From “Black Problem” to “White Problem”

My ministry with the Conference staff demanded “work-aholic” attention, and thrust me into experiences which changed me forever. There my “ease” with life was shaken , particularly as I observed and gradually began to name “racism” and “sexism”.

Part of my work with high school youth engaged me in “executive” capacity to a youth council which was elected each year at a statewide conference. A few black youngsters from Roxbury were active on the council, and they became my teachers!
Gradually, as trust developed between us, they shared with me their experiences in the city and with youth from the suburban churches. To those young women and men I owe immense gratitude. Wherever each of them is today, their influence is with me still.

Benevolent concern and a desire to be “helpful” to the conditions in what many called the “inner city”, led suburban “liberals” in suburban “liberal” churches to organize tours of Roxbury, to lead groups of youth into the city to paint, to clean, to do “work jobs” in the black churches. I was involved in encouraging and facilitating those efforts.
UNTIL my new young friends began to share how they felt about the “do-gooders” who came into the city, and then retreated to suburban places they were sure were superior. This was during the early 60’s, when discontent was growing in the area, and these young friends helped me to understand that. My new Roxbury friends told me that they felt like “animals in a zoo”, on view for a parade of passers, whose concern was fleeting, ignorant and misplaced.

A culminating event for me, was a week-long conference of youth leaders, interrupted one evening by one of the few black young women, who plainly labeled our white staff as racists. Her brilliant anger demanded listening, and that was another beginning of learning for me. Were she alive today, I would much like to tell her what she started. It took a while for my ears to be unstopped, to hear with mind/heart. But there it was, the “no longer at ease here” at work in my soul.

Those young black friends schooled me in many ways, and one, Valerie Russell, became a friend until her death a few years ago. Later, as Boston moved into the beginnings of a school desegregation struggle, Valerie was on the staff at the Blue Hill Christian Center, where Virgil Wood was pastor. Virgil was Dr. King’s spokesman in Boston, for the Southern Christian Leadership Council, and watching him, mostly through Valerie’s eyes, became the next “course” in racism for me.

A major learning experience came when Virgil was arrested for “disturbing the peace” at a ceremony, (maybe a graduation?) in one of the black schools. School Committee Chairman, Louise Day Hicks, had been told by the community that she was not welcome, but she appeared anyway. Virgil interrupted her, took the microphone away from her, and for that was arrested, charged with disturbing the peace. The news came to me when I was driving home at night from a speaking engagement somewhere in the state, with the radio on. A double reaction is one I still can feel. I blurted toward the radio: “Oh my god, Virgil, why did you do that?”; then a second thought pushed that one away: “Virgil, why didn’t you do that long ago?”

Virgil’s act that evening was a message for my heart. He was saying to me and to any whites from any suburb that we were welcome in the black community only when invited and when we came on their terms. The “beneficent”, “helping”, “condescending” attitudes which my participation invoked, were not acceptable. I wanted to respond, but did not know what to do. A phone conversation with Valerie, and she advised me to simply attend the court hearing the next morning, to sit with her, and that would be all that was necessary. I joined Val, and heard the brilliant defense offered by the black community. They had lined up a number of people who each came before the court and said that Dr. Wood had not disturbed the peace, but that Mrs. Hicks had!

The message of the evening became a primary one. I was learning again of the smoldering anger in the black community. I was also learning that I was part of an institution, well-intentioned in its leadership, perpetuating relationships of power which made certain the continuation of the very forces which created the human frustration and anger I saw emerging in the city. It began the process which pointed me toward my own white community as the place where work needed to be done. Later I would articulate racism as a “white problem”, originating in and perpetuated by white people in white settings. It sounds so easy to say now, but it was for me a HUGE lesson.

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