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PERSPECTIVE ON RACE

Getting to the Promised Land

The president's dialogue on race will succeed only if we participate honestly and don't just talk about reconciliation.

January 04, 1998|ELDRIDGE CLEAVER | Eldridge Cleaver, the former minister of information of the Black Panther party, is a writer and lecturer. He lives in Pomona

In his last speech before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. said: "I've been to the mountain top. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."

We must go beyond where King went. We must enter that Promised Land. As Joshua and the people of Israel were to Moses, we must be to King. His dream and his vision, standing upon the loftiest spiritual and political principles of this nation, must become our reality as we embrace and live out this nation's creed. We must stop beating each other over the head with the deeds and misdeeds of yesterday and unleash a new birth of freedom. We must have a real dialogue in which all are free to speak and be heard without fear of intimidating hisses and boos from those opposed to goodwill, understanding and reconciliation. We must go forward and upward, to complete the American Revolution and fulfill the American Dream.

We have got to open a new chapter in the book of our lives. I welcome President Clinton's racial initiative, because it does exactly that. In an era when Anwar Sadat can go to Israel to speak with the Jews, when Moscow can cashier communism and dismantle the dictatorship of the proletariat, when the Afrikaners can liberate Nelson Mandela--in such an era, right-wing conservatives and left-wing radicals here in the U.S. must be willing and able to sit down at the same table, look across the table at each other and see not an enemy, a target or a statistic, but a brother, a sister, a fellow American, another child of God. We must expand our hearts and enlarge our identity beyond "my people" to include and embrace all of Creation.

Recently I delivered an oration at the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Reservation in Pablo, Mont. The Native Americans allowed me to speak in a tribal building where no white man has been allowed to speak. "You are the first and only black man who ever wanted to speak here," Rhonda Swaney, chairperson of the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribal Council, said to me.

My oration was on reconciliation, in which I asked the Native Americans in the name of the people of the United States of America if they would forgive us for all the wrong that we have done to them. "If you will forgive us, you will set an example that everyone in America will be challenged to follow," I told them. "If you can find it in your hearts to forgive us, then no one will have any place to hide and hold out."

After much discussion and many questions and answers, the Native Americans said yes, we can forgive you. We already have.

From that Native American reservation, I went to speak in a black church. I asked the African American people if they could forgive white people for slavery, segregation and the whole nine yards. The consensus was yes, we can forgive them.

Next I asked a meeting of women if they could forgive us men for the way we have abused, oppressed and exploited them. And they answered yes, we can forgive.

Then I asked a group of senior citizens if, after they have given their lifetime of service and we rudely turn them out to pasture without adequate provision or sufficient medical care, can they forgive us? They said yes.

Last, I addressed a group of children. I asked if they could forgive us for putting a hole in the ozone, for poisoning the water tables and the food chain, for destroying our oxygen supply by bulldozing the rain forests and for increasing our national debt so high. A boy stood up and said, "Yes, we can forgive you, but you've got to stop doing it."

This dialogue on racial matters must cut to the bone and release us from the prison of our past.

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