SANKOFA Journey to Harmony
I’ve just returned from an extraordinary trip that allowed 30 ministers, multi-ethnically paired (African American and Anglo) to experience slavery and the civil rights struggle of the 50’s and 60’s together as Christ’s followers. The concept of SANKOFA derives from King Adinkera of the Akan people of West Africa.
we must go back to our roots in order to move forward.SANKOFA is expressed in the Akan language as “se wo were fi na wosan kofa a yenki.” Literally translated it means “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.” “Sankofa” teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. That is, we should reach back and gather the best of what our past has to teach us, so that we can achieve our full potential as we move forward. Whatever we have lost, forgotten, forgone or been stripped of, can be reclaimed, revived, preserved and perpetuated.
Having grown up in the Deep South and experiencing personally the wrenching emotional challenges of a segregated society, it was vividly recaptured in our visit to the various sites. We started with the King Center in Atlanta and moved through Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, Tuskegee, Jackson, and Memphis. The trip was both poignant and amazing, as we all discovered various facts we did not know about the struggle for freedom beginning with the institution of chattel slavery in the United States. It was annoyingly evident that the Negro has, and still does, experience the ambivalence of white America regarding the Negro’s value and worth and how that worth is played out in daily life.
Beginning with the founding fathers George Washington, who when he died owned 123-135 slaves, it is evident that there was some sort of a moral disconnect, as well as, an internal struggle to resolve the tension between the constitutional liberties granted and the veiled clauses that protected slavery as an institution. It’s interesting to note that Washington freed his slaves in his will after his death; however, his wife did not free hers and left them as an inheritance to her grandchildren. That is, from Washington, John Quincy Adams, to Abraham Lincoln himself, MLK states that not one of them had a strong, unequivocal belief in the equality of the Negro. Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 freeing the slaves of the southern states. History seems to indicate that his struggles with slavery were formidable. This reality underscores the cognitive dissonance that we as African Americans experience daily in the United States. For President Lincoln, the founding fathers’ phrase “All men are created equal” applied to blacks and whites alike, this did not mean he thought they should have the same social and political rights. His views became clear during an 1858 series of debates with his opponent in the Illinois race for U.S. Senate, Stephen Douglas, who had accused him of supporting “negro equality.” In their fourth debate, at Charleston, Illinois, on September 18, 1858, Lincoln made his position clear. “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,” he began, going on to say that he opposed blacks having the right to vote, to serve on juries, to hold office and to intermarry with whites. What he did believe was that, like all men, blacks had the right to improve their condition in society and to enjoy the fruits of their labor. In this way they were equal to white men, and for this reason slavery was inherently unjust.
As an African American this posture of one of the greatest Presidents of our nation sheds light on the very challenges that we face race-wise in the U.S. today, both as a country and as the church of Jesus Christ, the community of faith.
Where essentially does the Negro really belong?Where essentially does the Negro really belong? This is precisely why racial reconciliation, racial parity, social justice, and inclusion is somewhat meaningless to me personally. I prefer the term “repairment” which is used to concretely bring issues to the table. If you and I can agree that something is broken, we can then decide as to whether we will address the solution to resolution or simply decline. At least in the end, it’s clear what is meant by what is now nebulous language at best.
The Anglo pastors who traveled offered some of the most encouraging conversation I personally have ever experienced.
connecting… in truth no matter how difficult the conversation.These men were not concerned about who they were as pastors, but actually more concerned about connecting with their African American brothers in truth no matter how difficult the conversation. It was a sight to see! This kind of engagement is the bedrock that will lead to genuine change beginning in the community of faith. Christians must first model what we believe is morally compelling for the larger society. Unfortunately, we have not done the greatest job of ensuring to the world that we are truly our brother’s keeper as equals.
Dr. King says in his book Where Do We Go from Here that “The history of the movement reveals that Negro-white alliances have played a powerfully constructive role, especially in recent years. While Negro initiative, courage and imagination precipitated the Birmingham and Selma confrontations and revealed the harrowing injustice of segregated life, the organized strength of Negroes alone would have been insufficient to move Congress and the administration without the weight of the aroused conscience of white American. In the period ahead Negros will continue to need this support. Ten percent of the population cannot by tensions alone induce 90 percent to change a way of life.”
This trip revealed that much of the conversation about racial equity and justice, as alluded to earlier, lacks the vernacular, clarity, and moral conviction to convince the average African American that the discussion is sincere. Until our nation comes to grips with the reality that African Americans and American Indians especially, need a national apology for the atrocities perpetrated against its own citizens, the conversation will continue to reflect a profound lack of insight on the part of our white brothers and sisters. Today’s news is filled with emotion and passion for refugees who have no rights as citizens while those who are actually citizens languish in prisons and on reservations, bound by poverty and disenfranchisement, remaining all but invisible while blaming the victim for their condition. Our nation must admit that the black man’s problems and that of the American Indian, was largely created and instituted by a government that should have advocated and assisted them as it has the other ethnic groups who have achieved in our nation. To set slaves free without any assistance, repairment for the wrong done and atrocities inflicted, to set them on their way while under the power of their former masters, lacks integrity and fortitude to do what is right and just. When African Americans have endured over 350 years of racial injustice, it is very difficult to talk about racial justice without being willing to have an honest conversation about injustice and its ongoing impact upon generations.
The trip, on the very positive side, also revealed the commitment of whites to the abolitionist movement and the serious risks and costs that presented itself. Without these noble souls the civil rights movement could not have achieved a significant way forward.
It will take white and black working together to fulfill the vision of Dr. King…Noting David Livingston in Africa, to William Wilberforce in England, Horace Greely, to the Rev. John Rankin on the Ohio River, to William Lloyd Garrison, to Viola Liuzzo, a white housewife and mother of five, who was murdered in her car while driving a civil rights worker home. These acts of bravery caused us to pause and to marvel at the character displayed in this most difficult struggle for freedom and justice. It will take white and black working together to fulfill the vision of Dr. King and that of others who preceded him. Standing in a white clapboard house built in 1849 by Jacob Burkle, where it is rumored that this house served as a way station on the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves. This was a major event for me as the house smelled like houses I entered when a young boy. It also brought to mind the tremendous suffering of slaves in the Middle Passage as the guide of the museum informed us of the millions who died, some heroically, in their determination not to be enslaved. One of my most poignant moments was standing in the driveway of civil rights leader Medger Evers, who was murdered in Jackson Mississippi in 1963. The bullet hit him, went through the front window, through a living room wall into the kitchen, bounced off the refrigerator, and landed on the kitchen cabinet on the other side from the refrigerator. My heart was broken in the realization that kids lost their father that night and a spouse her husband. He had the house built so that the windows in the kid’s rooms would be high enough to avoid someone shooting in. In other words, he knew the dangers, but was committed to doing what was right despite the cost.
My most informative time dealing with current issues was at The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) founded in 1994 in Montgomery, Alabama, by attorney Bryan Stevenson. Three young lawyers told us about the challenges they still have in Alabama. They informed us of very important issues of race and mass incarceration. For instance, 157 people have been exonerated from death row since 1983 who were falsely accused. Ninety percent of people in prison have not had a trial. 365 Juveniles were put to death under capital punishment until the Supreme Court ruled against it in 2005. These youth were primarily, if not all, children of color. I looked into this a little more deeply and discovered that there are 2.3 million people in prison today. There are 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, another 820,000 people on parole, and a staggering 3.8 million on probation. A disproportionate number of these are African American.
I come away from this journey more hopeful than ever.How can these individuals, once in the system, find their way back into society when they cannot vote, have no jury duty, no public social benefits, face discrimination in housing, and experience difficulty finding gainful employment? A new book titled, “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander addresses the ethos, challenges, and consequences of mass incarceration.
Even with the challenges ahead, I come away from this journey more hopeful than ever. I realized that we must embrace the truth about ourselves no matter how difficult. Scripture teaches us that we will know the truth and the truth will set us free. We have come a long way from the beginning. It was very evident that we have a long way to go. If we can pull together like we did on this Sankofa trip, we will see some amazing things come to fruition. We will be able to make the dream of Dr. King a reality. The old folks used to tell us, “nothing that is worthwhile accomplishing is easy!”
Dr. Charles P. Morgan is CEO of Union Gospel Mission. He served as Founder and Senior Pastor of Resurrection Life Fellowship, a non-denominational Christian Church located in Westchester, California, for 33 years. Concurrent with his pastoral ministry, he was Vice President of Program at the Los Angeles Mission.