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'Race is inextricably bound up in American history'

Community members joined with Elon University students, faculty and staff Tuesday night for a public forum led by civic leaders and historical experts who shared ideas for improving race relations in the United States.

The Rev. Patrice Fields of St. Matthew's AME Church listens to former state Sen. Tony Foriest tell Elon University students and community members that it is everyone's responsibility to stand up to racism during the Community Connections: "Improving Race Relations in America" forum at Elon on Sept. 1. (Photo credit: Steven Mantilla/Times-News)


The issue of race has been tied to some of the biggest national headlines over the past year: Ferguson. Charleston. Staten Island. Confederate flag debates. Voting laws.

Though talking honestly about race can be hard, even more difficult is taking action after those talks, historical experts and civic leaders said Tuesday during a campus forum on race relations sponsored by Elon University and the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News.

Their advice to the hundreds of people gathered inside McKinnon Hall for the forum? Learn about your past and the Civil Rights Movement. Use that knowledge to bring a sense of critical thinking to what other people tell you.

“And get organized,” said Barrett Brown, president of the NAACP of Alamance County and one of four panelists at the event. “Do that immediately. You can do that before you leave the room. Exchange phone numbers. Email. Facebook.”

Added panelist Anthony “Tony” Foriest, a retired North Carolina state senator and business executive: “Read. Study. Get involved. And challenge the status quo.”

Brown and Foriest were joined by Elon University Professor Jim Bissett and the Rev. Patrice Fields from St. Matthew’s AME Church in leading “Improving Race Relations in the United States,” the theme of the first "Community Connections" forum to take place during the 2015-16 academic year.

Now entering its third year, Community Connections in a partnership between Elon and the Times-News intended to spark thoughtful dialog between members of the university community as well as those who in live in Alamance County and the surrounding area. Previous forums have explored issues surrounding on domestic violence, hunger, downtown revitalization, health care, gun violence and education.

Assistant Professor Jason Husser moderated a program that was equally attentive to sharing historical facts about the legacy of slavery in the United States. The Civil War may have ended the institutional practice of forced labor, panelists said, but many white Americans in the South did what they could to maintain their superiority over blacks.

Elon University freshman Kenneth Brown Jr. asks panelists how young people can help improve race relations during a question-and-answer segment of the "Community Connection" program. (Photo credit: Steven Mantilla/Times-News)

From Jim Crow laws to public lynchings, it took sustained efforts by civil rights leaders to force change in the mid 20th century. Even then it didn’t come easily as some communities resisted integration until federal troops were ordered to the region.

“The point was not to keep the races apart but to ensure that when they came into contact with each other, whites held the upper hand,” Bissett said. “I'm not suggesting we use the past as an excuse to wallow in self pity, resentment or guilt. But it’s important to acknowledge this is a problem that’s been three centuries in the making and is rooted in our psyches.”

Nor are government leaders the only ones to have turned their heads to the issue of race.

“In most of the world’s religions, the quest for spirituality involves the quest for truth,” Fields said. “If we are ever in this nation, and one by one, to deal with this issue of race, we must deal with truth. Unfortunately, spiritual leaders are really as culpable as government leaders for not really dealing with the truth of racism in this country. Because it has been so longstanding, sometimes I wonder if some of our attitudes aren’t imprinted on our spiritual DNA.”

Details of the next forum will be announced in the weeks ahead. Unlike previous years, where topics differed between programs, Community Connections organizers will make race the focus of all its forums for the 2015-16 academic year, which ties into Elon University’s Common Reading selection, “Why We Can’t Wait” by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I salute the university for the Community Connections series,” Fields said at the program. “We will not ever know what is going to happen as a result of the conversations that take place in this room tonight as we acknowledge there really is an issue.”

Eric Townsend,
9/2/2015 1:10 PM