One of the most dramatic stories of the Bible is recorded in the ninth chapter of Acts as Saul, blinded for three days after seeking to persecute followers of Christ, is touched by a man named Ananias. Verse 18 records the corresponding miracle: “And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight.”
“Something like scales” are falling from the eyes of millions of Americans as we confront the fact that many of us who are white have done far too little to oppose racism. We have taken comfort in the knowledge that our own views are not typically “racist” and we support the concept of racial equality. If we have learned anything in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests and tensions throughout our country, it is that whatever we have done—or believe we have done—to overcome racism, we have not done enough.
We must achieve the elimination of racism from the root and branch of our lives and our institution.
In one of the Birmingham-area protests last week, a speaker, Onoyemi Williams, said, “We’re not saying just black lives matter, we’re saying make them matter as much as a white life.” Ms. Williams spoke with clarity. In our broken society, we can’t arrive at true equality until we recognize that black lives have not mattered as much as white lives. After decades of well-intentioned laws, mountains of rhetoric, millions of corporate training sessions and the expansion of opportunities, we are left with a lingering and painful truth: Black lives don’t matter enough because the roots of racism remain alive across systems of our society. As I said last week, systemic racism does not endure simply due to corrupt systems; it endures because of hatred within individual hearts, sometimes known and sometimes not, a hatred that corrodes lives, families, institutions and nations. It is sin.
Last week we heard from Dr. Denise Gregory, our Assistant Provost for Diversity and Intercultural Initiatives, regarding some of our plans for the next few weeks, including the appointment of a task force to work toward reconciliation and to advance racial diversity. Universities rely on standing committees and specially-appointed task forces to examine issues, forge consensus and develop recommendations, and I look forward to working with the members of the group to plan and implement their best ideas for racial progress. Dr. Gregory and those who will work with her have my complete support.
Grateful as I am for the forthcoming recommendations of the task force, I’d like to move forward immediately with additional initiatives. While my remaining years as president may be many or few, I do not want to wait for future leaders to address the deep-seated needs of our community.
First, despite the fiscal challenges we face in the wake of COVID-19 and our restrictions on adding positions to the staff, we will increase the number of employees in our Office of Diversity and Intercultural Initiatives. In addition to her responsibilities in the office, Dr. Gregory also serves as an associate professor of chemistry, as our Faculty Athletics Representative for the Southern Conference and as a member of the President’s Cabinet. She performs to the highest standards, but she is clearly overloaded with responsibilities. The only other staff member is Jenée Spencer, Program Assistant, who manages her many assignments on campus with competence and compassion. I’ve concluded that the addition of another person to this team should greatly enhance the effectiveness of the important work performed by this office. This action has the endorsement of our Provost, Dr. Mike Hardin.
Second, because our campus environment is shaped significantly by the members of our faculty and staff and if our existing campus culture for Black employees and other employees of color is not ideal, then we must address those issues in order to further offer a healthy environment to our students. Dr. Phil Kimrey, Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, will soon announce that Dr. Garry Atkins, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, is about to move from his present assignment regarding Title IX and student conduct. Dr. Atkins is a 25-year veteran of the Samford staff and he has been required to address some of the most difficult circumstances that occur within a university community. He enjoys many healthy relationships with employees across campus and currently serves as a member of the President’s Cabinet. I have asked Dr. Atkins, as a portion of his new responsibilities, to guide us in building and maintaining an environment that is recognized as one of the best places for people of color to work in the Birmingham metro area.
Both Dr. Gregory and Dr. Atkins will join Samford’s Executive Leadership Team, effective July 1, which is the beginning of the new fiscal year.
Third, as Dr. Gregory indicated in her message last week, we will embark immediately on newly-designed education and training for all employees regarding bias, equality and diversity. While elements of the training will likely include videos and online materials, I want face-to-face interaction to permeate our efforts. I have long believed that barriers are best overcome and understanding achieved when people have honest conversations in small groups.
Fourth, I’m pleased to announce that I will host two African American leaders for special convocations this fall. Randall Woodfin, the Mayor of Birmingham, will be our guest for a “For the Good” convocation on September 10, open to all students and employees. The “For the Good” series is sponsored through the Mann Center for Ethics and Leadership, enabling campus interaction with leaders who are making a positive difference in our community and beyond. On November 5 I will host Dr. Cecelia Walker, Executive Director of Chaplaincy and Clinical Pastoral Education for Brookwood Baptist Health. Both Mayor Woodfin and Dr. Walker are members of Samford’s Board of Overseers. Mayor Woodfin is a graduate of our Cumberland School of Law and Dr. Walker is a graduate of our Beeson Divinity School. Dr. Walker was previously scheduled for a convocation this March, cancelled as a result of COVID-19.
We are restless to act now, as scales are falling from our eyes, so that we do not lose the power of this moment. Be assured that this message is not an exhaustive list of the initiatives I anticipate for the year ahead. We will do more; we must do more. Our collective efforts, our individual thoughts, speech and actions should bring honor, not shame, to the Body of Christ. We can help bring about racial justice that is guided by the words of the prophet to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.”
One more thing. Yes, some of our conversations will be painful. Sometimes they will be fractured. They will be transparent. But on the other side of pain and fractured conversations will be joy. Joy in the establishment of real relationships, built on true understanding and respect. The outcome will be worth the pain.
I appreciate each of you and, like you, I yearn for Samford to live up to its incredible potential.