Michael Gutman: 50 years later, will America heal a single person?

Around the time I was president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, I attended a discussion in the White House East Room on the Third Reconstruction under the leadership of President Andrew Johnson.

On the White House dais that day were Professor Kurt Vonnegut, who chairs the school for creative writing at the College of William and Mary, D. Sean Bell, the unarmed motorist slain by fellow police officers on his wedding day in New York City, and The Reverend Dr. Wesley Wright, a Philadelphia youth who was shot by a security guard, and the victim of two dog attacks at age 9, who is now a college professor of History.

Unlike the American public, the civil rights leaders were able to debate the immaculate conception of our constitutional form of government, how that government is beholden to the will of the people, and, most importantly, how the people can pull it to the left or right.

There were men of wisdom among those seated with me. I am blessed to have been able to befriend each of them. Unfortunately, two of them—Dr. Wright and activist DeRay Mckesson, among others—did not attend the conversation.

Of that group, only Vonnegut, Bell, and I shared two perspectives: Vonnegut argued that a federal Judge was the proper person to ensure that constitutional amendments enjoyed the stricture needed to survive unintended consequences, and Bell argued against such concern as he related his lament that the fear of his assassination increased the value of everyone’s life in New York City.

It is my firm belief that if Vonnegut were alive today, he would have condemned the acquittal of the Chicago police officers who brutally violated the civil rights of both the victim and his family. The verdict gave the green light to police to perpetrate violence based on racial animus. Bell believed that the condition of Chicago was the civil rights crisis I spent my lifetime fighting to right.

DeRay Mckesson declared that the event that day of our discussion was deeply significant, because my friend and Professor Wright’s wife had come to witness the White House event and was deeply moved. This would go on to inspire her to write a book titled Healing America’s Deep Rifts: Thinking From the Existential and Sympathetic.

Throughout my time as president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, I met with some of the people we helped to facilitate in the Women’s Building.

One of the co-founders of Building 20 was Cynthia Robinson. Shortly after I took the position, Robinson helped facilitate the White House discussion on the Third Reconstruction.

I met with Cynthia about three years ago when I flew to Jacksonville, Florida to take part in the 52nd National Peacemakers Conference at Florida A&M University. DeRay also joined me and spoke about my own efforts to do what I could to heal race relations, which were an effort to begin at the beginning.

Since that conference, I watched the progress made by the students who attended the program.

I took another ride to Jacksonville recently to witness the campus of the university that had given me and my wife our start in life; it was a telling moment, because for me, it is hard to imagine a more dangerous place than the vast metropolis of Jacksonville. At an event hosted by its President, Dr. James Ammons, I watched young people of all races come together to connect as peers of the same color.

After the agenda, we all listened as we had done during that historic discussion in the White House East Room 50 years ago.

It reminded me that in 50 years, the targets of our peacemaking efforts will have changed dramatically. But their motivations will likely be as clear as the black and white children we were able to connect with in the meeting. Their hopes and their dreams will be the same.

They will still seek justice in our name. And perhaps they will find it.

But if that is the case, then America will have done nothing more than have pulled back the curtain on what is, but it will not have healed a single person.

We will not have begun to escape the internal demons that began tearing apart our nation through a series of mass shootings, conflagrations, and acts of racial animus.

We will not have begun to heal the deep rifts that created racial strife.

We will simply have changed from the men who sit on that dais 50 years ago to men sitting on the dais today.

Michael Gutman is the Founder and Chairman of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and the Thomas Jefferson House Museum.

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