Friday, December 18, 2015

An America for all

The breakthrough at the Paris climate talks gives hope. It shows that with sustained effort, good intent, gracious hosting and skillful facilitation, the most difficult and contentious challenges can be met. Commentators credit a change in geopolitics, a clearer perception of the threat posed by inaction, and the art of French diplomacy which ensured that every country, regardless of size or wealth, felt its voice would be heard. The presence of business leaders committed to addressing climate change was critical.    

My mind turned homeward to the United States which appears more deeply polarized than at any time in recent decades. What can we learn from Paris?

However much one deplores the Trump phenomena, he is exploiting genuine anxiety and insecurity among many Americans. The hollowing out of the middle class, loss of solid blue collar jobs, crippling student loans, rapidly changing demographics, threat of terrorism, and 24-hour social media and cable news combine to feed a climate of fear. Death rates are rising among middle-aged white Americans, unlike every other age group, or every other racial and ethnic group. Conservatives feel their values are under assault from secularists. There is fury at the corrupt politics of Washington. Above all, many people feel that their voices are simply not being heard.

Underlying much of the fear and anger is the issue of race. In recent polls most Americans believe race relations are markedly worse than a decade ago and are getting worse. African Americans are no longer prepared to accept persistent bias and discrimination. Whites resist loss of control and are uncertain of their own place in a “browning” America. Yet race has scarcely rated a mention in presidential campaign debates.

The Republican establishment is terrified of a Trump (or Cruz) candidacy. But GOP leaders have helped to prepare fertile ground for extremist campaigns by playing on the deepest fears and worst instincts of Americans.

It began with the so-called “Southern strategy” employed by Republicans in the 1960s and early 70s, a naked appeal to white racial resentment. It continued with pandering to the Tea Party, questioning of Obama's patriotism, demonizing of government, undermining of voting rights, lies about cross-border immigration, and now anti-Muslim rhetoric. All this has created a political climate where as one civil rights leader put it, everyone has been given tacit permission to unleash their anxieties on those they believe to be the “other.”  

Twenty years ago Harlon Dalton* wrote, “…meaningful action at the societal level is virtually impossible. As a nation we lack a consensus concerning how to deal with the problems that bedevil us most. We seem unable to take sustained action in any direction for very long. And we don’t trust anyone enough to let them lead us. We are, in short, politically paralyzed. The reasons for this paralysis are several but chief among them is our failure to engage each other openly and honestly about race.”

As a nation we have never undertaken the task of examining our racial history honestly. Its legacy is seen in every aspect of our social structures and public policies. Most importantly, as Dr. Gail Christopher of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation points out, we have not overcome the “belief in a hierarchy of human value which became manifest as racism,” or the “consequences, implications and most importantly feelings, motivations and behaviors that have grown over time from adherence to this belief system.” As America becomes increasingly diverse – the workforce will be majority minority by 2030/31 – we must face this if we are to create a healthy society and if America is to play a constructive role in a world torn by ethnic and sectarian conflict.

On December 4, I joined leaders of civil rights organizations, advocacy groups and national institutions as well as some corporate representatives to explore the potential for a national truth, racial healing and transformation process. Dr. Christopher emphasized that the focus should not be on perpetrators or victims, but on “the power of belief that created both, the belief in a hierarchy of human value…Ours is a shared history, a shared journey with a shared responsibility to shape a future America that has truly jettisoned this archaic concept along with biases both conscious and unconscious.”

A call to action came from 92-year-old William Winter, governor of Mississippi, a self-confessed former die-hard segregationist, who, in the words of Christopher, “embodies the transformation of which we speak.”  Winter is known for his strong support of public education and racial reconciliation. As governor he introduced the landmark Mississippi Education Reform Act which established the state’s first public kindergartens.

Vigorous as ever, Winter says, “I have a lot of friends who say, ‘Why not leave it [racial justice and reconciliation] alone? It will work out.’ The last years have shown that WE have got to work it out… in such a way that everyone feels they have a stake in the process….to level the playing field, to create a country of opportunity for everyone.”

This task requires determination and persistence. It will take courage to face honestly the truth about our history as well as our present. And it will only succeed if all Americans feel that their voices are heard and respected. Black, white, Hispanic, indigenous, Asian, liberal, conservative, grassroots, corporate, government, immigrant, people of all faiths and secularists: the best of everyone is needed.

If 195 nations can come to an agreement on climate change in Paris, could Americans of all backgrounds join together to finally overcome the scourge of our racial history? 

*Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks & Whites (Harlon Dalton, Doubleday, 1995)

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.”

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Migration as a gift

Across the globe humanity is on the move on a vast scale, driven by war, terrorism and religious persecution as well as the desire for a better life. A UN report released this week puts the number of displaced people at 60 million. The total number of migrants reached 232 million in 2013. This number will surely escalate and most governments seem unwilling to come to terms with this reality.   

At the time of writing, more than 2500 migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh were adrift in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea without food or water. Hundreds, perhaps thousands have died – no one knows for certain. The Economist magazine says the “callous and haphazard response” by governments of Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar shames the whole region. 

Richer countries have not done much better. Australia has maintained a firm policy of refusing to accept boats in its waters. Its prime minister declines to deny that Australia has actually paid the smugglers to turn back. Refugees who are accepted are sent to an internment camp in Papua New Guinea. Meanwhile many European countries are resisting the need to accept more migrants. Up to 2000 may have died so far this year attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe. Fifty thousand have landed in Italy. Last week 6000 people were rescued and there are a reported 500,000 waiting on the Libyan coast. An even larger human tragedy looms with four million Syrians crowded into refugee camps in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

One thing is certain: people who are desperate will go to any lengths to attain safety, freedom and hope for the future.

The current global crisis provides a particularly poignant context in which to read Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns. Based on 1200 interviews conducted over 15 years, Wilkerson documents through detailed and often deeply moving personal narratives the epic story of America’s Great Migration when, in course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the cotton fields, rice plantations and tobacco farms of the South for the urban centers of New York, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Along with sharecroppers came skilled craftsmen, doctors, pastors, educators and musicians.

They were escaping a rigid and brutal race-based caste system where “their every step was controlled by the meticulous laws of Jim Crow.”  Although formal slavery had ended, millions of black Americans were still in bondage as sharecroppers and could be exploited, imprisoned or beaten without recourse. In many cases they were running for their lives from a place where a careless look or word could mean death. Public lynching was common. Thousands would turn out to see victims hung, burned and tortured. Sometimes body parts were sold as souvenirs or even roasted and eaten. Small children sat on their fathers’ shoulders for a better view. These events often took place on a Sunday as a sort of grim religious ceremony with clergy encouraging the mobs.

The migrants “left as though they were fleeing some curse,” wrote the scholar Emett J. Scott. “They were willing to make almost any sacrifice to obtain a railroad ticket…” They would often leave under cover of night to avoid detection as southern plantation owners would use any means to prevent their departure and the loss of cheap labor.  

The Great Migration, which began during World War I with the demand for labor in northern factories and continued until the early 1970s, would become a turning point in history says Wilkerson. “It would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched. It would force the South to search its soul and finally to lay aside a feudal caste system. It grew out of the unmet promises made after the Civil War and, through the sheer weight of it, helped push the country toward the civil rights revolutions of the 1960s.”

Arriving in cold northern cities, migrants were exploited by employers who found that they could pay them lower wages and by landlords who charged them higher rents than white tenants. They also encountered fierce resistance from migrants from Central and Eastern Europe who, ironically, were themselves escaping persecution from Stalin and Hitler and who resented what they saw as competition for jobs. The response to the new arrivals was white flight from neighborhoods and schools, bombings and burnings of homes, and riots in which the police often sided with the perpetrators. 

In August 1966 Martin Luther King Jr. came to march against housing segregation in a Chicago neighborhood of Poles, Lithuanians, Germans and Italians. A crowd of 4000 had gathered to curse him; many waved Confederate flags. King was struck on the head by a rock. Twelve hundred police could not prevent the chaos that followed. King was shaken. “I have seen many demonstrations in the South,” he said, “but I have never seen anything so hostile and hateful as I’ve seen here today.”

The major receiving cities of the Great Migration became the most racially segregated in the nation. The effects are still evident today.      

Despite daunting challenges, the courageous migrants and their descendants from the South transformed American culture and politics. Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Michelle Obama, Jesse Owen, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Sarena and Venus Williams, Condoleeza Rice, Nat King Cole, Oprah Winfrey, Jimi Hendrix, Spike Lee and August Williams are just a few of the extraordinary Americans listed by Wilkerson whose parents or grandparents took part in the Great Migration. The three giants of jazz, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane were also children of migrants from the South. 

The first black mayors of all the major receiving cities of the North and West were participants or sons of southerners looking for freedom and greater opportunity. Detroit’s black population went from 1.4 percent to 44 percent within a few decades. Other cities experienced similar demographic changes. Wilkerson notes that Franklin Roosevelt might not have won a third term in the White House without the greatly increased black vote in Chicago. African Americans who had been denied the vote by Democrats in the South cast their vote for a Democratic president. 

Taking a broader perspective, Wilkerson remarks that as the Migration “forced the country as whole to face its centuries-old demons, it also helped inspire and pressure other racial regimes such as that of South Africa, and thus was a gift to other parts of the world.”

In the US today, while fears about immigration are exploited for political purposes, any rational analysis confirms the benefit. The influx of newcomers has resulted in a median age that is almost 10 years below that of some European countries. Italy is called a “dying country” by its health minister. The only factor keeping its population from actually falling is immigration. Germany’s population is shrinking so fast that it will be overtaken by Britain by 2040. The European Union calculates that by 2060 there will be just two workers for every person over 65, compared with four today.

The American experience should be an encouragement to Europe to welcome new arrivals – and hopefully to avoid some of the worst mistakes of the US. Migrants typically are determined, resourceful and hard working. They enrich, inspire and invigorate a nation. 

Yes, there will be disruption and everyone will need to get accustomed to change. Old concepts of citizenship may give way to new realities. Robert Winder writes in Bloody Foreigners, an excellent review of Britain’s historical attitude to immigrants, “All countries are having to grapple with tensions between their historical national self-imagery and the rich plurality of lifestyles they are obliged to accommodate.” 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A movement for healing and justice

Twenty years ago Richmond was a city “starkly divided along racial lines” and “congenitally resistant to change of any kind,” according to Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, who joined the city council in 1994. He went on to become mayor, lieutenant governor, and then governor. African Americans had won control of the city council in 1977, unsettling the white establishment, now faced with the new majority asserting its authority. Local media frequently highlighted acrimonious exchanges at council meetings.

Traditionally, the former capital of the Confederacy had maintained a polite silence about race relations. Indeed, fifty-one percent of those approached for a 1981 Richmond Times-Dispatch survey on the topic declined to participate.

Today Richmond is a far different place. As the city marked the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Emancipation, the Richmond Times-Dispatch noted that “instead of fracturing along familiar fault lines of race and mistrust” the commemoration has built relationships among disparate groups. A “new focus on the nation’s defining conflict has brought out different perspectives on shared experiences and developed a language of respect that enlightens rather than antagonizes.”

Many of these new relationships are a result of actions by individuals of all backgrounds, and attest to a remarkably organic and sustained movement for honest conversation and change that started in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and which transcends traditional boundaries of race, class and politics.

Examples of change and new relationships include the owner of the city’s leading cotillion (a dance and manners class for the children of the white elite) who overcame her fears to open her home to interracial groups; a black community organizer who reached out to a white city manager whom he had suspected of racism; an African American pastor who developed a dialogue with a leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans; and a white banker who decided to take responsibility for challenging the norms of a racialized society. Numerous such individuals formed unlikely partnerships and a growing network.

In 1993 Richmond citizens gave impetus to the creation of a Slave Trail Walk to commemorate the approximately 300,000 women, men and children sold from downtown auction blocks to southern plantations in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the following years, thousands of people took part in public forums and small group dialogues. Led by Hope in the Cities, the Richmond-based national program of Initiatives of Change, these walks and dialogues enabled Richmonders of all backgrounds to collectively confront a painful past without fixating on guilt or blame. The dialogue model was picked up by other communities, with a group even coming from Northern Ireland to study the process. Hope in the Cities leaders were tapped to help design a dialogue guide for President Clinton’s initiative on race.

In 2007, under Governor Kaine’s leadership, Virginia became the first state to formally apologize for its support of slavery. Three reconciliation statues now link Richmond with Liverpool, UK,  (which issued an apology in 1999 for its leading role in the trans-Atlantic trade), and the Republic of Benin, where in that same year President Mathieu Kerekou apologized to the African diaspora for his ancestors’ prominent role in selling fellow Africans.

Richmond is home to the first museum in the nation to tell the story of the Civil War from Union, Confederate and African American perspectives. It was the vision of Alex Wise the great-great grandson of Henry Wise, the Virginia governor responsible for leading Virginia out of the Union in 1860 and who subsequently became a Confederate general. Wise says that his vison was made possible by the network of trust developed through dialogue and relationship building.

Speaking at a recent public forum in Richmond, Edward Baptist, the author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, said, I see in Richmond a city that is engaging with its history in a potentially transformative way.” The Richmond Times-Dispatch, a newspaper once known for its support of Massive Resistance but now a frequent facilitator of community meetings, ran editorials endorsing Baptist’s book and suggested that “An exchange regarding reparations ought to be opened as well.”

Crucially, Richmond is now able to link acknowledgment of history with an understanding of its continuing impact on today’s social and economic structures. Policies of segregation and red-lining continued well into the middle of the twentieth century. Richmond ranks ninth nationally in income inequality: its wealthiest neighborhoods lie within walking distance of some of the poorest census tracts. Public housing is concentrated within a few square miles. Schools are overwhelmingly populated by African American children from low-income families. Public transportation scarcely reaches the suburban counties where most new jobs are located.

The city has made national news through the mayors’ anti-poverty commission and the creation of an Office of Community Wealth Building.The fact that poverty is now rising faster in some of the increasingly diverse county suburbs than in the inner city should prompt cross-jurisdictional collaboration.

President Obama calls income inequality “the defining challenge of our time.” As I noted in a recent commentary in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, healing history also means healing wounded policies. This cannot be done on the cheap and it will not be comfortable. It will require political courage and selfless citizenship. This remains Richmond’s greatest challenge.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The complexity and ambiguity of history

History is complex and ambiguous. No one is more aware of this truth than John Franklin, a senior manager at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Franklin’s ancestors were taken to Oklahoma as slaves of Native Americans. In 1831, thousands of Cherokees, Muscogees, Seminoles, Chickasaws, and Choctaws were forcibly relocated from their homelands in southeastern United States, many dying on the infamous Trail of Tears. Some of them took enslaved African Americans with them.  

John’s father was the renowned historian John Hope Franklin whose grandfather was a former slave of African American and Indian ancestry who became a Chickasaw Freedman when emancipated after the American Civil War. 

Last month John Franklin was in Richmond as guest faculty for the Community Trustbuilding Fellowship operated by Hope in the Cities. He spoke to community leaders from Memphis, Dayton, Norfolk, Austin, Washington DC, as well as Richmond. 

When we think about slavery we tend to think about the institution in North America, said Franklin, but only about five percent of Africans who survived the horrors of the Middle Passage came to this country. In contrast, close to 8 million were transported to Brazil and other parts of South America and the Caribbean.

The trade went east from Africa as well as west. As Franklin noted, the Sultan of Zanzibar controlled the east African slave trade for 1000 years, trafficking human beings to Arabia, the Gulf, and Asia. There are more than one million black Iraqis and according to some researchers, over a million enslaved people were brought from the African interior to Libya and Egypt. 

Earlier in his life, Franklin, who speaks fluent French, spent several years in Senegal. “You are often perceived with multiple identities and you will have to deal with that. You can’t help what others project on you,” he says.  “When I came to Senegal they called me a white man. But they really got me when they called me a Yankee!”

Franklin believes it is important to know the history of others, not just our own. Because of his background, Franklin’s advice was sought in the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian. He also served on the Hispanic Heritage committee for the Smithsonian and learned about the vast diversity of the Latino experience across America. For the first hundred years of its existence the Smithsonian had never taken on itself to investigate the Latino experience. An external review produced a report entitled “Willful Neglect.” It found, for example, that only two of the 470 people featured in the “notable Americans” section of the National Portrait Gallery were Latino. Franklin was also elected chair of the Asian and Pacific American committee.

“When you enter a new arena you have to learn,” Franklin says. “Ask, what should I be reading? How can I expose myself to the diversity of the Asian and Latino experience? We have to broaden the circle and learn about areas beyond our own. Everyone needs the experience of working outside their comfort zone…You will make mistakes in interacting with other cultures. You can’t anticipate everything. You just have to apologize and learn from it.”

We live in a world that is experiencing one of the greatest human migrations in history. Anxieties and tensions arise as neighborhoods and cities experience change. Mohsin Hamid wrote in the New York Times Magazine on February 22, “We are drawn, despite ourselves to otherness. In the centuries of colonialism, northerners once spread to the global south. In the decades since colonialism, southerners have spread to the global north. And northerners are mixing, too, with other northerners who are strangers to them, southerners with southern strangers.  There is a planetwide, gyrating churn.”

Franklin will be taking part in an international conference in Richmond, VA in April under the theme Healing History: Memory, Legacy and Social Change. He is helping to animate a working group on “museums and public history sites for education and healing.” 

Becoming comfortable with history’s complexity can help us move beyond blame, recrimination and guilt. Learning to hear the different stories, however contradictory and painful can enable us to develop a new, shared narrative.
America with its extraordinarily diverse population and intertwined stories has a particular responsibility and opportunity to look at these stories with courageous honesty and humility as well as pride. This is a sign of strength, not weakness.  As a community leader from Chicago said, “None of us is responsible for the wounds of the past; but we are all responsible for the acts of repair.”

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Separation as violence

One of the most memorable moments in the film Selma shows the civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey) along with other peaceful demonstrators standing at the steps of the Selma courthouse demanding the right to vote. Sheriff Jim Clark pokes her with his nightstick at which point Cooper punches him. She is tackled and thrown to the ground and handcuffed. A widely used photograph of the time shows Clark straddling Cooper as two deputies help him hold her down.

I had the honor of first meeting Annie Lee Cooper in November 1998 when she was in her late eighties (she died in 2010 as the age of 100). She had traveled with a diverse team of community leaders from Selma to take part in a weekend training program with people from other US cities organized by Hope in the Cities in Richmond, VA. During subsequent visits to Selma in the following years I met her again and visited her home.

Leading the group that came to Richmond was Councilman Yusuf Abdus-Salaam. On August 20, 1965 a white special deputy turned his shotgun on his 17 year-old sister, Ruby Sales. A young white seminarian, Jonathan Daniels (a classmate of our former rector Bob Hetherington), stepped in front of her and took the full blast. He was later named a saint in the Episcopal Church.

Yusuf Abdus-Salaam and Annie Lee Cooper were among a number of black and white Selmians who launched honest conversations on race, reconciliation and responsibility. They often met in private homes which was highly unusual in Selma at that time. 

One member of the group was Bob Armstrong, an attorney and prominent member of the white community. He said, “I had never heard the concept of white privilege before I encountered Hope in the Cities. At one point I asked, ‘Why does it always have to be about race?’ An African American responded gently but firmly, 'Maybe you’re not being honest with yourself. Maybe it is often about race.'"

Armstrong said he never forgot that moment of truth. “It opened my eyes to my own arrogance.” As a county district court judge he helped to launch an initiative to offer counseling, training and job placement for young fathers – mostly African American – who passed through the child support court.

There is a remarkably contemporary feel to Ava DuVernay’s Selma. We see an emotional Dr. King speaking to his congregation after an unarmed young black man is gunned down by two police officers. “How many fingers were on that trigger?” he asks. “Every white preacher who stands silent. Every Negro who stands back.”

“How many fingers were on that trigger?” King’s question has stayed with me in the days after seeing the movie. We might ask the same question today.

There is no excuse for police brutality and there is an obvious need for new approaches to training. The injustice in our criminal justice system cries out for reform. But the responsibility for the shocking events in places such as Ferguson, Cleveland or New York cannot rest on law enforcement alone.

It occurs to me that every act of separation is fundamentally an act of violence. Our refusal to integrate or properly fund our schools; our resistance (at least in Richmond) to enable public transportation to reach from inner cities to jobs in the suburbs; our NIMBY reaction to affordable housing in our neighborhoods; our retreat to gated communities; and our votes for politicians who support discriminatory sentencing or cut support for vital community services all contribute to alienation, distrust, fear, and resentment and provide fertile ground for the seeds of actual physical violence to flourish.

Our police are often faced with impossible situations that are not of their making. Practically every police chief in the country has pleaded for sensible gun control. The relentless campaigns of the NRA have ensured that law enforcement is dealing with an ever more heavily armed population. Poverty, lack of opportunity, and inadequate schools are in large measure the result of choices we as Americans have made to live our lives in separation from other human beings based on differences of race, class, religion or politics.

In the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., can we choose to break down the walls of separation and learn to walk with one another?