Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Race in Mississippi usually comes with many tons of baggage and several degrees of heat. Certainly, it's unusual to have the words "race" and "dialogue" on the same page, let alone the same sentence.
Last Thursday, a renewed effort at racial dialogue, led by the University of Mississippi's William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation and the Mississippi Coalition for Racial Justice, kicked off on the north steps of the Mississippi capitol building. Leaders from numerous local houses of worship and an estimated crowd of about 300 Jacksonians gathered to speak and sing for the inaugural event of "The Welcome Table: A Year of Dialogue on Race." The Winter Institute is the result of President Bill Clinton's 1997 "One America: The President's Initiative on Race," which called for grass-roots development of dialogue about race on a nationwide scale.
Ten years later, the Winter Institute continues to make a concerted effort to keep the lines of communication on race open in Mississippi.
"Citizen by citizen, community by community, state by state" people must make an effort to talk to one another, said former Mississippi Governor William Winter, adding that "what we look like doesn't make any difference."
"We are really unrealistic when we talk about race," said Justice James E. Graves of the Mississippi Supreme Court. We don't want to offend, so we're overly cautious or avoid the issue altogether, afraid of "playing the race card," he said.
Mississippi is poised to lead the rest of the country in the conversation, the speakers said, in spite of—or perhaps because of—our state's checkered history of racial divisiveness.
Included in the ceremonies were prayers and calls to worship from Christian, Jewish and Muslim clerics, emphasizing that conversations about race must also consider the power of people's faith traditions. "Church has been used positively and negatively" when it comes to race, said Susan Glisson, director of The Winter Institute in a telephone interview. Glisson said that churches can either be a source for healing or a source of division, but they always have the power to be prophetic. "It's that tradition we're appealing to," she said, along with their power as moral authorities in the community.
"It's always been about being in on what God is up to—what God has always been up to," said Chuck Poole, reverend of the Lifeshare Foundation Community Ministry, referring to the work of creating community and dialogue among all people.
"The Welcome Table" is in the process of scheduling the year's events. Ideas and events can be submitted on their Web site, http://www.welcometable.net The first event on the calendar is the 2007 Civil Rights Education Summit at Ole Miss this week, June 27 and 28.
For additional information, contact the Mississippi Coalition for Racial Justice, c/o William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, University of Mississippi, P.O. Box 1848, University, Miss., 38677, or call 662-915-6734.