Birmingham conference examines depth of black-white divide in U.S.

IMAGE: CNS photo/Mary D. Dillard, One Voice

By Mary Dillard

Ala. (CNS) — Religious leaders, civic leaders and community members came
together March 3-4 for a conference on “Black & White in America: How
Deep the Divide?”

at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, the conference addressed the need
for racial reconciliation in the United States and the path to that reconciliation.

year, Bishop Robert J. Baker of Birmingham approached Birmingham Mayor William
Bell and the Rev. Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, with concerns
over recent racial turmoil. The three decided to co-chair a conference, which
would be used as a much needed avenue to dialogue and harmony.

a letter to conference attendees, the three co-chairs wrote, “This
reflection/conversation on race relations in the United States among its
African-American and white citizens is our humble effort to foster light and
hope where darkness and despair may prevail.”

began the conference with a reflection on his city’s civil rights history. As a
young boy he experienced segregation first-hand, but noted it was “just
the way it was” until people “became aware of their limitations and
began to ask questions.” He expressed his belief that civil rights, in
essence, equates to human rights, for African-Americans “just wanted to be
treated like human beings.”

comes about by lack of knowledge of others,” he continued. All too often
people put up false barriers “that keep us from knowing each other.”
However, the mayor said change can come when “good men and women stand up”
and demand humanity be seen in each other.

speaking of youth, Bell noted that taking religion and prayer out of the classroom has
resulted in a loss of a moral compass, for it is the moral compass that helps
us fulfill our daily obligation to “renew hearts.”

concluded, “We live on an edge where any little thing can lead to racial harmony.”

next speaker, retired Mayor Joseph Riley of Charleston, South Carolina, knows
all too well of this edge. Riley oversaw the response to the Emanuel Nine
shooting when a “hateful bigot wanted to start a race war, but his seeds
of war fell on rock soil.”

mass shooting took place at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in
downtown Charleston the evening of June 17 last year. During a prayer service,
nine people were killed by a gunman,
identified as 21-year-old Dylann Roof, who later confessed that he committed
the shooting in hopes of igniting a race war. Roof is white; those killed were

a Catholic and a son of the South, lives by the motto “Live every day as if
it were your last.” This mindset led Riley to build bridges between the
communities within Charleston. Sometimes referred to as “Little Black Joe”
because of his zealous efforts to bridge the gap between whites and blacks, he
persevered with various programs and initiatives. The bridges built by Riley
helped the community respond to hate with love. It was the love for one another
that helped the city deal with the grief without turmoil. The relationship
between whites and blacks, Riley stated, is something “we can’t put to
bed.” We must continue to “enhance and reinforce” our relationships.

Attorney General Luther Strange, raised in Alabama, first realized that need to
foster and enhance relationships as a youth playing basketball. He told conference
attendees he played high school basketball on a team, which, at the time, was
rare with three blacks and two whites. At first, they competed among themselves,
but then realized the need to work together.

Strange’s response to Bell and Riley, he noted that leadership makes all the
difference as seen in Charleston. Strange also reiterated Bell’s belief that
religion is a key ingredient to preventing violence.

the attorney general, a panel discussion on the role of civil leadership was held.

S. Jonathan Bass, a Samford University historian, led the panel, which included
the two mayors, the attorney general, Judge Helen Shores Lee and Birmingham
Police Chief A.C. Roper.

the discussion, Lee was asked, “Where do we go from here?” She quickly
replied, “We need to teach our children about our history, because if they
don’t know the history, then they are prone to repeat it. We need to become
more civically involved. When we see racism, don’t be afraid to speak out. We
need to help one another regardless of the color of your skin … until there
is a plaque on the civil rights statue that says, ‘Until we learn to see each
other through the eyes of God, we will never see each other without fear or prejudice.'”

second session of the first day began with Bishop Edward K. Braxton of
Belleville, Illinois, revisiting his pastoral letter “The Racial Divide in
the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015.”

Braxton said, “The cost of true discipleship calls us to reject cheap
grace…God’s redeeming grace requires our obedience to His law of love and our
concrete actions on behalf of others. St. Paul to the Christians living in Corinth
tells us, ‘Love never fails.’ I believe love will never fail in the Christian community
as we face the racial divide if we are willing to pray, to listen, to learn, to
think and to act.”

next speaker was professor Wayne Flynt, who talked about Harper Lee, lawyer Atticus
Finch in her book “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the lessons of
innocence, sin, judgement, forgiveness and reconciliation.

said, “As Ecclesiastes make clear, there is a time to speak and a time to
be silent. White evangelicals achieved a PhD in the art of silence. We didn’t
do so well. We didn’t speak up. Our tongues got buried in our cheeks. We could
have waited a year, 10 years, or a hundred years, and justice would not have
flown down like a river until African-Americans made it happen.”

Rev. Carolyn Maull McKinstry concluded the first day. Rev. McKinstry was
present at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham when it was bombed
in 1963, killing four young girls. She said we must be “reconciled to God
and to each other” for reconciliation to truly happen.

can’t be separated from religion. The God who loves you, loves me. There is no
partiality with God,” she said.

turn, our love for God must be shown “vertically and horizontally,”
meaning in order to truly love God we must also love our neighbor as we love
God. She emphasized that the “racial issue left unchecked and ignored will
destroy our country.”

– –

is on the staff of One Voice, newspaper of the Diocese of Birmingham.

– – –

Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at

Original Article