Years ago the commencement speaker at my graduation from Wiley College in Marshall was James Farmer, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and organizer of the very first Freedom Ride in 1961. Following the ceremony, he shook my hand and said, “It’s your turn now to go out and change the world.”
Like other Civil Rights leaders of the era, Farmer was a faith leader: He had earned a Divinity degree from Howard University. He knew that none of us do this alone. Our faith communities are crucial to achieving real and lasting change.
That’s what’s missing in the current crisis. If we wish to rebuild trust between minority communities, the police and our justice system as a whole, our faith leaders need a seat at the table, too. They have the standing with both sides of the protests — with the aggrieved men and women, youths and senior citizens, as well as with our municipal officials who are the gatekeepers for change.
The pain is real. We have to take it seriously. The death of George Floyd, at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, is a trauma we all feel.
In my own life, I’ve experienced the shame and degradation of mistreatment at the hands of police. One day in 1997, for example, when I was serving as chief of staff for a Houston City Council member, I was on my way to work at City Hall when I was pulled over by a police officer, ostensibly for not wearing a seatbelt.
The officer ordered me out of the car. I complied. And then he ordered me down onto the ground. He didn’t care that I was wearing a suit, or that I was on my way to work. “On the ground!” Again, I complied — because I wished to give him no cause to escalate the situation. Down in the dirt, I focused on just getting out of this alive. After a few minutes, he sent me on my way, without even a ticket.
Yet at other times, I have been glad to see the police. There have been violent outbreaks in my community in which the police came and restored peace and order. That’s what most police officers do. But there are also police officers who don’t respect their professions.
The difference between those officers — the one who stopped me and ordered me to the ground, and the ones who restored order and protected me and my community — is a commitment to service. It’s professionalism. And it’s accountability.
Rebuilding trust will mean coming together to establish expectations of accountability. It will mean building bridges, not barricades. Our faith leaders are uniquely positioned to help us build those bridges. They can help both sides move from protest and posturing to policy — to make reforms, not merely exchange rhetoric.
As James Farmer observed of the early Civil Rights movement, success in this endeavor is glorious. “The old and the young, the white and the black all managed to step outside of themselves to find something to believe in.”
We can reach that mountaintop again — but we can only do so together.