The House That Racism Built | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The House That Racism Built

It's been another one of those weeks the media love in Jacktown: lots of screaming and finger-pointing and accusations of someone else, inevitably of a different race from the accuser, being "a racist."

I'm talking, of course, about the controversial stops Dr. Imari Obadele made to City Hall last week. Obadele started and was president of the RNA—the Republic of New Afrika—a black-power group founded in response to race violence and discrimination. The group believed that blacks should go live among themselves and take care of each other. Most confounding to many white folks, the group also believed that blacks should be able to arm themselves and fight back if "attacked" by representatives of a government they believed were out to get them.

In August 1971, the FBI and the Jackson Police Department raided the RNA "compound" on Lewis Street to serve four warrants, one a murder warrant for someone who had just arrived from Detroit, the others for misdemeanors. The RNA fought back; and Lt. William Louis Skinner, JPD's main liaison with the FBI, was killed in the gun battle. The police say that Obadele, who wasn't in the house at the time, conspired to kill Skinner because he had planned how RNA members would fight back in such a raid and had warned police not to "attack." RNA supporters say the FBI used an informant to "place" the murder fugitive to help facilitate their "attack" on RNA. Murder charges against Obadele were dropped, but he served five years for conspiracy. After prison, he became a leader in the movement for slavery reparations and is an academic who has taught at several colleges.

Last Tuesday, Obadele first talked to the Council briefly about reparations and then as part of a black history panel there. Much outrage ensued—including from many smart, compassionate people—aimed directly at one of Jackson's most resolute agitators: Councilman Kenneth Stokes. The outcry has been near deafening: Stokes didn't have the right to invite Obadele; Stokes was a racist; both should be condemned by every decent person in town. The visit was a slight to the Skinner family.

But that outcry was only half of what I heard from readers and other smart, compassionate Jacksonians—many of them black. This contingent thinks that Obadele is part of Jackson's history, has done his time and should be allowed to speak about a history that very few people, especially younger ones, understand at all. Many of them believe, or could easily believe, that Obadele was framed by the FBI and the police—after all, they were doing this across the country that year to break apart the Black Power movement. They were using informants; they were even killing black activists—all undisputed facts.

After all, this side would quickly add, two black students were killed by police at Jackson State mere months before the RNA raid—and nothing was ever done about it. They would tell you that it was a war zone here then, between the government and blacks who wanted rights, not to mention those who openly armed themselves. The most extreme of this contingent say that it is racist to even suggest that Obadele should not be allowed to speak.

Wow. Who's right? Ultimately, I'm fairly confident that both sides share some blame. And both sides deserve some compassion. Certainly I am sympathetic for Skinner's family; I've lost a father and a stepfather I loved dearly, and neither were perfect, and that doesn't affect your love for them. I have no real way of knowing whether Skinner was a good guy when it came to race issues; frankly, most white men in the state and in law enforcement here during that era weren't. They were victims, too, of a horrible game played here since slavery: the drive to keep black people down and white supremacy in place. Even the ones who believed better did not step up and help stop the madness. Perhaps because of where I grew up—and the resulting confusion from loving family members even if they were racists—I feel compassion for people who get caught up in a system and don't know how, or that they should, disentangle themselves, or help stop the madness.

But I also feel compassion for black "separatists"—the descendants of generations of slavery and Jim Crow who got so fed up with the way their people had been treated that they thought they had to barricade themselves inside a house and demand their own land so they could get away from their oppressors (much like members of white militias and separatist groups today). They seemed to believe weapons were the only way to keep white bigots at bay. They were wrong, of course, as this case tragically proved. But what a house racism built.

So I am trying to straddle this gulf that last week's shouting match—fanned by the media and folks who think it can help them win local office—may widen. Good people on both "sides" are pointing at the other, as newspaper columnists try to use the case to sell papers, defeat mayors and draw nonsensical analogies with Klansmen. But it doesn't have to be this way. We can hold two thoughts at once; we can see the faults in different sides, even as we mourn their losses. This isn't an either-or game.

In Eric Stringfellow's Clarion-Ledger column Sunday, he wrote that the mayor's Human Relations Council is talking about a "Truth & Reconciliation Commission" here in Jackson. This could be a community-wide dialogue in a non-judicial setting, such as in South Africa after apartheid. The idea is not to prosecute anyone; it is to tell the truth, so that we can actually get around to reconciling our differences.

The Obadele dust-up is the perfect opportunity for us. We should bring different players who are still alive to the table. Let's have a real conversation—whether in City Hall or not—rather than just call people names. But it's OK if the dialogue gets emotional, if someone cries or even yells a little. Our history wasn't easy—nor will be facing it.

Read the full statement by the Human Relations Council here. Please post your thoughts about a Truth & Reconciliation Commission below.

Previous Comments

ID
69658
Comment

I don't know enough about the background of the RNA and the Jackson raid to discuss that (yet), but the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Mississippi (not just Jackson) is very appealing. There are other areas, cities, etc. in the United States who are using this pattern to begin some honest talks and evaluations. I don't know how successful they are yet, and perhaps none of them are old enough to gauge it, but we have to start somewhere. Mr. Stringfellow is to be commended for bringing this idea up. I know there are naysayers who think we ought to just try and bury everything in this state's past, but those are generally the people with a belief that a good cover-up beats a messy solution any day. They'll do anything to keep from getting mud on their own boots or dirt on their hands; just don't bother them or stress them. I'm glad the Jackson Free Press is here to open conversations and to bring the need for constructive dialogue to the attention of the people of this state!

Author
C.W.
Date
2005-02-09T21:36:51-06:00
ID
69659
Comment

I agree, C.W.; it's an important idea that, undoubtedly, many people will resist. But that doesn't matter. It still needs to happen. I actually first got wind of the idea from Dave Dennis a few weeks ago, and have been thinking about it ever since. He said Ron Mason is behind the idea as well. Then this Obadele mess came up, revealing the many levels of ignorance about our history (and the true awfulness of local media), and I was planning to write a column calling for a Truth & Reconciliation Commission here. Then I saw Eric's column Sunday, saying that the Human Relations Council is talking about it and nearly cheered. With so many different segments of the community talking about the need for one all at the same time, and somewhat separately from each other, it shows that it is an idea for our time. I'm going to volunteer to do everything I can to make it happen. Hell, if nobody else will organize it, the JFP will find a big room, put out the word and get people talking. But it sounds like it won't come to that. I think we're going to be able to get a real coalition going on this. I'll keep you posted as it develops. I was just reading about the Truth & Reconcilation Commission in Greensboro, N.C. (you know, where the sit-in movement started). There, the Klan and a bunch of neo-Nazis drove into a black neighborhood just *25 years ago* and shot up a group of protesters. The Commission there is trying to get at the truth of what happened. There, though, the mayor is against it. Hopefully, here the mayor will support it. Agreed that it would be good statewide. It might be good to start with a case like Obadele right here in Jackson where there are gray areas to explore on both sides to get the most people to the table, and then spread it out from there. At least that's my initial thinking. I'm open to ideas on it, though.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2005-02-09T21:51:59-06:00
ID
69660
Comment

FYI, the excerpt from the Mandate for the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission: †"The passage of time alone cannot bring closure, nor resolve feelings of guilt and lingering trauma for those impacted by the events of November 3rd, 1979. Nor can there be any genuine healing for the city of Greensboro, unless the truth surrounding these events is honestly confronted, the suffering fully acknowledged, accountability established, and forgiveness and reconciliation facilitated."

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2005-02-09T21:52:32-06:00
ID
69661
Comment

I would REALLY love to hear what people out there think of having a "Truth & Reconcilation Commission" here in Jackson and/or Mississippi. Ideas? Concerns? Suggestions?

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2005-02-10T11:09:07-06:00
ID
69662
Comment

I just came across a reference to the South African truth and reconciliation commission in a book I'm reading which addresses christian church and homosexuality, interestingly enough. On the face of it, it's a great idea - but I don't know squat about how to pull something like this off. Seems to me that the first step is really just telling stories - there's so much that happened in Jackson that I don't know about, and I grew up here. At the very least, it seems like we should be talking to the people who fought on the front lines while they are still alive.

Author
kate
Date
2005-02-10T11:50:41-06:00
ID
69663
Comment

Eric Stringfellow wrote again today about the Commission; it's good to see one columnist over there halfway making sense. Agnew, Salter andóI'm sad to sayóHampton didn't do a thing to help move this discussion forward. Stringfellow writes today: The best metaphor for Jackson's race woes is the visit by Obadele, the Republic of New Africa's president when the nationalist group engaged police officers and FBI agents in a deadly 1971 shootout. His presence forced the city to look back. This project could indicate whether Jackson ó and some of its players ó want to make peace with the past.[...] "We are aware that much of our past needs to be revisited in order to deal with the lingering hurt and bitterness that lies smoldering just beneath the surface," said the council, chaired by Bishops Ronnie Crudup and Duncan Gray. "Yet we know that if the revisiting is to bring further progress, it must be done in an environment of healing, reconciliation and understanding." [...] Creating an environment of healing, reconciliation and understanding will be impossible without resources, a commitment to persevere and ordinary people supporting the endeavor. Let's demand the council gets adequate funding and authority, and especially community support. This opportunity will not surface for a while. How this process is structured and its findings could be far reaching. We can't fumble.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2005-02-10T12:14:30-06:00
ID
69664
Comment

Here's an interesting quote from the Web site of South Africa's "Truth & Reconcilation Commission" Web site: The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up by the Government of National Unity to help deal with what happened under apartheid. The conflict during this period resulted in violence and human rights abuses from all sides. No section of society escaped these abuses.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2005-02-10T22:24:08-06:00
ID
69665
Comment

Dr. Hilliard Lackey has an interesting viewpoint on the Obadele 'fracas.' You can read it at: http://www.mississippipolitical.com/truth.htm

Author
C.W.
Date
2005-02-15T11:44:54-06:00

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