By Ford Rowan | January 10, 2022

Racism has infected every area where European colonists subdued native populations and it has fueled slavery. Racist Apartheid oppressed Black people for generations in South Africa. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a leader in addressing racism not only in his own country, but as an example of what might be done in the American South.

My memory of Archbishop Desmond Tutu will always be intertwined with my respect for the first African American Episcopal bishop of Maryland, Eugene Sutton. That is because Tutu visited Baltimore as a celebration of black progress in the US and Sutton’s election as bishop.

During his visit a dozen years ago, I asked Tutu about the Truth and Reconciliation program he had championed in South Africa. The Truth and Reconciliation process was widely viewed as preventing mass violence even though there were serious outbreaks and deaths in South Africa.

Bishop Sutton was forming an initiative here and calling it the Truth and Reconciliation process, so I was interested in lessons Tutu learned from his own efforts. We were scheduled to visit Tutu in South Africa last year, but the pandemic forced cancellation of that trip.

Truth, Tutu said in our first conversation in Baltimore, was key to avoiding massive bloodshed in South Africa. Reconciliation would take a lot longer, he acknowledged. Truth was purchased with amnesty for white officials who testified publicly about crimes against humanity. Whites had to listen to the laments of Black victims. The foundation of his efforts was built on truth.

I was interested in how Tutu approached this problem because I grew up in a racist society. I was born in Texas, grew up in New Orleans, and was educated in North Carolina. As a news reporter, I covered civil rights marches in Louisiana and Mississippi and the prosecution of white defendants accused of killing protestors. No one had made the perpetrators in the South listen to those they had tormented. Traumatic memories persisted across generations. In 2021, white politicians in the South still seek to silence the teaching of such things as Critical Race Theory.

As a young reporter, I covered the integration of the University of Mississippi and the riots that were triggered by white students when a black man, James Meredith, was admitted by a federal court order. What I did not know then, but learned much later, was that Meredith and I are related.

We were both part Choctaw. The tribe, before it was forcibly removed to Oklahoma, owned large areas of Mississippi. The tribe was matrilineal, and the women had leadership roles. There was open intermarriage between Choctaw women and the white men who settled in the area and between Choctaw men and the black women who escaped slavery in New Orleans.

Meredith will always be labeled a Black person, but he was proud of his Choctaw roots. In his autobiography, he traced his ancestry back to his great grandfather who married an African princess brought to Mississippi by the French as a slave. Meredith’s great grandfather, Sam Cobb, was a leader in the tribe. By the time of the Civil War, at least 60% were mixed with Black blood.

My Choctaw ancestors trace back to Greenwood Leflore, the chief who eventually signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which forced most of the tribe onto the Trail of Tears and eventually to a reservation in Oklahoma. Cobb opposed the treaty and his son helped many of the Choctaws, including the Meredith family, hide in the woods, thereby avoiding being removed from their lands.

James Meredith grew up in a place where the color of one’s skin determined one’s status. He was a second-class citizen in the Jim Crow South. “His ancestors were the creators, benefactors, and victims of white supremacy,” Meredith Coleman McGee writes in James Meredith: Warrior and the American Society That Created Him; “His bloodline included African, Choctaw, English and Scottish Irish.”

Unfortunately, white Southerners linked identity to color. Mixed blood notwithstanding, large group Identify was based on the color of one’s skin. I remember being told by a fourth-grade teacher that one drop of black blood in a person would make him 100% black and deemed inferior by whites. Persons of mixed race, like James Meredith, were considered troublemakers by many whites. When he was a student at Ole Miss, he was regularly denounced with the N-word.

Large group identity is often bolstered by disliking and criticizing “the other,” a group deemed different. For some of my friends, this amounts to “we are not like fanatical Muslims; we are not like crafty Jews; we are not like low-life rioters; we are not like evil tycoons.” Whether the stereotypes are true or not seems irrelevant; one group’s labeling the other in these stereotyped ways serves the purpose of cementing the identity of one’s own large group. And, the need for an adversary, as Vamik Volkan has noted in his most recent book on Large Group Psychology, sometimes includes “ruin(ing) the chances of the enemy in an activity in which supremacy is being sought.”

Thirteen years ago, when I met Tutu, I was interested in how the oppressive system in South Africa was like (or different than) the oppressive system in the American South. Race was the dividing line for group identities. But Tutu shared a worldview called Ubuntu which appealed for the peaceful cohabitation of people of different identities. Ubuntu was central to Tutu’s own sense of identity and community.

What Tutu believed was that peaceful transition to end oppression required large doses of truth telling. Large group identities are so strong that communication – honest dialogue – is key to reconciliation. No progress could be made without recognizing oppression and talking about it.

In his own country, Tutu suggested that Ubuntu sought synthesis while Americans preferred analysis. Ubuntu sought stronger community while Americans craved individualism. Ubuntu recognizes when someone has wronged you, Tutu said, but “what you long for is not revenge,” but rather “a healing of relationships” (quotes are from Michael Battle’s book, Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu).

In the United States in the early 1980s, Tutu said “blood became thicker than water. You really can’t trust whites.” He feared that in a crunch, “whites will stick by their fellow whites.” What was needed in the US was a stronger sense of faith in transformation and redeemed identities. Tutu’s religious faith prompted him to have charity toward those whites who oppressed Black people.

I wanted to ask him if his views about American racism had changed, so I jumped at the opportunity to accompany Bishop Sutton to South Africa. I wrote down a question: Do you still think American whites will stick with whites and oppose racial reconciliation? Upon reflection, I realized I was asking for an analytical response. Knowing he preferred synthesis over analysis, I reframed the question: What can help American whites reconcile with those they have oppressed?

COVID-19 forced me to cancel the trip to visit Tutu in South Africa. Last night I dreamed that I was with Tutu, and Greenwood Leflore and Sam Cobb were there too. I asked my question and eagerly awaited Tutu’s response. THE ALARM CLOCK WENT OFF. Damn, I thought, I will never get an answer.

After a cup of coffee, I realized he had already given an answer. It was what he did with his whole life. Retribution was a dead end. Facing the truth was essential. He called for a harmony of different voices. Dialogue would help. Only reconciliation would lead to justice. Desmond Tutu was under no illusions that it would be easy, but he showed us the way.