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Resurrecting Fisk’s Race Relations Institute: with $4 million in grants, director Raymond Winbush says, “We’re going to do something old” – Fisk University

Since taking over Fisk University’s Race Relations Institute two
years ago, Dr. Raymond Winbush has been aggressive about revitalizing
the once-prominent institute and resuscitating its showpiece — an
annual summer seminar which died sixteen years ago.

When former Fisk President Henry Ponder lured Winbush from his post
as professor and director of the Black Cultural Center at Vanderbilt
University, Fisk’s institute had no director, no budget and few
programs. Today, bolstered by more than $4 million in private and
corporate grants and the renewed commitment from Fisk officials, the
fifty-five-year-old institute is making a comeback.

Winbush is euphoric about the resurrection of the institute and
mesmerized by the thought of unleashing it onto a society he says is
more racially hostile than when it began. In 1942, the United States
was allied with most of Europe in an attempt to dismantle Adolph
Hitler’s Nazi regime and its racial-superiority philosophy. That was
the same year that Charles Spurgeon Johnson, Fisk’s first African
American president, created the Race Relations Institute to address
divisions among racial, religious and ethnic groups.

The Tennessee campus–which once courted Fannie Lou Hamer, Thurgood
Marshall, A. Philip Randolph and Hubert Humphrey–will convene the
institute’s thirty-fourth conference July 8-13, the first major
conference since 1983.

“We’re inviting a lot of people,” Winbush boasts.

Among the 300 people invited are: President Bill Clinton; Ralph
Reed, former president of the Christian Coalition; Harry Allen, a
member of the rap group Public Enemy; Lerone Bennett Jr., editor of
Ebony Magazine, and 1996 Republican presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan.

“We want them to come to Fisk to discuss America’s most troubling
problem — which is race — just the way Johnson did it,” says Winbush.

Decades ago, according to Winbush, “People were heating a path to
the door of the Race Relations Institute.” For three weeks, talks among
whites, Blacks, Jews, preachers, politicians, parents, scientists,
students and others dominated the days. Picnics on the lawn filled the
nights Race was on everyone’s lips

“People felt like they could provide sound solutions for what was
at that time and still is today one of America’s greatest problems,”
says Winbush.

What Johnson didn’t do, Winhush says, was to take what he calls the
“Kumbaya” approach that is currently popular with forums on race
relations — plenty of hugging, crying and lamenting of the past.
Johnson, who headed Fisk’s Social Science Department in the early
1940s, is credited with crafting the standard methodology for national
dialogues on race. He mounted discussions on issues of economics,
education, government policy, housing, employment and semantics. Then
he drafted strategies for change, such as training Black veterans
returning from the war, and bringing an end to segregation in public
schools, the armed forces and in organizations like the League of Women

“Rather than say we are going to do something new, we’re going to
do something old.” says Winhush. “We’re going to take what Charles
Johnson did — take the model — and adapt it for the twenty-first

Even as he plots the rebirth of the institute and the return to its
original mission, more than a half century later, the institute remains
the only–according to Winbush–think tank devoted to racial issues
housed at an HBCU.

“In 1942 when Charles Johnson founded the Race Relations Institute
white institutions were the [only] ones studying race. Now in 1997,
fifty-five years later, no Black institution is studying race other
than Fisk,” says Winhush in amazement.

A year ago, Howard University pinched off a piece of the race
debate by focusing on Black-Jewish relations when it teamed up with the
American Jewish Committee to publish Common Quest: The magazine of
Black Jewish Relations. Since the magazine’s start Howard, with mixed
success, has attempted to use the publication and the campus as safe
havens for discussing the differences and commonalities between Blacks
and Jews.

Earlier in the semester–in March–a group of Howard students
stormed a class on Black-Jewish relations to protest the involvement of
the Anti-Defamation League in the course taught jointly by professors
from Howard and American University. The weekly course was created in
1994 following a campus speech by Nation of Islam representative Khalid
Muhammed and subsequent charges of anti-Semitism at Howard.

Black-Jewish relations should he part of the dialogue on race, says
Winbush who adds, “The moment it becomes politicized or forced on you,
I have a real problem with that. The Race Relations Institute is not
being forced on anybody.”

A powerful blend of money, mission prestige and personalities has
catapulted programs like Harvard University’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute
for Afro-American Research and Columbia University’s Institute for
Research in African-American Studies to the top of the list of think
tanks devoted to racial issues. But none offer the scope that Fisk’s
institute does, according to Dr. Manning Marable, who ran the Race
Relations Institute from 1983 to 1985. Marable now runs the think tank
at Columbia.

As Fisk — small’ Black and not well-endowed — jockeys for a spot
among the larger and more prestigious institutions, the question of
whether a Black institution has the capability to study race and
society enters the conversation.

“I think a more credible question is whether a white institution
can study race objectively in this culture and really talk about things
the way they are,” Winbush says.

Winbush is emphatic in his belief that a Black
institution–particularly Fisk–can best shape how the nation deals
with race relations. While Fisk has never had think tanks enjoy.
Winbush noted, “We do have the history and the credibility.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, says Dr. Ronald Walters, a professor of
African American studies at the University of Maryland, “The institute
thrived because people were anticipating a social movement. Emotions
and activism were high.”

As a young man in his twenties, Walters attended the Race Relations
Institute’s seminar at Fisk in the summer of 1959. Today, he notes, no
such movement is agitating for change.

“What you do have,” says Walters, “is a pregnant discussion going on about race.”

But that, according to Walters, may not be enough to sustain the
work of the institute or to change the course of race relations.
National seminars on race like the one Fisk will hold this summer are
not new. As an example, Walters points to a series of forums sponsored
by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

“[NEA] did he same thing that Fisk is planning. You didn’t hear
much about them when they taking place. What did they accomplish? asks
Walters. He suggests that instead of the head-on approach, the national
discussion on race should focus on the issue fueling racial injustice
— the economy.

President Clinton in April announced that he plans to launch a race
relations initiative during his second term. His efforts, however, may
not yield the significant accomplishments other U.S. presidents made in
the area of race relations during their administrations. White House
officials said whatever form the Clinton initiative takes–a conference
round-table discussions or a commission–it won’t be designed to
produce new government programs or policies. The purpose, says White
House officials, is to spark a dialogue between the races.

“Lyndon Johnson had it right,” says Walters of the president who,
through federal programs and the passage of civil rights laws, “tried
to enhance the material wealth of Blacks…. Johnson didn’t talk much
about race, but he was concerned with racial equity.”

Whatever forum Clinton chooses, he must include “new and younger
voices,” says Winbush. For starters, he suggests people like rap artist
Sistah Souliah, Congresswoman Maxine Waters and American Indian
Movement founder Russell Means.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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