Academics MENU

Race Relations

West Virginia State University Race Relations is one of the three components of the National Center for Human Relations. Its objectives are to promote, encourage, and support the study and understanding of, and exchange information about race relations between and among people, communities across the spectrum.  This topic will be explored from various perspectives to generate a more literate population throughout society. 

Race and ethnic relations continue to offer challenges for human groups throughout the globe.  While categories to designate human variation may be connected to a group’s historical struggles for self- determination, access to valuable resources, and favorable public policies, humankind must work to transcend interracial/interethnic dynamics.   West Virginia State has historically worked to strengthen intergroup relations.  The National Center serves as a viable resource in this endeavor.
As the world reflects on the remarkable life of U S Congressman John Robert Lewis (February 21, 1940-July 17, 2020), we see violent images of a shameful past where the Jim Crow legacy in the United States worked to keep persons of color, particularly those of African descent in a subservient position. Lewis in a 1973 interview conducted by Jack Bass and Walter DeVries recalls a terrifying moment on March 7, 1965, when nearly 600 people, led by Lewis and Hosea Williams attempted to march 64 miles from Selma to Montgomery. Their intention was to get to the state capital to protest the anti-voting rights practices that existed throughout the South and other parts of the country. The march came to a brutal halt after the group crossed over the Edmund Pettus Bridge (see photo below) and were on the outskirts of Selma.  The marchers, mostly teenagers and women, were met by Sheriff Clark accompanied with his posse on horseback. These troopers were beating unarmed marchers with ropes and bullwhips. Lewis recalls that when troopers begin to gas the protesters, he knew that they were in grave danger. Looking back on the violent nature of that moment, Lewis states that we all were lucky no one died or sustained serious injuries. Television coverage of this brutal event weighed heavily on the American conscience.  This event referred to as “Bloody Sunday” helped to usher in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Stories such as the one above of Lewis getting into” good trouble” to bring about change for the greater good can come from pain and suffering, but have rewarding consequences.  “Good trouble” refers to nonviolent protests against unjust practices/laws. Methods of protest include conducting sit-ins at public segregated facilities, participating in the freedom rides to protest segregation of buses and bus terminals in the South, getting arrested over 40 times for “disturbing the peace,”  marching for justice, and delivering impassioned speeches to shake up the status quo for all.  This civil rights icon received many scars and bruises resulting from his “good trouble” activism. Nevertheless, he witnessed a type of healing that involved forgiveness by those who suffered many brutal acts from European Americans terrorizing persons of color and trying to prevent their progress.  Over the years, Lewis openly shared examples of reconciliation he experienced from some European Americans who attempted to cause him  and others harm for working to dismantle the segregated way of life. For example, when he visited places in Mississippi, Alabama, and Nashville, Tennessee (where he spent six years as a student), people viewed him as a hero. There was, a middle-aged white man who approached him at the Birmingham airport and asked for forgiveness. He stated, “Mr. Lewis on behalf of all the white people of Alabama, I want to apologize to you for what we did.”  Lewis accepted the apology and said that he would never forget moments like that (Manojlovic). He recalls an incident in 2012 at a church in Montgomery, where a young police officer spoke to the congregation and then turned to the Congressman and apologized for the Montgomery Police Department’s mistreatment of him more than fifty years ago when Lewis was there as a freedom rider. They did not protect him and other freedom riders from an angry mob. This police officer was not even born when the incident took place.  He informed Congressman Lewis of the changes in the Montgomery police department.  He stated that before anyone can become a member of the department today, he or she must study the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and learn what happened in Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham.  He again apologized for what happened and asked for forgiveness.  Then he gave his police badge to me.  Lewis said that many in the church, including myself, started crying when he presented his badge to me (Manojlovic).
Lewis’ humble roots began in Troy, Alabama, where he and his nine siblings were children of sharecroppers, Eddie Lewis and Lillian Miles Lewis. Through hard work and persistence, he was the first to graduate from high school in 1957. He graduated from two HBCUs, both, located in Nashville. He attended American Baptist Theological Seminary and graduated at age 20 in 1961. During his time at the seminary, Lewis met pacifist Rev. Jim Lawson (Sept.22, 1928--), an Ohio native who conducted nonviolence workshops in the basement of a church in Nashville. Rev. Lawson had served almost three years in prison as a conscientious objector to the Korean War.  Rev. Lawson previously had travelled to India doing missionary work for the Methodist church. This is where he learns about Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence.  Rev. Lawson conducted many nonviolent workshops for SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) and other Civil Rights groups. He is still associated with the Martin Luther King Institute.

Lewis started his work at Fisk University majoring in Religion and Philosophy in 1961, but later left to become chair of SNCC, 1963-65. After two years, He returned to Fisk to complete the work for his A. B. Degree. He graduated in 1967. Lewis’ first elected governmental office was in 1981 where he was a member of the Atlanta City Council until 1986. Once elected to represent Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District, he served in this capacity for three decades until his death.

His relentless work in combating social injustice has landed him numerous (50) honorary doctorates from the most prestigious universities such as Harvard, Duke, Brown, U of Pennsylvania, Morehouse, Howard, and Fisk (his alma mater). His countless awards attest to his enduring legacy. According to Roll Call Magazine, he is the only recipient of the John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage Award” for Lifetime Achievement (granted by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation).  Some others include The Medal of Freedom presented by former President Barack Obama (2010), The Martin Luther King Jr. Award, The Lincoln Medal from the Historic Ford’s Theatre, the Golden Plate Award given by the Academy of Excellence, The Capital Award of the National Council of LaRaza, The Preservation Hero Award given by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, etc.
Lewis co-authored his graphic novel memoir trilogy entitled March with Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell. In addition to being a New York Times Bestseller, in 2014 and 2016 it received numerous awards. According to Roll Call Magazine, many schools use the March series to tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement to young activist of future generations. It has been a First-Year common reading text at universities such as Michigan State, Georgia State and many other higher institutions of learning.. His other award winning books include AcrossThat Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change, Written with Brenda Jones, 2012 and Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, co-authored with Michael D’Orso, 1998.
Congressman Lewis worked fearlessly to combat human rights abuses in the US and all over the world. His Congressional website is a mirror into his soul. He talks about his “good trouble” acts that landed him in jail, twice at the South African Embassy when he was protesting against Apartheid and twice in Darfur for speaking out against genocide.  In 2017, he is outraged that a proposed ban on transgender military people is acceptable to some.  “I have fought too long and hard to end discrimination based on race and color to allow discrimination based on gender identity to be considered acceptable against those  serving our country and putting their bodies and livelihood on the lines for its defense.” He refers to the proposed ban as a “mean and misguided policy”.  He was an avid supporter of HR 7120 The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act which passed the House on June 25, 2020 with a vote of 236/181. What’s interesting is that a part of the bill contains his Inclusion Act which among other things, allows federal grant funds to recruit and train officers from the underserved neighborhoods they are expected to protect and serve. Aaron Morrison talks about the great respect the younger activist have for Congressman Lewis for his lifetime commitment to causing “good trouble” to help create a more just society. One of Lewis’ last public appearances was in June 2020 where he walked through the newly named Black Lives Matter Plaza and took a picture on top of the yellow mural amid the protests over the death of George Floyd. Activists and many others will honor his rich legacy and remember his noble effort. “We must stay vigilant in condemning violence and human rights abuses and responding to humanitarian disasters in every corner of the world.” John Lewis’ enduring spirit and legacy will help guide us over many troubled bridges.

Edmund Pettus Bridge
Bass, Jack and Walter Devries, Interviewers, “Interview with John Lewis,” , Nov. 20, 1973. Accessed July 20, 2020
Blakemore, Erin. “John Lewis’ Arrest Records Are finally Uncovered,”, Dec. 1, 2016. Accessed July 19, 2020.
Lewis, John, “Peace the Path to Prosperity,”
Accessed, July 19, 2020.
Manojlovic, Borislava, “John Lewis: Love and Forgiveness in Governance,” , December 2013. Accessed July 21, 2020.
Morrison, Aaron, “How the Black Lives Matter Generation Remembers John Lewis,”, July 10, 2020. Accessed July 21, 2020
Roll Call Magazine, “John Lewis,”
Accessed, July 20, 2020
Stanford/The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, “The Reverend James M. Lawson, Jr.” Accessed July 20, 2020
Carol S. Taylor Johnson, PhD.
National Center for Human Relations, Director
Department of English and Africana Studies
Juneteenth is a celebration connected to the emancipation of African Americans in the United States and their struggle for civil and human rights.  According to the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, Juneteenth is the “oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States.” What is remarkable about this celebration is how a very devastating past is presented through the platform of a celebration.  Even the title “Juneteenth” sounds like linguistic wordplay, a neologism that stumbled out of someone’s mouth in a creative moment. Or, it might have been a way of explaining a date in June, or conveying confusion about a date.  It is somewhat comical because of how the month is something we can recognize while the date is unclear. The folk can be quite resourceful when given the opportunity to reinvent themselves.  The freedom festival becomes a creative tool for freed slaves to chronicle their lives and to reimagine a more favorable place of existence in a world that has relegated them to beasts of burden, anything but human.  We can imagine that in 1865 when a union officer comes to deliver them a message of freedom, it will change their lives forever. The mood will be a mixed bag of confusion, disbelief, pandemonium, jubilation, and even depression.  How did these 250,000 slaves in Galveston finally get the message?

Juneteenth’s origin is connected to learning about General Order Number 3, delivered June 19, 1865 in Galveston by Union general Gordon Granger (1822-1876), commander of what was then called the Department of Texas. It was two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. This document was quite limited.  Emancipation left those unfree in the Confederate States.  Lincoln’s proclamation did not consider those living in the border states. The slaves' freedom would depend upon the Union military victories; thus, this document invigorated the human spirit of black American males to join the military (army or navy) and fight for freedom. For example, William C. Andrews (1827-1906) was a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad. He recruited African American men to serve in the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He became one out of the 120 African Americans commissioned as officers. By the end of the war, nearly 200,000 black Americans had fought for the union.
In the War Between the States (the Civil War), Texas was considered the far west of the Confederacy  rebellion and the last stronghold to surrender. Many will say that very last battle of the Civil War took place at Palmito Ranch, May 12-13, 1865, in South Texas (Brownsville). More than 200 soldiers from the 62nd US Colored Infantry recruited from Missouri took up arms for the Union. They felt they were doing something purposeful for freedom and justice.  The resistance in Texas helped to delay the end of the war. Confederate officials were certainly not in the mood to deliver the message of freedom to the slaves, to the planters, or to the average European American citizen. The climate was one of confusion and terror; news of freedom for the 250,000 slaves would have reached individual plantations gradually.  

The historical moment of gaining freedom is so profound that efforts to commemorate its magnitude started with personal celebrations that eventually became very organized events. According to Teresa Paloma Acosta, a year following General Granger’s Proclamation, the first known Juneteenth celebration occurred (June 19, 1867) in Austin, the capital city. The Freedman’s Bureau helped direct the event. By 1872, Juneteenth was listed in their calendar of public events.  Migrations of African Americans to cities in the South, the Industrial North , the Midwest, out West, out East and various other landscapes have contributed to the spread of the Juneteenth festival.
Historian Tyina Steptoe, in her research about Houston history, found that during World War I, fancy hotels such as the Rice hotel would serve their customers carryout dinners during the Juneteenth celebration because their African American labor force such as maids, chauffeurs, gardeners, etc. would use it as a holiday. This shows how some European American bosses were aware of the significance of the Juneteenth festival to African American communities. They realized that labor force was important to the local economy. The work of such groups as The National Juneteenth Observers Foundation has made a concerted effort to get the celebration to become a National observance in the US. So far, 45 states and the District of Columbia have declared it as a state holiday.  
Today, Juneteenth celebrations will often contain the following themes: re-enactment of history; preservation of history; uplift of the communities; learning about the African past and the diaspora; expressing one’s pride in the culture(s) through hairstyles, fashion, culinary arts, music and the arts; pursuit of the American dream; addressing urgent issues (including health, education, politics, etc.); and expressing one’s  faith.  To many, it is a big family reunion to reaffirm one’s historical roots and sense of being. Juneteenth, in its many forms, has gotten the attention of the international community, including, France, South Korea, Japan, Canada, Nigeria, etc.
 The “Black Lives Matter” Movement has become galvanized as millions are protesting the deaths of so many unarmed African Americans, males and females who perish too often at the hands of the police. Police reform that works for the benefit of underserved communities across the board must become a reality for everyone. Conversations about racism and human justice are being conducted via social media. Juneteenth messages are posted by many who had not heard of the festival before the murder of George Floyd. Research shows that Juneteenth is a very dynamic and malleable event that can adapt to grass roots organizing/activism. Perhaps it may soon become a national holiday for the United States.

Gen. Gordon Granger

William C. Andrews

 Acosta, Teresa Palomo, “JUNETEENTH”, Handbook of Texas Online. accessed June 18, 2020,
Mittan, Kyle, “Black Lives Matter and Pandemic Bring Juneteenth into Focus,” Interview with Tyina Steptoe, June 17, 2020.  Accessed June 18, 2020
The National Archives.     proclamation. Accessed June 17, 2020
Wiggins, Jr. William. O Freedom: Afro-American Emancipation Celebrations. U of Tenn., 1987
Carol Taylor Johnson, PhD.
National Center for Human Relations, Director
Department of English and Africana Studies
Scroll to Top