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From Symbolism to Substance: The Primary Challenge in the Quest for Social Justice
7/8/2015 1:56:56 PM

Dr. William Small, Jr.
By Dr. William Small, Jr.

Now that much of the public and political dust has settled following the horrific and tragic June 17th Massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, we should all have a heightened sense of responsibility regarding the critical work which remains to be completed by all.

In an effort to address this responsibility it is essential that we remain mindful of the clear distinction between symbolic progress and enduring substantive change.

We have been here too many times before to forget that the climate of concern and consciousness often changes when crowds disperse and when the threat of violence abates.

The public forum is often a very different space when the television cameras retire from the scene and when the names of the victims are no longer a major part of the public discourse. When these changes occur, it is amazing how quickly the “momentary previous ugly” can be re-transformed back into the “new normal”.

We have been here too many times before to permit ourselves to become recaptured by some unending and often pointless “conversation about race”. Let us not invest any energy in some meaningless effort to have heritage and hatred compete for the space on the head of the proverbial pin- where angels regularly dance.

Now is the time for Black leadership, elected and non- elected, to reclaim its spine and rediscover a collective purpose. Now is the time for Black leadership to address the systematic injustices that have limited the political, social and economic development of Black, poor and marginalized peoples for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. We do not need “another conversation about race”.

We know the drill. Instead we need a realistic agenda unapologetically developed by Black leadership for the empowerment of Black People. Black Leadership needs to reclaim the integrity to reject the invitation to the party when the menu being served contains the same table fare that has been causing us nightmares, heartburn and indigestion for centuries. Some time it is just not enough “to be in the room”.

Our recent experiences in South Carolina should remind us of some extremely significant historical experiences:
    • In 1779 when John Newton reportedly penned the words to “Amazing Grace”, he did not abandon his commitment to the Trans- Atlantic Slave Trade. He simply insisted that slaves be treated better in the trans- shipment process
    • The first African people who were introduced into the colony in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 were not slaves in Jamestown. The reason being, that there was no slavery existing in the colonies in 1619. American slavery was an original American institution- and so are its sustained and lingering consequences.
    • According to data provided by the American Civil War Trust, 640,000 combatants died in the Civil War, aka, The War of Northern Aggression. South Carolina ranks fourth in loss of life among the Confederate States. It follows Virginia, North Carolina and Alabama. New York ranks first in terms of loss of military life among the Northern States. Total loss of Black military life for the War exceeds that of any state involved with the exception of New York. NOTE: These figures pertain to the loss of life associated with the Civil War. They DO NOT embrace the loss of life occasioned to African people because of American Slavery and the Trans -Atlantic Slave Trade. Let us not let the story get twisted.

How do these bullet points define the challenge inherent in our current circumstance? Perhaps President Obama while delivering the Eulogy for the fallen Rev. Senator Pinckney answered the question with a question he raised. In commenting on struggles present and past, sacrifices made and lessons learned, the President asked the question: “May we find ourselves worthy”? History ancient and modern will judge us.

The challenge ahead says that we have historical legacies to protect and the future of our children to safeguard. Our communities must be made secure. Our institutions to include our HBCUs must be protected and strengthened. We have social, economic and political injustices to remedy and domestic terrorists, both passive and aggressive, to safeguard against. All of this must be done while we maintain our moral and spiritual balance and while we honor our inherent African Greatness. May we find ourselves worthy?

Dr. Small, is a retired educator and past Trustee and Board Chairman at South Carolina State University

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