By George Mauzy
Who will have the courage to heal racism in America? That is the question G. Pritchy Smith tactfully answered for an audience of more than 150 on Thursday night (May 6) at Bentley Hall.
Smith, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of North Florida, began the lecture by saying that he wanted to first explain how racism plays itself out in our society and then discuss the ways we can recreate America into an anti-racist society.
He started the evening by telling the story of his 1959 college friendship with a black student named Thomas Jefferson Johnson, nicknamed "T.J." Smith, a white then-freshman student from rural Texas with no black friends, credited T.J., a French teacher at an all-black high school in Abilene, Texas, who was taking summer classes, with teaching him some fundamental lessons on race in America.
"I didn't know anything about black people when I first met T.J. at the University of Texas," Smith says. "It took me a while to even figure out why we had to drink black coffee together outside on the lawn rather than in a cafe on campus. It was because there were no integrated cafes on the University of Texas campus."
Smith recounted one of the most important lessons that T.J. taught him during their short time together. He remembers going to a local theater and seeing T.J. standing in line with some of his black friends despite the theater having a policy of not admitting blacks.
"I asked him why he was in line," Smith says. "He said it was he and his black friends' way of boycotting the theater because they slowed down the lines and frustrated many of the whites that were waiting in line. They hoped their actions would cause some of the whites to leave the line frustrated, thus hurting the owners' profits."
Smith says T.J. asked him to join his boycott and wait in line with him, but Smith refused and waited in another line where only whites could stand.
"That is when T.J. said, 'Pritchy, if you're not in this line, you're in the wrong line.' His words made me tremble and think. I found out that it takes more than drinking bitter coffee to be a man and I knew I wouldn't be a man until I stood up against injustice," Smith said. "
Smith eventually joined T.J. as a participant in the Civil Rights Movement. He revealed that T.J. was later killed in the Vietnam War, but added that he will always remember him as his great teacher on the subject of racism.
Smith used the story about T.J. to illustrate his belief that one of the ways to heal racism is to first admit that it exists and take ownership of it. He says many people pride themselves on being non-racist, but being anti-racist should be everyone's goal. We must aggressively fight racism and bigotry everyday.
"For America to make strides, people must openly talk about racism and decide that racism is not to be tolerated," Smith says. "We must fight bigotry and racism on a personal level. That means making our lives interracial and a model for others."
Smith says racism is a very old problem that affects everyone regardless of ethnicity and admits that it is everyone's responsibility to help heal it. As a nation, it is very important for us to have multicultural curricula not only in our universities, but also our elementary, middle and high schools.
"Ghandi said, 'We must be the change we wish to see,'" Smith says. "It won't be easy, but by our actions we can give the next generation the courage to heal racism in America."
George Mauzy is a media specialist with University Communications and Marketing.