Episode 64: Gerald Britt & Racial Justice

If you want to hear about the history of race justice and social activism in Dallas, tune in to this episode with Gerald Britt. He was at the front lines with civil rights leaders like Peter Johnson, Zan Holmes, Martin Luther King III and many others, fighting for equality and opportunity for the black community.

Listen to the podcast and read the transcript below, or click here for the full video.

George Mason: Would you like to have a short history of race in the city of Dallas? Gerald Britt grew up here. He's a black pastor and works for City Square in Dallas and he knows personally that history and will share it with you on Good God, coming right up.

George Mason: Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. I'm your host George Mason, and I'm here with my friend Gerald Britt. Gerald is the Vice President of external affairs for City Square which is Dallas's premiere agency for the public good, I would say. Benevolence work of course in part but also interested in good government, in advocacy for the poor and for opportunity to be equalized in the community. I'm not sure how else you would describe it Gerald.

Gerald Britt: That's not a bad description.

George Mason: All right.

Gerald Britt: Yeah.

George Mason: Very good. Well, Gerald and I have been friends for nearly 30 years as we've been- first, we were pastors together, and we're both Baptist by the way.

Gerald Britt: Right.

George Mason: And it's a really important thing probably to recognize that when people talk about the American church, they often talk about the American church as if it's one thing, or Baptist as if we're one thing.

Gerald Britt: We come in all flavors.

George Mason: And we come in all flavors, and it often reminds me, Gerald, of how often people talk about evangelical Christians, and what they really mean is white evangelical Christians.

Gerald Britt: Exactly. Yeah.

George Mason: They don't really take account of the different dimensions of all of that. But you've been in Dallas a long time and grew up here.

Gerald Britt: All my life.

George Mason: So, third generation preacher too.

Gerald Britt: Yep.

George Mason: So, what was your call to ministry like? Was it the kind of thing where you almost had to figure this is the family business or was it something that you knew God was specially drawing you apart?

Gerald Britt: It's interesting that, for me, it initially kind of started out as running away from the family business. I had thought first of all about being a professional football player, then I wanted to be a lawyer, then I wanted to be engaged in what at that time was the social justice movement. I had gone to hear Angela Davis at SMU, Dick Gregory at Bishop College. I think I frightened my mother and my grandfather to death because they didn't know what I was doing because I hadn't talked it over with them but it was wanting to be of service to my people in a substantial way but at the same time, if I could've avoided the ministry, I would've done that. And I had a couple of coaches who had- because after my senior year, I hadn't received any scholarship offers although I got a lot of letters before then, and a couple of coaches got me a scholarship to Tuskegee Institute.

Gerald Britt: And I had filled out all the paperwork and was ready to sign it, and my parents were on board, and then something just spoke to me while I was getting to ready saying, "If you sign this, you're committed," and I couldn't sign it. And after that, I began thinking that it was an impression upon my soul which is the only way that I can explain it that made me know that the only way I would be settled and have peace was to go into the ministry. So, I preached my first sermon on April 20th of 1975 about three weeks before I graduated high school.

George Mason: And then you went on to where?

Gerald Britt: Bishop College, and was at Bishop College for about a year and a half, and then I was Associate minister and my grandfather's Assistant Pastor for about close to 7 years. And then joined New Mount Moriah Baptist Church because that was kind of a neutral safe place for me. I didn't want to go join my father's church, and I didn't want to stay at my grandfather's church. I tell people I didn't know if I was good because the family kept telling me I was good or because I was good. And so, New Mount Moriah, the pastor and I there became great friends over a course of maybe a couple of years. I would go over and talk with him. He would then tell me stuff about the church that you would not figure any pastor would tell a young preacher.

George Mason: And it didn't scare you off?

Gerald Britt: No, it didn't. Then I joined there. My wife and I joined there. And he began to show me even more. And May 15th of 1982 about 9 months after we had joined, he was killed in a car accident, and the deacons asked me to be interim pastor that night. They ordained me because I wasn't ordained at that time. Ordained me so that I could carry out the sacraments and do baptism. And from May until September of that year I served as interim pastor. And then they called me in September to be pastor.

George Mason: Wow. And how many years were you there?

Gerald Britt: I was there 22 years.

George Mason: 22.

Gerald Britt: 22 years. And I tell people that it started out as a very traditional pastorate. All of the trappings and all of the routine of a normal pastor in a relatively poor setting, although we didn't think of it as that, and then after a while I got involved with Peter Johnson. Peter invited me to or I was encouraged to go to a meeting that Peter Johnson had called for pastors who were concerned about the floods that had happened at that time in what we called Bon Ton.

George Mason: Bon Ton, right. We should stop and say Peter Johnson by the way is a sort of legendary Dallas Civil Rights activist who was part of Martin Luther King's group and marched. Did he work for the Southern Leadership Conference?

Gerald Britt: He did. He worked with Southern Christian Leadership Conference as an organizer, field agent?

George Mason: Right. And he's still around?

Gerald Britt: He's still here. Still a very good friend of mine.

George Mason: Good.

Gerald Britt: And he got me involved there. I was writing speeches to go before city hall. I was writing press releases. And I myself was presenting at city hall at the time, and just kind of finding out what the- And then he got me involved in the protest to stop the city council from appealing Judge Buckmeyer's ruling that the city had to have single member districts. And I remember the very first action that we had, he pushed me in the front to help lead a march of 900 people from the Kennedy Memorial to City Hall. And so, it was me. It was Zan Holmes. It was Roy Williams. It was Martin Luther King III.

George Mason: Marvin Crenshaw maybe?

Gerald Britt: Yeah. Marvin Crenshaw. And so, we led that march, and that's kind of how my foray into public life began.

George Mason: You know, it's interesting you say that because that would have been back probably around 1990 or so, somewhere in there?

Gerald Britt: Right.

George Mason: And the decision about the 14-1 versus the 12-4-1 plan which was, the four at large districts was the other thing, was probably the first public issue I stepped out on as well in my pastorate, and I was really surprised at how much push back I got because it seemed only logical that if we were going to change the sense of full participation that had been denied to people in various districts in their city that we needed to end up with the single member districts; otherwise, everything still looked like the old oligarchy was going to continue to exercise undo influence over other folks. And their argument was this is just going to create ward politics and all that kind of thing. Well, what is democracy anyway?

Gerald Britt: Exactly.

George Mason: I mean really. And so, but I remember that being a challenging time when I realized okay George, if you're going to step out on these things, this is the way it's going to be.

Gerald Britt: Yeah. And we got push back from the black community as well.

George Mason: Did you really?

Gerald Britt: Oh yeah. Yeah.

George Mason: Why is that?

Gerald Britt: There were those who had benefited from the status quo.

George Mason: Well, that gets into the whole accommodation too, doesn't it?

Gerald Britt: Exactly. And there were preachers that admired and respected and had followed for years who were challenging us on the wisdom of doing this. And so, yeah, we got push back from all around. I think that A, we were too young to know any better. B, we had a sense of justice that told us that this had to happen. And so, Peter was an excellent mentor, and he allowed us to grow into leadership while giving us a sense of the flavor of what the Civil Rights Movement had been before. And so, it was a challenging, harrowing time but again the results were worth it. And if it had not been for 14-1 passing, we wouldn't have single member districts on the school board. We would not have single member districts in county government which means there would have been no John Wiley Price, which means there would not have an Yvonne Ewell or Cathleen Gilmore, any of the ones we see today.

Gerald Britt: And so, yeah, it has its draw backs. It has not produced the type of leadership or politicians, frankly statesman I call them, that I had hoped it would produce but that political maturity takes time. And I think it's going to take time for the electorate to grow even though it's been 20 something odd years but it's going to take the electorate to grow to understand the type of leaders that we need, and it's going to take a new level of respect for that maturity for it to grow.

George Mason: So, I think for those who are listening or watching who are in the white community of Dallas and throughout the United States this is very common in cities, there's a sense from some that the black community thinks as one.

Gerald Britt: Right.

George Mason: That it has a single mind about public issues and that sort of thing, but we know that's not true.

Gerald Britt: Right.

George Mason: And I think it's probably helpful to be able to recognize that there are elements who are more progressive and more conservative both in the black community just as well as in the white community, and that's true in the churches too.

Gerald Britt: Exactly.

George Mason: When you look at how the black church, per se, in Dallas, it has evolved over the time you've been here, what observations do you have?

Gerald Britt: Well, I think that frankly the political influence that the black church has in the black community is overestimated and has been for some time. There is still political influence that it has and is recognized and respected as well as it should be but as you said, the black community itself is not monolithic. And so, there are more liberal voices out there, more progressive voices, one might say, who don't agree with stances that are taken by the church. There are some stances frankly that the church should take that it hasn't taken. And so, we've got to work on that. I think that there was, during the time when I was growing up as a pastor as well as before, there were more structures in place for political thought and to give birth to politicians. The structures that gave birth, if you will, to a Zan Holmes.

George Mason: Ministerial Alliances being one of them.

Gerald Britt: Exactly.

George Mason: Which now, instead of being one or two, they're all broken up into different kinds of coalitions.

Gerald Britt: Exactly. And when I became a pastor there were two national baptist conventions, three state conventions about 19 or 20 district associations. Now, there are like 5 national conventions. I don't know how many state conventions there are or local. And then, there's the rise of the non-denominational churches. All of which have kind of zapped some strength away from traditional Protestant African American denominations. So, there's a fracturing that takes place that calls for a new type of coalition building. And there is this reluctance I see on the part of many pastors, that I would have thought we'd overcome by now, to address issues substantively that impact our community.

George Mason: Well, it's not just in your community. It's in ours too. And I hate that we continue to have to say your community and our community when this is our community altogether but let's take a break and come back and address some of those things that we'd like to see the church address more distinctively.

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George Mason: We're back with Gerald Britt. Gerald we were talking about the black church, and its role in Dallas but that also goes to a question of why we have to be talking about a black experience in Dallas and a white experience in Dallas. Why can't we have one city of Dallas? And there's a long history to this tension and how we have accommodated this in order to have a city. The phrase "the accommodation" is one that you hear in the wind a lot in Dallas but it has a very specific history to it. Can you describe what that is?

Gerald Britt: Yeah, accommodation is the title of Jim Schultz's book. Jim Schultz who writes for the Dallas Observer. And it reflects upon a time late 50s into the 60s and 70s where leadership particularly in the black community was an accommodation to the desires of white community not to disrupt, if you will, civic life in Dallas. And so, desegregation in Dallas happened not through protests and demonstration but by fiat and a recognition that Dallas would not be an attractive place to visit or to live if we had the same type of disruption that you had in Birmingham or Selma. And so, there was leadership in Dallas that had ties to white leadership that would allow the selection, if you will, of leaders who they found acceptable and un-troubling to rise to be candidates for city council and the like, and that did not- it didn't produce altogether the lack of tension because even on school boards and city councils these were leaders who had to fight for credibility and fight for respect and fight to have their voices heard but that's kind of the way it happened.

Gerald Britt: And I don't know if you remember when the Brown vs. Board of Education came down from the Supreme Court, there was a film that was made that was supposed to have gotten Dallas ready for desegregation, and the film does not have one black or brown face in it but it speaks to whites actually telling them to act respectable and to understand the law had changed or whatnot but didn't have any pictures of black or brown children, didn't have any voices of African Americans talking about this change. It was directed towards whites. That is kind of the way accommodation worked. And so, what it produced is what a lot of us referred to, in Dallas, as a boil that hasn't been lanced in Dallas. And people are still afraid of lancing that boil because they're afraid of the ugliness that might spill out.

George Mason: Well, so, the urban institute came out with its study that said that Dallas came in 274th out of 274 major cities in America in terms of its inequalities that are mainly racial and economic inequalities here in Dallas. So, the net effect over time of the way we have done business in Dallas, the way our politics has been structured, the way our neighborhoods and our schools have been structured, the consequence of all of that has not been just to create a society in which everyone participates well and eagerly and flourishes; but instead, a deep divide that exists.

Gerald Britt: Right.

George Mason: In my 30 years in Dallas, I haven't seen a time that has been more precarious. I don't think that the white community in Dallas understands just how much seething, anger, resentment, and frustration exists because of this long history and this lack of willingness to address directly the things that are about the everyday life of black Dallas folks, and not just the African American community. I think it's felt in the Latino community as well, but as we try to look at what happens at City Council, as we try to think about issues of affordable housing and about education and about all these sorts of things, there is a racial factor to almost everything we do in Dallas.

Gerald Britt: Yeah. I mean the idea of white supremacy that literally seeps through our entire existence, unknown and unbeknownst to many of us in terms of how it affects our everyday living, be it from confederate monuments to the meager attempts at equity in the city council and the school district. All of that has to do with white supremacy and whites feeling as if they're giving something to ...

George Mason: Right. It's about our charitable instincts but we created a structure, a system of life together that disproportionately advantaged and disadvantaged another, and then we also are asking for credit when we give generously certain kinds of gifts back in some way which is not the way it's supposed to be. It's supposed to be that everyone is deserving of their own place.

Gerald Britt: At City Square we have a book club every month, and there have been some older white supporters who have come from Dallas, and when we would talk about race, their complaint would be, "You talk about this as if there has been no progress," and when you stop and think about it, the hundred years from the period after slavery ended to just say 1963 - 1965 was one of the most brutal periods of segregation and Jim Crow in which people were lynched with impunity, raped without accountability, economically deprived in some of the most heinous ways that you can figure, and to say that you don't give us any credit for- you mean you want credit for being human. You want credit for treating me as if I'm a human being which does not inure to any type of benefit that suggests my equality or equity, equity of opportunity. And so, that is where we've got to move to now.

George Mason: Well, it's where we have to move to, and it seems to me that we're in a place where now we can't continue to just ignore these realities that you've talked about and to pretend that we can just make small incremental progress. We have to take on structurally what is wrong inside of us and what is wrong outside of us, and do this as a complimentary matter. I feel like the white church has said, and elements of the black church as well, change a person's heart and then everything will change.

Gerald Britt: Right.

George Mason: Well, you know, that's actually not the way the biblical profits spoke of it. It's not the way Jesus spoke of it but it is the way the church has largely avoided getting in trouble with each other and with people in public but it doesn't seem to connect. You change your heart with God, and we don't see the net effect of that in terms of the way we do business, the way we choose our schools, the way we have our children integrate. It stays the same.

Gerald Britt: Exactly. Yeah, and I had a friend of mine whom I love dearly and she was saying that I'm trying to change the world one person at a time. And I told her, I said, "We'll all be dead by then".

George Mason: Yeah. Right.

Gerald Britt: There has to be some substantive change that takes place over time but we all have to be made somewhat uncomfortable, and you know you and I talk a little earlier-

George Mason: Let's go ahead and hit me with it Gerald. Go ahead and hit me with it because we go way back, and so there is a conversation that you and I have in my office years and years ago, right?

Gerald Britt: Yeah.

George Mason: So go ahead and talk about this.

Gerald Britt: You know, I'd come over and talk to you about becoming a member of Dallas Area Interfaith and explain to you what we do and all of that, and I think we drifted into a conversation about race and challenging congregations and whatnot. And so, at a certain point you said, "Well, Gerald, you know, nobody wants to be uncomfortable," and I thought about that, and I said okay that's where he is, and that's fine. You and I have remained friends over the years. I've watched you grow in that regard.

George Mason: Thank God.

Gerald Britt: And I've watched a number of your sermons that you've preached, and I said, "Well, looks like he's trying to make people uncomfortable now."

George Mason: Yeah. That's what they would say too I'm afraid.

Gerald Britt: But I think to build substantive relationships that last over time where neither one of you go away from the table, neither one of you stop talking, neither one of you stop talking about the things that are important to one another, neither one of you- where you get to the point where you're actually listening to someone and not just waiting to hear somebody else talk, that's where this begins, and that happens over time. The idea that you talked about when you talked about one segment of the population exercising its dominance to the disadvantage of another, that is the definition of racism, and people don't get that. People think that racism is just simply you don't like me because I'm white or you don't like me because I'm black. Racism has to do with power.

George Mason: Right.

Gerald Britt: Racism has to do with the ability to impact through policy, through economics the way another person lives. And to the degree that we begin to take that seriously is the degree that which we'll see just how badly a whole segment of our population is doing. The lack of not only economic resources but the lack of educational opportunities, the lack of jobs, the lack of transportation, the lack of healthcare. All of that is sourced out of racism, and if we don't get that straight, we'll be able to put some bandaids on this wound but again, we'll never be able to fully lance this boil and let this poison out so that we can all be better.

George Mason: Well, I want to thank you for hanging in there with me over the years. And you know, we laugh about that but it's not really a laughing matter. This is part of what our duty is to each other in part as fellow Christians, as brothers in Christ, in part as ministers, part as just human beings who are neighbors who have to pay attention to one another, and unfortunately, we do find ourselves in a position right now I fear in our country where we aren't being patient with one another. I understand the impatience but if we fall out of relationship with that patience, we don't give anybody a chance to grow.

Gerald Britt: Exactly.

George Mason: And God knows we want things to change quickly, and maybe there are strategies for that to happen of course but over the long course of time, we have to know one another.

Gerald Britt: Right.

George Mason: So, thank you for your patience and for your deliberate consistency over all these years. We have a lot more to talk about. We're going to do another episode, so thanks for being with us on Good God.

Gerald Britt: Well, thank you.

George Mason: We'll come back.

Gerald Britt: All right.

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