By Marian Wright Edelman
After the horror of the racist terrorist murders in Charleston, S.C., many of us have been crying out with questions about all the strife and violence permeating our nation. How long until America confronts its historic love affair with guns and violence and undergoes a healing process of first truth and then reconciliation about our profound crippling birth defects of slavery, Native American genocide, and exclusion of all women and non-propertied men from America’s dream and electoral process?
Only when we face the truths of our past that continue to flare up in our present can we work toward true reconciliation and wholeness as a people and begin to close the huge gap between our dream of equality and our reality of massive racial and economic inequality. How long and what will it take to make America America?
In South Africa, many people credit that nation’s formal Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a key component in the country’s transition from the brutality of apartheid to the ongoing struggle to build a fuller and freer democracy.
Our nation has not gone through a similar truth process. Our “racial” wars – including slavery, genocide, lynchings and repeated unjust deaths of Black citizens at the hands of law enforcement officials and self-appointed vigilantes or racist terrorists – have been manifestations of racial beliefs among us in various incarnations. Today, a Cradle to Prison Pipeline™ feeds our mass incarceration system. Our re-segregated and still hugely unequal schools for children of color, especially if they are poor, are repeating pre-Brown v. Board of Education era practices. Our massive child and family poverty—which unjustly affects children and people of color—and indefensible massive wealth and income inequality continue two Americas of haves and have nots.
And guns, guns, guns everywhere lethalize hate, terrorize inner-city children daily in dangerous neighborhoods, and darken the future of millions of children in search of America’s elusive dream. There are no safe havens from the carnage of guns that kill or injure a child or teen every 35 minutes. The recently publicized police killings of unarmed Black boys and men have opened a new chapter in exposing many old and still deeply engrained systemic problems of racism and classism in America. And the murders of nine Black churchgoers in a Charleston, South Carolina prayer meeting by a 21-year-old White man remind us that the most aberrant and violent kind of racial hatred is still alive in our gun saturated society – passing on the old poisons to new generation
While the removal of the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate war heroes symbolizing slavery and racial apartheid is a step forward, it does not confront the deeper historical national blight of slavery and the structural and cultural inequalities and racial seeds from our shared past that still permeate the tainted soil of our nation today.
It’s time for real truth and then reconciliation in America from the bottom up and top down. And it must begin with teaching truthfully American history. And while we can’t just imitate South Africa’s or Germany’s or Rwanda’s or other countries’ processes we can learn from them in designing a process that fits America’s history and context if we are to redeem our future for our children’s sake.
But to do so, we must wake up, open our eyes and ears, avoid convenient ignorance, seek the truth, speak up, stand up, and never give up fighting for justice for all. How long? Not long, if a critical remnant among us is determined to do whatever is necessary to make sure that love trumps hate and that the truth of our history is taught and discussed and enabled to help make us free. I hope America can realize God’s dream for all humankind. I believe we can realize God’s and Dr. King’s and Bishop Tutu’s dream if each of us holds ourselves accountable and refuses to give up challenging our personal and collective prejudices and special privileges. I hope all of us will do whatever is necessary to pass on to our children and grandchildren a better and more just country and world than we inherited.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.