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Meaningful Dialogue on Race Relations Needed In Wake of Recent Tragedy

By Dr. Henry N. Tisdale

President, Claflin University,

Orangeburg South Carolina

In the aftermath of the horrific tragedy at Emanuel AME Church and the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state’s capitol building, we are now confronted with the question, where do we go from here?

During the somber days following the event, I communicated with Governor Nikki Haley, legislators and other leaders to express the University’s deep concern regarding the hate crime and senseless act that claimed the lives of nine individuals. The Claflin family subsequently assembled in the University’s James and Dorothy Z. Elmore Chapel to conduct a prayer vigil in honor of the victims. We also prayed for the families and relatives of the victims, noting that it will take time for the healing to begin, but the thoughts and prayers of the Claflin family will be with them well into the future. Claflin has an enduring interest in events occurring in Charleston. Its history is deeply tied to the city. Founded in 1869, Claflin’s origin began by two clergymen. One was a missionary and the other a prominent Methodist pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church (founded as Centenary United Methodist Church in 1866) who was also a teacher at the Baker Theological Institute (founded in 1866 and merged with Claflin University in 1870) of Charleston. Claflin is South Carolina’s first university to open its doors to all students and its charter forbids discrimination “regardless of race, complexion, or religious opinion.” The charter declares not only the academic purpose of the University but also its commitment to enlightenment for the purpose of social justice. Service and commitment to the development of humanity remain core values of the University. Today, I invite and encourage all responsible leaders of South Carolina to engage in effective discourse on race in the state of South Carolina and throughout the nation. It is not a popular topic to discuss and the prevailing attitude has been that if it is not talked about, it will somehow disappear. During the course of the new academic year, Claflin University will engage national, local and state lawmakers, clergy and other individuals to have a meaningful dialogue on race relations – its influences of the past and how to proceed to address the challenges of the future. We hope to lead in exploring and developing initiatives that could serve as a national model for thought provoking and vigorous discourse for bridging the racial divide. For Claflin University to lead this effort is not a new phenomenon. Since its inception, Claflin has always taken the lead or had a significance influence and connection with the struggle for racial equality and social justice. During the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Claflin students, including myself, and alumni helped to organize and participate in non-violent demonstrations in Orangeburg in the pursuit of equality and justice. Notably, Glenda Gaither Davis, along with several other Claflin students were among the Freedom Riders and civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States to challenge the non-enforcement of United States Supreme Court decisions which ruled that segregated public buses were unconstitutional. Glenda’s brother who is also a Claflin alumnus, Thomas Gaither, was among the organizers of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). Gaither launched the “Jail No Bail” initiative used by students from Friendship College (“Friendship Nine”) who led the sit-ins in Rock Hill, S.C. Ernest A. Finney Jr., a Claflin alumnus and the first African-American to be named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of South Carolina, was the attorney for the “Friendship Nine.” Claflin’s tradition of engagement and leadership inspires us to continue as long as racism exists in our nation. Removal of the flag from the grounds of the state capitol is a step in the right direction. Much more needs to be done if South Carolina is serious about eliminating racism, discrimination, and bigotry in the state we call home. Dr. Henry N. Tisdale is the eighth president of Claflin University.

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