Celebrating MLK and Expanding the Circle of Amity: An Interview with Dr. William “Smitty” H. Smith

The main statue in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, DC.

Dr. William “Smitty” H. Smith is the founding executive director of the National Center for Race Amity based at Wheelock College in Boston, Massachusetts, which develops forums and initiatives to advance cross-racial and cross-cultural amity that impact the public discourse on race. Dr. Smith has received awards from numerous organizations including the National Education Association, International Academy of Communications Arts and Sciences, the National Association for Black Veterans, and the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

THEHUMANIST.COM: The U.S. landscape is dotted with divides. Political, racial, religious, economic, and gender divides all hinder our flourishing as a society. What do you see as the key to bridging our divides? What role can humanism play?

William H. “Smitty” Smith: One of the keys to bridging the divides that exist in the world is to look at the one thing that is common to all the divisions: the lack of interaction on a person-to-person level, a lack of personal relationships. At the National Center for Race at Wheelock College we focus on bridging the racial divide and so this is an area that I am comfortable addressing. Race relations in America will not substantially improve unless the public discourse on race moves beyond the blame/grievance/rejection framework to one that recognizes and celebrates our ability to overcome racial prejudice through association, amity, and collaboration.

While the tradition of racial oppression was unfolding during our nation’s history, a parallel tradition, largely hidden and poorly understood, was demonstrating some of the most positive qualities to be found in American history. This “other tradition” of close collaboration, amity, and love has served as the moral and spiritual counterweight to the dominant tradition of racism that occupies so much of our national history. The other tradition offers a new entry point for the public discourse on race. Race amity is the mission of our actions and work at the National Center for Race Amity. Humanists are encouraged to investigate this thesis and integrate the perspective in their engagement of discourse and activism to advance access and equity. The optimism for the power of the other tradition of race amity rests in a two-fold observation: one history, and, two, that in human relationships the most cherished are family, followed by friends. Friendship involves love, understanding, forgiveness, unimpeachable loyalty, and, at times, sacrifice. It is these qualities that amity embodies which are the tools needed to overcome the seemingly insurmountable challenges in the racial divide.

THEHUMANIST.COM: Today we’re celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. who once said, “Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.” How can we overcome ideological differences that produce internal hate?

Smith: It is for humanist and their allies to expand the circle of amity to those of dissimilar persuasion. This requires courage to move outside familiarity and in earnest make efforts to contact and associate, perhaps around some common point of understanding, and work to establish and cultivate friendship. Personally, I have found many times that events and activities related to patriotism are a common connection with people who are on distant poles from me on social and fiscal issues. Over a period of time we have come to have a reciprocal appreciation of each other, which has the potential for real friendship. A person that was quite adept at building relationships using this model was Senator Ted Kennedy.

THEHUMANIST.COM: The millions of people who marched on January 11 in solidarity with slain journalists and citizens in France was a great example of unity and a nonviolent protest of extremism. What do you think King would say in reaction to the kinds of violent protest we see around the world on a daily basis, from the murder of New York policemen to the massacre of French cartoonists?

Smith: Dr. King’s response would be what it consistently was in addressing violence and is best articulated in his own words,

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

THEHUMANIST.COM:  King condemned white Christians for perpetuating racism and for accepting U.S. imperialism and war-making. While a devout Christian himself, he certainly espoused many of the values—pluralism, skepticism, nonviolence, and tolerance—that humanists hold dear. How do religious differences impact racial inequality?

Smith: First, I don’t think it is an accurate statement that religious differences impact racial inequities. Whether you accept or reject religion, an independent, unbiased, look at the core tenants of the world’s major organized religions reveal a commonality that is complimentary to humanist thought. Commonly referred to as the Golden Rule these values are quite similar and in no way express or imply racial or other intolerances. The following expressions from several religions support this perspective:

“This is the sum of duty: do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” (Hinduism)
“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Buddhism)
“Do unto others what you would have them do unto you: this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Christianity)
“No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.” (Islam)
“What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.” (Judaism)
“And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbor that which thou choosest for himself.” (Baha’i Faith)

In a very real sense major religions are at unity in their core values. The problems stem from individuals who ignore the core tenants and create interpretations that satisfy their own personal exaltation. This, of course, is what Dr. King was addressing in his criticism within his Christian faith community.

THEHUMANIST.COM: Again, what role can humanism play in bringing about peaceful civil discourse?

Smith: Humanists might consider learning more about “the other tradition” and its approach to addressing the racial divide. One particular approach is RADD (Race Amity Devotions/ Meditation and Dialogue) which are regular monthly sessions with lay facilitators that offer a guide book for interested parties. Humanists can also support the efforts to establish an annual National Race Amity Day through a joint resolution of Congress. This day has been proposed for the second Sunday in June. Information on both of these initiatives is at http://ncra.wheelock.edu.