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Berkshire Residents Discuss Race Issues In Wake Of Zimmerman Verdict

An event in Pittsfield Monday night served as a reflection and call to action and service in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. But during a discussion forum, community members were very much focused on current events.

The program titled “From Emancipation to Equality: The Unfinished Business of the Civil War and Civil Rights” was held as part of the countywide Lift Ev’ry Voice Biennial Celebration, and brought together members of the Berkshire County community with experts on race relations.

As part of the programming, James DeWolf Perry of the Traces of the Trade Institute, an organization dedicated to examining and starting conversations around the regional legacy of slavery, gave a presentation about the longstanding racial inequalities in the Northeast.

"I talked about the fact that there was slavery in the northern United States, here in New England for two centuries, that we only gradually and reluctantly gave up slave owning here, that fact that we were deeply complicit in the economics of slavery right up until the civil war broke out - and as a result of that the Union was very reluctant and only at the very last minute made the decision to emancipate the South's slaves at the end of the Civil War," said DeWolf Perry. "That's not the way we normally talk about the Civil War or Emancipation."

DeWolf Perry said the presentation also focused on bringing down racial barriers after the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

A panel discussion was held after the presentation. Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant is Founding Director of Multicultural BRIDGE, and acted as moderator for the discussion forum.

"I think it was very important because there was a sense of urgency given the Zimmerman verdict, and I think there was a sense of urgency given the fact that these anniversaries are upon us and there's still work to be done," said VanSant.

Audience members shared their own reactions to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of black, unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Professor Barbara Krauthamer, an Associate Professor of History at UMass Amherst and expert in African American history, was a member of the panel.

"I think what I saw was really the positive effects of community dialouge and confronting difficult questions in a respectful dialouge," said Krauthamer.

Will Syldor is an Americorps Massachusetts Promise Fellow serving at the Railroad Street Youth Project in Great Barrington, an organization that engages at-risk youth. Syldor, along with his colleagues, brought young people from the Railroad Street Youth Project and Community Cooperate Farm in Mount Washington. From the audience during the dicussion, Syldor expressed his own anger and frustrations over the racism he encounters living in the predominantly white Berkshires, shared his reactions to the Zimmerman verdict,  and saw a real value in discussing issues with the community.

"It becomes very isolating doing this type of work, having these types of thoughts - thoughts about white supremacy, thoughts about revolution and trying to do something different," said Syldor. "Trying to do something that isn't incomplete contradiction to what you're supposed to be doing - to trying to be equal to white people. So I think it's important that people come together and have conversations together and realize that they're not alone."

Other panelists included  Ananda Timpane, Executive Director of the Railroad Street Youth Project, Dr. Stewart Burns, and Dr. Don Quinn Kelley, a historian and co-chair of the Lift Ev’ry Voice Steering Committee. Dr. Quinn Kelley shared his thoughts after the event.

"We have to look at each other and see each other as the same," said Quinn Kelley. "Because if you can't see each other as the same, you're going to continue to have Trayvon Martins. Because the whole fact of the matter is, if you can't see kids as kids, someone's going to die for no reason. Someone's going to not get a scholarship for no reason. Someone's going to decide that they're not good enough for no good reason. So we really have to pull ourselves together where we start looking at each other as human beings."

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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