Race, Equity, John Lewis and the ABCD Institute
Race, Equity, John Lewis and the ABCD Institute
In the spring of 2019 after retiring from nonprofit work, I decided to take a trip to Montgomery, Alabama to reflect on my lifetime of work and see if I could devise a plan to continue advocating for equal justice. My pilgrimage to the heart of the pro-slavery South promised to do that. You see, Montgomery the Alabama state capital, is no longer the bastion of Southern slavery. It has become a city of hope for racial and ethnic equity. It is the home of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Institute that created two incredible museums; The Legacy Museum that traces the history of slavery, reconstruction and Jim Crow and the Memorial for Peace and Justice that documents (using eerie metal coffins) over 4,000 Black Americans who were lynched for crimes as dastardly as trying to register to vote or flirting with a white woman. It is the home of the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy College, The Freedom Riders Museum and the Dexter Street Church in the shadow of the state capital where Martin Luther King preached and strategized peaceful nonviolent marches and sit ins. One wonderful surprise is the Alabama State Museum that sits next door to Jefferson Davis’ Confederate White House and is one of the best exhibits of the civil rights movement beginning before the Civil War to the present day.
In my lifetime, one of the great and often unsung civil rights leaders was John Lewis. He put his body on the line every day of his life marching, sitting in and preaching to undo segregation, Jim Crow laws, separate and not so equal practices, lynchings and prejudicial treatment by police and other authorities toward people of color. On my journey to Alabama, I got to retrace his footsteps across the Norman Pettus Bridge in Selma. As I made this trek my knees buckled thinking about the horrific beatings inflicted by the Alabama State Police that Mr. Lewis and his fellow marchers suffered on the other side of the bridge. I also reflected that had it not been for him and his supporters persevering in the struggle for civil rights, we may not have been able to dismantle many of the racist practices of our country. I reflected on the evil defenders of segregation and the belief that Black people were less than human – George Wallace, Orville Faubus, Bull Connor, James Jackson, James Eastland, Strom Thurmond and many others who either directly ordered violence against the protesters or turned their heads as Black churches were bombed, Blacks were beaten and lynched, their homes bombed or burnt to the ground and leaders such as Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and the young Emmet Till were murdered.
Jon Meacham in his masterful biography of John Lewis “His Truth Is Marching On” calls Mr. Lewis a saint and places him in the company of Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln. Mr. Lewis discovered at an early age his calling to be a peaceful nonviolent protester against segregation and Jim Crow laws from his early roots in Pike County Georgia and throughout his life. Arrested over 40 times, severely beaten by police and hospitalized often simply for peacefully protesting, Lewis soldiered on never losing faith and even after being challenged by Blacks who were fed up with peaceful protest, he never gave up his principles of nonviolent protest.
Later, motivated by what he saw as progress with the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and housing legislation, he moved his fight to Congress where he was eventually elected to the House of Representatives from his home district in rural Georgia where he served up until his death over 40 years later in 2020.
Two weeks ago, we voted to end 4 years of the most chaotic national leadership in my lifetime by electing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. I wish John Lewis were here to witness this historic moment of having a multi-racial woman serving as Vice President of the United States! I pray for this administration for there is so much to be undone and still so much to do; leading us forward to an era of renewed global respect and a breaking down of barriers that foment racial, economic, educational and criminal justice inequality for so many Americans of color. There are still many race and equity issues to be confronted.
The ABCD Institute worked this past year to incorporate anti-racism thinking into all of its work starting with a statement of guiding principles approved by the board of directors (https://resources.depaul.edu/abcdinstitute/about/Documents/7.10.2020%20ABCDI%20Policy%20Statement%20on%20Anti.pdf). The Institute’s work builds on the organizing work of Black Lives Matter following the senseless killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. It also reflects a long history of working in neighborhoods throughout the world helping build community based on the gifts of the people who live there. John Lewis was a beacon for us to emulate especially as ABCD practitioners. In our work, there is much we can do to influence others. Race and equity should be a major element of our message of inclusion every time we speak of asset-based community development. What a wonderful way to honor his work and his life.
So where do we go from here? I just listened to an inspiring speech by Bakari Sellers, a young South Carolina attorney, activist and author of “My Vanishing Country” talking about where we and I might start. One of his thoughts really touched me: “As a country we suffer from an empathy deficit. Our opponents are not our enemies. It is through listening to people’s pain; we might reach their hearts.”
And so, especially during this time of Thanksgiving, let us listen to each other with kindness in our hearts. I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.
November 23, 2020