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Reflections on Race Relations

Not much has changed . . .

I was a child during the 1960’s. Although I don’t remember much of my childhood I do remember the cultural turbulence of those days. I remember race riots in my own city, and I remember being in the car with my father when he inadvertently drove into a part of our city that had been the site of race rioting the day before. I didn’t understand what I was seeing, but I was afraid.

I remember losing some great men, but at the time didn’t understand why they were great – President John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy – and I remember where I was when I learned of each of their deaths. I was just a child and really didn’t appreciate the significance of the things I was witnessing.

I remember front-page photos of police officers with dogs confronting black protesters and civil rights leaders marching through the streets arm-in-arm. Still, I didn’t understand, but I was afraid. And I remember a great aunt from Shelbyville, Kentucky showing me a photo of a black man hanging from a railroad bridge, a bridge we crossed whenever we visited her, less than a block from her home. I didn’t understand then, and I don’t understand now, but whenever I drive through Shelbyville, Kentucky that image haunts me.

The late 60’s and early 70’s were much different for me. The civil rights struggle was still evident, but much of it was clouded by a preoccupation with Vietnam. It was during these years that I began to feel a sense of guilt about the racism that was so much a part of our culture.

I remember 1977. I had just graduated from the police academy, been issued riot gear and posted on Dixie Highway in anticipation of white people rioting against court-ordered busing to integrate local schools. Most of my fellow officers had faced this challenge in the preceding couple of years, and some had been injured by rioters. I really didn’t know if court-ordered busing was going to change anything, but I still felt guilty and I was still afraid.

In the early 80’s I was trying to complete my bachelor’s degree and needed to write a paper for a sociology class. Still trying to understand the culture of racism, I made contact with a local woman named Ann Braden who was deeply involved in the civil rights movement. I wanted to interview her for my project to learn more about the things she and her husband, Carl, had faced as white people involved in the fight for racial equality.

Ann and Carl Braden had, some years earlier, purchased a home in Shively, Kentucky for the sole purpose of reselling it to a black family who had been refused the opportunity to buy in this particular suburb because of the color of their skin. As a result, Ann and Carl’s own home was attacked, crosses were burned in their yard, and the new home of the black family was destroyed. The Braden’s were labeled communists and Carl Braden was charged with, and convicted of sedition.

I found Ann to be delightful and eager to share her story with a young police officer and student. But I left her home that day with a renewed sense of guilt, not for anything I had personally done, but for the sad history of the culture of racism.

Now I find myself in a season of life that allows more time for reflection. I still feel some guilt and some fear. The more I continue to struggle to understand the phenomenon of racism the more I must face the fact that I’ve done nothing to make things better. There is so much work to be done, so many open and candid conversations to have, and so many prayers to be lifted up.

It is time to begin, for the sake of my children and grandchildren, and yours . . . and for the glory of God.

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