Filed Under:  OpEd, Opinion

Civil rights leaders refuel at race healing conference

7th May 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Hazel Trice Edney
Contributing Writer

( – The names Ben Jealous, Marc Morial, Melanie Campbell, Charles Ogletree and Barbara Arnwine are fairly second nature to many African-Americans who pay attention to issues of race and civil rights.

Nearly 24 hours a day, these Black leaders are thinking about racism in America, their next strategies and what to do about it. Their primary occupations are fighting against inequalities and for equal justice.

This is the reason that they attended a “racial healing” conference last week, where hundreds of like-minded people sat in roundtables, on panels or in the audience discussing the 2012 issues that hinder racial progress in America. But, with a backdrop police brutality and profiling; economic inequality and criminal injustices still pervasive in America, how daunting is the cause of “racial healing”?

Amidst the hustle and bustle of the “America Healing” conference, sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation in the New Orleans French Quarters, they stopped to ponder this reporter’s question:

“It’s no more daunting than what our ancestors and what our predecessors had to deal with,” said Melanie Campbell, president/CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable. “Looking back at the life of Harry Belafonte and his civil rights activism still at 85 years old lets us know that we can’t be tired. That’s just a reality.”

During the conference, there was a screening of Belafonte’s new movie, “Sing Your Song,” a riveting documentary of his life and works in the civil rights movement. It was complete with graphic footage of the beatings and other pains endured by civil rights pioneers.

“What we have to do is use all the tools that we have realizing that we don’t have hoses being fired at us and we’re not being hung for voting or for trying to organize; so when you look at it from that perspective, we are much more in better shape to fight this,” Campbell said.

The movie was followed by an interview with Belafonte by Charles Ogletree, executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Center on Race and Justice at the Harvard University School of Law.

Despite the struggles that continue, Ogletree says he is full of hope.

“It’s the most daunting task that I’ve ever encountered and yet, it’s an achievable task because I think people are ready to have a difficult conversation about race and class and gender,” he said.

Ogletree says he is part of a movement called “Dr. King Had a Dream; Now, We Must Have a Plan.” He explained, “2013 will be the 50th anniversary of his March on Washington speech so now is the time to do the racial healing that he talked about 50 years ago and we have an obligation to do it.”

That’s easier said than done. Throughout the four-day conference, the Trayvon Martin case was consistently used as a symbol of continual racial injustice. The controversy surrounding the shooting death of the unarmed 17-year-old has reignited the race conversation across America.

When such incidents happen, they appear to set back race relations. But some believe they should motivate even greater activism.

“We can’t be deterred when we see cases like Trayvon. But, it’s a constant reminder to us that the work is never done,” said the Rev. Sylvester Turner, director of Reconciliation Programs for Hope in the Cities. “You can’t let one situation take you off course. It becomes an awareness for the work that we have yet to do.”

The Richmond, Va.-based Hope in the Cities, while not as historic as an NAACP or National Urban League, has worked in the trenches of cities nationally and internationally for the past 22 years, seeking to heal racial divisions. Many such organizations are among those that Kellogg is funding with a five-year grant for the work of racial healing and reconciliation.

This year’s conference was the second. The first was held last year in Asheville, N.C.

Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, described the gatherings as a revival of sorts – a safe place to reflect and refuel for the next battles.

“This is the training of the troops. And the troops have to go out and do the work and this is about making sure that the troops have the energy, the tools, the information and the affirmation to go out and do this work,” Arnwine said. “I think that’s why this conference is so powerful. It’s so affirming about how you can empower yourself, how you can empower communities, how you can empower individuals to fight back.”

Arnwine added that the healing aspect of the conference comes from the discussions. “You can’t heal it unless you talk about it,” she says.

Dr. Gail Christopher, vice president for program strategy at the Kellogg Foundation and convener of the conference, says the healing aspect is really beginning to take on a life of its own. “We hadn’t planned it that way. We were really trying to just say to the grantees that ‘you are a community.’ But the level of inspiration and healing, quite frankly, that it’s affording is exceeding our expectations. We’re very happy.”

Apparently, so are the grantees. NAACP President/CEO Ben Jealous enjoys the comradery and opportunities to strategize.

“What happens when we come here is we get time to talk across movement, across communities, across issues and figure out ways to move forward together,” he said. “This is less about sort of the short term gains that we make in between and more about how are we getting stronger and getting closer together so that this century gets better and better because our communities are working together rather than worse and worse because they remain isolated from each other.”

The unity is the key, says Campbell.

“There are people who I’ve met who didn’t know each other who are in this struggle together,” she said. “So, it’s nothing wrong with having the choir together when you find out you’re building a larger choir so you have all the elements you need to have the best choir in town…You’ve got to take the time out. We don’t do enough of that—building the relationships for the long term.”

More than anything, the coming together of people with a quest for racial healing is a sign of hope regardless of the inequities that remain, says NUL President/CEO Marc Morial. “Once you lose hope you might as well not live anymore. You have to chip and chip and chip and it’s a pendulum. You’ve got to realize it’s a pendulum.”

This article was originally published in the May 7, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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