It has been 40 years since the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but only now, with the emergence of an African-American candidate with a real chance of winning the presidency, has race finally pushed itself into the heart of America’s civic conversation.
“In some ways we’ve never talked more about race in America,” Mark Whitaker, senior vice president of NBC News, said in a commentary he wrote as part of the network’s initiative with msnbc.com’s Gut Check America series examining race relations in the United States.
And yet, he lamented, “there has been virtually no debate in this campaign about how to tackle the crisis of inner-city black men, millions of whom are locked in a vicious cycle of criminality and incarceration.”
NBC will try to address that lack of debate Friday night, April 11, when it hosts a 90-minute discussion of racial issues at Howard University in Washington. The event, to be moderated by Brian Williams, anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” will air on MSNBC at 10:30 p.m. ET and will streamed live on msnbc.com. It will include radio talk show host Tom Joyner; author and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson; Malaak Compton-Rock, an entrepreneur and wife of comedian Chris Rock; and the Rev. DeForest Soaries, a prominent Republican activist.
Also on the panel will be David A. Wilson, whose intensely personal look at the ties of two American families — one black, one white — will air at 9 p.m. ET.
“Meeting David Wilson” tracks Wilson’s journey to North Carolina to meet David B. Wilson, a descendant of the white Southern family that owned his ancestors during the slavery era.
Wilson, now 30, a veteran of ABC, CBS and Fox News, said it was “about creating a dialogue for America as a whole.”
“What you have in the two of us is the story of two races and two generations honestly talking about the dark cloud of slavery and its continuing impact on our families and our lives even today,” he said.
Meeting David Wilson
For Wilson, the journey was eye-opening. Working with Nancy Carter Moore, a genealogical researcher, he learned that his family had been enslaved for three generations on vast plantations across North Carolina and Virginia belonging to the wealthy Wilson family.
To his surprise, Wilson learned that the family still lived in the same big house in Caswell County, N.C. The owner’s name, according to the county clerk’s office: David Wilson.
In “Meeting David Wilson,” the filmmaker recounts his first contact with his namesake:
“I called there, and I eventually spoke with him, and I said: ‘Hello, Mr. David Wilson?’ And he said: ‘Yes?’ And I said, ‘Well, my name is David Wilson, and I believe your family once owned mine.’
“He paused for a second and said: ‘Well, that could be.’
“It was the most uncomfortable feeling I’ve ever had.”
Accompanied by his director and cameraman, Daniel Woolsey, David A. Wilson, the young, black New York journalist — set out to meet David B. Wilson — the white son of 1940s and ’50s Southern segregation and owner of a nationally known barbecue joint that opened in 1949.
‘Dialogue a lot of people dread having’
“I think he’s going to be a tobacco-chewing, straw-eatin’, rifle-totin’, rockin’ chair-sittin’, lemonade-drinkin’ redneck,” Wilson, half-joking, said as he and Woolsey hit the road from New York.
What they found was quite different.
“I have so much respect for him because here you have a man who’s just this common guy, yet he’s been put in a situation, and he’s welcomed the situation where he’s been put in the middle of this dialogue that a lot of people dread having,” Wilson said.
“David and I, in our conversations, don’t address all the issues regarding race. We don’t find all the answers. What I think we do is set the example that it is possible to to talk about race in a way in which we can all come together. We can focus on our future together, as opposed to our divided past.”
The Wilsons agreed on some things and disagreed on others, but without rancor or apprehension. “After spending hours with David, something happened that I really didn’t anticipate,” David A. Wilson says in the film. “I began to see less and less of a descendant of my family’s former slave owner and more and more of a decent and kind-hearted human being.”
So they put together a reunion of both families.
“This was amazing,” Wilson said. “Here we stood, not in the shadow of the ignorance that dominated our family’s history, but together as newfound friends and family.”
That experience encouraged Wilson to do something no one in his family had done before: return to his ancestral homeland in Ghana. There, he visited the centuries-old forts where future slaves were held, an experience that helped him recognize “how strong we are. Look what we’ve been through. Look what we had to go through.”
The journey led him to this realization:
“We have all these sorts of problems: gang violence, imprisonment. If we can understand our ancestors and understand the strength that they had, then we should realize by extension that we have that same strength — that we’re not the descendants of victims but victors. ...
“They overcame obstacles for anyone else who wanted to take part in the American dream.”