By Louis Stokes
In 1968, I became the first African-American from Ohio to be elected to Congress, where I served for 30 years. In reaching that position I had to challenge many racial stereotypes that had their roots in slavery. My late brother Carl, the first African-American to be elected mayor of Cleveland, likewise faced prejudices that stemmed from the history of slavery in America.
Our personal experiences reaffirmed historical truths: that slavery poisoned the human mind and penetrated social institutions, and that eliminating these stereotypes and reforming institutions would require the combined effort of black and white citizens. U.S. Rep. Rob Portman and I were the co-sponsors of the Underground Railroad Act. It was under this legislation that the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati was created and funded. Portman and I worked in Congress to make this extraordinary center a reality.
Though the Freedom Center is on the banks of the Ohio River, the lessons of freedom emanating from it will radiate throughout the state, the nation and indeed the world. The center is uniquely equipped to serve as a forum for challenging all barriers to freedom, for all persons.
Even before the Freedom Center's groundbreaking ceremony in 2002, it launched the Theodore M. Berry Distinguished Lectures on Public Policy and Human Rights. It presented such nationally respected lecturers as the late Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, the eminent historian Dr. John Hope Franklin and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young.
The lecture series, and the seminars and symposiums held in connection with them, resulted from a recognition of the role the Freedom Center can play as a forum, for the discussion of great social issues. In 1997, Franklin was selected by then-President Clinton to head the commission that conducted a national dialogue on race. The need to continue those discussions has never been greater. The Freedom Center can provide the venue.
The International Freedom Conductor Awards have also presented an opportunity for the community, the nation and indeed the world to regard the Freedom Center as a place for highlighting, in a calm and rational way, the great issues of the day. From the award's first recipient, Rosa Parks, to South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the role of dialogue and discussion presented by the Freedom Center insures that it will continue to be a safe harbor for free expression.
With the rise of concerns over racial and ethnic profiling, complicated by reactions to political and religious issues growing out of the war in Iraq, the Freedom Center is even more vital as a forum for discussion and dialogue.
No one described those challenges more powerfully than my friend, the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. In a 1992 speech on Independence Day in Philadelphia, he declared:
"I wish I could say that racism and prejudice were only distant memories ... but as I look around, I see not a nation of unity but of division - Afro-Americans and whites, indigenous and immigrants, rich and poor, educated and illiterate ... but there is a price to be paid for division and isolation."
The goal of unity and tolerance is the challenge that made me eager to assist in bringing the promise of the Freedom Center to reality, and has made me rejoice in the center's opening this month. Now, our mission is to continue to work for freedom, as Marshall exhorted us to do.
Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences that divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison. Reach out: freedom lies just on the other side.
The Freedom Center offers an unparalleled opportunity for people in Cincinnati and the nation to "take a chance and reach out." That is what my brother Carl and I always sought to do. The opportunity offered by the Freedom Center, to bring people together, is to me very personal and very important.
Louis Stokes retired from the U.S. House in 1999 after three decades representing his Cleveland-area constituents in Congress.
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