Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Rap, Race and Reparations

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Rap, Race and Reparations

Article excerpt

Fisk University's Race Relations Institute is continuing its long legacy of involving itself in the day's most pressing issues facing Blacks around the world.


The news came in mid-December. Kemba Smith, the 23-year-old college student sentenced in 1995 on cocaine trafficking charges for her association with a drug-dealing boyfriend, was granted a presidential pardon. Like many other activists and organizations, the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University had lobbied the White House for the pardon, sending letters and sponsoring lectures and conferences at Fisk about Smith's plight. To many, including institute director Dr. Ray Winbush, Smith had become a symbol of flawed mandatory sentencing laws.

At trial, Smith pleaded guilty and the Hampton University student, who had no prior record, was handed a 24 1/2-year prison sentence without the possibility of parole. Smith's boyfriend, a drug kingpin wanted by the FBI for running an East Coast drug ring, was killed prior to her trial.

But nearly six years later, President Bill Clinton gave Smith her freedom.

"Dr. Winbush wrote letters and encouraged others from the institute and community to write letters to the president on Kemba's behalf," says Smith's father, William A. Smith. "Dr. Winbush also had a great influence on getting others involved who could make a difference, such as his associates or colleagues who were speakers at conferences or heads of organizations. It is without question that all of these efforts helped a great deal in Kemba's release."

Smith's pardon is just one example of the institute's successful efforts. The institute involves itself in real battles, ones that have definite outcomes, which affect Blacks around the world.

Another example is the institute's involvement in the September election of James Perkins, the first Black mayor of Selma, Ala. On Election Day, Winbush and institute program director Naomi Tutu, daughter of Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, sponsored a trip in which 26 volunteers traveled from Nashville to Selma to help transport African American voters to the polls. In the end, Perkins defeated incumbent Selma mayor Joe Smitherman, the former segregationist who had been mayor since "Bloody Sunday," the 1965 Montgomery-to-Selma march in which 600 peaceful protesters were attacked by state police. Among the protesters attacked and nearly killed was U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., then a Fisk University student.

"We took people out to the polls, made sure people weren't intimidated and got out the Black vote," Winbush says of the Selma effort. "I guess it was a continuation of the legacy of John Lewis, another Fisk graduate, who got beat upside his head during Bloody Sunday in 1965. So I guess that's what the institute does: We get on the ground and cut through some stuff."

The institute's latest and perhaps most ambitious ground attack is its advocacy for reparations, the subject of a daylong conference in February the organization sponsored at Fisk. The institute publicly supports a longstanding bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in Congress to study whether reparations should be paid to the descendants of formerly enslaved Black Americans. Conyers participated in the conference on reparations.

The institute also supports the high-powered legal team recently assembled to sue the U.S. government for reparations. The legal team includes Johnnie Cochran, Florida attorney Willie Gary and Harvard University law professor Charles Ogletree. Randall Robinson, the head of TransAfrica who was instrumental in national measures that eventually dismantled South Africa's apartheid regime, helped assemble the legal team. Robinson authored The Debt, which outlines a case for why and in what form reparations are needed.

But the Race Relations Institute isn't stopping at the national level. …

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