Shine the light of racial reconciliation

Ken Woodley | 8/9/2018, 6 a.m.

A light shines in Prince Edward County atop the courthouse where a decision was made 59 years ago to shut down public schools rather than integrate. Classrooms were locked for five years in Massive Resistance to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Wounds in the African-American community were cavernous.

The Light of Reconciliation was dedicated in 2008 and its permanent memorial marker on the Prince Edward County courthouse lawn expresses the county’s “sorrow for closing schools.” The marker also displays these words from the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors: “We grieve for the ways lives were forever changed, for the pain that was caused, and for how those locked doors shuttered opportunities and barricaded the dreams our children had for their own lifetimes; and for all wounds known and unknown.”

With so many plowshares being beaten back into swords of racism in America today, could such a light ever shine in the nation’s capital?

I have a dream that, yes, a National Light of Reconciliation will radiate its message on the National Mall in Washington some day. It would be a light surrounded by statues of men, women and children of all ages and races joined hand in hand, walking out toward every point on the compass.

There would be words, too, at the center of that declaration of our interdependence on our shared humanity — a formal apology for the atrocity of slavery, passed by both houses of Congress and delivered in a nationally televised broadcast by whoever is then president of the United States.

The U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives passed separate resolutions a decade ago, but a formal national apology for slavery has never been made. We, the people, cannot allow those words to remain unspoken.

Slavery gave birth to a brood of bigotry and pain. Its offspring clung to the chains, confining African-Americans to democracy’s back seat. True liberty and real justice for all remains a broken pledge. There can be no reconciliation without repentance.

In Prince Edward County, an estimated 2,000-plus African-American children were left with little or no formal education by the school closings. Most white children were educated at a private, whites-only academy. In 2004, the Virginia General Assembly created the Brown v. Board of Education Scholarship Program and Fund. More than 200 of those Massive Resistance casualties have been served by the initiative.

At the time, Virginia House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell played a crucial role fostering Republican support for the Democrat-patroned legislation creating the scholarship program and fund during a deeply partisan General Assembly session. The late civil rights icon, Julian Bond, said it was the first civil rights-era reparation in U.S. history.

But there is far more harm to repair in America today, and our post-World War II commitment to Europe points the way forward. The National Light of Reconciliation should be followed by a domestic Marshall Plan focusing investments in education, health care, housing, economic development and infrastructure in urban and rural communities with significant African-American populations.

The positive impacts would be colorblind, lifting entire cities and counties. That fact could persuade a majority of Americans and their congressional representatives to resist the arguments of those who oppose reparations.

Our national wound of race is real. A week doesn’t pass without some new headline or sound bite picking at the scab until it bleeds. But we can become America’s new skin, someday, perhaps, if we keep growing toward each other — even erasing the scars.

The writer is a former reporter and editor of The Farmville Herald.