Civil and religious leaders address racial issues at Birmingham conference

Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham, Ala., speaks March 3 during a conference on "Black & White in America: How Deep the Divide?" conference at Samford University in Birmingham. (CNS/One Voice/Mary D. Dillard)

Birmingham, Ala. — Developing an African-American studies program in the U.S. to educate youth, fostering involvement and leadership among community members​, and expanding the racial conversation across faith groups are among the solutions religious and civil leaders offered to address the country’s racial divide at a recent panel discussion here.

Almost 300 people packed the pews in Andrew Gerow Hodges Chapel at Samford University and 500 people tuned in online March 3-4 to the “Black and White in America: How Deep the Divide?” conference to participate in a dialogue that included a dozen speakers, such as Birmingham mayor William Bell.

“As leaders of our church and leaders of our community, we’ve got to find ways to bring people together around a common cause, a positive common cause, and when you do that, you break down those barriers of separation and you begin to see humanity within each other,” said Bell.

Religious and civil leaders say they organized the event to create a dialogue with community members to better address the country’s racial issues and to identify possible solutions.

“The groups were not necessarily talking to one another and that maybe has led to a lack of understanding or cooperation,” said Birmingham Bishop Robert Baker, one of the event’s organizers.

Baker proposed the idea of the open dialogue last year to Bell and Rev. Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School at Samford. Birmingham was a perfect location to host the discussion, said Baker, who called the city “ground zero” of the U.S.’ civil rights movement.

The Black Lives Matter movement has created what some have called a new civil rights crusade after a slew of police shootings of unarmed black men in cities like Ferguson, Mo., New York and Chicago.

Birmingham and the U.S. have come a long way in addressing the divide, but recent social unrest proves there is more work to do, and it must start with a conversation, attendees agreed.

Just last month, an African-American was fatally shot by a white police officer in Montgomery, Ala.*, in a purported early morning altercation. Officer Aaron Smith, 23, was charged for the Feb. 25 shooting of 58-year-old Gregory Gunn.

In his speech, Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, Ill., focused heavily on his pastoral letter, which highlights the relationship between the Catholic church and the Black Lives Matter movement. In his letter, he asks readers to “come face-to-face” with the numerous deaths of African-American men killed in altercations with white law enforcement agents and “the international protests that followed.”

Braxton also referenced a disconnect between the Catholic church, African-American Catholics, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

There are 70 million Catholics in the U.S., but only 3 million African-American Catholics, said Braxton. Because of this small number, many church members have no contact with people of color and “experience the Black Lives Matter movement indirectly.”

Braxton also urged community members to eliminate the word minority in describing people of color. “There are no minority or majority groups because we are one,” he argued.

Building strong communities was a recurring theme throughout the conference, and many argued that responding to violence with violence is not the solution, citing the social unrest that erupted in Baltimore in April 2015 following the death of Freddie* Gray. Instead, communities should engage with and learn from civil leaders who have been successful in addressing racial divide peacefully.

Many praised former Charleston, S.C., mayor Joseph Riley for his reaction to the June 2015 shooting of nine African-American church members at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. When a “hateful bigot” tried to create a “racial war” in the city, Riley said he brought his residents together by praying and responding with love.

The crisis brought the town together rather than creating a deeper divide, attendees argued.

Riley, who served for 40 years and left office Jan. 11, said preparation is key in building strong communities.

“When a crisis comes to a community, if you haven’t been getting ready, it’s too late,” he said.

He also stressed the need for further education of African-American history to narrow the divide.

“We have a real fault line in America and that is that we do not know African-American history,” said Riley. “Until we do, all of us do, then we have a problem.”

He said Charleston plans to build an international African-American museum that would open in fall 2018 -- what he called an Ellis Island equivalent for blacks, “although those coming through Ellis Island were free,” he added.

Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper is taking a more direct approach to confronting the issue. Roper said he and other police officers go out into the community to meet young men and to offer help to get them on the right track.

“As a police chief I knock on the door and I say, ‘Ma’am, I need to speak with your son and I need to speak with you. He’s come on our radar and we are very concerned about him,’ ” said Roper. “I’ve seen grandmothers and mothers start crying, not because they are scared, but because they are happy that the chief of police is standing in their living room.”

Roper says 30 young men have accepted the help, which includes job skills training.

Many urged community members to reach out to police officers to thank them for their service.

“Whenever you see a police officer, go out there and say ‘Thank you for your service,’ because this is a hard time for them,” said Riley. “The bad guys in Ferguson scarred their profession.”

Judge Helen Shores Lee of the Tenth Judicial Court of Alabama echoed Riley’s concerns about African-American history studies. “If they don’t know the history, they are doomed to repeat the history,” she said of U.S. children. She also urged attendees to speak out when they experience racism and to get involved in the community. “Find an organization in the community now that you can become civically involved in.”

Baker said he plans to meet with other religious and civil leaders in the next few months to evaluate their findings and to determine the next steps.

“It comes down to leadership,” said Baker. “Where there are good leaders in the civil sector and the religious sector, we believe we can avoid some of these problems.”

*An earlier version of this story misidentified the city where the shooting occurred and misspelled Gray's first name.

[Traci Badalucco is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is]

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