Emilie Townes at Tuskegee: It takes more than electing the first black male president

Emilie Townes, associate dean of academic affairs and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology at Yale Divinity School, delivered the keynote address at Alabama’s Tuskegee University on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 18, declaring that though Americans “have the power to do incredible good...we have become painfully aware that it takes more than electing the first black male president.”

TuskegeeBefore beginning her lecture, Townes lauded the retiring president of Tuskegee, Benjamin F. Payton ’63 Ph.D., for serving the historically black university “long and wisely” and presented him with several Yale tokens, including a YDS mug, in recognition of his Yale ties.

In her address, delivered in the University Chapel, Townes remarked, “If we can hold on to proclaiming truth when it gets buried in political and religious cat fights and mud-wrestling contests, I think we will be able to bring together the justice making and peace King lived and worked for.

“Ultimately, the simplest, yet the most difficult answer to the challenge of ‘what will we do with the fullness and incompleteness of what we bring to this now’ is: live your life and faith with a deep love and respect for others and yourself.”

Despite the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, Townes argued that there are troubling signs:  “Some folks have never accepted that he was elected to govern.  Some folks will never accept the fact that he is president.  Some folks are practicing selective amnesia about the incredible destruction globally and disintegration domestically we ushered in from 2001 to 2008.  Some folks believe going back to an idyllic past that really was little more than a horror show for most of us keeps this nation’s place as the city on the hill safe and sound.”

“For King, divine things, things written on the heart by God means that we cannot cherry pick justice, and we must stand against powers that would rain down war and hatred and lies,” declared Townes, the first African American woman to be elected to the presidency of the American Academy of Religion.

Townes and PaytonUpon her return to YDS, Townes reported that Payton, Tuskegee’s retiring president and a 1963 graduate of Yale in Religious Studies, “was deeply touched” by the recognition of his Yale connections that Townes conveyed during the ceremonies.  She added, “We got into a lively conversation about Reinhold Niebuhr and race at lunch and talked about his experience with Niebuhr as a student at Columbia.”  Niebuhr, a YDS graduate and one of the foremost theologians of the 20th century, taught at Union Theological Seminary, adjacent to the Columbia University campus in New York, from 1928-60

At YDS, the highlight of Black History Month will be the Feb. 23 Parks-King Lecture by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and chair of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.  The topic of her address will be Patriotism and the Dilemma of the Black Prophetic Voice.  The lecture will be held 5:30-6:30 pm in Niebuhr Lecture Hall, on the YDS campus.  A reception will follow in the Sarah Smith Gallery. The goal of the Parks-King Lecture, hosted by Yale Divinity School since 1983, is to bring the contributions of African American scholars, social theorists, pastors, and social activists to YDS and to the wider New Haven community.