What is the role of black and white leadership in the Lynching Sites Project?
In November 2017 the Lynching Sites Project held a retreat day with about twenty-five active members present. Toward the end of the day an African American man with a long history of work on race and racism, made a point about how important it is in any work on the issues of race for white people to lead and to be visible as leaders. An experienced white high school history teacher at a predominantly black high school responded that she was uncomfortable with this because stepping into leadership on race requires striking a delicate balance between leading and humility since white people have been telling black people what to do for centuries.
Later she shared an experience while she was teaching a unit on racism in current society. As the class progressed on she began to feel some palpable tension in the room, but it remained unspoken for days. The after school one day a student came to her with concern and shared that students were talking about her outside of class. A consensus seemed to be building among them that because she was white, she had no understanding of them and therefore no credibility to teach about race.
At a later meeting of the LSP the topic came up again in the context of beginning to choose leaders including officers for the next year. He recalled her story about the moment in her class room. His question led to more profound conversation about the life of the Lynching Sites Project and especially about how leadership, and maybe power itself, is shared among us as in this work.
The resolution of the tension with and among the students in the class was resolved. A black colleague was brought in to create a “team taught” unit on racism. The students concerns were talked about frankly and openly. This led decision led to five more team-taught units on race-related topics. The classes included giving attention to the power of having a black and white teacher sharing equally in the lesson delivery and in allowing each to speak from his/her own identities.
In the early months of the LSP work in January 2016, there was an enormous outpouring of interest in what we were about. We noted then that just about every bit of the decision-making for the original interfaith prayer service in December 2015 was done by white people. “This won’t do,” many thought. “This is not our story to tell. White people have no right to be leaders in this.” Some felt that the LSP had to have black leadership and that white leaders should resign. At that time almost no one thought that a black leader in our group would speak so emphatically about the need for white leadership and white visibility in this work.
But the feelings of many on this have changed profoundly. In Memphis black people have been trying to have the “more difficult questions about race” for a long time, and have usually been dismissed by white Memphians. Of course it is important that leadership and power in our work be shared among as much diversity as possible, young-old, male-female, black-white-brown. But it matters very much that white people are giving leadership to this work and that they be public and visible in doing so.
At the same time, the story of a white teacher calling on a black colleague to team teach with in a unit on racism is a profound and instructive. Black and white people need each other in so many ways and in profound ways when we are trying to talk honestly about racism.
Bryan Stevenson has admonished us “to change the narrative, to guard our hope, to be proximate, and to be willing to be uncomfortable” in responding to racism. Hopefully we are responding to his counsel.
This conversation about “who should lead?” is certainly one that we will need to have again and again.
by Randall Mullins (Feb. 2018)