WASHINGTON (RNS) The new movie “12 Years a Slave” may depict a bygone era in American history, but religious leaders hope it might spark increased attention about present-day race relations.
“It is the elephant in the room,” said the Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner, a facilitator of the National African American Clergy Network, speaking at a panel discussion after a recent screening.
“If you even raise race today, you are ‘race baiting.’ You’re playing ‘the race card,’” said Williams-Skinner, who is also the CEO of the Skinner Leadership Institute.
The movie gives an unflinching account of the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man living in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who was kidnapped and spent a dozen years as a slave in the South, wrongly accused of being a Georgia runaway.
Clergy and activists hope the movie that opens Friday (Oct. 18) — with its depiction of whippings and other degradation — will be a catalyst for churches to recall slavery and address the current state of the nation’s race relations. They point to controversies from the killing of Florida teen Trayvon Martin to the Supreme Court striking down a major provision of the Voting Rights Act.
Sojourners, the Washington-based anti-poverty group, will be circulating “The One Church One Body Pledge” in hopes of starting a new conversation to improve race relations.
“Many white Christians and churches have no connection to what is being felt and said in black churches nationwide — both about fear for their children and fear of losing their voting rights,” the pledge reads.
It urges supporters to seek racial reconciliation and help the church become “a multiracial community.” It calls on them to “repair our criminal justice system” and urge Congress to “restore the integrity of the Voting Rights Act.”
Sojourners’ founder, Jim Wallis, tied the stories of families separated in “12 Years a Slave” to often-forgotten African-American children who attend inadequate schools or live on streets where hundreds are shot each year.
“It’s still going on every damn day,” he said.