02/26/2015 07:39 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2015

From Selma to Ferguson: Keep Hope Alive!

On Sunday John Legend and Common, the writers and performers of the song "Glory" from the motion picture Selma, accepted the Oscar for Best Original Song after performing the song in front of a screen displaying some of the dramatic moments from the movie. Their performance and acceptance speech reignited widespread discussion in the media about the current state of civil rights, voting rights, and racial justice in our nation. But the relationship between African-American communities and police following killings of unarmed African Americans by police in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, and other places remains a controversial subject in many households and community organizations and on college campuses across the nation.

Against this backdrop I was pleased to participate in "Speak Out & Listen In," a recent teach-in at the University of San Francisco. Taking a page from the teach-ins held on several college campuses during the '60s and '70s to address the U.S. military intervention in the Vietnam War, USF faculty and students took on topics like "Race, Violence & Power," "Understanding White Privilege," and "Strengthening Our Voices through Awareness, Knowledge and Skills to Create Action" and attended a panel discussion with San Francisco community leaders and the chief of police.

Professor James W. Loewen, in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, writes, "Perhaps the most pervasive theme in our history is the domination of black America by white America. Race is the sharpest and deepest division in American life." Indeed, the current allegations of police brutality against African Americans, especially black men, have deep historical roots. However, as I and others have written and spoken about ad nauseam, there appears to be a deeply rooted reticence among most white Americans to discuss race, race relations, and racism in this country. Race issues are the elephant in the room in most white households, whose members would like to avoid admitting, let alone confronting, the 24/7 presence of race issues in their daily lives. But teach-ins like "Speak Out & Listen In" can, as occurred at USF, publicly address and foster discussion around issues like the impact of the historical institution of slavery and its companion doctrine of white supremacy on how today's African Americans are perceived by many in federal and local law enforcement.

The police killing of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson prompted concern, even outrage, among not just African Americans but a significant number of whites and others, as demonstrated by the nationwide protests that followed. This fact, more than anything else, probably influenced New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton when, in a recent speech addressing a predominantly African-American crowd during a Black History Month event at the Greater Allen A. M. E. Cathedral of New York, he said that although police have played a crucial role in maintaining civil rights and freedom of speech, "many of the worst parts of black history would have been impossible without police...." He included slavery in that assessment, saying:

Slavery, our country's original sin, sat on a foundation codified by laws and enforced by police, by slave catchers. ... Since then, the stories of police and black citizens have intertwined again and again. The unequal nature of that relationship cannot and must not be denied.

Bratton's remarks follow even more powerful remarks by FBI Director James Comey. I urge everyone reading this blog post to read the full text of Comey's remarks here -- they are nothing less than historic -- but below are some selected excerpts:

With the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, the ongoing protests throughout the country, and the assassinations of NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, we are at a crossroads.

Unfortunately, in places like Ferguson and New York City, and in some communities across this nation, there is a disconnect between police agencies and many citizens--predominantly in communities of color.

[A]ll of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty. At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.

One reason we cannot forget our law enforcement legacy is that the people we serve and protect cannot forget it, either.

Next month will bring the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights. Today the demands for justice in Ferguson, coupled with the recent speeches by New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton and FBI Director James Comey, are indeed reasons to keep hope alive!