When I had the privilege of introducing Ken Burns at the launch of his groundbreaking "National Parks: America's Best Idea" documentary film at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta 2009, I told him from the stage:
"One of the Top Five reasons I love you is that from now on, when I tell people about the Black stars who played pivotal roles in developing our National Park System, I can end their skepticism with these simple words, 'It's in Ken Burns' documentary. Check it out.' And they'll accept it, because your credibility is unassailable."
What a joy to meet the boyish looking documentary film maker whose legendary work to capture America's ethos now incudes #blacklivesmatter
Leap forward six years and today I am humbled by the courage Ken demonstrated in his commencement speech to Washington University in Missouri May 15. Confronting the persistent and increasing scourge of racism in America, Burns said: (Full Story here)
"Before the enormous strides in equality achieved in statutes and laws in the 150 years since the Civil War that Lincoln correctly predicted would come we are in danger of being undone by our still imperfect human nature and by politicians who now insist on a hypocritical color-blindness -- after four centuries of discrimination.
Ken Burns bared America's soul and challenges us to be our better selves at Washington University Commencement in Missouri.
"That discrimination now takes on new, sometimes subtler, less obvious but still malevolent forms today. The chains of slavery have been broken, thank God, and so too has the feudal dependence of sharecroppers as the vengeful Jim Crow era recedes (sort of) into the distant past. But now in places like -- but not limited to -- your other neighbors a few miles as the crow flies from here in Ferguson, we see the ghastly remnants of our great shame emerging still, the shame Lincoln thought would lead to national suicide, our inability to see beyond the color of someone's skin. It has been with us since our founding...
"But the shame continues: prison populations exploding with young black men, young black men killed almost weekly by policemen, whole communities of color burdened by corrupt municipalities that resemble more the predatory company store of a supposedly bygone era than a responsible local government. Our cities and towns and suburbs cannot become modern plantations...
"In summing up the country's struggles with race, Burns spoke about Twain's 1884 novel, 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,' in which the teenage protagonist travels along the Mississippi River with a runaway slave named Jim. The novel's climax comes as Huck Finn anguishes over a letter he wrote to a slave owner telling her where she could find Jim. Huck Finn acknowledges Jim has been a good friend to him, but he believes he will go to hell for helping Jim.
"In the end, the teenager rips up the letter before sending it, saying 'All right, then, I'll go to hell!
'That is, maybe, the finest moment in all of American literature,' Burns told the audience. 'Equality is the hallmark and the birthright of all Americans. . . And you won't go to hell.
DEL Speaker Jarid Manos whose Great Plains Restoration Council is a partner with Karenna Gore's new Center for Earth Ethics, (CEE) spoke at the private dinner honoring VP Al Gore which launched the CEE.
What a relief to find an American icon and a champion for the national parks who really gets it - that it is hollow and self-serving to extoll the sanctity of the parks that are supposed to tell the American story while turning a blind eye to the desperate plight of the oppressed fellow citizens in our midst. So many people conveniently separate the two as if one has no relationship to the other.
The price our country paid to end the enslavement of our fellow human beings is written in blood at Manassas Battlefield National Park and at Gettysburg National Military Park among many others. President Lincoln paid the ultimate price at Ford's Theater National Historic Site where he was shot dead for uniting us into a non-slave-holding country.
So as we learn more about the institutionalized oppression and segregation in our country today, it's disingenuous to pretend the inequality stops at our park's gates. I'm so thankful that Ken Burns eschews this pretense, telling the young graduates he's "drafting them into a new Union army."
The same day I learned of Ken's bold and evocative charge, I received this inquiry on our DEL website:
"What percentage of your 'diverse' bureau is white men????
I responded: Thanks for writing. We have no white males - or females - in DEL because white males and females constitute close to 90 percent of the workforce and users of our publicly owned lands system. The purpose of DEL is to provide citizens who can help integrate the system. FYI we were recently also asked why we don't have members of the LGBT community and Veterans. The answer was that we do. If you're looking to find a white male speaker for your event, I'm certain we can help you as we have many friends who fit the bill."
To which he responded, "What a bunch of crap."
I don't think I'll engage that writer anymore.
Meanwhile DEL speakers continue to shine with three of us having the ear of current and former Presidents and VP of the United States in the past month.
Author and nationally recognized humanitarian leader Jarid Manos spoke at a private dinner for former Vice President Al Gore at Union Theological Seminary, where the VP was presented with the Union Medal.
South Florida's "water princess" Irela Bague who's been instrumental in the project to repair the Everglades met with both President Clinton and President and Mrs. George W. Bush as a Presidential Leadership Scholar. Scholars have the opportunity to interact with and learn from some of the top leaders in the world, and Irela intends for her signature project to be a national conference on diversity in the environmental and outdoors sector.
You may recall that I had the opportunity to meet and speak with President Obama briefly in Everglades National Park last month. So we're making progress, and you can help accelerate the pace by choosing a DEL Speaker or referring the Bureau to your event-planning colleagues.
The Third Annual African Americans in the National Parks Event will take place across the country the weekend of June 6 and 7, when all Americans and particularly Black Americans are encouraged to discover their parks, Our South Florida Community Partners team is looking forward to introducing new visitors to the wildlife spectacle along the Anhinga Trail on Saturday, June 6. Please let us know if you want to join us. Tweet your photos from the parks to #aanpd.
You can't fix a problem if you don't acknowledge it, so my hat's off to Ken Burns. His outspoken activism and rallying call for us to take the blinders off and work toward attaining our country's ideals has reaffirmed my faith that our National Parks really are America's Best Idea!