I've just returned from the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation national symposium in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This has always been a tough place for race relations. The first item of business of the new state in 1907 was to pass segregationist legislation. In 1921, Tulsa was the scene of America's worst race riot when a white mob destroyed the thriving black business community. Oklahoma was the only state where not a single county voted for Obama in 2008. Seemingly random killings of African Americans in April have been deemed hate crimes.
Despite all this – or perhaps because of it – Tulsa is making significant strides in uncovering the history of the 1921 riot that was effectively buried for decades and to develop honest community conversations.
Aptly titled “The Politics of Reconciliation,” this year's conference was kicked off by the astonishingly sprightly 90 year-old former governor of Mississippi, William Winter. His courageous and progressive tenure earned him the title of "the education governor." At his urging, President Bill Clinton launched his race initiative in 1997.
Winter recalled that at meetings across the country, people of every background were unanimous in telling the President’s One America Advisory Board that they wanted five things: good education for their children; a fair chance of getting a job; to be able to live in a decent home in a safe neighborhood; access to affordable healthcare; and to be treated with dignity and respect. “Why can’t we come together in a good faith effort to try to bring about these very reasonable considerations?” he asked. “We must make this our national political purpose.”
In a call for civil discourse he said that “honorable compromise” has always been an essential part of leadership. But it may involve great courage. It’s a paradox that we have made so much progress in America, yet, to quote the author David Cohn, “With heaven in sight, we insist on marching perversely into hell.” Winter told his audience, “We must have informed and responsible participation by everyone in the country, not motivated by personal and political advantage.”
Two former mayors of Tulsa, Kathy Taylor and Susan Savage, and Wellington Webb, who served as mayor of Denver for 12 years, displayed a refreshing balance of good sense, humor, and lack of ego. If they are typical of city mayors – and I suspect that they are – then we can be hopeful that local government is in good hands regardless of political posturing in Washington.
In a packed workshop, two colleagues from Initiatives of Change, Alex Wise and Tee Turner, talked about how they were able to build trust across racial, political and class differences. Alex is a life-long Republican and the descendent of a Virginia governor and Confederate general; Tee is an African American pastor and community worker. Alex remarked that for him it meant letting go of some myths. “For example, I always believed that if you just worked hard anyone could make it in America. I learned from Tee that this is simply not true for many people.”
Rajmohan Gandhi delivered the keynote address, noting that "a reconciled America may be impossible if the world is outside our thoughts.” America, he said is “linked inextricably and in a thousand different ways with the rest of the world; what is America if not the world itself in a unique, wonderful and hope-giving form? The old world helped create a new world in a new space, and the old world continues to recreate America, even as America continues to reshape the world as a whole.” (Full text of Rajmohan Gandhi's speech)
He called on Americans to disprove the thesis that “fear is a better bet than hope” and cautioned against looking for the “most rewarding enemy,” whether Islam or China, for political advantage: “If insinuating that President Obama is a Muslim -- or not tough enough against Muslim countries or against China -- is seen as an effective way of hurting his re-election prospects, then we have to ask whether America truly rejects the proposition that some categories of human beings are inferior to, or more dangerous than, other categories.”
The power of personal stories was evident throughout the symposium. I was honored to moderate a panel that featured George Henderson, the founder of the University of Oklahoma human relations department and the first African American to hold a distinguished professorship. His was the first black family to be property owners in Norman, a “sundown (purposely all-white) town.” He reminded us that “the head does not hear anything until the heart has listened.”
On the final morning, Beverly Tatum, the president of Spelman College, provided a powerful analysis of the meaning of reconciliation: “You can forgive and walk away, but you can't reconcile without a commitment to continuing the relationship." She noted that we live in an anxiety-ridden time caused by the rapid pace of change, economic insecurity, and for some the fact of having a black man in the White House. "The critical question for us as leaders is: How is the circle being drawn? Who is inside it? Who is outside it? What can I do to make the circle bigger and more inclusive?"