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May 9, 2018 / WRAG

Traveling from Memphis to Birmingham to take off our historical blinders

By Rebekah Seder
Senior Program Manager, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

In September, WRAG and Leadership Greater Washington are taking a group of funders and other civic leaders on a journey to learn firsthand about the Civil Rights Movement. We are traveling from Memphis to Birmingham, visiting sites of key activities, meeting with movement leaders and contemporary activists, and attending a number of museums and other institutions. I am incredibly excited about this trip. But, I suspect that some may be asking, “Why would 35 people whose careers are dedicated to improving the Greater Washington region travel to Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama? Why, when the need to act on today’s problems is so urgent, would we be focusing on events of 50 years ago?”

Throughout WRAG’s two-and-a-half year examination of structural racism, “I just never learned about this” has been a constant refrain. I suspect that for many of my colleagues, especially those who, like me, attended predominantly white schools, our history education was similar. Certainly we learned key facts – the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Emancipation, Jim Crow. Then, we learned that the Civil Rights Movement happened, because a tired Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, a group of people marched from Selma to Montgomery, and Martin Luther King had a dream. Then, voila, America achieved racial equality.

This trip will open participants’ eyes to a much fuller story.

More than that, I think that this trip will begin to address a wrong that is perhaps more subtle than the many forms of racism that preoccupy our attention. The segregation of history – the idea that black history is somehow different and apart from American history, that the history of black Americans is not intrinsically intertwined with that of white Americans, and that it can be summed up in a chapter or two in a history textbook. A racism that flattens a rich and complex history, renders courageous and groundbreaking leaders as bit players, and writes a historical narrative that raises up white men as agents of change and black and brown people as those that history happens to. This way of imagining the past is like wearing blinders that make it impossible to see and understand the present.

I encourage WRAG members to consider what rewriting their understanding of history could mean for them personally, as well as professionally for their grantmaking and their engagement in the community. We know that it is a commitment of time and money. But, for those funders who are committed to advancing racial equity in our region and within their own institutions, I hope you will join me on this journey. I believe that this trip will be an investment that will pay dividends.


WRAG & LGW Members: Contact Rebekah Seder to learn more about this trip.

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