Resurrecting Fisk's Race Relations Institute

By Hawkins, B. Denise | Black Issues in Higher Education, May 29, 1997 | Go to article overview

Resurrecting Fisk's Race Relations Institute

Hawkins, B. Denise, Black Issues in Higher Education

Resurrecting Fisk's Race Relations Institute: With $4 Million in Grants, Director Raymond Winbush Says, "We're Going to Do Something Old"

Since taking over Fisk University's Race Relations Institute two years ago, Dr. Raymond Winbush has been aggressive about revitalizing the once-prominent institute and resuscitating its showpiece -- an annual summer seminar which died sixteen years ago.

When former Fisk President Henry Ponder lured Winbush from his post as professor and director of the Black Cultural Center at Vanderbilt University, Fisk's institute had no director, no budget and few programs. Today, bolstered by more than $4 million in private and corporate grants and the renewed commitment from Fisk officials, the fifty-five-year-old institute is making a comeback.

Winbush is euphoric about the resurrection of the institute and mesmerized by the thought of unleashing it onto a society he says is more racially hostile than when it began. In 1942, the United States was allied with most of Europe in an attempt to dismantle Adolph Hitler's Nazi regime and its racial-superiority philosophy. That was the same year that Charles Spurgeon Johnson, Fisk's first African American president, created the Race Relations Institute to address divisions among racial, religious and ethnic groups.

The Tennessee campus -- which once courted Fannie Lou Hamer, Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph and Hubert Humphrey -- will convene the institute's thirty-fourth conference July 8-13, the first major conference since 1983.

"We're inviting a lot of people," Winbush boasts.

Among the 300 people invited are: President Bill Clinton; Ralph Reed, former president of the Christian Coalition; Harry Allen, a member of the rap group Public Enemy; Lerone Bennett Jr., editor of Ebony Magazine; and 1996 Republican presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan.

"We want them to come to Fisk to discuss America's most troubling problem -- which is race -- just the way Johnson did it," says Winbush.

Decades ago, according to Winbush, "People were beating a path to the door of the Race Relations Institute." For three weeks, talks among whites, Blacks, Jews, preachers, politicians, parents, scientists, students and others dominated the days. Picnics on the lawn filled the nights. Race was on everyone's lips.

"People felt like they could provide sound solutions for what was at that time and still is today one of America's greatest problems," says Winbush.

What Johnson didn't do, Winbush says, was to take what he calls the "Kumbaya" approach that is currently popular with forums on race relations -- plenty of hugging, crying and lamenting of the past. Johnson, who headed Fisk's Social Science Department in the early 1940s, is credited with crafting the standard methodology for national dialogues on race. He mounted discussions on issues of economics, education, government policy, housing, employment, and semantics. Then he drafted strategies for change, such as training Black veterans returning from the war, and bringing an end to segregation in public schools, the armed forces and in organizations like the League of Women Voters.

"Rather than say we are going to do something new, we're going to do something old," says Winbush. "We're going to take what Charles Johnson did -- take the model -- and adapt it for the twenty-first century."

Even as he plots the rebirth of the institute and the return to its original mission, more than a half century later, the institute remains the only -- according to Winbush -- think tank devoted to racial issues housed at an HBCU.

"In 1942 when Charles Johnson founded the Race Relations Institute, white institutions were the [only] ones studying race. Now in 1997, fifty-five years later, no Black institution is studying race other than Fisk," says Winbush in amazement.

A year ago, Howard University pinched off a piece of the race debate by focusing on Black-Jewish relations when it teamed up with the American Jewish Committee to publish Common Quest: The Magazine of Black Jewish Relations. …

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