Notes from America Healing for Democracy

Last week I spent three days in New Orleans with 500 people who are passionate about racial reconciliation and justice. Twenty years after the Rodney King verdict that sparked the LA uprising, America Healing for Democracy was hosted by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation for its grantees as part of its racial equity initiative.

“Racism is the corruption that pollutes our democracy,” said Sterling Speirn, the foundation’s president and CEO. “Until we achieve racial equity we will not be able to create conditions where vulnerable children can succeed….We had the Civil War and civil rights movement. What we have not done is to uproot the tree, the belief that there should be a racial hierarchy.”

Joining activists from across the country were prominent academics and the leaders of all major civil rights organizations who featured in several memorable panel discussions. I am still digesting all that we experienced together but some highlights for me included:

  • Partnering with Liz Medicine Crow of Alaska in hosting one of 20 “healing sessions” where participants in small groups could share personal and often deeply emotional experiences on their journey toward racial healing.

  • Being inspired by Rev. James Forbes: “This conference is about enlistment, enlightenment, and empowerment.”

  • Being challenged by Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans: “Lives of young black men are sacred, they are worth fighting for.” About 7000 African American men, mostly aged 16 to 25, are killed each year. “It’s the most devastating thing that is happening in America.”

  • Asking ourselves: “How to make sense of declining prejudice and increasing inequality.” (43% of black and Latino children attend schools with 80% poverty rates compared with 4% of whites.)  “To be non-racist in America now means not to talk about race. For whites, fairness and equality translate into trying to ignore race,” said one panelist.

  • Learning more about unconscious bias: The brain can process about 11 million bits of information each second; only 2 percent is conscious.

  • Understanding changing demographics: The racial gap is a generation gap: the median age of non-Hispanic whites is 42, blacks 32, Latinos 27.

  • Getting a new perspective on history from Doug Blackmon, whose book, Slavery by Another Name, documents how, after the Civil War, thousands of African Americans were re-enslaved into forced labor, a human catastrophe that continue until World War II

  • Hearing the pain and weariness of those who cannot believe that they are fighting battles they thought were won decades ago. Legislative actions by state governments across the country represent “the most significant roll-back in voting rights that we have seen in a century,” according to Judith Browne-Dianis of the Advancement Project.


I was awed by the dedication and energy of life-long activist Harry Belafonte interviewed by Charles Ogletree of Harvard. “When I look at America Healing…it’s not just a title,” he said. “It is the crux and the heart of what this country needs….If we cannot bring our citizens together, if we cannot heal, if we cannot show how to be the moral compass, there will be grave consequences.”


Belafonte recounted two stories. In the first he described a conversation with Martin Luther King, Jr. when he told him he had turned away from the church because, “I see so few who walk like Christ.”

King: “Do you believe in God?”

Belafonte: “Yes, but I can’t make God and the institution square, so I will stick with God.”

King: “We will have a good time because I am in the same place.” 

Belafonte also recalled that when Bobby Kennedy became Attorney General, many in the civil rights movement were concerned as to what his policies might be. King said, “Somewhere in that man there is good. Our task is to find his moral center and bring him to our cause.”

Gail Christopher, Kellogg’s vice president for program strategy, is the visionary leader of this growing movement for national healing. She sent us on our way with these words: “If we could model for the world what healing is, it would be a great thing.” Speaking from the depth of her own experience, she concluded, “Racial healing is the capacity to love ourselves and extend that to others… Healing is a process of accepting and embracing the truth and the essence of our being.”