Voices: Harry Boyte

By Sarah CR Clark

Harry C. Boyte is a self-described public intellectual and community organizer.

In the 1960s, Boyte worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headed by Martin Luther King Jr. After moving to Minnesota, he founded the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He is currently a co-director of the Institute for Public Life and Work at Augsburg University.

Boyte and his wife, Marie Ström, live in St. Anthony Park. Harry identifies himself as Scottish American. The following is my conversation with Boyte:

Q: Where did you grow up and go to school?

A: I grew up in Atlanta, Ga., and lived there until high school, and then we moved to North Carolina. I went to Duke (University) because I wanted to stay in the South. The Freedom Movement was capturing my passion, and I wanted to be involved.

My parents were rare, outspoken opponents of segregation. My mother helped desegregate the libraries and the League of Women Voters in Atlanta.

And Dad, who eventually was the only white person on King’s executive committee, desegregated the Red Cross and started an organization to keep public schools open.

There was a lot of violence and fear around that. I remember his name was in the paper when I was 12. I came out early in the morning and there was a cross burning in the yard, and we received 150 threatening phone calls in one week. So, I changed my path to the grade school because the sheriff up the street was in the Ku Klux Klan. I don’t remember fear exactly, but I do remember turmoil as a young kid.

After my junior year of high school, I went to a Quaker work camp in Philadelphia and we were working in a low-income, Black neighborhood. It was a significant time for me. We were kids from all across the country and I remember it as an electric experience, an intellectual experience.

Q: The racial climate today has been compared to 1960’s civil rights movement. What do you think?

A: The South was much more racially inflamed and repressive than things generally are today. In the world I grew up in, people were scared to say anything. On the other hand, the disciplines of nonviolence have pretty much eroded today.

For example, one of the principles of nonviolence that shaped the Freedom Movement was that you don’t demonize or humiliate your enemies. Rather, you try to figure out where they’re coming from. It was not only individuals trying to practice this, it shaped the whole movement’s strategy.

So for example, the Great March on Washington, D.C.: The organizer of the March was Bayard Rustin, a brilliant strategist. He theorized that one-third of the U.S. was in favor of the movement, one-third were opponents and one-third were vaguely sympathetic but not advocates.

Rustin framed the whole event not as a protest but as a conversation with America. And that was embodied not only in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (which, as a kid, I heard the night before when he practiced in his hotel room) but in the discipline, solemnity and dignity of the marchers.

Today’s strong “war metaphor” encourages protests to seem good versus bad. It’s hard to make conversation.

Q: As a public intellectual, people often ask for your thoughts. I’m wondering, how do you feel in this dual-pandemic time (with COVID-19 and institutional racism)?

A: This is a moment of huge transition. And while it’s a dramatic time, there have been some silver linings to the coronavirus pandemic. A CDC public health study, just published, determined that high community strength was an indicator for resilience during a pandemic, for instance. This sort of language, affirmed in the study, is powerful.

I am also worried about the intensification of war language around this election. Trump didn’t invent this problem; he is the culmination of a very long and dangerous trend.

Q: So many neighbors are struggling with how to begin dismantling systemic racism. Do you have any ideas?

A: It’s important to work through the fact that European-Americans live in bubbles. And that’s true no matter socio-economic or educational status.

The best thing you can do is get to know people from different backgrounds. I have been enjoying the work of an organization called Braver Angels (braverangels.org). And then, while there is a plethora of victim stories, stories of ingenuity and resilience are missing. Seek out great stories of Black people and immigrants who build and create things in the face of oppression.

Sarah CR Clark lives in St. Anthony Park and is a regular freelance writer for the Bugle.

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