A revelation from Justice Robinson

Published 8:48 pm Saturday, May 10, 2014

By Dennis Edwards

Some moments in life bring clarity in a startling way. An old professor, Dr. William Jerry Boney, used to call those moments “the point of aha,” the millisecond when revelation becomes realization.

“Aha” has a way of happening in the strangest places and at the oddest times. You could call it an epiphany of sorts. Whenever it happens, we are floored by the feeling that we should have known all along.

Newsletter

Email newsletter signup

Has that ever happened to you? My turn was back in 1980, while a full-time seminarian at what is now Virginia Union University’s Samuel Proctor School of Theology. We were studying urban ministry in Washington, D.C.

Part of the curriculum was a mid-winter term project called “the plunge.” We put on beat-up clothes, were given a phone number for emergencies and were sent out onto dangerous streets to experience life as homeless people.

My classmate and I slept in a homeless shelter one night, on the street another and then tried to see what panhandling was like. We learned firsthand how humiliating homelessness can be.

After the plunge, our class went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia for a lecture from a legendary judge, Chief Justice Spottswood Robinson, appointed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Years earlier Robinson and law partner Oliver Hill litigated a major desegregation case in Virginia, Davis v. County School Board. “Davis” became one of four cases used by the Supreme Court in deciding the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that forced nationwide integration of public schools.

At the time we were young, idealistic and a little rattled after living on the streets for three days. So we were full of what we thought were tough questions about the unfairness of our nation’s judicial system.

One of my classmates challenged Chief Justice Robinson on the role of the courts in correcting racial injustice. He smiled, leaned back and proceeded to rock my world. “Racism in America is a family affair,” he said.

Suddenly everything I’d seen in my hometown made sense. It was a major point of “aha” for me.

Yet it was a viable explanation of the close, yet secret, relationships between blacks and whites, why so many black families owned so much farm land, why lynchings and other racial violence never got quite the foothold often seen in other places and why both communities knew so much about each other.

Robinson defined for me the paramount issue in American race relations. We are all related. Just as there are major disagreements and colossal injustices among family members, the same is true among races.

Robinson was forcing us to think deeper about each other and the scars hidden behind hurt. Imagine how the slave whose father lived in the big house felt while watching him with his other family, and vice versa. The pain of mistreatment runs deep where family is concerned.

Race is a personal issue in America. Not a distant distraction. Who can ignore shared same names and lineages? Doesn’t the subject beg deeper scrutiny?

Justice Robinson makes us think about who we are and what our relationship ought to be. He adds the word “relatives” to our discussion. It makes you wonder whether relatives should behave this way toward each other, doesn’t it?

Dennis Edwards is an Emmy Award-winning television news reporter and anchor, He is a 1974 graduate of Suffolk High School. Email him at dennisredwards@verizon.net.