Yesterday while I was leading my Church’s Worship Service, a member of our congregation asked me (during our “announcements time”) what I thought of the UCC’s recent letter to Talladega College, a historically Black College in Alabama that has been rebuilding itself after nearly failing a few years ago. This letter challenges the school’s decision to allow their marching band appear in the Inauguration Parade in Washington DC on January 20th. It seemed fitting to publish my thoughts here; expanding on the response I gave to her question.
Now, clearly the school’s decision is very controversial, given the incoming administration’s abysmal track record (to date) when it comes to social justice issues and policies. However, Talladega College’s President, Dr. Billy C. Hawkins, defended the school’s decision saying: “We respect and appreciate how our students and alumni feel about our participation in this parade, … As many of those who chose to participate in the parade have said, we feel the inauguration of a new president is not a political event but a civil ceremony celebrating the transfer of power.”
In response to the college’s announcement, the leadership of the United Church of Christ, my own denomination, and which has been a supporter of Talladega College, sent a letter to the school questioning this decision and asking that they reconsider. Several alumni of the school have expressed similar concerns.
This is an old, old argument: a new phase in the long battle between those in the Black Community who advocate a more accommodating approach in confronting racism and injustice in this country; and those who favor a more confrontive approach. Both approaches are valid, and are part of a toolkit that encompasses a wide range of possible responses to racism and injustice that can (and should) be deployed. (Though which is most appropriate depends upon the particular situation.)
I cannot speak to the specifics of this situation: I was not party to the decision process at Talladega, and have not seen the text of the UCC’s letter to the school. However, I am deeply concerned by the UCC’s actions here. What I do know is that Dr. Hawkins is no lightweight, and no stranger to tough challenges; and that we cannot dismiss his school’s decision, or reasoning, lightly.
It is also true that the UCC’s leadership: President Dorhauer, Rev. Blackmon, and Rev. Moos all have strong track records in support of furthering social justice and opposing racism, including Black Lives Matter. But should the UCC: a denomination that is historically “White” despite its strong support for the Black Community and with quite a few strong Black congregations in its ranks; be involving itself in this issue in this very public way – even if they are correct in their argument? I would argue that they should not.
I am sure that the College’s decision to march in Washington on January 20th was a decision that was not made lightly, and with a full awareness-of and concern-for the resistance and anger it would create. I am sure there is also concern for the racism and criticism these young folks will encounter as a result of this decision and their trip to DC. Even their physical safety is a concern, given the history of many of the white racist groups that enthusiastically support the oncoming administration and the highly confrontive tone that many on both sides seem to be taking in these days leading up to the inauguration. But then again, being an advocate for nonviolence and understanding rarely means that nonviolence and understanding will be there waiting for you: if it were, why go?
President Hawkins and his students are black. They confront and have to deal with racism every day. As one friend, a black woman, once told me: “You’re white. You can walk out that door today and never have to deal with racial injustice ever again. … But I can never leave my skin.” Therefore, I realize that as a white man, I will never understand racism in the same way as (or as fully as) those who live with it every day. And so, I do not feel it is my place to publicly criticize or question their efforts.
What I can and will do is be an ally. And, as an ally, I will always support to the best of my ability the efforts of those who are victims of racism and who are determined to confront it – even though I may privately disagree with how they may be doing so in certain cases. Even so, I reserve the right to temper my support if I feel that a certain effort is counterproductive; and may actively resist efforts that could cause harm to innocent bystanders.
And so, in the end, I cannot and will not presume that my own perspective, no matter how well informed, is of greater validity than that of Talladega College’s leadership and students – it isn’t. I may question their decision privately, and might even send a letter to the school. But, I will not challenge their decision in public. If I do [privately] raise concerns, I would hope they would listen; but whether they accept my input or not is not up to me, and will not impact my support for their cause.
The school is convinced they must do this. And so, I must respect and support their decision.
– Pastor Allen
Copyright (c) 2017, Allen Vander Meulen III.
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