Novel Ways of Healing: The Role of Political Forgiveness

“There is no more powerful force then a people steeped in their history. And there is no higher cause than honoring our struggles and ancestors by remembering.”

Lonnie G Bunch III Director of the Smithsonian Institution

February marks Black History Month, a tribute to the black men and women who have made significant contributions to this nation, and across the rest of the world. Black History Month is about celebrating those who have shaped our nation for the better. It is about the shared experiences of all black people and how those experiences have challenged, and ultimately strengthened America. Black History Month celebrates the rich cultural heritage, triumphs and adversities that are an indelible part of our country’s history.

As school boards across the country argue over what should be taught in schools, Black History Month serves as a reminder of what has taken place in our country; the good, the bad and the ugly, and why it is so important to have a greater understanding of history. James Baldwin once said “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it’s faced” and this is a reminder of the importance of facing history.

History is powerful and history can be uncomfortable, but it is in history we can learn from the lessons of the past and forge a better future. Our nation is so polarized because we have a conflicting understanding of the past with competing narratives about our histories. To heal we need to establish a shared truth and a collective memory which can then begin to unite us. There is a real danger in ignoring the past and doing so brings added mistrust and prolonged pain within our nation. Black History Month provides an opportunity to revisit our past, to understand our history more deeply and bring to light the harmful beliefs and attitudes which have developed in our nation revitalizing an awakening for the need for racial justice.

Political forgiveness creates new possibilities for to how all sides can live peacefully together in a renewed society. One key element to laying this foundation is the construction of historical memory to ensure the past is not forgotten, but rather dealt with head-on as a means of focusing those involved in the process and seeking to end the violence. To this end Bryan Stevenson, a public rights attorney, established the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. Stevenson has devoted his life to exposing racial bias in the United States penal system and shining a light on the uncomfortable history of the United States. He understands that it is necessary to address past wrongs with truth and reconciliation efforts and yet his approach is not what we typically think of in terms of a traditional truth and reconciliation model.

Stevenson’s approach focuses on creating physical markers of the nation’s racial crimes across the state including documenting the history of the slave trade in the form of signposts acknowledging the grim history of our nation. Through the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project, Stevenson began a campaign to recognize the victims of lynching’s by collecting soil from lynching sites and creating memorials that acknowledged the horrors of racial injustice. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented more than 4000 racial terror lynching’s in 12 Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950. Several hundred of these victims were lynched in Alabama.

To create greater awareness and understanding about racial terror lynching’s, and to begin a necessary conversation that advances truth and reconciliation, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice was built dedicated to the memory of enslaved people and African Americans terrorized by lynching’s and humiliated by Jim Crow. It memorializes thousands of black people who were hanged, burned, shot or beaten to death after the Civil War. The Legacy Museum was created as a narrative type museum where people can get a first-hand experience of what it was like to be a slave. The building itself was the former site of a slave warehouse existed giving those who visit a stark reminder of the past. When people enter the museum, they are standing on the ground where enslaved people were put in pens and held until they were taken to the auction block down the street. The first thing visitors see are slave auction books that advertise people for sale and within are the ads trying to recover people who have run away. It is a stark sight to see such a site and the horror which once occurred there. The slave pens look empty but when someone walks up to them, it triggers a motion sensor and a hologram appears where you will see and hear an enslaved person give an account of how they were pulled away from their siblings, their parents, their children, and how they were sold. It is absolutely heartbreaking, and it is something every American should experience. It is our history, and we must deal with that fact.

The museum narrative goes from slavery to lynching, from lynching to segregation, and then from the segregation era to the contemporary era. In the last exhibit, visitors sit down, pick up a phone, and talk to someone who is incarcerated in prison today. They hear personal accounts of what it was like to be young, some as young as 13, and be sentenced to life without parole. They hear what it was like to be innocent on death row. The purpose of the museum and memorial is to create connections between the past and the present so people can understand how the injustices of the present are logical outcomes of the past. This narrative was created so people could understand what happened and recognize that now the narrative can be changed, and it must be changed.

In the museum there are hundreds of jars of soil which were taken from lynching sites. On these jars are the names of the victims and the date of their lynching’s. Visitors are given the opportunity to go to these sites where the lynching’s took place, to collect jars and it can be a powerful experience for many. In one instance a middle-aged black woman requested to go to one of these sites. Following a meeting ahead of the trip she was ready to go and was given a jar and a note of what to do. It turned out that the lynching site which she was assigned to was in a remote area. This made her extremely nervous, but she decided to go anyway.

She was about to start digging when a truck drove by driven by a white man and the truck slowed down and stared at her. The truck stopped, turned around and drove by again and she could feel his eyes on her. Then the truck stopped. A tall white man got out of the truck and started walking toward her making her even more nervous. She had instructions which detailed that she did not have to explain what she was doing. She could just say that she was getting dirt for her garden, and that is what she intended to do. But when this white man walked up to her and asked her what she was doing, she said something else “I’m digging soil because this is where a black man was lynched in 1931, and I’m going to honor his life”. She was so scared that she started digging faster. The man stood there and said, “does that paper talk about the lynching?” to which she told him it did and the follow up was not something she expected, “Can I read it?” The woman gave the man the paper, and he stood there reading while she was digging. He put the paper down and turned to the woman as she was digging to ask “would it be okay if I helped you?” Then this white man got on his knees. She offered him the little plow to dig the soil and he said, “no, no, no. you use that”. He started throwing his hands into the soil with such force that his hands were getting coated with soil. He kept throwing his hands and digging feverishly. That moved her. The next thing she knew tears were running down her face. He stopped and said, “oh, I’m so sorry I’m upsetting you” but she answered, “no, no, no, no, you are blessing me”, and they kept putting the soil in the jar.

When the jar was almost full, she noticed the man was slowing down and that his shoulders were shaking. She turned to look at him and saw the man had tears running down his face. She stopped and she put her hand on this man’s shoulder asking if he was all right. In a stunning reply he said no, “I’m just so worried that it might have been my grandparents that were involved in lynching this man”. They both sat there with tears running down their face. When all was done, the man stood up and said, “I want to take a picture of you holding the jar”. She too wanted to take a picture of the man holding the jar. The woman brought the man back to the museum where they put the jar on the exhibit together. This was a powerful moment for them both, a shared history being acknowledged and the pain allowed to air (‘NPR, Terry Gross, 2020).

Moving moments like that do not always happen when you tell the truth about history and when you have every reason to be afraid and angry. Until we commit to dealing with the past and encouraging moments like that, until we tell the truth, we deny ourselves the beauty of redemption, the beauty of restoration. This is the face of a political forgiveness process. It is about people coming together, deciding to live together in a different way, a way which has healing at its core. This can only be achieved if we take responsibility for our past and make different choices for the future. In many cases these experiences can be so profound as we learn the power that forgiveness can bring, even on a symbolic level.

The United States was founded on the principle that we are all created equally and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. We have never been able to live up to this guiding principal yet it is something we can aspire to and something we can achieve but it must start now. Unfortunately, systemic racism still exists in our nation today and diminishes who we can truly become. If we can face our past openly and honestly by working together as one people and uphold the principle we are founded on, we will become a stronger nation, a more perfect union, and a more perfect version of ourselves. We are all equal, you no better than I and I no better than you. We must acknowledge our history, no matter how difficult it is, and we must educate future generations about out history so they can actively choose a better path forward and to never allow the injustice of the past to be repeated. The future can be better, the future must be better and the work to achieve this is long overdue. It is time to get to work.

A Message of Hope: An Unlikely Friendship

During these trying times for us all, hope can often seem to be in short supply. In these moments of polarization and division, it can almost seem like all is lost and like we do not have a pathway back. The US, and the wider world, are so adversarial now and it does not seem to be easily fixed. In this current environment we can learn from a story from the not too distant past which made headlines again earlier this year. It would seem quite unusual for a former white supremacist Ku Klux Klan member and a black Pastor to become close friends, but that is exactly what happened in Laurens, South Carolina. This was where Reverend Kennedy, a black Pastor, met the Grand Dragon of the local KKK, Michael Burden in 1996.

What was once an historically segregated movie theater, The Echo, became a white supremacist store, the Redneck Shop, which sold white nationalist and neo-Nazi paraphernalia owned by Michael Burden and John Howard. When the Redneck Shop opened in 1996, Reverend Kennedy fought continuously to have it closed and protested relentlessly outside, risking his life to stand up against hatred. Throughout the time of the shops existence, the building became the self-proclaimed ‘World’s Only Klan Museum’ and the meeting spot for several white nationalist groups, including the National Socialist Movement (NSM), the largest neo-Nazi organization in the country, according to the Anti-Defamation League (CNN, 2021). When Kennedy stood up and fought against the store, he became a target for the KKK, putting his life, and the lives of those close to him, in jeopardy.

Opening the store was Burden’s idea, but he soon fell out with John Howard, and he and his family were struggling to get by. When Burden had met his wife, he began questioning his affiliation to the KKK and his beliefs, he joined because he felt isolated and alone and felt he had found a collective to belong to. Burden and his family had lived in the basement of the store at one time but following the falling out with Howard they had nowhere to go. It was then that Reverend Kennedy extended a helping hand to Burden and his family, fed them, and aided them in finding housing.

Despite all that had gone before Reverend Kennedy saw someone who needed help and was not found wanting (Greenville News, 2020). Burden sold his share of ownership in the shop to Kennedy in 1997 and turned over the building deed. Following a protracted legal battle Reverend Kennedy and his church were deemed to own the building although there was a legal stipulation attached which meant Howard could continue running the store rent-free until his death (Washington Post, 2021). Reverend Kennedy’s battle to have the store closed continued and the Redneck Shop was finally forced to close sixteen years after it had opened, by a court order, in 2012.

How could a black Pastor have even contemplated helping a member of the KKK? Reverend Kennedy realized the courage it took for Burden to ask for help, particularly from him. Reverend Kennedy’s feelings toward Burden changed and he saw a man who was trying to help his wife, and family, rather than seeing him as a KKK member who felt he should not exist. The selfless gesture of goodwill to someone who had only wished him ill previously began to sow the seeds of an unlikely friendship, one which is now 25 years old. If Reverend Kennedy and Burden could come together and form this friendship, nothing is impossible.

In 2012, following the court order Reverend Kennedy and his church took full possession of the building. Rather than destroy its contents, many of the artifacts were saved to be used to engage in meaningful conversations about racial history and to attempt to tackle the difficult questions which resulted. In 2018, Regan Freeman, a local historian started researching what took place at the Redneck Shop, uncovering records and digging into the archives of the past 20 years. Eventually, he discovered posters of Hitler and other paraphernalia such as a KKK’s business card designed to scare black families with a warning not to make the next visit a business call. Freeman also discovered that the Redneck Shop was a recruitment center of the American Nazi Party promoting evil and hate.

In 2019, Reverend Kennedy partnered with Freeman to establish The Echo Foundation. Under the foundation The Echo Theater is now being restored and plans are underway to transform The Echo Theater and Redneck Shop into a museum of remembrance and reconciliation. The museum will tell the story of what happened in Laurens, including its struggle for justice and its fight against the Ku Klux Klan. What was once a segregated movie theater, and a store glorifying the KKK, is now becoming a center for social justice, healing, and reconciliation. It will display what Freeman uncovered and be a place where people can gather and engage with one another. What was once a place of evil is being transformed into a center which supports diversity and a place for every race and religion to congregate.

As for Burden, who joined the KKK believing no one loved him and thinking that they would become his family, he realized that he did not want to be a hateful evil person like the rest of KKK. Burden hopes people will learn from the mistakes that he made and not choose to hate to belong. He also realized that it will be us, the people, who are going to make changes in this world, not the politicians (Washington Post, 2021).

As Reverend Kennedy once said, “You have to stand up for what is right regardless of what the consequences are, how long it takes, or who stands in your way . . . we are warriors, full of love and full of forgiveness, but we will always fight, even if it means dying for our communities” (CNN, 2021).  Now 25 years later, both Reverend Kennedy and Burden stand in the light of grace, Reverend Kennedy knowing that he helped turn Burden’s life around and Burden being ever so grateful for it. If this was possible, then anything is possible. We often feel that our country, and the world, are so polarized and divisive that nothing can be done to remedy that. We can, and we must. It is possible to change our course, it is possible to shun hatred, but we must have the will and humility to do so.

 

 

Are Americans Ready for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

South Africa had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help the country heal from the wounds of apartheid. Rwanda had a National Unity and Reconciliation Commission to help reconstruct Rwandan society and identity following a brutal chapter in its history. If we look even closer to home, Canada established a truth and reconciliation commission to address what occurred involving the Indian Residential School system. This was established to guide a process of truth and healing, leading toward reconciliation within Aboriginal families, and between Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal communities, churches, governments, and Canadians more generally. Today, in the United States there have been calls for some form of a reconciliation process over issues such as slavery, racial justice and more recently the attack on the capitol which took place on January 6th, 2021. Are Americans ready to face the truth of the past? Are people ready to embrace such a process?

Truth commissions are not new and all that have formed are unique to the situation they have been established to address. Initially, there needs to be a consensus that a truth commission is required and then a consensus on what the issues are that need to be addressed. This initial requirement is often where the best laid plans fall apart. The problem in the United States is that there is no consensus, even for the need of a truth commission, let alone what the issues are that need to be addressed. We do not know what reconciliation would look like in a country facing so many challenges, especially since the country is so polarized.

Healing is necessary in this country. It couldn’t be more apparent after what we witnessed on January 6th, 2021. Recent years have seen growing polarization across the United States, people seeing those with different viewpoints as “the other” and lesser than those with whom they agree. Even if people have a desire to come back together, how do we begin the conversation about what really divides us? It is complicated. There has been so much fear and distrust on both sides of the divide. Each party is afraid that the other will gain more power and sees the other side as an existential threat coming. This is not a healthy democracy. We need to lessen this fear and get to the truth, everyone’s truth, and understand what really happened on January 6th, 2021, and why it happened.

Danielle Allen wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post on January 21st, 2021, and spoke about “The four kinds of truth America needs to pursue for reconciliation”. Allen, who is a candidate for Governor of Massachusetts, outlined the different stages of a reconciliation process in the US. It begins with forensic truth, getting the facts and holding people accountable for their actions. This is what takes place in the courts and involves eyewitness accounts of what has happened while developing an historical record of what took place. To move forward we must first determine the full facts of what happened and hold those responsible accountable for their actions.

Next comes the personal ‘truths’ where people share their stories, their personal truth. The United States began this process when the Capitol Police officers were testifying in front of Congress, explaining what they encountered and were subjected to. The officers outlined the cruelty and brutality of the day, the violence they experienced and the abuse they endured.  It is important we all carefully listen to these stories without judgment or prejudice if we want to ever make sense of what happened that day. We must bring these personal truths to the table to truly understand. The personal truths that were on display on January 6th demonstrated how far apart people’s beliefs really were. People on the left saw Confederate flags and a white supremacist insurrection. People on the right saw participants as embodying the spirit of 1776 in a morally legitimate uprising. (Danielle Allen, The Washington Post, January 21, 2021.) These chants of 1776 go back to the tea party movement in 2009.

There clearly has been discontent within the United States, within communities, and even within families. Yes, there have been extremists in charge and conspiracy theorists have been given license to perpetuate their mistruths in the mainstream but there has also been some ‘truth’ which has affected conservative ways of life. We must understand the different societal world views, why they developed the way they did, the validity of these world views and the needs that are represented by these world views. Why else do so many people feel that they have lost control over their lives? The point is that understanding where people are coming from gives us an opening to pursue a shared social truth. We need to listen and understand to begin to discuss and move forward. We need to understand what caused people to align with certain worldviews. We need to hear different perspectives which are seeded by these ‘truths’. It helps us begin to sort through all the noise so a social truth can be constructed which can empower people and embrace our diversity.

Allen, in her opinion piece, also spoke of restorative truth. What kind of policies and institutions do we want to have in place that support who we want to be as a people? Some in our communities have felt disenfranchised. We need to have economic policies which reflect the needs of every American, to empower them, and this includes having the ability to access good jobs and work flexibility which can restore dignity to one’s life.

What Allen touches on, and what my work focuses on is a political forgiveness process. This is a process which involves people coming together in safe places, telling their stories knowing that people are really listening. It is about reweaving the fabric of our society in such a way that brings a community back together, where everyone is empowered and embraced. The process restores dignity by seeking structural changes to take place in policies and institutions that can allow society to move forward, as one people and one community.

This is not an easy process. It is time consuming, requires real commitment and leadership and an honest desire to move forward. If we want to do the deep healing which is necessary to set the stage for a reconciliation process to take hold then this is the task at hand. We must approach it with an open mind and a genuine will to make things better. The bottom line is that it is important all Americans need to feel empowered and included in our multicultural society. Yes, this is difficult but we can do it. We need to have a strong desire and will but if we truly want to have a great country this is the path we need to take. This is the path towards healing and reconciliation. This is the path to repair the divide, to bring communities and families back together. We must act now as we have no time to waste.

We Are All Equal

“People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?”

Rodney King

 

“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” These were the last words of 46-year-old George Floyd. This heinous act occurred in front of witnesses and cameras. George Floyd’s death, and the death of so many other black Americans has sparked a powerful civil rights movement against racism, police brutality and unacceptable discrimination with the powerful message that Black Lives Matter.

The death of George Floyd has brought to the surface, yet again, hundreds of years of systemic racism in the United States. All the accompanying pain, suffering, injustice, and anger that is part and parcel of the experiences of black Americans growing up in the US has come to a head. In addressing the nation following the verdict, President Joe Biden said, “nothing can ever bring their brother or their father back. But this can be a giant step forward in the march towards justice in America. But this is not enough. We cannot stop here. To deliver real change and reform we can and we must do more to reduce the likelihood that tragedies like this won’t ever happen or occur again.” Biden called systemic racism “a stain on our nation’s soul” and that there has been a collective realization about the reality of systemic racism that has occurred since George Floyd’s death.

So, what can we do to help this country heal? Following George Floyd’s death, structural changes across society have been proposed and these begin with police reform. Vice President Kamala Harris voiced her views that lawmakers must now take up legislation that will fundamentally reform policing in America. There is a collective recognition, broadly across the aisle, that much more needs to be done in this regard. Rep. Karen Bass (D-California), a longtime policing reform advocate, introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act which passed the House by a 236-181 vote. Included in the bill is a ban on chokeholds, the ending of “qualified immunity” for law enforcement officers and the creation of national standards for police training. Senator Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), the sole black Republican Senator, put forward a counter proposal which included provisions for making falsified police reports a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. While these bills are a start in holding people, both the police and wider public, accountable for their actions, there is a need for far greater urgency, not just in tackling police reform but tackling the wider systemic racism which exists in the United States today.

Tackling the problem of systemic racism through structural reform is one element of the process but ensuring a real change in society will require a focus on education. In order to end this stain on our democracy we must teach that it is wrong, teach that we are all equal and teach the dangers of dehumanization. When I speak about education, yes I am speaking about our children starting from preschool but I am also speaking about all of us. Education is key. For this to work, to actually root out systemic racism, we all have a role to play and we all need to be educated on how we can play that role. We need to start now. We need to teach forgiveness, we need to teach healing and we need to teach reconciliation. There needs to be broad understanding of values such as respect for human rights and principles of equality, responsibility, and unity. When we can build a platform of knowledge for all citizens, we are building a more peaceful society.

How does this fit into a political forgiveness process? When we think of political forgiveness as an interactive process that involves the healing of individuals, the reconstruction of communal relationships, and the pursuit of a just political order it becomes obvious how important education and structural reform is in the healing of individuals and society. Police reform and child education are an important part of this process but it is not the only aspect that needs to be included in a political forgiveness process. All structures that support systemic racism need to be reformed, including unjust laws. Much work needs to be done. It will take all of us coming together and committing to one another if we want to create a better, stronger and more equal society where we can live in peace with one another. It can be done. The question is do we want a brighter future for everyone?

 

 

The Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Movement: A Political Forgiveness Process in Action

There is a movement afoot. It is called the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation movement where like-minded people have come together from all walks of life to address the historical and contemporary effects of racism. Not only is this movement concerned with the effects of racism found in social, economic and government policies, it is also concerned with the deeply held and often unconscious beliefs created by racism and in particular the belief of a “hierarchy of human value.” It is this belief which has fueled racism and conscious and unconscious bias throughout American culture. Therefor the purpose of this movement is to engage people, and to encourage discourse in this country that will bring people together as opposed to allowing the continuation of segregation and racism that tears us apart.

The TRHT framework was first developed in 2016 under the guidance of Dr. Gail Christopher at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. 176 community and civic leaders, scholars and practitioners informed a year-long design process. An important part of the framework was to challenge the belief in a hierarchy of human value based on race by developing transformative approaches to community-based healing. It has been implemented in a wide variety of communities, including on university campuses.

To support this movement Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey recently announced the reintroduction of their legislation calling for the establishment of the first United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT). The commission will examine the effects of slavery, institutional racism, and discrimination against people of color, and how our history impacts laws and policies today. As Senator Booker said, “to realize our nation’s promise of being a place for liberty and justice for all, we must acknowledge and address the systemic racism and white supremacy that have been with us since our country’s founding and continue to persist in our laws, our policies and our lives to this day.” This legislation goes hand in hand with what the goals of the movement are and as Booker also commented, “this is the necessary first step in beginning to root our systemic racism in our institutions and for addressing and repairing past harm and building a more just nation for every American.”

The Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation movement is a wonderful example of a political forgiveness process which focuses on all levels of society. It begins with people coming together in a healing capacity and engaging in conversation within a given community. People share their stories and lay bare the awful truths of what has happened in their lives breaking the denial which has held a strong grip on our society. These stories help us get in touch with our humanity and help as get to know each other as truly human beings. When we can peel away the layers of fear, guilt and anger which is part of a forgiveness process we can get in touch with our humanity and begin to relate to each other differently and in a more compassionate way. We also need to learn how to walk in the shoes of the other. By dealing with what has happened, walking in someone else’s shoes, and by healing our own emotions which blocks us from feeling someone else’s pain we can change the narrative and how we behave. It is about our humanity, to see ourselves in one another, to genuinely care for one another to have empathy that goes beyond who we identify with. That is the work which needs to be done. And if we can help heal the suffering and hurt of ourselves as well as others, we are on the road to heal society and to build a stronger foundation for a more inclusive and just society.

For more information on political forgiveness please visit www.drborris.com.