7 Events from the Past Year that Shaped Race Relations—and Rocked America

Josh Shepherd | Contributor to ChristianHeadlines.com | Tuesday, March 28, 2017

7 Events from the Past Year that Shaped Race Relations—and Rocked America

As April 4 approaches—marking the fateful day when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated 49 years ago in Memphis, Tennessee—it is clear that time has not healed all wounds. For many black families who feel excluded from the American dream, Proverbs 13:12 rings true: “Delayed hope makes the heart sick…”

To advance better understanding across racial lines, one must listen in and consider the black experience. Seven recent events have given trauma or hope, and sometimes both, to minority people resilient in standing for justice.

1. Racist Shooter Who Killed Nine Black Members of Charleston AME Church Sentenced to Death

"We find the defendant Dylann Storm Roof guilty," the jury foreman said 33 times on December 15, 2016, ticking off a long list of criminal charges in a South Carolina courtroom.

A young white man, Roof entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015 and killed at gunpoint nine black members gathered for a prayer meeting. He confessed his racist intent to the FBI two days later, in a video released during the trial.

For victims' families this legal conviction was "a powerful statement against a person who wanted to start a race war by coming to Charleston and snuffing out the futures of nine amazing people," said Senator Tim Scott, who knew one of the victims personally. Earlier this year on January 10, the jury handed down the death penalty to Roof for his crimes.

2. Family of Justice Roger Taney Delivers Moving Public Apology to Descendants of Dred Scott

Few events in American legal history left deeper scars than the 1857 court case Dred Scott v. Sanford, when the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Roger Taney stated that no person of African ancestry could claim U.S. citizenship. After having lived free for four years, Dred Scott, his wife, and children were again declared the property of a white man.

On March 6, 2017, descendants of the infamous U.S. judge took an important step standing next to the great-great-granddaughter of Dred Scott at the Maryland State House. “We offer our deep apology to the Scott family, and to all African Americans—for the injury caused by Roger Brooke Taney and this decision,” said Charles Taney III.

Lynne Jackson, who now leads the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation, replied: “On behalf of the Scott family, and all those African Americans who have the love of God in their hearts, we accept your apology and I thank you for it.” She stated later in an ABC interview: “This is about relationship-building and trust.”

3. New Movements Launch to Advance Racial Healing in Church and Society

In an unprecedented election year, one Atlanta rap artist and black spiritual leader publicly disavowed both major candidates—because they failed to champion what he terms “redemptive justice.”

Sho Baraka linked up with other young leaders to launch The AND Campaign in 2016, “a movement of folks who protest both police brutality and abortions” as he stated in Christianity Today and Rapzilla. Meanwhile, in St. Louis, Jonathan Tremaine Thomas convened prayer leaders for the birth of a Civil Righteousness movement.

Seasoned Christian leaders also recognized the urgency for reconciliation. The King family, invited by The Reconciled Church and UnitedCry, proclaimed forgiveness at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9; Latasha Morrison of Be The Bridge hosted grace-filled public forums on race issues; Pastor Tony Evans released a video series free online entitled Oneness Embraced; and Lou Engle led hundreds of thousands in a cry of “God, break racism!” both in Los Angeles and on the National Mall.

4. Presidents Obama and Bush Mourn Loss of Dallas Police Officers—and Black Men Gunned Down

It was anything but a holiday week. Three major shooting incidents on July 5-7, 2016—in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Falcon Heights, Minnesota; and Dallas, Texas—traumatized the black community and rocked all of America.

As videos shot on cell phones defined the incidents, Wired recounted those fateful days in an illuminating story featuring 31 eyewitnesses. Many details remain unknown about the shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, while the officer who killed Philando Castile in Minnesota now awaits a jury trial (see below). On July 7, thousands gathered to peacefully protest the killing of Sterling and Castile; tragically, a lone sniper took advantage of the event to kill five police officers. The nation mourned.

“All of it has left us wounded, and angry, and hurt,” said President Barack Obama at the July 12 funeral service broadcast live nationwide. “It's as if the deepest fault lines of our democracy have suddenly been exposed, perhaps even widened.” Remarks by President George W. Bush and Dallas Police Chief David Brown also served to heal the open wounds.

5. Investigation of Philando Castile Shooting Leads to Manslaughter Charges

On November 16, 2016, after 19 weeks of police investigation by Ramsey County, Minnesota, police officer Jeronimo Yanez was charged with second-degree manslaughter in the shooting death of Philando Castile.

Castile was pulled over on July 6 and complied with police instructions according to the official account. Yet, upon mentioning to the officer a weapon was in the vehicle, Yanez shot Castile seven times at point-blank range. The young black man’s last words were: "I wasn't reaching for it—"

Tens of thousands protested his unjust death, including his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds who witnessed the shooting from the passenger seat and captured the bloody aftermath on Facebook Live. The trial of Officer Yanez is expected to be scheduled soon.

6. Opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

In a 2013 bill co-authored by civil rights hero Congressman John Lewis and then-Senator Sam Brownback, Congress approved the building of a 19th Smithsonian museum; President George W. Bush signed it into law. None knew then how important the National Museum of African American History and Culture would be on September 24, 2016, when it opened in a nation reeling from violence.

Funded primarily by private donations, the $250 million museum contains 37,000 artifacts across 10 floors and 350,000 square feet of vast exhibits. What it reveals is an intensely personal story—how slavery and segregation forged tight social bonds among black Americans, and why the wounds of unequal treatment are still felt today. Young and old, black and white find the museum an emotional experience (in fact, several on staff are trained in grief and trauma counseling.)

“This museum shows America’s capacity to change,” stated President Bush in his remarks at the opening. “For centuries, slavery and segregation seemed permanent—permanent parts of our national life. But not to Nat Turner or Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, or Martin Luther King Jr. All answered cruelty with courage and hope.”

7. Celebrating Black Women as Science Pioneers, Hidden Figures Tops Box Office and Wins Major Awards

As much as judges and political leaders matter in deciding justice, it is storytellers who most shape our culture. Hidden Figures, revealing three key black women’s unseen achievements during the 20th century space race, helped remind Americans that our nation is not so far removed from the Jim Crow era.

Raking in over $200 million box office revenue on a $25 million production budget, Hidden Figures shows that a true story dramatized with humor, heart, and layered storytelling can earn both critical and commercial success. Hidden Figures won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Cast Performance, in addition to three Oscar nominations and two nods at the Golden Globes.

The film has thrust 98 year-old Katherine Johnson into the international spotlight, and renewed interest in STEM careers for high school students nationwide.

America has entered a new season, with many unsure whether it holds promise or peril. Will our nation fulfill its pledge to liberty and justice for all? Words, actions, and prayers purposed to heal and engage in healthy dialogue can point the way—every voice has value.


Josh M. Shepherd, contributor to Christian Headlines, has served on staff at The Heritage Foundation, Focus on the Family and Bound4LIFE International. He earned a degree in Business Marketing from the University of Colorado. Josh and his wife Terri live in the Washington, DC area. Follow Josh on Twitter @joshMshep.

Photo courtesy: Flickr.com

Publication date: March 28, 2017