Thin Words To Thick Action: A Living Statement on Charlottesville

As with any horrific event, be it the Rodney King riots to Hurricane Katrina, I find myself overindulging in the 24–7 news cycle. My wife complains that as soon as I get up I am listening to cable news discussions and debates over the same topic over and over again. I know it probably isn’t healthy, which is why my daily hour of intense cardio is so important for my sanity.

So starting Friday night, when images of young, angry white men appropriating Tiki torches to promote white supremacy, storm the University of Virginia (without permit mind you), and yelling racist chants, I knew Saturday would be bad.

It was. And we all saw it.

Many of my presidential colleagues have issued statements about these events. HBCU presidents in the region, William Harvey (Hampton), Wayne Frederick (Howard) and David Wilson (Morgan State) all spoke meaningfully about these events. Oakwood University president Lesley Pollard is another HBCU president who stood with those in opposition to racist ideas. Presidents from Washington State University, Florida State, Penn State, and Duke are among those that offered statements as well.

I discussed issuing a statement with members of my team yesterday. If you know me, you know I have something to say. But I decided to do something different. Honestly, I have seen several statements that are very powerful that express what I believe. The most meaningful one was released by the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church. I strongly urge you to read it. But in part it says,

The Social Principles of our United Methodist Church are a clarion call and powerful witness in times such as these. “We affirm that no identity or culture has more legitimacy than any other. We call the Church to challenge any hierarchy of cultures or identities… Racism, manifested as sin, plagues and hinders our relationship with Christ, inasmuch as it is antithetical to the gospel itself…

Bishop Ough begins to close the statement writing

I pray that the shock, dismay and grief of Charlottesville will be a turning point for the U.S. and even our global United Methodist church. We share collective responsibility to turn our thin words into thick action. We share collective responsibility to break our silence. We share collective responsibility to restore health to the communities and relationship out of which extremism, hatred and racism grow. We share collective responsibility, as followers of the Prince of Peace, to create non-violent communities where people with different political and religious views respect each other… This is the moment for The United Methodist Church and all peoples of faith to be bold in our witness against racism and white supremacy.

Wow. As the son of a United Methodist minister (twice retired and now serving as interim president of Gammon Theological Seminary), an active member of First Grace United Methodist Church here in New Orleans (a congregation that is the merger of a white and a black congregation after Katrina and still today is very racially balanced), and the president of a United Methodist related HBCU, Dillard University, I am ready to move from thin words to thick action.

But what does that mean for me, as a president? I’m not an activist in the traditional sense (key word being traditional- I’m an intellectual warrior using words to challenge policies, practices and people if I have to). I found myself the last two nights up late conferring with one of my spiritual mentors.

Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays.

In the book Benjamin Elijah Mays: Schoolmaster of the Movement, Randall Jelks gives some insight into how Mays worked to inspire the activists who led the movement. The political climate at the time was conservative, and HBCUs followed suit. Daniel Thompson, former Dillard administrator, sociologist and public intellectual, wrote in the text Private Black Colleges at the Crossroads (1973)

Until the 1960s Black colleges… were regarded as (conservative and non-confrontational) in their respective communities. They scrupulously refrained from taking any active part in the disruption or embarrassment of the local White social system.

Mays taught the activists, both at Morehouse, and around the nation. In his 1945 Howard University commencement address, he told the students that they had a responsibility to challenge antidemocratic forces in the US. Mays wanted them to be ethical and moral, to be good as well as intellectual. Mays told them, “Representing a minority group as you do, you can not afford to join the exploiting class, because you are the exploited.”

Jelks writes

Mays resolved to stand for what was just and fair, and he deliberately shaped Morehouse as an incubator for critically engaged leaders. He explained that Morehouse provided a community that was above the fray so that its students could thoughtfully and objectively examine themselves and the world around them… No other American college president, black or white, matched his intense moral commitment to or his eloquent demands for democracy and social justice in this period. To his students, “Buck Benny” inspired hope, built confidence, and encourage(d) societal change in every venue where he was allowed to speak, write, and preach.

So I am inspired to redouble my efforts to personally engage our students to address issues of justice. While I am very engaged as it is now, I think there are new ways for engagement. And that starts today.

Today I had a Charlottesville Conversation with about 20 students to help them (honestly me too) process and understand what is happening in the nation, and what they will do about it. I’ve spent the past few evenings studying the #CharlottesvilleCurriculum for some ideas and tips. I’ll post some of the thoughts and ideas from the convo (and you can read the social media posts from the hashtag #DUCVilleConvo), and I’ll update you on other initiatives as well.

Statements are important, and they can inspire.

But I’m ready to move into some thick action.

The Prez

Written by

7th president of Dillard University

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