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Arts grants to encourage dialogue on race relations

The Baltimore Sun

The Maryland Humanities Council will announce today a first-of-its-kind grant program to fund forums, seminars and other community events aimed at promoting racial dialogue and timed around next year's 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Remembrance and reconciliation are the twin goals of the statewide initiative on race, which is named for the slain civil rights leader, organizers said. The King initiative grants, which will total $500,000, will be used to stimulate community conversations through the arts and humanities, especially before memories of King's life work start to wane, said Peggy Burke, the council's executive director.

"Here in Maryland, we have a history of being challenged when it comes to race," said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a member of the program's advisory committee. "This is courageous as a statewide initiative because we as Americans are not comfortable, not taught to have conversations about race. It gets very emotional, one side against another."

The council is convening a request-for-proposals meeting today at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, inviting nonprofit, educational, community and cultural organizations.

Multimedia grants will be awarded to innovative proposals in coming months, with the hope that talk - including presentations through plays, poetry, stories, film and speeches - is therapy that helps heal race-divided towns, cities and suburbs, said Lisa Keir, spokeswoman for the council.

Center Stage, the American Visionary Art Museum and Enoch Pratt Free Library are among the institutions sending representatives.

Organizers say the state's record on race is nothing to rejoice over, and that the eras of segregation and slavery still leave their mark on modern times and relations between people across the social spectrum.

The King initiative starts in September and will continue beyond April 4 - the 40th anniversary of the day King was fatally shot on a Memphis, Tenn., motel balcony. Riots ensued in several American cities, including Baltimore and Washington.

The council has lined up some literary luminaries, including Baltimore historian Taylor Branch and Virginia poet Nikki Giovanni, and leading authorities on race in Maryland as advisers and speakers. But the participation of people of all ages and from all walks of life is the key to the King initiative's success, organizers say.

"Our agenda is that every county do something, whether you live in Cambridge or Hagerstown," said Burke. "We're the broker of bringing people into the same room, people who might not otherwise meet or talk."

Leading today's meeting is council Vice Chairman Lenneal J. Henderson, a professor of government at the University of Baltimore, who said yesterday that Maryland remains residentially segregated on a larger scale than it was 40 years ago.

How to embed King's ethics and principles - "nonviolence and peace in this era of globalization and terrorism" - is at the heart of the initiative, Henderson said. "Then there are personal connections to sow between generations, for young people who only read about him in a book. We'll bring older and young people together."

Hrabowski, the UMBC president, brings the perspective of having met King in the Deep South - and having been arrested as a 12-year-old during a civil rights demonstration in Birmingham, Ala.

One of King's most eloquent writings, the educator noted yesterday, was his letter from a Birmingham jail, containing the line: "Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere."

Hrabowski said he views the new King initiative as a national model in examining "the state of race in America."

"It's usually not seen to have such a conversation based on ethics, history, politics and academic achievement," he said.

Stanley C. Gabor, a former chairman of the humanities council, said the initiative was the first tryout of its new strategic plan to mobilize "informed dialogue and civic engagement."

"We are, in Maryland, the sole organization to deal in the humanities. Now we're focused on those four words as our way to connect communities in society."

Henderson said another point is to see King as a man who had troubles of his own, especially toward the end of his life before he was slain at 39.

"What strikes you is how young this man was. His opposition to the Vietnam war, many people think that was what got him killed. And in the last year of his life, the Black Power movement had challenged him. He was under tremendous pressure, the cross you bear as a leader making changes this profound," Henderson said.

"Then we see the King in us a little bit better."


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