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Roundtable: Activism and the Church

ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's Roundtable, the change in race relations between blacks and whites. That's the focus of today's special Roundtable. Joining us from Montgomery is Wanda Lloyd, executive editor at the Montgomery Advertiser here in Montgomery, Alabama. Also with us, Reverend Michael Thurman, pastor of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, also in Montgomery. And Fred Beatty joins us, the chairman of the Department of History and Social Science at Troy University, once again here in Montgomery, Alabama.

I welcome you all. Thank you very much.

Wanda, let me start with you. We should note that your newspaper recently conducted a survey about racial attitudes here in Montgomery. Share with us, if you will, some of the findings and what surprised you most about them.

Ms. WANDA LLOYD (Montgomery Advertiser): Well, we did the survey because we knew that we were going to be covering the bus boycott, commemoration of the anniversary, and we wanted to help our readers put in perspective where we were 50 years ago and also, looking ahead, where we are now, where we think we're going. So we polled an equal number of blacks and whites, 400 people in Montgomery, and asked them their attitudes on a variety of things, like education, housing opportunities, opportunities for business ownership, things like that.

And I think that the survey really showed that while there are a lot of areas that we are--have the same perspective, that there still is a gap among the blacks and whites in Montgomery, and the areas where we found the biggest gaps were in the areas of opportunities for education, opportunities for owning businesses, crime--people feel differently about why crime is committed and who commits crime--and then relationships. And I think that that was the one that bothered us really the most, that people really feel like they don't--that people in Montgomery aren't really getting together. We asked people, for example: Do you have a friend or do you socialize with people of a different race? And by and large, most groups said that they do not outside of work.

GORDON: Reverend, I always say, in the United States--and I would note, with those numbers, that that doesn't seem to me to be very different in Montgomery than it is in Los Angeles or New York. I say often this society, our society, is a 9-to-5. We interact with each other at work. You may go with a white colleague to lunch, but after 5:00, take a look at the United States and it is very separate. What does this speak to, if anything, and is it all right if we all choose, on our own accord, to be with, quote, "each other"?

Reverend MICHAEL THURMAN (Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church): And, Ed, I think that is indicative of the fact that people just oftentimes like to be with people that have similar interests, similar backgrounds, etc., similar experiences. America is a country in which the racial divide is very deep. You know, we have come together on interests of common ground, but I think in so many instances, socialization is still something that we--you know, many people feel that they have control of and they'd much rather be in, you know, environments, etc., that are wholesome and culturally empowering for them.

GORDON: Fred Beatty, talk to me a bit, if you will, in your studies, the idea that one's perception really is probably the most powerful drawing card to what you do. I think of the perceptions, obviously, that taint the survey numbers that we heard just a moment ago from Wanda, and I think of the perception of the O.J. Simpson trial or Katrina and how we are all based on how we perceive things.

Mr. FRED BEATTY (Troy University): Well, I think that that's absolutely correct, and, of course, there are different perspectives and one of the factors that plays so much in the perceptions is the media. And, of course, the media portrayal of events and individuals and simply the pictures, not just the articulation of particular developments, do tend to create perceptions that do in some cases, I think, erect barriers, create different perspectives. But on the other hand, I think also that, given some of the events--You mentioned particularly Katrina--that there can be responses that engender perspectives that perhaps are more sympathetic if we are talking about different perspectives from the racial sides.

GORDON: Here's what I found interesting about the numbers, Wanda, in the survey that you all took. We should note that it was conducted amongst 400 Montgomery County residents, 200 black, 200 white. Sixty percent of those that participated suggested that race relations in general have improved since 1955. No surprise there. Here's what surprised me: 32 percent said that they thought that things were the same as they were when Rosa Parks started the boycott.

Mr. BEATTY: Wow.

GORDON: Thirty-two percent.

Ms. LLOYD: Well, that doesn't really surprise me, because as Reverend Thurman said, you know, we are still divided in many, many ways, and if you don't spend a lot of quality time outside of work or school, which is pretty integrated, I think, these days, with people who are different than you, then your perceptions are very different. We spend a lot of time in the newspaper business helping people understand, helping the staff understand that we have to be the catalyst for changing those perceptions--you know, something--a concept that we use in our newspaper, called mainstreaming, and that is mainstreaming people of color into news stories as experts, as people who have expertise in certain areas; business stories, for example.

GORDON: In other words, to get a black economist to talk just generically...

Ms. LLOYD: Absolutely.

GORDON: ...about business vs. black business.

Ms. LLOYD: Right. Yeah. It's finding people who can talk about things in general. If there is a plane crash in your community and you need to find someone who's an aviator who can talk about the kind of plane and why that plane might have--something might have happened to that plane, knowing in advance, before the story happens, who those experts are and where you can go to find them.

GORDON: Fred Beatty, isn't the issue here, though, really that you can't legislate minds and hearts, and the idea with--no matter what laws you put on the books, if people have a certain belief, they're going to hold true to that until proven differently?

Mr. BEATTY: Well, I think that there can be change. I understand the point that you're making, but there can be change over time, and I think if we look at the historical record from the beginning of the 20th century, for example, we can see the evolution of that change. And it is difficult to legislate at any given time, but the totality of the impact over time in legislating or--generally an outlook or a perspective, as we mentioned earlier, can change. And we saw the example of that in the '50s and on up to the present time.

GORDON: Do you believe that is the case?

Rev. THURMAN: I think that may be the case, Ed, but I think we have a systemic problem in this country in that--not only in this country but in this world when it comes to looking at race. None of us have been used to a society in which race was a non-factor. However, in the early, you know, period of the biblical age, first century, there were--people did not look at race as they do today. And because of the exploitation, because of the injustices that were done or perpetrated along racial lines, we all have a history, we have baggage as to the problems of race. So we really need to go back to a time before that ever became a factor. So I think therein lies the problem.

GORDON: Fred Beatty, let me ask you what is asked of many African-Americans who sit in the seat you sit in, and that is to represent, if you will, as a monolith, "your people," quote. During this time of the 50th anniversary celebration here in Montgomery, with your white friends and colleagues, has much been said about the anniversary, and if so, what?

Mr. BEATTY: Not a great deal is said about the anniversary. It's an accepted thing. It's something that has been, you know--obviously we've been looking at for quite some time. If we consider it from the standpoint of the academic community and academic friends, much discussion about it, obviously. With regard to social friends, passing comments about it or some of the events that have come up, but not a great deal. But I have to say that socially, pretty much I am limited also to the academic environment. So from that perspective or from that group, absolutely there's an awareness and an interest in it.

GORDON: Wanda, here's something that I noted--and pick up on that point, but here's something that I noted. There seem to be dueling celebrations, too, that are going on in this city, one held and participated by, if you will, quote, "the people," and that is those that have represented the front line, if you will, and there are city celebrations. And while both have been integrated, there does seem to be this give and take, this push and pull between the entities.

Ms. LLOYD: Well, I think that there have been conflicting celebrations because there have been activities that take place at the same time, and many people, myself included, have wanted to attend both, and it's impossible to do so. In fact, I went to the gala that was sponsored by the city the other night, and I went with a friend who needed--who wanted to go to that one but also needed to go to the celebration sponsored by the Montgomery Improvement Association, because a relative of hers was being honored, and so she split her time. She literally went to one, left, went to the other and then came back to the first one. So a lot of people have been talking about the conflicts.

But I do want to pick up on the point you talk about, about, you know, who's celebrating in Montgomery. We have done a lot of coverage starting, of course, with the death of Rosa Parks, which, you know, was not a planned coverage event, but there was a lot of coverage because there was a lot going on--anytime you have somebody that has four memorial services, two in Montgomery, one in Washington and one in Detroit. And the kind of celebrations that took place, there were--I think we had on page one of our newspaper, nine days in a row, coverage of the death of Rosa Parks. And then a month or so later, we come back with the coverage of the 50th anniversary of the bus boycott, which was planned. We've been planning this for a year that we would cover this event, and we came out with a huge special section called Voices of the Boycott. We had all the coverage day after day and we still do. In fact, today's paper we have a story about the re-enactment of the mass meeting that took place last night.

And so we have heard from some white readers who have said, `Enough is enough. There's too much of it.' Now you could say there's too much going on; therefore, there's too much coverage. Or is the question that we shouldn't cover it? And my take is we're recording history. We are telling people what happened 50 years ago, and as we look back at our own newspaper 50 years ago, we did the same thing. We developed a brand-new Web site called montgomeryboycott.com, where we went back and digitized stories from our newspaper 50 years ago, and those stories are on the site. There are 500 stories on that Web site that were in the paper 50 years ago. So that's what we do.

GORDON: Reverend, I've been asking a number of people, particularly those who were alive and participated 50 years ago, whether they think that we are now where they believed we would be, whether we're ahead or behind their curve. And I'm interested to see--because I know you have been ministering and preaching a lot about the condition of today, there are those who will say this is all well and good, but the frightening thing for many African-Americans that I've talked to is they see a growth of the enemy within, that many of the ills today are not based on the oppression from someone else.

Rev. THURMAN: Ed, I think that's absolutely right. Clearly, most of us are enjoying the benefits and the fruits of the civil rights movement. The Montgomery bus boycott, you know--the job you do, the job Wanda does is a direct of that. So many of us have moved up the scale socioeconomically. While there are still gaps, as Wanda mentioned in her survey, those gaps are narrowing. So we've made substantial strides. However, there's been a tremendous undercurrent of black-on-black crime that really tends to erode so much of what has been gained in the past. We had five deaths over the last seven days in the city of Montgomery last week. Nobody said a word about those deaths. However, had it been a racial incident, you know, people would have taken to the streets. So I think we've got to begin to build a community from within and that becomes a critical role for the church, you know, the church and its involvement in community and economic development.

GORDON: Fred Beatty, we heard from Artur Davis just a moment ago that we should not forget the idea and the lessons of the civil right movement, that it was always about a collective effort among blacks and whites to move this forward. Yet we see surveys here in Montgomery, and as I said, if you look across this country, there does not seem to be that coupling, as I think many of those on the front line of the civil rights movement had hoped for. Can we look to a stronger nation if, in fact, this doesn't happen?

Mr. BEATTY: Well, now that's a difficult question. I think the answer is no, that the nation is going to be stronger if we can couple and come together. I think that, if I may pick up also on something that Ms. Lloyd said and also the Reverend Thurman said, I think that what we have to address now--we have laid the groundwork, but what we have to address now is this group, and the 30 percent interests me, because that probably, if we look at the distribution of income, represents the very low end, and something more needs to be done in that area to help the people get up out of the poverty that they're in. And that has not changed from the time of the '50s, those percentages. So I don't--I'm not surprised by that at all. I think there needs to be a different bent, a turn here.

GORDON: So the idea, Wanda, that generationally we have seen perhaps the granddaughters and -sons of those who were oppressed in 1955 and had to sit in the back of the bus, their condition--their real condition has not changed much?

Ms. LLOYD: I think that if one is oppressed, all are oppressed. I think a lot of us feel that way, and while many of us are considered middle class and have economic advantages and educational advantages, knowing that there are other who are oppressed--when we look back at the video that we saw after Hurricane Katrina, you know, that paints a picture broader than anything you could ever think about or know about, that there are still people that, for whatever reason, could not get out of a situation because they didn't have the economic means to get there. And, you know, I heard someone on TV the other day, a white woman who was at one of the sessions with the--Mayor Nagin, talking about how we're all, you know, hurting now, but the difference between that woman and others was that she was not in the Civic Center, she was not in the Dome, and she was able to get out, but she still has nowhere to live. She still has no home and no job.

GORDON: Yeah. Well, hope springs eternal, and we hope that before too long, we all get it right. Wanda Lloyd, executive editor at the Montgomery Advertiser, Reverend Michael Thurman, pastor of Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, and Fred Beatty, chairman of the Department of History and Social Science here at Troy University in Montgomery, Alabama, I thank you all for joining us. Appreciate it.

Rev. THURMAN: Thank you, Ed.

GORDON: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.