Silencing Racism's Roar

James Joseph's courage and expansive thinking led to a deep commitment to civil rights. INTERVIEW

ONE day in 1963, James A. Joseph was sitting in a car in downtown Tuscaloosa, Ala., waiting for a friend who was visiting a travel agent. The Louisiana-born and Yale-educated Mr. Joseph - now president of the Washington-based Council on Foundations, an umbrella organization for more than 1,000 American philanthropies - had recently come to town to teach at all-black Stillman College. There, he had quickly taken a leadership role in the civil rights movement. Although protests were already raging in nearby Selma and Birmingham, Tuscaloosa had been quiet - largely, Joseph recalls, for fear of the Ku Klux Klan, whose state headquarters was there. That day, unknown to Joseph, the Klan was holding a meeting in the building housing the travel bureau. ``Word got around that I was outside,'' he recalls in a phone interview, ``and they surrounded my car and started shaking it and threatening me. I have to say that I thought that was the end - because unlike a mass meeting, where you work yourself up into a psychological state that you could take on the world without fear, I was caught off guard.'' Paralyzed with fright, he says it took him 10 minutes to collect his wits enough to start the car and simply drive out of the crowd.

It was a lesson in mental preparedness that stood him in good stead when, as leader of numerous protest marches, he was attacked by state troopers with billy clubs and cattle prods, by Klansmen with baseball bats, and by townspeople after a black church was tear-gassed. ``They called me regularly every night,'' he says of the Klansmen, ``threatening to kill my [infant] son.''

The Rev. Robert Rankin, a former officer of the Danforth Foundation and chaplain at the Claremont Colleges before Joseph succeeded to that position in the late 1960s, attributes Joseph's success to his ability to combine a ``passion for social justice'' with an equally strong ``passion for personal religious fulfillment. These things are often quite separate in the white community,'' says Mr. Rankin. ``With Jim you saw these two polarities become one.''

``He's a very thoughtful, committed, courageous guy,'' adds Bernard C. Watson, president of the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia and a longtime acquaintance. Noting the range of Joseph's activities - ordained minister, university professor, former head of the Cummins Engine Foundation, former undersecretary of the Department of the Interior in the Carter administration - Mr. Watson says he has brought compassion and intelligence to ``every one of the areas in which he's worked.''

That desire for expansive thinking was evident even in those early days in Tuscaloosa, and led to Joseph's acquaintance with the Rev. Martin Luther King. ``The more we got involved [in civil rights activities],'' he recalls, ``the more we needed to be embraced by the larger activities for our own protection. So we brought Martin Luther King in and got involved with the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference].''

What impressed him about Mr. King, says Joseph, was ``his emphasis on love. I remember we used to get our heads beaten, and every time we'd get up we'd talk about love for even the adversary. People were confused, because they thought we were talking about love which is liking. But we were talking about the kind of love the Greeks defined as agape, which is an unconditional acceptance of the humanity of the other - even if the other is your adversary.

``I think [King] introduced a way of thinking in human relationships that abated the kind of hostility that was emerging,'' says Joseph. ``Martin Luther King kept the society from becoming as racist as it could have become. He brought together blacks and whites - he kept an interracial movement. And given the kind of events that were occurring at the time, we could have become an acutely polarized society.'' Looking back, Joseph sees a mixed legacy. ``Those blacks who are now professionals, who acquired their education and their skills as a result of the barriers that came down because of the civil rights movement, can cite significant progress. The folks that it did not benefit were the ones who did not acquire the skills and education.''

The result, he says, is that now there are ``almost two black communities'' drifting farther apart. Why? In part, he says, because the civil rights movement chose to focus on a three-part ``integrationist strategy'' that included ``access to public accommodation, political participation, and appealing to the moral conscience of the nation'' rather than on economic improvement. While there was ``some rhetoric'' about economics, he says, ``there were no really effective strategies for gaining economic power.''

One reason: Whites, and many blacks, saw those who argued for economic power as ``radical redistributionists,'' militants out to destroy the economic system. Result: The integrationist strategy ``came to be the dominant strategy, because it was less threatening than the economic power strategy.''

Joseph is especially concerned about ``resurgence of racism and ethno-violence'' in the last decade. ``I am constantly amazed,'' he says, ``by the incidents of racism - the kinds of things that are now happening in the late `80s compared to where we were in the late `70s.'' He attributes the increase in racism to:

Economic insecurity and social isolation on the part of some whites who ``haven't been able to climb into the technocracy of the post-industrial age.''

A general anxiety about social changes that have reduced ``the dominance of Europe abroad and the influence of the descendants of Europe at home.''

The Reagan years, during which selfishness and racism became more ``socially acceptable'' while presidential leadership on race ``in the tradition of US presidents from Eisenhower to Carter'' declined.

The ``psychological need'' for racism in some people, who ``in order to affirm their own group identity somehow have to deny or denigrate the group identity of others.''

Will such racism abate? The answer, he says, is complex. On one hand, ``the social transformations are likely to be more acute in the next few years as the majority of our citizens become members of minority groups.'' On the other hand, ``the black professional who is prepared and qualified is being increasingly accepted by some of his or her white colleagues,'' he says.

What lies ahead? ``I'm an optimist, and part of it is because of my religious faith. I grew up believing that things could change and people could change, and I have seen enough change in my lifetime to be convinced of that possibility.

``We know how to solve many of these problems. We just don't have the will. So the real problem in the 1990s is: How do we create the will to solve the problems we know how to solve?

``We're not simply talking about moral idealism - we're talking about national security. If you look at all of the high-school dropouts and the illiteracy in our society - we're losing our competitiveness. Maybe, as people begin to understand that, there will be a possibility for change.''

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