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Forum on Race Relations and The Church Explores Past, Present and the Path Forward
2/1/2017 12:00:50 PM

(l-r) Cong. James Clyburn, Dr. James Salley, Dr. Cleveland Sellers, Eugene Robinson, Dr. William Hine, Dr. Millicent Brown, Bishop (Ret.) Marcus Matthews and Joan Mooney
"It is very appropriate that Trinity is hosting this forum at Claflin,” said President Henry N. Tisdale in his opening remarks at the Race Relations and the Role of the Church: Then and Now forum held Saturday at Claflin University in the W.V. Middleton Auditorium. The forum was presented by Trinity United Methodist Church.

“Trinity and Claflin are intrinsically linked. Claflin is affiliated with The United Methodist Church and Claflin students helped organize and participated in the demonstrations during the Civil Rights Movement in Orangeburg and throughout South Carolina. “We have come a long way,” said Tisdale. “But the question remains -- when will we receive real justice and economic equality?”

An impressive panel of distinguished representatives from the news media, government, clergy and higher education participated in a panel discussion moderated by Orangeburg native and Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. Joining Salley on the panel were Dr. Millicent Brown, a noted historian and educator; U.S. Congressman James E. Clyburn who represents South Carolina’s 6th District; Dr. Cleveland Sellers, former president at Voorhees College and a survivor of the Orangeburg Massacre; Joan Mooney, president and chief executive officer of the Faith and Politics Institute; Bishop Marcus Matthews, retired Northeastern District, The United Methodist Church and Dr. William C. Hine, a retired history professor and civil rights activist.

“The role of religion and the church in the civil rights movement was no accident," said Salley. "Our marches and demonstrations were organized in the church and in Orangeburg – those meetings were held across the street at Trinity,” Salley said. “This remains a difficult but important conversation. We had faith that what we were doing was right and that faith was nurtured in the church. “There is more to be done, but I don’t wake up each day without hope. People were hopeful in spite of President Donald Trump’s inauguration speech. We still believe in America’s system of democracy.”

Acclaimed photographer Cecil Williams began the event with a compelling and insightful video presentation that provided a historical backdrop for issues related to race and equality in South Carolina. Although the focus of the forum was race and the church, the panelists expanded the conversation to include the recent election of President Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter Movement and the media.

“In the past, journalists were the gate keepers,” said Robinson. “We tried to get it right. We agreed on the timeline of a story although we may have argued about its motive or meaning. Now anybody can write. It took time but now we are challenging false statements, particularly those by President Trump,” Robinson said. “The important question becomes what are the fundamental values of human life? Regardless of the church or religion, what are the moral imperatives that transcend faith-based organizations? What are the priorities - caring for those who need help, capitalism, individualism, what transcends those divisions so we can treat each other with respect?”

When questions emerged about violence against blacks during the Civil Rights Movement and now, Sellers quickly reminded the audience that black churches have always been primary targets.

“It did not begin with Dylan Roof and the shooting deaths of nine worshippers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston,” said Sellers. “In 1964, it was reported that 24 churches were burned. It was common practice to attack the black church. In 1963 four young girls were killed by a bomb at a church in Birmingham, Ala. We need to follow the history. It’s an accurate indicator for what’s next.”

Brown’s reflections on the past relationship between the black churches and the struggle for equality and justice are a cause for both caution and hope. As a civil rights historian, she is fully aware that many black pastors were reluctant to openly encourage protests and demonstrations.

“That is why we need to be very careful about giving too much credit to the black church,” said Brown.“ The churches that supported and participated in the protests were encouraged to do so by their ministers. If there was no support from the minister, there would not be any support from the congregation.

“And we must also remember that white ministers supported The Movement, too. We can’t just speak nostalgically and romanticize this story if we want to inspire the next generation to be informed activists. We need to also be careful that we don’t play into the narrative that some lives are more valuable than others because they were not killed in the church.”

Clyburn acknowledged the contributions of the black church. He cited how the resilience, courage and persistence of ministers who supported the Civil Rights Movement greatly contributed to what was accomplished.

“When Reconstruction ended, it was the church that responded in a way that provided us education and a level of independence,” said Clyburn. “But even today, some ministers have invited me to their church but told me I could not speak because they did not want to talk about politics in the church. Yes, the church plays a role. But pastors can’t vote or introduce legislation on the House floor,” Clyburn said. “We need to supplement each other – not try to supplant or be too critical of each other. If we don’t come together and let our marches lead us to the polls, laws will be passed that will set us back for a generation. We all have a role -- and if everyone does their job, we will be ok.”

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