THE BLOG
12/09/2014 06:44 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

America Needs to Rewrite the 3 R's

Fifty years ago, I was in the second grade. It was the time of the historic March on Washington, as well as the beginning of what we now call the "Women's Liberation Movement." But more than that, there was a memory that will stay with me forever.

Many Northern African-Americans who had their roots in the South would send their children "South" for the summer, so we could reconnect with our grandparents, they could work a second summer job and we would reach back to our heritage.

Trailways and Greyhound buses would whisk us to the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and other homelands. Dr. Martin Luther King was an iconic figure. Lyndon Baynes Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act, and we, the children in the North, began to integrate public schools. Life, as we knew it, was going to be swell.

We thought Jim Crow was over. But then my grandmother took me to Belk's Department store for a grilled cheese sandwich. I asked to sit down at their lunch counter. My grandmother said we had to take the grilled cheese sandwich out and eat it later. Why? I asked. I'm hungry NOW. It was later that I realized laws don't change things. People do. When people's hearts change, we can get somewhere.

The South was still segregated; Jim Crow was still alive. In fact, a more sophisticated, JAMES CROW, ESQUIRE, was moving into place. Every time my brother and I would drive into the South and arrive after dark, we were stopped to demand an account of where we were going. We had been taught that the three R's were what we needed to exceed in America "Reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic."

I contend, 50 years later, that what America needs to function in this world today are three new R's: Race, Religion and Respect for women. From Trayvon Martin to Eric Garner to Michael Brown and ISIS, a new movement needs to be created.

Most have already forgotten about a Senator calling POTUS a liar at his very first State of the Union Address, Donald Sterling,and Glenn Beck and others who have denigrated Black Americans.

Let's face it: We're in trouble. The world is on fire. Three Rabbis were killed at their holy site, a Christian pastor Abedini was imprisoned for his beliefs in Iran; mothers have to bury their sons far too early and sports stars abuse women. In the words of Marvin Gaye, "What's going on?" I'll tell you what's going on. We're race-phobic, religion-phobic and respect-phobic.

President Clinton had me as his faith advisor, trying to put race on the table in a real way, and open the eyes of America and the world to the fact that life, as we all knew it, is over. We are no longer just black, white and three Abrahamic tradition's world. We are a multiethnic world, where we must learn from and be tolerant and respectful of others whose traditions, languages and skin colors may be different. This is what builds a peaceful world.

This lack of respect for race was confirmed as I was having my last cup of coffee with a foreign service officer about a week before I ended my tenure at the State Department. She said, "Everyone knows the State Department isn't welcoming of African-Americans." Even SHE had seen the blatant institutional racism exhibited almost daily. She admitted about knowing the walls and road blocks put up and before me and before the President of the United States.
It's a new day, and we'd better get with the program. No one can or should do it alone. It's time America learns the three new R's: Race, Religion and Respect.

Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook served as United States Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, is the Founder, CEO and President of the ProVoiceMovement for women, to unify, fortify and multiply the voices of Black, Latina and Native American women. You may reach her at: ProVoiceMovement.com