Monday, April 22, 2013

RACIAL RECONCILIATION – IS IT REALLY POSSIBLE?



August, 2013 marks the fiftieth year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Has that dream been realized yet in the south? The north? The Midwest and beyond? If not, why not? The strides our country has made in racial issues since those turbulent days of the ‘60s cannot be denied; integrated schools, job opportunities, open housing, no “colored” or “white only” signs; access to public libraries, pools, golf courses, and entertainment venues. And yet…and yet there are still so many barriers between races, so many inequalities.
If we’re honest, we’ll see that our biases, prejudices, fears and bitterness exist on all sides, in all places, between black and white, Muslim, Hispanic, Jew, and so on. What can we do to get past this negativity? How can we keep the dream of Dr. King alive?
The answer involves reconciliation. Reconciliation – To make oneself or another no longer opposed. To make two apparently conflicting things compatible or consistent with each other. How do we do that?
As an author of historical fiction, and in doing research for my latest book MARCH WITH ME which deals with race relations in Birmingham, Alabama during the civil rights movement of the ‘60s, my work led me to some interesting discoveries. I am encouraged about the possibility for reconciliation.
Consider one of the most dramatic examples of reconciliation – The Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was convened in South Africa after apartheid was abolished. Individuals are both sides were invited to give testimony. The emphasis was on truth-telling, and this, I believe, was the key to successfully moving beyond the horrific days of apartheid.
What we, as humanity, have learned is that an important first step in connecting with each other is telling our stories. That is basic in the development of any relationship. Alexander McCall Smith used this idea in his book IN THE COMPANY OF CHEERFUL LADIES, part of his Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency. He writes, “A life without stories would be no life at all. And stories bound us, did they not, one to another, the living to the dead, people to animals, people to the land?” (Italics mine). And I would add “and one race to another.”
Consider the work of former Mississippi Governor William Winter who has established the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. This wonderful organization is multifaceted in its work to eliminate racism and bring about reconciliation. One of the best examples of their work was when they were invited to go to Philadelphia, MS where the three civil rights workers were slain in 1964. They helped the townspeople work through truth-telling to get to a point of reconciliation between whites and blacks. Even more recently they arranged for an exchange of twenty students from Philadelphia, MS and twenty students from Tallahatchie in the Mississippi Delta where Emmett Till was brutally murdered in 1955 to learn each other’s history – to tell their stories. The work of the Institute goes far beyond the borders of Mississippi. They were involved in the “America Healing: Racial Equity Communities of Practice Conference” made up of over 140 organizations and individuals who work toward racial healing here in our country, among their many other projects and educational outreach.
There are a number of grass-roots organizations all around the United States that are working for the same goals. The Minority Round Table of Hampton Roads in Virginia is one example. Founded in 1994, they work to gather individuals from the diverse ethnic backgrounds in the area to come together in forums and work on common problems and exchange information – to tell their stories. The Community Group and Council on Human Relations in Blacksburg, Virginia held a racial summit recently. The Memphis Race Relations and Diversity Institute in Tennessee is another example to work on the same goals. The Greensboro (NC) Truth and Community Reconciliation Project follows much of what was learned from South Africa and Mississippi. Birmingham, Alabama – once considered the most racist place in America –has programs not only through the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, but also through the Birmingham Metro Diversity Coalition. The BMDC coordinates all of the organizations that are working for racial justice and harmony in that city. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program is far-reaching in thousands of schools to promote understanding.
These projects and organizations are nationwide. Consider the youth-led Racial Healing and Reconciliation Project in New England that deals with many issues of race relations. It also looks at the connection between race and public health issues as does the Racial Healing and Reconciliation Documentary Project in Jamaica, NY. In Tampa, Florida the “Race With History” and “Listening Beyond the Lines” provides CDs and videos telling the stories. Because three young black men were lynched in Duluth, Minnesota there is the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, “a public commitment to acknowledge its (Duluth’s) painful history and move forward to a more just and inclusive community.” And for providing educational materials internationally one can go to “Facing History and Ourselves” in Brookline, Massachusetts. The website for “blackgivesback” provides insight into many of the projects going on across our country.
I only have mentioned a few of the hundreds and hundreds of things going on in our country to promote harmony between races. Do we need to do more? Of course, we do. Even so, I have come to believe that the dream of Dr. King lives on. I believe that racial reconciliation is possible. However, we cannot achieve it by ignoring our history. We must listen to each other as both sides share their stories. We must be involved in truth-telling. Reconciliation will not happen easily, but it can happen. It’s up to all of us.
It’s up to you.

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