But what if …?

May 10, 2008
Special to the Star-Telegram

Today is graduation day at Texas Christian University. I teach a class in general semantics there, and seven of my 46 students will walk across the stage. Congratulations to them!

Their last semester in college provided a variety of learning opportunities — and one notable missed opportunity — particularly during the fortnight in which winter turned to spring.

Those two weeks began with a discussion about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy and Sen. Barack Obama’s speech on race in America. Then we talked about the decision of TCU and Brite Divinity School to move the March 29 portion of the Fourth Annual State of the Black Church Summit off campus. (Brite is on the TCU campus but is an independent institution.) For a year, Brite had planned the summit for the last weekend in March and had a long-standing invitation to Wright to attend and receive an award recognizing his 40 years of service to his church and ministry.

But the executive committee of TCU’s board of trustees asked Brite to move the awards dinner off campus — which it did. My class was about evenly divided as to whether moving the event was the right thing to do in light of the purported concerns about “safety and security.”

We learned something about the history of racism in America by viewing clips from Todd Larkins’ documentary The N Word: Divided We Stand and segments from the PBS series on the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize.

We studied the distinction between the words people use and their behavior. Is it more appropriate to examine a person’s behavior within a specific context or environment rather than focus on whether this word or that word is used? Do actions speak louder than words? What if the action is nothing but words?

In The N Word, rapper Chuck D recognizes this distinction between word and behavior: “Words are words, but what comes right after the word is the activity. And the activity of being treated like a nigger is always in the air.”

We listened to the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from the musical South Pacific. We heard that children must be taught to be afraid “of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a different shade …. to hate all the people your relatives hate.”

To conclude our discussion on the controversy surrounding this event, I invited Star-Telegram columnist Bob Ray Sanders and University Christian Church’s senior minister Tim Carson, one of Brite’s trustees, to talk with the class. On April 3, we were fortunate to hear their unique “insider” perspectives.

We heard them express skepticism that “safety and security” concerns were the primary considerations that motivated the institution to move the event. We heard that the summit’s organizers were turned away by 28 Fort Worth venues before they turned east to Dallas. We heard these two men express their own versions of the oft-heard statement that “this country needs to talk about race.”

The next day marked the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

With Wright’s explosive emergence on the national airwaves, it would be understandable for Fort Worth and TCU to embrace in a collective, self-congratulatory sigh of relief for not letting that circus come to this town! It was a good call — prudent if not profound.

But what if …? What if the original plans for March 29 had been kept? What might these students have learned if the TCU trustees’ executive committee had heeded those oft-stated calls for a national conversation about race? What if that conversation had actually begun here, in Fort Worth, on March 29?

What if Wright had been given a receptive, respectful venue at which he could respond to the public condemnations hurled at him? What might he have said then, rather than what he has pronounced after stewing in his self-imposed silence for another month?

This community had an opportunity to go beyond talking about talking about race. We could have started the conversation. Instead, we passed to avoid the front page, content to be merely a footnote.

Those who write history will determine whether this fortnight was just another two weeks in just another year, or whether it helped usher in a new season in the great American experiment of self-governance.

Or maybe this fortnight was just another two weeks of a 400-year winter that might never graduate to spring.

Steve Stockdale of Fort Worth is a member of the Star-Telegram community columnist panel.
© 2008 Star-Telegram and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. http://www.star-telegram.com