Celebrated educator/activist W.E.B. Dubois once called race the defining issue of the 20th century. As America approaches the new millennium, there’s plenty of evidence to indicate that the “color question,” as it was once called in some circles, will remain unresolved well beyond the year 2001. Whether the discussion concerns affirmative action, immigration, the criminal justice system, or even professional sports, the perception gap between citizens of different ethnic backgrounds has seldom seemed wider. But even if the ’70s and ’80s failed to see any major advances in race relations, at least in the ’90s we’re beginning to witness the acknowledgment, by President Clinton and others, that America’s racial situation needs at minimum intense scrutiny.
Clinton’s recent appointment of an advisory board to study the issue of race in America is perfectly timed with this week’s summit conference being held at Fisk’s revived Race Relations Institute. Even so, there’s another, equally critical issue at stake: the continued development and success of the institute. Indeed, Raymond A. Winbush, the institute’s director and the Benjamin Lawson Hooks professor of social justice, sees this occasion as the foundation for an ongoing series of events that will further restore the institution’s luster and reputation.
“Through the ’60s and ’70s,” Winbush says, “there were a lot of people in this country who thought the issue of race had been resolved. This Institute had held conferences on race for many, many years. Then it was allowed to die for lack of funding and neglect. Now we’re taking the initiative to revitalize and revive it, and also participate in the kind of serious and substantive dialogue that’s needed to really address the issue of race in America.”
The five-day conference, which is being called “A National Conversation on Race,” began July 8 and continues through July 13. There are multiple seminars and events, and each night’s “Evening Dialogue” programs are free and open to the public. Winbush and his staff have attracted an impressive array of political and cultural representatives, including the famous offspring of several legendary fighters for social justice. Julia Wright, the daughter of author Richard Wright, has come from Paris. She’s joined by Gamal Nkrumah, son of African freedom fighter Kwame Nkrumah; by Marcus Garvey Jr.; and by David Dubois, son of W.E.B. Dubois. Also on the roster of attendees are Public Enemy’s Chuck D., actor James Earl Jones, and drummer Max Roach, a jazz mainstay. “We’ve invited scholars, lay people, entertainers, everyone except famous athletes,” Winbush says. “We don’t have anything against athletes, we just couldn’t think of any who’ve made any major contributions to the struggle, at least in the way that we’ve envisioned this conference. Maybe next year.”
With President Clinton and a number of top domestic politicians also confirmed to attend, the conference certainly is guaranteed notoriety and visibility, as evidenced by coverage from such national media outlets as C-Span and the New York Times. But Winbush doesn’t want anyone to typecast the conference as just another confab with plenty of talk and little substance.
“We will be making 21 recommendations to the president’s advisory board on racial issues covering seven areas. Conference participants are networking throughout the week. We see these events as a chance for everyone to get into intellectual huddles, and then break out with the play. We have a Web site ( http://www.FiskRRI.org/ ), and we’ll have a forum with plenty of information. This is not something we’re playing with; we’re serious about addressing issues and finding some solutions.”
This year’s conference continues in the grand tradition of several past Race Relations Institute events. The institute was itself an outgrowth of a race-relations program established by Fisk in 1942 to examine the issue of racism and to analyze why there was so much conflict between America’s various groups and communities. In 1944 Charles S. Johnson, the chair of Fisk’s Social Science Department, picked up with a series of annual seminars that eventually resulted in the formation of the Race Relations Institute. He was institute director until the mid-’50s. The institute celebrated its 10th anniversary with appearances by Thurgood Marshall, then special counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and by Julius A. Thomas, director of the Department of Industrial Relations for the Urban League. Fannie Lou Hamer, vice chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and Roy Wilkins, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, were among attendees at a 1969 “Confront the Issues” summit.
The institute went on hiatus during the ’70s, resurfacing in 1980 through the support of the Board for the American Missionary Association. Under the direction of Dr. Wilson Welch, who served as acting director, “Where Are We in Race Relations” was held that year, and in 1983 another series of programs, including the Black Economic Roundtable, was spearheaded by author/academician Manning Marable, who was then the director.
Winbush has been at the helm of the Race Relations Institute since last fall, and a $2.6 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has provided some vital financial girding for the organization. He feels that the institute’s history and tradition make it the perfect place for the type of no-holds-barred analysis and interaction that need to take place if genuine racial cooperation is ever to be achieved. He also says that no one should assume that any particular approach or viewpoint is being endorsed or embraced during the conference.
“We haven’t tried to stack the deck politically, nor [have we taken] any special position. We have members of the Christian Coalition in attendance. We see this as the Camp David conference for race relations, and we’re examining any and all viewpoints. While I personally see the problem of race in America as essentially a black/white question, we’re not limiting the perspective to that. We have Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, Europeans, whites, everyone. This is a dialogue, and to have dialogue you must have involvement from many voices.”
While the conference is getting widespread attention, this is not the first event that the Institute has planned this yearnor will it be the last. Already, Fisk has hosted programs featuring noted Afrocentric scholar Molefi Asante and psychologist/author Francis Welsing. The W.E.B. Dubois/Diane Nash Lecture Series will continue throughout the year, and plans are under way for an international conference on race to be held either in London or in Paris in late ’98 or early ’99. This fall the Institute will convene panels of children for frank conversations on race as part of a program being jointly sponsored with the Nashville Urban League.
This week, however, “A National Conversation on Race” takes center stage at Fisk. Events include a screening and discussion of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation; performances by the Uhuru Dance Company, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and the Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble; a children’s festival; and more. For more information regarding times and locations, call (615) 329-8575.
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