“ Race,” says Mayor Mitch Landrieu, of New Orleans, “is a topic that you can’t go over or under or around; you have to go through it.”
He’s right, but he should have added: It’s work, sometimes, here in the South.
Not just because of the legacies of segregation and oppression, but in “chocolate city” rhetoric that divides instead of unites.
Landrieu is pushing a twin-themed approach — race and reconciliation — as a citizen-based initiative to improve race relations in his city.
It is a partnership with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, named for the former governor of Mississippi and one of the South’s leading statesmen over the past half-century.
The institute housed at the University of Mississippi and the Urban League of New Orleans are working with the city in the new effort, funded by a three-year $1.2 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
This is, of course, not new, nor unique to New Orleans. Not only has the Winter Institute worked in cities across the region, but long-standing programs in the Crescent City and elsewhere have focused on the issue; Baton Rouge’s Dialogue on Race programs have recently been supplemented by the Together Baton Rouge coalition of congregations, sponsoring a citywide and heavily integrated Bible study.
Like those, the Winter Institute’s program emphasizes small groups of different races and backgrounds coming together to work out an “equity plan” for the city.
We look forward to that result, but we suspect the journey is, in large part, the destination.
If racial challenges are not unique to New Orleans, we would still argue that they are substantial in New Orleans, and in Louisiana, generally.
Even as the Winter Institute gets going in New Orleans, the state’s Legislature is in session in Baton Rouge. You can obtain in those halls a master’s degree in insincerity, but rarely will you see any overt instances of prejudice.
When young William Winter started out in Mississippi politics — as a young man he was a driver for the legendary segregationist U.S. Sen. Jim Eastland — the idea of black and white people gathering to pray, legislate and back-stab together was unheard of. Civil rights was then a dream, until the Civil Rights Act that passed 50 years ago this year; the Voting Rights Act came the next year.
We have come a long way, certainly, but a lesson of the civil rights movement is that it takes shoe leather to get to the promised land, and we welcome initiatives like this to organize in the direction of progress.