A THREE-month series of candlelight vigils in cities and on college campuses around the country begins Dec. 14 on the west steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The specific aim of ``The Call for Racial Harmony, Justice, and Equality,'' as the effort will be known, is to rekindle citizen commitment to equality. Such a show of support for classic American goals might strike some people as a nice but unnecessary idea. The Rev. Charles Stith, the Boston minister and civil rights leader who is leading ``The Call,'' sees it differently. He considers the effort necessary to prod a needed change in the nation's social climate.
In his view most Americans have been much too silent as incidents of racial and ethnic violence have erupted in recent months.
The range extends from Brooklyn, where whites killed a black teenager suspected of dating a white girl, to Stockton, Calif., where five schoolchildren, largely Asian refugees, were gunned down by a white man. According to an investigation by the state attorney general, the man acted out of a ``festering sense of racial resentment and hatred.'' Racial and ethnic violence has been reported on 250 college campuses from the University of Mississippi to Brown University over the last two years.
Many of those involved in such incidents grew up before civil rights legislation was passed. They grew up at time when affirmative action laws were constantly referred to as unfair. ``We haven't had the kind of commitment to equality and justice that we had in the past and the nation is the lesser for it,'' he says.
Public apathy over incidents of racial violence, says Stith, does not necessarily mean a condoning of racism. ``It's not that we would intentionally move toward apartheid, American style,'' he said during an interview in his church office, ``but we do know that evil holds sway because good people do nothing.''
A sense of unity, he says, is essential if the US is to move forward. ``Everything points to the necessity of our coming together,'' he says. ``The Biblical reference to a `house divided against itself cannot stand' is as true today as it was 2,000 years ago. We have a responsibility to care about one another.''
Stith, who has a masters degree from the Harvard Divinity School, is the pastor of the Union United Methodist Church, one of Boston's oldest and most respected black churches. He is a longtime friend of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who four years ago asked Stith to replace him as head of Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) in Chicago. Stith decided against the move. He soon founded the Organization for a New Equality (ONE), a civil rights group emphasizing economic policy change.
The candlelight vigils will be held in 17 cities - from Denver to Los Angeles and Little Rock, Ark., to Chicago - and at three colleges. Most of the city vigils will take place before the late Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday is celebrated Jan. 16. Those attending will be asked to sign a pledge, indicating their support for equal rights and racial harmony. Sympathetic groups will be asked to circulate similar pledges for more signatures. Stith is not taking on his effort singlehandedly. A roster of the close to 80 chairpersons involved reads like a Who's Who of national civil rights, church, business, government, and academic leaders.
Joan Weiss, one of the honorary chairpersons and executive director of the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence, says the vigil is important as a consciousness-raiser. She says the effort also shows support for the many who are victimized by assault and harassment but who rarely hear that anyone cares, and works as a preventative rather than just a reactive measure. ``It's a long, difficult battle to eliminate prejudice and the violence motivated by it,'' she says. ``It's essential that we regroup periodically and stand up to say, `This is what we care about and why we're doing it.'''
Another supporter of the effort is the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. ``There have been so many instances over the past year of senseless beatings and killings that I think there's a strong feeling that this most elemental right to be safe and sound in our houses and bodies is under assault,'' says Charney Bromberg, the ADL's community relations director. ``This is an effort to bring people together around a common denominator that I think has been missing - to do what we can to build a climate of tolerance in our communities.''
The pledge gives people a mechanism through which to express their disapproval of racist comments, lyrics, or actions, says Stith. Just as within a marriage, he says, it is important to reaffirm from time to time those principles one most cares about. ``So much happens in between times,'' Stith says, ``that it's easy for priorities to get displaced.''