I have experienced cancer, divorce and being shot at, but nothing was as painful as the closing of the schools. But I still love Farmville.” 

The panel discussion underscored the power of the white elite who controlled Price Edward County and the failure of the two local colleges and the churches to speak out. As Brian Grogan, the producer of They Closed Our Schools, put it, “It was all about race and class.” 

He recalled the words of Senator Harry Byrd: “Why do we need all these schools? They are just going to work on the farm.”  

Kristen Green, whose husband is of mixed racial heritage, now has two daughters in a Richmond public school where they have friends of all races and backgrounds. They are fortunate to live in a neighborhood with an excellent school, but in her book Kristen reflects on the difficult choices facing many parents who want to participate in public schools in a city where most white parents have abandoned the school system.  In different circumstances she might make different choices. “We want the best for our children, just as my grandfather did for his.”

Brian Grogan concluded the panel by commenting that the story of Prince Edward County highlights what public education means for America. “It is the foundation piece for democracy. The key issues are still with us today.”   

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Connecting personal and social change

Initiatives of Change has always stressed the connection between personal change and change in society. It is at the core of our vision and mission. Our global website states: “Initiatives of Change (IofC) is a world-wide movement of people of diverse cultures and backgrounds, who are committed to the transformation of society through changes in human motives and behavior, starting with their own.”

Many social movements advocate change in the behavior of other people or groups. Initiatives of Change challenges us to ask whether our own attitudes and actions reflect a spirit of inclusion or exclusion, resentment or forgiveness, egoism or self-giving.

When we talk about personal change leading to change in society, we mean that if we live out the principles expressed on our platforms and taught in our training program, they inevitably have an impact on the world around us – our families, our social circles, our work places and institutions, and sometimes in the larger economic and political arena. It will be different for each person: there are many ways in which this approach will mobilize individuals.

In Trustbuilding I write: “In the Hope in the Cities model of honest conversation, dialogue is more than a tool, with which to exchange information. It can lead to transformation in individuals, in relationships, and – if sustained – to change in society. It moves us to action because it touches us at our deepest point of motivation. When we experience dialogue at this level we respond and behave differently. We relate to other people differently and choose different priorities in our lives. Our friendships, our interests, and our worldview are all deeply affected.”

Those of us who strive for social justice need to ensure that our inner life is congruent with our goals for social change. Charles Marsh asserts in The Beloved Community that the early civil rights movement pursued a form of discipleship that was “life-affirming, socially transformative, and existentially demanding: a theology for radicals… A certain kind of contemplative discipline was an important disposition in building community and enabling trust.”

As I write in Trustbuilding, “The most-needed reforms in our communities require levels of political courage and trust-based collaboration that can only be achieved by individuals who have the vision, integrity and persistence to call out the best in others and sustain deep and long-term efforts.”

I also believe that inner transformation is only possible in the context of our relationship with others, with society and the world. That is where personal change becomes real. john powell, in his introduction to Racing to Justice writes, “Can we realize that working for the elimination of social suffering is an integral part of any spiritual project? Can we have a discussion about values that is grounded in hope and acknowledgment of our connected being?”

Garth Lean, in his biography of Frank Buchman, quotes Cardinal Franz Koenig, who served as archbishop of Vienna from 1956 to 1985: “[Buchman’s] great idea was to show that the teaching of Jesus Christ is not just a private affair but the great force to change the whole structure of the social order of economics, of political ideas, if we combine the changing of structures with the change of heart. In that sense he opened a completely new approach to religion, to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and to the life of modern man.”

john powell refers to Roberto Unger, social theorist and Harvard professor, who believes, as powell puts it, “that our religious existential project can only be worked out through engagement with others, by constantly remaking our context, institutions, and structures in response to the demands for engagement. It is not enough to remake ourselves; we must remake the world so that our selves can more appropriately think of the world as our home.”

Buchman said about Moral Re-Armament (now Initiatives of Change), “It gives faith to the faithless but also helps men of faith to live so compellingly that cities and nations change.” At one point he said, “With the world still in the making, what does Moral Re-Armament aim to remake? Remaking what is wrong? It is more than that. It is adding to what is right. It is being originative of relevant alternatives to evil in economics, in government policy and so on. It is seeking God's experience for the human race, and is open to everyone.”

Buchman was speaking in the language of his era and from his own particular theological and religious standpoint. However, the core truth that personal change provides energy and sustainability for constructive social change remains valid. And failure to root social justice efforts on the bedrock of a strong inner life and lived-out values can endanger the most idealistic efforts. As a veteran social justice activist told me, “We spent so much effort in changing structures, but we had to keep going back and doing it again because we did not change the hearts of people.”

Thursday, August 20, 2015

No retirement from commitment

Virginia and Virginia (Ginny) are both in their nineties. They live in the same retirement community in Richmond, VA. Both of them have been part of the work to build trust across divides for more than 50 years.

When my wife and I visited them for lunch this week they brought the latest copy of our newsletter with sections marked and questions for clarification: “Tell us about the social determinants of health.” “Explain about African American school students experiencing harsher punishments in school than their white peers, leading to a higher number of youth of color incarcerated.” They also wanted to know whether we had read a recent newspaper article (relevant points highlighted) about our junior senator. And “What are we going to do about ISIS?”

In the late 70s these two veterans were part of the Initiatives of Change team that welcomed members of the first black majority on Richmond’s city council and worked to build bridges across the racial divides. Community meetings and pot-luck dinners took place in their homes where diverse groups would strategize about how to bring a spirit of unity to the city.

Ginny had been head of the Richmond PTA in the 1970s during the stormy days of integration. “People I had known for thirty years at our church would step out of the way if they saw me coming because they had just put their child into private school,” she told me years later. She recalled speaking at a regional PTA meeting where she said, “If we had open housing, we would not have had busing.” There were boos and hisses from the audience, but as she left the hall, her vice president, who was black, put an arm around her and said, “Now I know you are not the fake I suspected you were.”

After the events of 9/11 Virginia and her husband joined the Interfaith Council of Greater Richmond. “Neither my husband nor I knew any Muslims in Richmond personally,” said Virginia. But she met the wife of the president of the Islamic center, and the two couples became friends, opening the way to a dialogue between Muslims and evangelical Christians.*

Although not wealthy, both Ginny and Virginia have been regular and generous contributors to IofC. Daily quiet times, when they seek for God’s direction for their lives and how to care for people around them, have long been part of their routine.  

Ginny, who is confined to a wheel chair, told us that she “would like very much to visit Richmond’s historic slave trail.” Virginia said she was going to do crossword puzzles to keep her mind engaged. I remarked that her mind already seemed pretty engaged!

We agreed that we should meet more often, although they seem to keep so busy that it’s hard to find time on their calendar!  If you want to be inspired by examples of long-term commitment, you should meet these two valiant ladies.

*See passage from Trustbuilding

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Polls don’t tell the whole story on race relations

Recent polls indicate that white and black Americans believe race relations are bad and nearly half think they are getting worse. In a New York Times/CBS poll just over 60 percent of whites and 68 percent of blacks take this view – a dramatic increase from surveys conducted just after Obama’s first election victory.

Interestingly, while only 37 percent believe race relations are “generally good” nationally, 77 percent say they are good in their own communities. The actual day-to-day experience of many people seems to be different from their perception of national trends.

So what is going on?  No doubt the nation-wide focus on police shootings of unarmed black men and the frequent failure to prosecute those responsible has greatly increased public consciousness of bias within the police and the criminal justice system. But killing of black men is not a new phenomenon. The presence of cell phone cameras and police videos has simply made it more visible. Many police forces are now taking seriously the need for new approaches to training their officers.  

The Charleston massacre by a young man who claimed he wanted to start a race war and the controversy over the Confederate flag riveted the country. But the overwhelming response of people of all races was one of compassion and unity, not division.

Social media has enabled a new generation to communicate and share information in ways never possible before. This generation has no time for intolerance of any kind. Many are increasingly questioning the whole notion of race as it has been invented and imposed by earlier generations and are seeking new ways of expressing their identity. Born long after the days of Jim Crow and the civil rights battles of the 60s, they are appalled at the inequity that still exists and are unafraid to give voice to their anger and frustration.

This anger is informed by the growing body of research now easily accessible on issues ranging from bias in hiring to inequality in education and mass incarceration. And the shameless attempts to restrict access to voting in several states are seen as a direct attack on minority rights.

It is obvious to African Americans that Obama has been treated with a disrespect not experienced by previous presidents. The questioning about his birth certificate as well as his Christian faith were given equal time by the media as actual issues to be debated rather dismissed as partisan posturing and blatant lies.

The media’s obsession with sensational news has also played a role in shaping perceptions. In the 24-hour coverage of events in Ferguson and Baltimore, TV cameras sometimes seemed to outnumber the violent protesters.

If my community is any measure, there is no discernible deterioration in relations between racial and ethnic groups at the local level. In fact, in Richmond and in many other US communities people are coming together in dialogues, both formal and informal, in town halls and in living rooms, and they are building bridges of trust across the divides of the past. 

As I write in Trustbuilding: An Honest Conversation on Race, Reconciliation and Responsibility, in hundreds of local efforts across America ordinary people are coming together to do extraordinary things. Diverse groups are engaged in acts of reconciliation and collaborative problem solving. These hope-giving initiatives appear quietly like green shoots in a parched landscape. Through careful, sustained work, a process emerges. Tools are tried and tested.

Typical is a group called Chattanooga Connected which was recently featured in a CBS story. Its theme is “Honest Conversations Build Lasting Friendships.” Two couples began by inviting people they knew—black and white—for dessert and conversation at one of their homes. Over two years and nine conversations, more than 300 people participated. Others began to host dessert conversations across town and in other cities.

Calls for profound rethinking are coming from the most unlikely quarters. Just this week a remarkable editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted with approval a New York Times article by Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. She wrote: “The day after the flag went down in South Carolina, an editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch made the stunning declaration that it was finally time for a truth and reconciliation commission and that Virginia should take the lead. ‘Accounting has not occurred,’ the paper wrote, ‘the half remains untold.’ This is precisely what history demands and what this moment requires. Perhaps a new reconstruction could truly take hold and inspire the rest of the country if it sprang from the region that resisted it in the first place.” 

Yes, we have a long way to go to overcome racism, heal the wounds of history and address the structural inequities that persist. But an important movement for change has been growing over the years. We may be surprised by what emerges.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

God works in mysterious ways

Early on April 3, 1865 shortly before Union troops entered Richmond, Richard Gill Forrester, 17-year-old free African American, ran to the Virginia State Capitol and raised the US (Union) flag. Four years earlier, when Virginia seceded from the Union, Forrester, who worked as a page at the Capitol, rescued the flag and hid it safely in his home after he saw it lowered and discarded by Confederates.  

One hundred and fifty years later, a Confederate flag was lowered from its pole at the South Carolina State Capitol. A black state trooper carefully carried the folded flag and handed it over to be stored with other Confederate relics. 

It was Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, who preserved the Union and whose vision and leadership defeated the proponents of slavery. It was Governor Nikki Haley, also a Republican, and the daughter of Indian immigrants, who had the courage to call for the removal of a rebel flag that was raised again just fifty years ago as a symbol of defiant resistance to civil rights and integration.

Could the dramatic events of recent days be the start of a new chapter for the Republican Party in the South? Could the extraordinary response to the massacre at Emanuel AME Church and the furor surrounding the flag turn out to be a liberating moment for a party that solidified its southern power by playing on racial fears and resentments but is now caught in a trap of its own making? Will Governor Haley recognize that the removal of the flag, while symbolically powerful, is just the first step? Will those leaders who grieved for their colleague and had the guts to do the right thing regardless of political consequences now affirm that healing and reconciliation is not possible without equity in our social and economic structures? Could the party of Lincoln return to the best of its historical values?

Those who take political risks need support. Democrats should avoid self-righteousness. They have their own shameful history. It was southern Democrats who enforced Jim Crow legislation for 100 years and fiercely resisted the civil rights movement. George Wallace was a Democrat, not a Republican. Nor should the North feel superior in matters of racial justice. The ten most segregated cities include New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit and Boston.

One foundation that South Carolina and other southern states may build on is a shared sense of spirituality among whites and blacks. This was evident in the public statements following the Charleston shooting. The community refused to be divided. There was an awakening among Christians to the fact that the moral teachings of their faith demanded action to remove the offending symbol. The South African experience may prove instructive. For decades the Dutch Reform Church, as the “official church” of South Africa, justified apartheid, giving a theological cover to the white power structure. In 1986, however, the church formally denounced its attempts at biblical justification of apartheid, and in 1989 it condemned apartheid as a sin. This action played some role in helping to move the country toward a peaceful transition to democracy.    

Will the response to the Charleston shootings and the renouncing of the Confederate flag open up a constructive dialogue about how to build a more just and inclusive society for all Americans? As President Obama said in his extraordinary eulogy for the slain Senator Pinckney, “God works in mysterious ways.”