We all have witnessed the amazing grace shown by the victims’families in the aftermath of the brutal shooting of Reverend Clementa Pinchney and eight parishioners of the Emanuel A.M.E. Baptist Church on June 17, 2015. We heard the riveting eulogy by President Obama, calling forth a period of grace, not earned but bestowed upon us. He elevated his remarks with a stirring a capella rendition of Amazing Grace that united the church in song. Our hearts opened and spirits soared.
The images over the last two weeks of June have got me thinking about Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott in Charleston, Eric Garner in Staten Island, Freddy Gray in Baltimore , and many more. And now, nine black parishioners in Charleston, SC. When will the racism and violence stop? The attack on the Emanuel A.M.E. Baptist Church was not a new strategy, but one swaddled in the history of discrimination against blacks since before our country was born.
This is exactly the concern I had back in 1995-1996, when black churches were being burned to the ground often with impunity. On June 20th, 1995, the Mount Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, SC, was burned to the ground. The very next day the Macedonia Baptist Church in Manning, SC suffered the same fate.
In January 1996, the Inner City Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee was set aflame, and during these two years more than 30 primarily black churches were set on fire. The pillage did not go unnoticed, for these events appeared in the headlines. These churches were not only a sacred place of worship, but community centers for black families. What could anyone do to counter the violent acts, especially from her office in New York City? Well, as it turns out, plenty.
At the time, I was Founder, Chairman and CEO of USA Network and at the very least, I ran a popular entertainment network. It was a window into people’s homes that I was determined to put to good use. I decided to shift the focus away from heinous perpetrators and showcase the ways in which people were showing compassion and support for one another. I felt the resiliency and unity among affected communities and nation-wide support was not showing up in the headlines often enough.
This was the beginning of the Erase the Hate Campaign on USA Network. It started off with public service announcements regarding acceptance of others. It was a start, but too oblique to have messaging frequency and with only one network at that time, not enough exposure to have impact. Besides, there were many forms of discrimination and many minorities to whom it was applied. We moved onto documentaries that focused on people who were suffering discrimination for a variety of reasons: gay students, transgender people, AIDS sufferers, religious intolerance and more.
Having based my career on the power of television to communicate, I also knew that a good story has much more impact than messages directly aimed at changing prejudices. At the time, the network was scheduling nearly two dozen original TV movies a year. Why not focus some of them on stories of people making a difference in the lives of those suffering from discrimination?
There were plenty of stories to be told. One very compelling story was of Rosemary Holmstrom, a woman who had contracted HIV from her husband who had most likely contracted it from a blood transfusion. Diagnosis left Rosemary with very limited time to secure a future for her 9-year old son. Frantic, she sought an interview with New York Daily News to publicize her story. Her efforts were returned with hundreds of letters offering to adopt her son. Eventually, she ended up meeting a couple. TV executive Bob Turner and his wife Peggy, through her son’s school counselor. It was an ideal match. The movie, A Mother’s Prayer, depicted Rosemary’s journey and the grace the Turner’s showed in welcoming Rosemary’s son, C.J. into their family.
There were other compelling stories that we told to enlighten people to the power of compassion for others, but one in particular stands out. “Not in This Town” is based on a true story that took place in Billings, Montana. It was the fall of 1993 that the Nazis sympathizer skinheads rolled into Billings, Montana on motorcycles with evil intent in mind. At first they threw rocks through the windows of the homes of Jews, and then they raided the Jewish cemetery, destroying gravestones. Jewish families were stunned.
One woman, Tammy Schnitzer, would have none of it. Through community organizing and support of The Billings Gazette, a full-page menorah was printed in the paper. The intention was for community members to show their support by placing the menorah image in their windows. Nearly 10,000 complied. The compassion the community showed for a small minority reduced a very tense situation. The skinheads, defeated, withdrew.
What happened next was also empowering. Back at USA Networks, we petitioned Montana Senators Conrad Burns and Max Baucus, to declare a national Erase the Hate Eliminate Racism Day to commemorate the victory the people of Billings had won. They did just that in Senate Resolution #78 which was proposed and passed to declare April 30, 1997, National Erase The Hate and Eliminate Racism Day. USA Networks supported the effort with a school curriculum and made it available to schools around the country.
President Clinton praised the Senators for their leadership in bringing this resolution to the senate Floor. In his remarks he said: “ I applaud the leadership of Senator Baucus , along with Senator Burns and all Members of the United States Senate who have joined together to designate today as a national day to erase the hate and eliminate racism.”
Our campaign was launched to illuminate the deeds of people working to bring people together. While they, like the good people of Charleston, may have acted in response to public and personal tragedies, we have the catalyst before us now for turning the tide on racism and discrimination of all kinds. I believe we should celebrate April 30th every year as a Day to Erase the Hate and Eliminate Racism. Today, USA Network is continuing to address social injustice with their Characters Unite campaign. I encourage you to visit their site and post your picture and personalize their PSA statement: “#IWontStandFor…” I know I will not stand for racism and gun violence. As the song amazing grace tells us. ” I was blind and now I see.” Let’s see the future of inclusion for all.