Letters to Editor

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: A Letter About Race From a Civil Rights “Foot Soldier” Who Entered BU School of Theology, 60 years ago: September, 1955

Letters to the Editor do not reflect the editorial opinion of The Daily Free Press. They are solely the opinion of the author.

To the Boston University Community,

I have not forgotten the time when I sat for the first time in racially integrated classrooms at the School of Theology. I came to BU from the racially segregated public school classrooms of North Carolina and Texas and from my black college, North Carolina A&T College in Greensboro. But, I soon discovered that racially integrated classrooms were meaningless if in them there were not presentations and discussions on what Sojourner’s Magazine called “America’s Original Sin: Racism.” I had in my first year at BU what I would wish for every BU undergraduate and graduate student: a professor like Alan Knight Chalmers, who was white, who was deeply involved with the NAACP in Alabama protesting the treatment of a group of black men called the “Scottsboro Boys” who were accused of committing rape. Chalmers through his lectures and his activism, blended the abstractions of theory with the pragmatism of direct action in response to racial injustice.

And, in my first year at BU I was also introduced to the profound wisdom of the then Dean of Marsh Chapel. Howard Thurman was the first African-American clergyperson invited to serve as Chapel Dean of a major, predominantly white university. His 1949 book, “Jesus and the Disinherited” is a “good read” regardless of one’s religious or no religious perspective. Thurman’s writing on the challenges parents of the Disinherited face, is relevant in this time when unarmed black boys and men experience abuse and killing from law enforcement personnel. I contend that there is too little understanding of what it means to grow up black in the United States. If that was understood — the double standards, the gaps in income and financial worth between black families and white families, the second class education and healthcare, and the hopelessness that prompts violence, etc. — there would not be the foolish, insensitive, race-based and racist actions some are engaging in at some colleges and universities directed at black students. I do not believe many of those who are not black, ever think of what it means to be black in the United States.

My suggestions for Boston University in this time of anti-black attitudes and actions:

  1. Every department at Boston University, undergraduate and graduate, spend time exploring how their particular discipline, historically and today, consciously or not, has contributed to anti-black racial insensitivity or racism. And ask, “What are our suggestions/solutions that would contribute to justice and then racial reconciliation in our nation?”
  1. Understand the importance of the specificity and particularity of “Black Lives Matter.” Of course ALL lives matter. But as both the Republican and Democratic candidates for their party’s presidential nomination are being made to realize, “rising tides” whether they are Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative, do not automatically lift the boats of black people. Persons and a people who have historically been enslaved, and racially segregated as a group because they are black, require actions, legislation and remedies that counter the mistreatment and discrimination they have experienced as a group. The success of neither Oprah nor Obama automatically corrects the systemic and institutional racism that blacks from the “git go” have experienced as a collective.
  1. Although Ta-Nahesi Coates is spending a year in France (I wish that were not so) his writing on reparations and his letter to his son, ought become a “BU Read” by all of BU. I wish I could be a “fly on the wall” as faculty and students in theology, medicine, the arts, law, physical education, music, economics, the sciences, history, communication/journalism, etc., discuss the writings of Coates. It is time that reflections, discussions and actions re: anti-black racism be discussed in all of the “Silos” of academia, and then the Silos ought come together to discover how each discipline can contribute to erasing the ceiling that slavery, segregation and discrimination, past and present, that limit the aspirations not only of those who are black, but of all persons, regardless of their race or ethnicity, can be destroyed.

When I arrived at Boston University in 1955, I “discovered” Catholic priest Norman O’Connor and his jazz program on WBUR. I became immediately a non-musician who loves the music called jazz. The late jazz pianist Billy Taylor, who had a program on CBS and performed at the Church I pastored in Harlem, wrote a song that has these words; “I wish I knew how it feels to be free, to break all the chains holding me.” I wish as a now 82-year-old that Boston University, my graduate school alma mater, could “break the chains” that seem to be keeping all of the United States from breaking free from what some used to call its “Negro Problem,” when in fact its problem is the unresolved issue from the beginnings of the United States. An empowering response to black people whose free slave labor and racial segregation has been the major contradiction to all the nation claims to believe.

“IMAGINE” (John Lennon) what might happen to transform today’s inequities between blacks and whites if all of Boston University made this a matter of primary importance for the whole University?

Gilbert “Gil” Caldwell, caldwellchurch@aol.com

Boston University School of Theology, “1958”

A retired Minister of the United Methodist Church

Asbury Park, New Jersey

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