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A Call for Honesty and Accountability

Barry ThomasAfter celebrating his 40th birthday earlier this year, Barry Thomas reflected on the fact that he was now a year older than the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when the civil rights leader was assassinated on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39.

While Thomas, who serves as director of equity and diversity for Omaha Public Schools, has witnessed a lot in his lifetime, like Dr. King, the longtime educator has been disappointed at the pace of racial progress in the United States.

Dr. King’s teenage years were shaped against the backdrop of World War II, in which Black Americans fought bravely and with distinction for the causes of justice and democracy, only to face segregation and discrimination back home.

Thomas, who was the keynote speaker at Creighton’s annual Unity Prayer Celebration, held virtually this year because of the pandemic, said in his lifetime he has seen “a new Jim Crow” in the mass incarceration of Black Americans during the crackdown on illegal drugs, in particular crack cocaine, in the 1980s and 1990s.

Enforcement of the so-called “War on Drugs” disproportionately affected Blacks.

Thomas said he finds it particularly interesting that the current opioid drug crisis is labeled the “opioid epidemic” versus the “crack wars” of the ’80s and ’90s. “White folks are living through the opioid epidemic, while Black folks have had to survive the crack and drug wars,” he said. “These are two different ways the government can decide to step in and create change.”

The theme for this year’s Unity Prayer Luncheon was Dr. King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Thomas said he finds two major takeaways in rereading Dr. King’s 1963 letter, which he wrote after being convicted of parading without a permit.

The first is a call to honesty, and the second a call to accountability.

Thomas said Dr. King’s letter resonates today. He cited federal bans on the “critical race theory” and 1619 project, tax cuts for the wealthy and the release of the 1776 Commission report.

“Let’s just be honest about who we are and what we are,” Thomas said. “If we can’t do that, then we can’t have racial justice and reconciliation, and we can’t move forward with accountability. Because we first have to look ourselves in the mirror and recognize who we are as a nation.

“That’s all the Letter from Birmingham Jail was asking us to do … trying to call to action a change in how we understand history, society and culture. We have a charge to see those things and not unsee them.”

Thomas said the “privileged” don’t see life through the same lens as the “oppressed,” which has become evident during pandemic restrictions.

“You saw people who had been used to being able to do what they wanted to, when they wanted to. Those who had been propped up by a system that gave them privilege,” Thomas said. “Oppressed people know, these are the parts of the city you can live, or these are the schools you can go to. Oppressed people have always had their bodies and their lives controlled by the government, by systems.”

Thomas closed with a challenge to not forget what we have seen – or what Dr. King experienced – so the next generation knows this was the time we set a course calling for honesty and accountability for the greater good of our nation and humanity.

The Unity Prayer Celebration was moderated by Christopher M. Whitt, PhD, Creighton’s vice provost for Diversity and Inclusion, and included a video welcome from Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, PhD, and a short live address from Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert. The event also included the presentation of the Drum Major Award by Creighton’s Martin Luther King Jr. Committee. This year, the committee chose the Douglas County Health Department and the Douglas County Board of Health. In June, the Board of Health made headlines for declaring racism a public health crisis. Also during the ceremony, Jessica Fuertes, a senior at Omaha South High School, was announced as the 2021 Stovall Scholarship Award recipient.

Watch a recording of the event.

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