Highland scholar hopes to spark crucial conversations for change

By Anne Murphy

As he takes his new position at the University of St. Thomas, Highland Park resident, author and scholar Dr. Yohuru Williams has much on his mind. Uppermost is the idea that we all must live humbly for justice. It comes, he said, from a favorite quote of his found in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”

Previously dean of St. Thomas’ College of Arts and Sciences, Williams started work this month as the founding director of the university’s new Racial Justice Initiative. The brainchild of Williams and St. Thomas president Dr. Julie Sullivan as well as others, the initiative will encompass research, public engagement and partnerships to address racial justice. There will be an external and internal focus, including students who will be equipped to act as agents for change while on campus as well as following graduation.

Former dean Dr. Yohuru Williams is hoping to humbly drive lasting reform as the founding director of the University of St. Thomas’ new Racial Justice Initiative. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Williams emphasized that people cannot keep their opinions and passions hidden away. “We can’t afford to exist in silos,” he said. “A lot of people in the Twin Cities share this view and have a passion for social justice and want to put an end to racism.”  

Before the death of George Floyd, Williams was planning to head back to the East Coast, where he grew up, to take a position at St. John’s University in New York City. However, the tragic killing of Floyd on May 25 became a moment of clarity for Williams about St. Thomas’ mission—and his own.

“A lot of people had a vitriolic reaction to George Floyd’s murder,” Williams said. “It really calls on us to think about and talk about what can make the greatest impact.”

For Sullivan and Williams that meant creating the new initiative and his acceptance of the new position as its founding director.

 

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Williams said that for him, Floyd’s murder was an intense call to action that was reminiscent and analogous to what happened in 1963 when four black schoolgirls were killed in the bombing of a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. That tragedy also served as an awakening that immediately moved people to seek racial justice.

“The interesting thing is that Julie (Sullivan) has been my mentor since I arrived here in 2017,” Williams said. The two of them began work on the initiative immediately after Memorial Day weekend when Floyd was killed. “A text came from her asking, ‘Is it too late?’” he said. It was not.

Williams said he knew he needed to be a part of what the university could do to foster racial justice in the Twin Cities and, eventually, beyond. “We’ve been kindred spirits on the mission of Catholic education and the mission of St. Thomas,” he said. “Suddenly, in one instant, it all became clear.”

“It’s part of our Catholic heritage, tradition and mission to respect and promote every individual,” Sullivan said. “We need to create a society here where every person is treated with dignity and respect.

“We now need to ask, ‘Why are we in this place today? Why do we feel such inequities and disparity? Why are there such gaps and inequities in education, healthcare, housing?’” she continued. “We can’t understand how we got here without first going back several centuries to see how there have been different opportunities for people based on race. You have to understand the past to develop empathy and work across race for a better future.”

That is where Williams will play a crucial role, Sullivan said, noting that he is a historian as well as an educator who is devoted to the Catholic mission of social justice. “I’m not Catholic, but I went to Catholic schools and I’m a believer that Catholic social teaching is a great equalizer,” Williams said.

Through the new St. Thomas initiative, Williams hopes there will be a reimagining of what can be and should be done in the areas of social and racial justice. Photo by Brad Stauffer

With bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Scranton and a Ph.D. from Howard University, Williams is a nationally known author, editor or co-editor of several books, including Rethinking the Black Freedom Movement and The Black Panthers: Portraits of an Unfinished Revolution. He has also served as associate vice president for academic affairs at Fairfield University, a Jesuit school in Connecticut, and vice president for public education and research at the Jackie Robinson Foundation in New York City.

Officially, Williams’ new title is distinguished university chair, professor and founding director of the initiative with a joint appointment in St. Thomas’ history department and school of law.

Williams emphasized the importance of the law school’s involvement. He said much of the immediate work to address inequities is related to changing laws that have been barriers to fair housing and fair treatment. He said second- and third-year law students will be of great assistance with research and other undertakings in that area.

In initiating crucial conversations that can lead to better understanding and efforts to end racism, Williams said plans are being formulated for them to also occur off campus and involve the general public.

“I’m not thinking that these will be twice-a-year events at the Woulfe auditorium on our campus; I’m thinking they will take place at Cristo Rey, community libraries, corporate headquarters, other college campuses,” he said. “And these will not be lectures. We want to listen and not just come in with answers. We want to talk with people, not talk past people. When you can first build relationships with people (you) can have uncomfortable conversations—and change results.”

Williams emphasized that people cannot keep their opinions and passions hidden away. “We can’t afford to exist in silos,” he said. “A lot of people in the Twin Cities share this view and have a passion for social justice and want to put an end to racism.”  

Through the initiative, Williams said, it is hoped there will be a reimagining of what should be and can be done in the areas of social and racial justice, with St. Thomas being the conduit for change here and eventually in other locales.

“This will be hard work and long work,” Sullivan said. “Things are not going to change in a month or a year. First people need to learn more, listen more and understand each other better.”

Getting a read on the historical perspective

As the Racial Justice Initiative unfolds, Williams said, there will be information available on how to be involved and contribute. Meanwhile, to help create a solid historical perspective and understanding, he suggests the following reading list:

  • Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine.
  • Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington.
  • Waiting ’Til The Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America by Peniel Joseph.
  • The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.
  • Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present by Nell Irvin Painter.
  • The African American Odyssey by Darlene Clark Hine, William C. Hine and Stanley Harrold.
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
  • Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas by Ibram X Kendi.
  • Rethinking the Black Freedom Movement by Yohuru Williams.

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