He Saw That It Was Good: An Interview with Sho Baraka

He Saw That It Was Good: An Interview with Sho Baraka

As our world becomes more divided and we seek to reconcile with ourselves and our neighbors we know we need God more than ever. But how can we hear and follow God in the midst of our fractured reality in ways that are faithful and life-giving? UrbanFaith sat down with the artist, activist, and creative Sho Baraka to talk about his new book He Saw That It Was Good, which helps us think through some of the most pressing questions of our world to see the beauty and purpose of God’s creation expressed in our lives. The full interview is above and the excerpts below have been edited for clarity and length.

 

 

 

Allen

Hello UrbanFaith. We have with us one of our very own gems of our generation, as I like to say, an artist and activist. He’s a historian. He’s an author now, and that is Mr. Sho Baraka. With his book, He Saw That It Was Good. And we’re going to be able to talk with him about this book, what it was that he’s thinking, and how he’s thinking through these things, because I just feel like he’s got wisdom to drop for us today. So Sho, good to have you. 

My first question for you is one of the ones that people ask all the time, I know you as an artist. A lot of people have encountered you in that space. What made you decide to write down your thoughts in this book and continue to integrate your art in this form?

 

Sho

I think ever since I recognized that I was a creative, I think I’ve always wanted to write. As a young child, I wanted to write novels, short stories. But like my own experience, as I got older, I got introduced to hip hop and poetry from the Harlem Renaissance. And my desire for art kind of moved towards poems and music. And so I pursued more hip hop than I did writing and poetry. But I got to a place where I felt like there were there were some things that music couldn’t really quite communicate. And when we got around 2016, the political landscape started to get real divisive. People were shouting at each other, friends became disintegrated. And I said, you know, music is great, music has this place of disarming people and communicating things in ways that are really helpful to society, getting us to reimagine our world. But I feel like, I need to communicate a very straightforward, more poignant message, and also exercise these muscles that I’ve always wanted to exercise. And so in 2016, is when I really [started] to process through. All right, I think I want to write a book. The question was, what type of book?

And a lot of people wanted me to write a book about race. Because I talked about race a lot. A lot of people wanted me to write a book about politics, because I wrote about politics sometimes. But the reality of it is I’m no expert in either one of those arenas. And so what I wanted to do was say: well, what is my personal, ethical, and theological approach to work? Creativity in telling stories, which is informed by race, which is informed by politics, which is informed by our personal experiences, and therefore I can talk about race, I can talk about politics, I can talk about creativity. But ultimately, I want to show how all of those things affect how we work, and how we and how we create and tell stories in this book.

 

Allen

I love it. You mentioned  how you’re bringing in so many different things. You talk about race here, you speak, you do poetry, you do short stories in here. You’re bringing in history, you’re talking about creativity and theology. And I would say that that makes this a true theological work because us understanding God and ourselves is multiplicity, right?  And so I wonder why do you think that’s important that you’re able to bring together all those different pieces of yourself? In order to share a message why is it important that we do that kind of work? 

Sho

Yeah, I think you hit on it. I think oftentimes in theological posture in America, we’ve separated. Really, we’ve created a bifurcation of the body and spirit. You know, like there’s there’s ways to fake it and there’s ways to be. And I think Jesus very much so, the Bible very much so teaches us how to be comprehensive in our beings.

[It’s okay] to weep. Jesus is very emotional with people, he has these wonderful physical relationships with people, but he also is very didactic and theoretical and philosophical. And oftentimes, we feel that we can only exist in one or two spaces. The gist, I believe, and I think this book is arguing as well, is historically, the black Christian posture has done a great job of doing both. Because you can’t separate the spiritual element, like the theory or the up in the air aspect of like, we know that Jesus is real, we know God is real. We know we believe [even when] we can’t quite feel him in that sense. But there’s also this physical aspect of: we need liberation. There’s a physical, there’s a physical desire we have, we’re on this plantation, you know, I mean, we’re asking the Lord to be rescued. But at the same time, we know that…there’s a here and now need, and then there’s a future glory that we’re going to see as well. 

And Christian faith in the black tradition has always been tethered to justice. So it’s always been tethered to this physical aspect of redeeming the world that has been broken, as well as this intellectual, inner introspective. Kind of how do I how do I wrestle with my own existential experiences, if you will. And to jump to the end of the book and kind of steal some of its glory, I talked about one of my favorite people, George Washington Carver. And that I think he had this wonderful mysticism, and I don’t want to say mysticism to scare people away from…the true and the actual, but there is a bit of mysticism about our faith. And we see that throughout the scriptures. But George Washington Carver had this physical felt God, let me relationship with God, that I think we often look at is weird to have, well, he knew nature. He knew the plants he knew. He knew that because he knew God years and his relationship with God and formed his work and his relationship. So much so that he spoke to plants. Yeah. And people who said, “It’s crazy.” And so for me, what I say is there’s this aspect of us, coming into this full, comprehensive understanding of what the gospel is. It’s not just this intellectual understanding, it’s the physical body, it’s how do we get connected with our bodies, and in the sense of that, how that impacts our communities and the things we make and create. 

 

Allen

So last question for you. And this is one of those easy takeaways, what is it that people can do?  What is it that we should do now in order to live into our vocation to make a difference? How can we approach finding our next is a better way to say it?

 

Sho

Yeah, that’s a good one of the things I this is, you know, this is not gospel, but this is just my own personal observation. I think when we think about the word calling, I think, oftentimes, we just think about what am I good at? What what’s my skills, and let me go pursue that. And I, you know, that can be very romantic and poetic, but often think that also has its problems. I think the way we should view calling is, where’s their need? And where has God led me to fulfill this particular need? Because we see that throughout Scripture, we see Moses being called to a problem. And Moses is like, well, I don’t know if you got the right guy. And God is like, No, I’ve got the right person, I just need you to go do it. And but the reality is, is Moses does have the skill sets he was born into, I mean, he was raised in the palace, you know, he knows the laws, he knows the culture. And so to send Moses back is the most wise actions you can do. And so Moses can say he’s like, but this is not what I want to do. Oftentimes, we got to get past what we want to do in order to really see great change in our society.

I hope that we start seeing vocation apart from something we just do, but it’s a part of actually creating and cultivating society. So oftentimes, you will think of artists and creatives of people who actually create culture. But the reality is, is every vocation participates in the building up of a culture of a society. And the more we wake up every day, seeing that we have this canvas, and we can paint this beautiful image of God without work, then the more intentional we’ll be about the work, we, we choose how we work every day, and how we, you know, view other people’s work. And so don’t just work at a place just to get a check.

But if that is you, if you are in a place in your life, where you only when you have to work just to provide Yeah, a lot of us are in that situation, then figure out how do you do that for the glory of God, you know, me? Because I know some people don’t have the luxury of picking a path and picking a career. Some people just have to pay bills. Yeah. But understand even in that, that’s, that’s important. That’s just that’s God glorifying, like your work doesn’t have to be tied to some sort of social good in order to be transformative. And if you’re working at the drive thru, well, the way that you come to work and the environment, you try to create the way you interact with the customers creates culture. It creates an environment. And so I look at chick fil a, the one thing you will know about chick fil a is when you go into chick fil a people don’t be foul. They don’t be smiling, they will say My pleasure, you’re going to get a wonderful experience. I don’t know if that person can have a moment. They can have the worst day ever. They can be mad, but they don’t least fake it. Yeah.

They’ve created a culture and an environment. And I think a lot of chick fil A’s business is because of that. Yeah. what you can expect from the environment. Imagine if we all had that posture where I work, I’m going to work even if I don’t like the job to create an environment of my pleasure. And that’s that’s kind of like the way we should view our vocation. So those are a few things I think that we can do.  

William Pannell wrote ‘The Coming Race Wars?’ nearly 30 years ago. It still resonates today

William Pannell wrote ‘The Coming Race Wars?’ nearly 30 years ago. It still resonates today

(RNS) — In his book, “The Coming Race Wars?,” theologian William Pannell foresees the poor and disenfranchised engaging in violent urban uprisings and revolts across the world similar to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. It will only be a matter of time, he writes, “before some cop blows it again in his or her treatment of a Black person, probably a Black man.”

Police brutality, racist and discriminatory lending practices, lack of well-paying jobs could push Black people and other marginalized communities to revolt, Pannell predicts. And the evangelical church — with all its influence, resources and its supply of missionaries across the world — is ill-equipped to address social issues at home, he argues.

Pannell, professor emeritus of preaching at Fuller Seminary, pushes back against the notion that Jesus is all people need to make it.

“I really do believe that people — all people — need Jesus,” Pannell writes. “But to make it in society, white Christians realize they need a lot more than salvation. They may expect Black people to be content with salvation in Christ. But that is not enough for the white Christians themselves.”

While the debate has been “between those committed to evangelism and those committed to justice,” Pannell writes that “what we should be striving for is a spirituality that will inform both evangelism and social transformation.”

Pannell wrote “The Coming Race Wars?” nearly 30 years ago.

“The interesting thing about this book is that it sounds so contemporary, even though it’s about 30 years old,” Pannell, 92, told Religion News Service. “Why is that? What is there about this book that makes it so painfully contemporary after so long a time?”

The book was first published in 1993, in the wake of the 1992 uprising that erupted in Los Angeles after a jury acquitted four LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King. Now, in the wake of 2020’s racial justice uprisings after the killing of George Floyd, Pannell has released an updated version.

“The Coming Race Wars: A Cry for Justice, from Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter” was published in June, and features a new introduction by Jemar Tisby, author of the book “The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism,” and an afterword that Pannell began writing before COVID-19 struck the nation and prior to the police killing of Floyd that sparked protests across the country against police brutality and in support for Black Lives Matter.

In the afterword, Pannell explains that he essentially began writing it nearly 30 years ago, when Rodney King called for an end to the riots, publicly asking on television: “Can we all get along?”

“The question of the Black man from Los Angeles loomed large thirty years ago and it still throbs with meaning,” Pannell writes.

Pannell, in the new epilogue, seeks to answer the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s question, “Where do we go from here?” But the meaning of “here” is something Pannell grapples with.

He underscores the death of King and recalls the crowd leaving the March on Washington “wondering about the future.” He highlights Billy Graham’s 1970 “The Unfinished Dream” speech in front of a predominantly white crowd and how his “power and prestige legitimated the marriage of God and country.” Pannell documents Graham laying the foundation for evangelical support for conservative agendas. After his death and the “evangelical movement shattered along ideological lines,” he asks, “What’s next?”

Pannell brings readers back into the present, to the Black Lives Matter protests and to former President Donald Trump’s speech at Mount Rushmore where he “drove the dagger of division deeper into America’s heartland,” and asks again, “Where do we go from here?”

“The here, unfortunately, is pretty much what it was 30 years ago,” Pannell told RNS.

To Edward Gilbreath, vice president of strategic partnerships at Christianity Today, the expanded and new version of Pannell’s book serves as a historical reflection but “also as a statement on how far we haven’t come.”

“Dr. Pannell was not afraid to speak the truth to power in evangelical circles at that time. He was very much engaged and a part of the predominantly white evangelical community,” said Gilbreath, who in 2019 helped spearhead Pannell’s updated book when he was an executive editor at InterVarsity Press.

“This gave him a very intimate perspective in terms of being trusted and someone who is not just criticizing for criticism’s sake, but he really cared about the church and wanted to see real change because he loved the church,” Gilbreath added.

With this version of the book, Gilbreath said he hopes to introduce Pannell to a new generation, those who may know about evangelist Tom Skinner “but have not heard the name William Pannell.”

Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said it’s crucial to contextualize how the original book was published at a time when L.A. was reckoning with the aftermath of what’s been described as one of the worst race riots in American history.

“It was important to talk about the ways in which evangelicals hadn’t paid attention to race,” said Butler, author of “White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America.” “He was already working on that book when the L.A. riots happened.” Butler dedicated her book to Pannell.

Butler juxtaposes “The Coming Race Wars?” with Pannell’s 1968 book, “My Friend, the Enemy,” where he seeks to explain how white people, including those Pannell knew and loved, could “at once be both friend and foe.” In it, he centers his experience as an evangelical Black man among Christians who seldom challenged white supremacy.

“That book was trying to address back in 1968 the same kind of issues that he was addressing in 1993, and here we are in 2021 with the updated version, and evangelicals still haven’t gotten it yet,” Butler said.

Pannell recognizes that a majority of evangelicals supported Trump and his administration. “It has become clear that this segment of the church is deeply divided and segregated not only by theology but by political ideology,” he writes.

The race wars may still be coming, Pannell writes, but he also highlights how the “command of the risen Christ to his followers was that they go into all the world and make disciples of the nations. Not build churches; not make converts. Make disciples.”

“It seems fairly clear today that we have far more churches and Christians than we have disciples,” Pannell writes.

In his afterword, Pannell poses the question: “What, after all, does it mean to be the people of God today?

“Moving forward from here will require a greater investment in discipleship, a deeper commitment to beloved community, and a reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit,” Pannell writes. “In other words, we’ll need to be the church.”

 

Bob Moses, civil rights leader, led us to imagine the end of racism

Bob Moses, civil rights leader, led us to imagine the end of racism

(RNS) — The death of Bob Moses on Sunday (July 25) at age 86 should make anyone who dares meddle with Americans’ voting rights in this country pause. The life of the great educator and civil rights leader in Mississippi during the turbulent and violent 1960s reminds us that there may be no more noble cause and that it attracts powerful champions.

I met the 29-year-old Moses at the Morning Star Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in February 1964, when I was a young rabbi serving Congregation B’Nai Jehudah in Kansas City, Missouri. Like millions of Americans, I had been deeply moved months before by the huge civil rights rally that drew hundreds of thousands of people to the Lincoln Memorial.

In February 1964, the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City sent me to Hattiesburg as its official representative to participate in the interreligious Ministers’ Project, which included rabbis, Presbyterian pastors and Episcopal priests from all over the country. I spent a week in Mississippi supporting the town’s African Americans, who were cynically forced to take a detailed and lengthy test that only a constitutional scholar could pass, designed to systematically deprive them of their vote.

When the Hattiesburg voting rights drive began in January, only 12 out of 7,000 eligible Black voters were registered. By early April, the number had climbed to nearly 800.

The drive, based upon non-violent direct action, consisted of marching each morning for several hours with other clergy in front of the Forrest County Courthouse demanding an end to voter suppression. In the afternoons, we went from house to house, instructing Black residents on how to register despite the onerous restrictions that were placed on them. In the evenings, the rabbis and Christian clergy attended various Black churches where we heard stirring music, powerful sermons and again we offered assistance in voter registration.

On one of those nights, at Morning Star Baptist, Bob Moses got up to speak. A graduate of Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, he had earned a master’s degree in philosophy at Harvard University, but, stirred by the civil rights movement, he had left his safe teaching position at Horace Mann, an elite private school in New York City, and traveled to Mississippi in 1960.

Moses soon became a prominent figure as the field secretary in the newly established  voter registration group, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, popularly known as “Snick.”

By February of 1964, he had become a legend. He had been shot at as he rode in a car. He had been knifed in the head by a violent segregationist, and, because no white doctor would treat his wound, Moses had to be driven around until a Black physician was finally located and sewed nine stitches in his head.

Moses delivered a powerful, eloquent address that night at Morning Star. He had a professorial mien and communicated in a soft voice but spoke in powerful cadences about the fundamental American right to vote. Fifty-seven years later, the memory  of Moses’ magnificent oration has the power to stir me.

The next year, Moses organized the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project that attracted many young volunteers, including two young Jewish men from New York City: Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who heeded Moses’ call to assist in registering Black voters.

That summer, Goodman and Schwerner were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi, by members of the Ku Klux Klan, along with James Chaney, a young Black civil rights worker. Their killers were only brought to justice many years later.

Moses believed that a quality education was another necessity if we were to achieve a just and equitable society. In the 1980s, Moses organized “The Algebra Project,” whose goal was to help young Black students acquire skill in mathematics, a subject Moses discovered was greatly lacking for many African-American students.

When I returned to Kansas City, I wrote an article that appeared in the “Jewish Frontier,” a national magazine, about my Mississippi experiences. I concluded the piece with two predictions: There would be violence in Mississippi during the summer of 1964, and “total integration” would come to the United States within 10 years.

I was tragically correct about the potential for violence and much too optimistic about the end of racism in the United States. In those days, listening to men like Moses, it was possible to believe it.

May his memory and legacy always be an inspiration and a challenge for all Americans.

(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser and the author of “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise.” He can be reached atjamesrudin.com. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

 

Retiring Bishop Vashti McKenzie, first AME Church woman prelate, reflects on a groundbreaking career

Retiring Bishop Vashti McKenzie, first AME Church woman prelate, reflects on a groundbreaking career

(RNS) — Just-retired Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie is an apologist for an adaptive style of leadership. It’s what has helped her succeed as the first woman to hold many roles in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. And it’s a style of leadership she said was needed during the pandemic.

“Adaptive leadership means that you are faced with situations but do not have a solution or answer that comes from past experiences, so you have to adapt,” she said in an interview on Thursday (July 15), a week after her retirement began at the close of her denomination’s General Conference in Orlando, Florida.

“You have to know how to pivot, you have to step back, get on the balcony, survey the scene, throw out what you know or what you think you know and then find the answer that’s going to fit this issue right here.”

McKenzie, who remains the national chaplain of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, acknowledged this approach appeals to her because that’s the way she’s lived her life as a female trailblazer in her  205-year-old denomination. In 2000, McKenzie was the first woman elected bishop and later the first to serve as president of its Council of Bishops and chair of the General Conference Commission, which organizes the denomination’s quadrennial meeting.

Now one of five women bishops elected in the AME Church, McKenzie remains ready to answer anyone who questions their ability to lead.

“Do I think women can do this? Yes,” she said. “Do I think women are called to this? Yes. Do I think the women that have been elected in my denomination have done an exceptional job? Absolutely.”

As she led AME regional districts in Africa, Tennessee and Texas, McKenzie said she focused on her work rather than her title, letting the results speak for themselves. She modeled holding babies with AIDS to show it was safe and proved it was worthwhile to develop church websites to help attract new members and it was practical to use golf tournaments as fundraisers for church projects and seminary scholarships.

As she spoke at the conclusion of the General Conference bishops’ retirement service on July 9, she thanked her husband, former NBA guard Stan McKenzie (the first male episcopal supervisor of missionary work in the AME Church), her denomination and God for their support.

“What God did for me is evidence of what God can do for you,” she said. “For if God could do this, God can do what God promises you. That can be done no matter who says it can’t be.”

McKenzie, 74, talked with Religion News Service about her journey as a female bishop, those who paved the way for her to reach that role, and what’s next for her and for her denomination.

Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, center, outgoing pastor of Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, bids longtime member Helen Thorton farewell on her last Sunday at the church in Sept. 2000. At left is her husband, Stan McKenzie. Photo by Carl Bower

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Looking back as the first woman bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is there a way you would sum up your experience since 2000?

Being the first of anything, there is no book. There is no DVD. There’s no movie. There’s nobody in front of you, to be able to share back experiences of what it’s going to look like and feel like and be like and so you’re charting your own way. And as people receive you — not only as you are in your position but also receive you as a human being — and begin to see you have something to bring to the table and be able to embrace the uniqueness of my femininity. I do what bishops have to do, but I don’t do them in the same way because I’m Vashti.

Your family has long been in the journalism business, running the Afro American newspaper chain. You wrote newspaper articles starting at age 16 and as bishop you oversaw denominational publications including The Christian Recorder. What was it like to move from being in the news business to becoming a newsmaker?

It was a little bit different being on the other side of the microphone, the other side of the camera and on the other side of the notepad, really, because I grew up telling some other people’s stories. And then the shift comes where then you become the story. And so, my intention was not to have my episcopal career be about me. That my episcopal career would be about the people I serve. So I was intentional, to focus on the work, rather than the first. God didn’t just call me to be first. God called me to do the work. And so that’s what I focused on in each of the districts I served.

You mentioned in the “Echoes from the General Conference” documentary that, though 2000 was a turning point for women bishops, it was preceded by earlier actions. What and/or who paved the way?

Well, many, many women. Many women whose names were not written, who did not get a footnote, who were in the margins. Faces and names people have forgotten a long time ago. Beginning with Jarena Lee. Jarena Lee stood at her time, when Bishop Richard Allen says he’s not going to license women. But God created an opportunity and she stood, and so then off she goes to walking and preaching hundreds of miles.

Elizabeth Scott ran for the episcopacy for many, many, many years. The women who were appointed presiding elders, the women who were appointed pastors, and did fabulous work because if they didn’t, then they would never give another woman a chance.

The 2021 episcopal address, the message of the bishops to the denomination during the General Conference, spoke of longtime struggles for women to gain ordination, and the rank of bishop. What action do you think is needed still?

What seems to be difficult for the church at large — and I’m talking about the universal church, denominations at large — is the inability of embracing inclusivity, as far as women is concerned. Just because you’re at the table, doesn’t mean it’s success for all women. Just because there’s one presiding elder, one woman who is a bishop, doesn’t mean the playing field is level for all women. And so in order for that to happen, we have to be intentional, and intentional means you don’t promote or assign just because a woman is a woman. You recognize her gifts. When I ran, I didn’t run on a platform saying elect me because I’m a woman. I ran on a platform that says elect me because I’m qualified.

Was there something you’re particularly proud of achieving in ecumenical or interfaith circles?

Most of my ministry is focused within the AME Church but I preach everywhere. I have preached for the Presbyterian women, the Baptist women. I preached for the Hampton (University) Ministers’ Conference with denominations from all over, for the United Methodist Church, for the United Methodist annual conferences. And in that way, sharing prophetically also helps to shape people’s embracing women. I have preached at Catholic churches. I have spoken in Jewish communities.

I have preached in seminaries, and it’s so important for the female seminarians to be able to see someone who is their same gender, who has the same kind of uniqueness, as an encouragement to see the broader picture, to see ministry beyond your own front door.

The AME Church has voted to start an ad hoc committee on LGBTQ matters. Do you think it may be turning a corner about acceptance of LGBTQ people, just as the denomination turned a corner on women bishops 21 years ago?

I think dialogue is going to be good for the church because there are different people in different places having different kinds of conversations and to be able to have open conversation, which an ad hoc committee would provide, where the church is gathered, will be healthy and may be helpful.

Do you see an end to the ban on same-sex marriage?

I think we’re going to have to wait and see the conversation, the power of the conversation. I just think it’s just too hard to predict at this moment. We have to remember the church, the broader church, has a hard time dealing with racism. Church, period, had a hard time dealing with sexism. They have a hard time dealing with agism, classism. And now, this is the next wrestle. And after this wrestle, there’ll be another, and there’ll be another, and there’ll be another, and there’ll be another.

So now that you have reached retirement as an AME bishop, what’s next for you?

I’m going to continue with Selah (Leadership Encounters for Women, her professional women’s empowerment organization) because I have a passion for leadership. I plan to write. This is a good time to sit down and put some thoughts down on paper. And then, as they say, we’ll look into the horizon to see what also is next.

This story has been corrected to clarify that the African Methodist Episcopal Church has a ban on same-sex marriage. It does not have a ban on ordination of LGBTQ persons.

 

With Roots in Civil Rights, Community Health Centers Push for Equity in the Pandemic

With Roots in Civil Rights, Community Health Centers Push for Equity in the Pandemic

In the 1960s, health care across the Mississippi Delta was sparse and much of it was segregated. Some hospitals were dedicated to Black patients, but they often struggled to stay afloat. At the height of the civil rights movement, young Black doctors launched a movement of their own to address the care disparity.

“Mississippi was third-world and was so bad and so separated,” said Dr. Robert Smith. “The community health center movement was the conduit for physicians all over this country who believed that all people have a right to health care.”

In 1967, Smith helped start Delta Health Center, the country’s first rural community health center. They put the clinic in Mound Bayou, a small town in the heart of the Delta, in northwestern Mississippi. The center became a national model and is now one of nearly 1,400 such clinics across the country. These clinics, called federally qualified health centers, are a key resource in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, where about 2 in 5 people live in rural areas. Throughout the U.S., about 1 in 5 people live in rural areas.

The covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the challenges facing rural health care, such as lack of broadband internet access and limited public transportation. For much of the vaccine rollout, those barriers have made it difficult for providers, like community health centers, to get shots into the arms of their patients.

“I just assumed that [the vaccine] would flow like water, but we really had to pry open the door to get access to it,” said Smith, who still practices family medicine in Mississippi.

Mound Bayou was founded by formerly enslaved people, many of whom became farmers.

The once-thriving downtown was home to some of the first Black-owned businesses in the state. Today the town is dotted with shuttered or rundown banks, hotels and gas stations.

Mitch Williams grew up on a Mound Bayou farm in the 1930s and ’40s and spent long days working the soil.

“If you would cut yourself, they wouldn’t put no sutures in, no stitches in it. You wrapped it up and kept going,” Williams said.

When Delta Health Center started operations in 1967, it was explicitly for all residents of all races — and free to those who needed financial help.

Williams, 85, was one of its first patients.

“They were seeing patients in the local churches. They had mobile units. I had never seen that kind of comprehensive care,” he said.

Residents really needed it. In the 1960s, many people in Mound Bayou and the surrounding area didn’t have clean drinking water or indoor plumbing.

At the time, the 12,000 Black residents of northern Bolivar County, which includes Mound Bayou, faced unemployment rates as high as 75% and lived on a median annual income of just $900 (around $7,500 in today’s dollars), according to a congressional report. The infant mortality rate was close to 60 for every 1,000 live births — four times the rate for affluent Americans.

Delta Health Center employees helped people insulate their homes. They built outhouses and provided food and sometimes even traveled to patients’ homes to offer care, if someone didn’t have transportation. Staffers believed these factors affected health outcomes, too.

Williams, who later worked for Delta Health, said he’s not sure where the community would be today if the center didn’t exist.

“It’s frightening to think of it,” he said.

Half a century later, the Delta Health Center continues to provide accessible and affordable care in and around Mound Bayou.

Black Southerners still face barriers to health. In April 2020, early in the pandemic, Black residents accounted for nearly half of covid deaths in Alabama and over 70% in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Public health data from last month shows that Black residents of those states have consistently been more likely to die of covid than residents of other races.

“We have a lot of chronic health conditions here, particularly concentrated in the Mississippi Delta, that lead to higher rates of complications and death with covid,” said Nadia Bethley, a clinical psychologist at the center. “It’s been tough.”

Delta Health Center has grown over the decades, from a few trailers in Mound Bayou to a chain of 18 clinics across five counties. It’s managed to vaccinate over 5,500 people against covid. The majority have been Black.

“We don’t have the National Guard, you know, lining up out here, running our site. It’s the people who work here,” Bethley said.

The Mississippi State Department of Health said it has prioritized health centers since the beginning of the rollout. But Delta Health CEO John Fairman said the center was receiving only a couple of hundred doses a week in January and February. The supply became more consistent around early March, center officials said.

“Many states would be much further ahead had they utilized community health centers from the very beginning,” Fairman said. Fairman said his center saw success with vaccinations because of its long-standing relationships with the local communities.

“Use the infrastructure that’s already in place, that has community trust,” said Fairman.

That was the entire point of the health center movement in the first place, said Smith. He said states that were slow to use health centers in the vaccine rollout made a mistake that has made it difficult to get a handle on covid in the most vulnerable communities.

Smith called the slow dispersal of vaccines to rural health centers “an example of systemic racism that continues.”

A spokesperson for Mississippi’s health department said it is “committed to providing vaccines to rural areas but, given the rurality of Mississippi, it is a real challenge.”

Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association, said the low dose allocation to rural health clinics and community health centers early on is “going to cost lives.”

“With hospitalizations and mortality much higher in rural communities, these states need to focus on the hot spots, which in many cases are these small towns,” Morgan said of the vaccine efforts in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

A report from KFF found that people of color made up the majority of people vaccinated at community health centers and that the centers seem to be vaccinating people at rates similar to or higher than their share of the population. (The KHN newsroom, which collaborated to produce this story, is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

The report added that “ramping up health centers’ involvement in vaccination efforts at the federal, state and local levels” could be a meaningful step in “advancing equity on a larger scale.”

Equal access to care in rural communities is necessary to reach the most vulnerable populations and is just as critical during this global health crisis as it was in the 1960s, according to Smith.

“When health care improves for Blacks, it will improve for all Americans,” Smith said.

This story is from a partnership that includes NPR, KHN and the three stations that make up the Gulf States Newsroom: Mississippi Public Broadcasting; WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama; and WWNO in New Orleans.

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With Harris and Hannah-Jones, Howard University is on a roll

With Harris and Hannah-Jones, Howard University is on a roll

FILE – In this July 6, 2021, file photo, an electronic signboard welcomes people to the Howard University campus in Washington. With the surprise twin hiring of two of the country’s most prominent writers on race, Howard University is positioning itself as one of the primary centers of Black academic thought just as America struggles through a painful crossroads over historic racial injustice. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — With the surprise twin hiring of two of the country’s most prominent writers on race, Howard University is positioning itself as one of the primary centers of Black academic thought just as America struggles through a painful crossroads over historic racial injustice.

But then, Howard University has never exactly been low-profile.

For more than a century, the predominantly Black institution in the nation’s capital has educated generations of Black political and cultural leaders. Among them: Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, civil rights icon Stokely Carmichael, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and Vice President Kamala Harris.

But even by those standards, the school has been on a hot streak lately, with new funding streams, fresh cultural relevancy and high-profile faculty additions. This past week’s hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates serves as confirmation that Howard intends to dive neck-deep into America’s divisive racial debate.

FILE – In this July 6, 2021, file photo Nikole Hannah-Jones is interviewed at her home in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Hannah-Jones opted against teaching at the University of North Carolina after a protracted tenure fight centered on conservative objections to her work and instead chose Howard University, where she will hold the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

Hannah-Jones opted against teaching at the University of North Carolina after a protracted tenure fight centered on conservative objections to her work and instead chose Howard, where she will hold the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism. She rose to fame with The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which reframed U.S. history through a racial equity lens and helped mainstream the idea of critical race theory — a topic that has become a core Republican talking point.

 

 

 

FILE – In this Nov. 21, 2019 file photo, author Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks during the Celebration of the Life of Toni Morrison at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. This past week’s hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Coates serves as confirmation that Howard University intends to dive neck-deep into America’s divisive racial debate. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

 

Coates has written critically on U.S. race relations for years and is closely associated with the argument for reparations for slavery.

Howard’s president, Wayne Frederick, doesn’t characterize either hiring as overtly political, but merely a natural extension of the university’s motivating ethos.

“Howard University has been on that caravan for social justice for about 154 years,” Frederick said in an interview. “Howard has a rich legacy. … My responsibility is to contemporize that and to bring faculty to the university who are in the contemporary space, speaking to present-day issues.”

Columbia University journalism professor Jelani Cobb, a Howard alumnus, described the moves as a pivotal jump in the university’s national stature. Howard, he said, had gone from traditionally “punching above its weight class” to “moving up a whole division.”

All this is just a few years removed from a period of internal tension and financial scandal. In 2018, six employees were fired amid revelations of more than $350,000 in misappropriated grant funding, and students staged a nine-day occupation of the administration building over demands that included better housing and an end to tuition increases.

But even amid those problems, Howard has seen a boost in applications and enrollment as more Black students choose to attend historically Black colleges and universities. “I do think that we’re seeing a renaissance, and that that’s driven by the students more than the parents,” said Noliwe Rooks, chair of Africana studies at Brown University. Rooks attended Spelman, an all-female HBCU in Atlanta.

Howard University Student Association President Kylie Burke, left, introduces Vice President Kamala Harris to the podium to speaks about voting rights at Howard University in Washington, Thursday, July 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Vice President Harris returned to Howard days after the hirings were announced. Speaking at a news conference on a voters’ rights initiative sponsored by the Democratic National Committee, she received a rapturous welcome from a packed house that supplied church-style “amens” and burst into applause when she called Howard “a very important part of why I stand before you at this moment as vice president of the United States of America.”

 

For current students, the school’s rising profile is a confirmation of their choice to attend “The Mecca” — one of Howard’s many nicknames.

“There’s something truly intangible about this university,” said Kylie Burke, a political science major and president of the Howard Student Association, who introduced Harris at the event. Like Harris, Burke came from Northern California to attend Howard, and she served as a legislative fellow in Harris’ office when she was a senator. “Howard teaches you a thing about grit, it teaches you to remain focused, it teaches you to be persistent,” Burke said.

The hirings capped a dizzying stretch for Howard.

FILE – In this July 6, 2021, file photo with the Founders Library in the background, people walk along the Howard University campus in Washington. With the surprise twin hiring of two of the country’s most prominent writers on race, Howard University is positioning itself as one of the primary centers of Black academic thought just as America struggles through a painful crossroads over historic racial injustice. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Within the past year, Harris was elected vice president; MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, donated $40 million; and actor Phylicia Rashad returned to her alma mater as dean of the newly independent College of Fine Arts. That college will be named after the late Chadwick Boseman, a Howard graduate whose role as African superhero Black Panther made him an instant icon and shined a fresh cultural spotlight on the school.

Boseman expressed his love for the university in a 2018 commencement speech, calling it “a magical place.” He cited one of the school’s more modern nicknames, “Wakanda University,” a reference to the movie’s technologically advanced African utopia.

Although there’s rising interest across the HBCU network, Cobb said Howard will always attract a particular demographic of Black student such as Harris with an interest in politics and governance. The school has produced members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries and mayors. One of Cobb’s undergraduate classmates was Ras Baraka, now mayor of Newark, New Jersey.

Rooks said Hannah-Jones’ move could have ripple effects throughout academia.

Traditionally, Rooks said, Black academics were drawn to predominantly white universities because that’s where the funding and the prestige lay. But Hannah-Jones didn’t just bring her reputation; she also brought nearly $20 million in funding.

“It’s a whole other thing when you become the benefactor,” Rooks said. “We all learn how to behave, how to act, in the presence of power. If you’re the power and it’s your money, you’ve taken a whole racial dynamic off the table.”

Still, Howard’s rising prominence does bring the risk that it will overshadow smaller HBCUs. Rooks said Howard and a handful of other big names such as Morehouse, Spelman and Hampton dominate the headlines and the funding. She said, half-jokingly, that most Black American students couldn’t name more than 12 of the 107 HBCUs in the country.

One possible example of the phenomenon: In 2019, NBA star Steph Curry donated an undisclosed amount to allow Howard to launch Division I men’s and women’s golf teams, and fund them for six years. Curry was raised in North Carolina, home to 10 active HBCUs, and holds no particular connection to Howard.

The HBCU world still boils down to “five or six schools that really attract a lot of attention,” Rooks said, and dozens of others that are “desperate for funding.”

Howard’s recent fortune, she said, is “not necessarily going to raise all the boats.”

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Associated Press writer Hilary Powell contributed to this report.

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Follow Khalil on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ashrafkhalil