Rap, Race and Reparations
Fisk University’s Race Relations Institute is continuing its long legacy of involving itself in the day’s most pressing issues facing Blacks around the world.
By David Hefner
The news came in mid-December. Kemba Smith, the 23-year-old college student sentenced in 1995 on cocaine trafficking charges for her association with a drug-dealing boyfriend, was granted a presidential pardon. Like many other activists and organizations, the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University had lobbied the White House for the pardon, sending letters and sponsoring lectures and conferences at Fisk about Smith’s plight. To many, including institute director Dr. Ray Winbush, Smith had become a symbol of flawed mandatory sentencing laws.
At trial, Smith pleaded guilty and the Hampton University student, who had no prior record, was handed a 24 1/2-year prison sentence without the possibility of parole. Smith’s boyfriend, a drug kingpin wanted by the FBI for running an East Coast drug ring, was killed prior to her trial.
But nearly six years later, President Bill Clinton gave Smith her freedom.
“Dr. Winbush wrote letters and encouraged others from the institute and community to write letters to the president on Kemba’s behalf,” says Smith’s father, William A. Smith. “Dr. Winbush also had a great influence on getting others involved who could make a difference, such as his associates or colleagues who were speakers at conferences or heads of organizations. It is without question that all of these efforts helped a great deal in Kemba’s release.”
Smith’s pardon is just one example of the institute’s successful efforts. The institute involves itself in real battles, ones that have definite outcomes, which affect Blacks around the world.
Another example is the institute’s involvement in the September election of James Perkins, the first Black mayor of Selma, Ala. On Election Day, Winbush and institute program director Naomi Tutu, daughter of Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, sponsored a trip in which 26 volunteers traveled from Nashville to Selma to help transport African American voters to the polls. In the end, Perkins defeated incumbent Selma mayor Joe Smitherman, the former segregationist who had been mayor since “Bloody Sunday,” the 1965 Montgomery-to-Selma march in which 600 peaceful protesters were attacked by state police. Among the protesters attacked and nearly killed was U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., then a Fisk University student.
“We took people out to the polls, made sure people weren’t intimidated and got out the Black vote,” Winbush says of the Selma effort. “I guess it was a continuation of the legacy of John Lewis, another Fisk graduate, who got beat upside his head during Bloody Sunday in 1965. So I guess that’s what the institute does: We get on the ground and cut through some stuff.”
The institute’s latest and perhaps most ambitious ground attack is its advocacy for reparations, the subject of a daylong conference in February the organization sponsored at Fisk. The institute publicly supports a longstanding bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in Congress to study whether reparations should be paid to the descendants of formerly enslaved Black Americans. Conyers participated in the conference on reparations.
The institute also supports the high-powered legal team recently assembled to sue the U.S. government for reparations. The legal team includes Johnnie Cochran, Florida attorney Willie Gary and Harvard University law professor Charles Ogletree. Randall Robinson, the head of TransAfrica who was instrumental in national measures that eventually dismantled South Africa’s apartheid regime, helped assemble the legal team. Robinson authored The Debt, which outlines a case for why and in what form reparations are needed.
But the Race Relations Institute isn’t stopping at the national level. In November, the organization was classified as a nongovernment organization by the United Nations, allowing it to lobby U.N. officials.
Last month, Winbush traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, and South America for U.N. conferences in which he helped African nations craft a proposal that would categorize American slavery and the colonization of Africa as a “high crime against humanity.” Such a status, Winbush says, could force the American and European governments to pay reparations to African nations. African leaders are pushing to get the proposal adopted by the United Nations during its upcoming “World Conference Against Racism,” held in August in Durban, South Africa.
“Reparations is going to be the most important subject that Black folk have talked about collectively since the civil rights era,” says Winbush, who is editing a book, due out this summer, titled The Reparations Reader, published by HarperCollins. “Reparations used to be a peripheral issue. Now it’s center stage. And we plan on being right there. We plan on being at the table. We see ourselves as a Camp David in discussing this subject.”
The Race Relations Institute combines advocacy, research and racial-tolerance training in its attempt to rid America of its nearly 400-year-old race problem. With an annual budget of $300,000 and a staff of only four, it has managed to conduct racial-tolerance training for such federal agencies as the Department of Justice, the Department of Labor and the U.S. Army.
Founded in 1942 by Charles S. Johnson, its mission is to eradicate White supremacy, which Winbush refers to as a global system in which Whites are perceived to be superior to other races.
In so doing, the institute takes a simple and seemingly benign formula — conferences and race-tolerance dialogues — and centers them around issues that illustrate perceived racial injustices, such as the burning of Black churches, the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Kemba Smith’s prison sentence.
During such conferences, Winbush often brings together policy-makers, scholars, entertainers and grass-roots activists. Some of the participants have included historian Dr. John Hope Franklin, political science professor Andrew Hacker, actor James Earl Jones, rapper Chuck D, and social activists Dick Gregory and Angela Davis. The conferences do not only generate dialogue, but also help link various people and groups together, what Winbush calls “real networking.”
And throughout the year, the institute’s staff stays in contact with conference participants and continues its advocacy charge. A few years ago, Davis and Winbush addressed the European Parliament regarding ending the death penalty.
“The Race Relations Institute has an important part in at least an attempt to bring some clarity and focus to the (race) issue, both on a local, national and, the new phenomenon, an international level,” says Fisk president Dr. John Smith, who recently announced his resignation. “It also has an interdisciplinary perspective, because it involves all aspects of our society: public policy, social science, law, psychology — you name it. I think a university such as Fisk can bring to bear all of those various disciplines and aspects of our society that can perhaps make a small dent in this sort of egregious phenomenon called racism that seems to live with us day in and day out.”
The institute held a three-day “Rap and Race” conference last month in which hip-hop artists Erykah Badu and Goodie Mob interfaced with activists and scholars such as publisher and poet Haki Madhubuti and psychiatrist Frances Cress Welsing. Welsing is most known for her book The Isis Papers, which argues that most creations in American and European societies — including sports — are subconscious indicators that Whites fear Blacks because they carry dominant genes.
Winbush says he got the artists and activists together in part to help influence the messages in hip-hop music — to make it more political.
“We don’t know what will come out of it, but we’ve never seen this many scholars with rap artists,” Winbush says.
The institute’s advocacy for reparations is a welcomed addition among those who have championed the cause for many years. Its affiliation with a university sends a symbolic message that the issue of reparations has hit college campuses around the country, some say. And the recent highly publicized student protest at Brown University regarding an anti-reparations ad, which ran in the student newspaper, is perhaps an indication of how valuable and volatile the debate will be at the academic level.
Conyers, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee whose reparations bill has languished in committee for more than a decade, applauded the institute for sponsoring the February conference that brought together activists, legal scholars and lawmakers.
Adjoa Aiyetoro, chair of the litigation committee for the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, also participated in the conference.
N’COBRA has been advocating for reparations since 1987 and has also been brought into the new legal team with Cochran and others. Other conference participants included Conrad Worrill, president of the National Black United Front; Jon Van Dyke, law professor at the University of Hawaii who has written extensively about reparations; and Luvoyo Ndemeni, counsel of the South African Permanent Mission to the United Nations.
“I thought it was excellent,” Aiyetoro says of the conference. “One of the things that I was very pleased with is the institute brought to the table people who had not historically come to the table. Bringing people from various communities that had not been weighing in on the issue will help lend support to it.”
Within the next two months, Aiyetoro says N’COBRA is planning to file a lawsuit against the U.S. government and some private corporations for reparations on behalf of African Americans. She says the lawsuit will be filed in a U.S. District Court but would not say which one.
“There is no doubt that we are owed a great deal for the labor and the deaths that we’ve given to this country,” Madhubuti said following the “Rap and Race” conference. “I have a lot of respect for Fisk University for allowing these kinds of really revolutionary ideas to really be brought to a campus like this and discussed and debated.”
And after dialogue and debate comes action.
“Any institute that is based on race relations and racism cannot simply be a research institute or an academic institute,” says Tutu, who has been program director for two years. “(Advocacy) is one of our core issues…That kind of work has to be a part of an institute, whether it’s a race relations institute at an academic institution or whether it’s housed in a community. Because our work is about real things.”
Winbush and Tutu, while attending the upcoming “World Conference Against Racism,” will be behind the scenes trying to ensure that proposals do not become too watered down. The reparations proposal by the African nations, which Winbush says is supported by many Asian and some European governments, is one measure that he and Tutu will be watching carefully.
“The United States and Europe have agreed to do debt relief because that’s an issue of charity and taking them off the hook,” Winbush says. “The demand for reparations, however, is a justice issue and they don’t want to deal with the justice issue.
“I think we’re successful because people see us doing stuff rather than just talking about stuff and getting nothing done. We’re like a racial SWAT team.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com