In Say Yes Now Episode 0002, Dr. Donald Hilliard speaks with long-time friend, Dr. DeForest “Buster” Soaries, Jr.–author, activist, and public advocate – about how America can move towards achieving justice during these tense times. As an experienced social activist, who led several marches during his day, and was trained in the tradition of peaceful protest during the Civil Right Era, Dr. Soaries speaks not from merely academic expertise, but from years of experience. As the Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, former Secretary of State of New Jersey and former chairman of the federal Election Assistance Commission, Dr. Soaries also understands leadership and how to work with others to achieve seemingly unattainable goals.
Dr. Hilliard asked several insightful questions to draw out Dr. Soaries’ perspective and to draw upon his profound experiences in the field of social advocacy and race relations. The following is a partial transcript with timestamps so that you can jump to any section in the podcast if you’d like. But truly you don’t want to miss a minute of it!
What Made the George Floyd Incident Capture the Nation’s Attention?
Dr. Soaries draws parallels between the 1960s and this moment of today. He assesses comparative “spark” of the televised horror of fire-hosed students and the televised horror of George Floyd’s death.
[00:04:49] “It was 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycott… led by Dr. King… for over 380 days, black people boycotted the bus lines….and they won, but it didn’t really capture the imagination of the country.
In 1960, students began sitting in, in North Carolina to desegregate lunch counters and it got some attention, but it didn’t capture the imagination of the whole country. It wasn’t till 1963….the civil rights protest captured the attention of the country because school children were marching to protest, and women. And Bull Connor, the police commissioner, used fire hoses…. and then German shepherds. And what happened was national television showed that… and that’s when The White House, sensing the sentiment of the country said, this has got to stop. And so in 1964, as a direct consequence of that Birmingham moment, 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed.
[00:07:00] So this [the fire-hosing in Birmingham, Alabama] was a catalytic moment aided by television and seen by the whole nation….
And so, on May 31st, while the country generally had either heard about police brutality. Or had some inkling that it was true, on May 31st when that 17-year-old child recorded that Minneapolis police officer with his knee on the neck of George Floyd …. it created a similar kind of dynamic in the country.
What Are Some Differences Between the Protests Now and Those of the Sixties?
Both Dr. Donald Hilliard and Dr. Soaries recall their youth and their involvement in the Civil Rights Era and they provide contrasts between then and now.
Dr. Donald Hilliard Jr.: [00:11:42] We need to hear more of, in all of this protesting, it was a 380-day boycott….in Montgomery, I don’t think we recognize that…
Dr.Buster Soaries: [00:12:06] Yeah. That and …to your… original question, there are really… qualitative differences between the marches of the Sixties and this protest…. the number one, we had identifiable strong leadership in the Sixties. And you need that because, for instance, one of the weaknesses of these demonstrations has been their inability to distinguish themselves from the looters and the rioters.
So, you have people who really want to do peaceful protest, in the tradition of nonviolent struggle, but they were easily manipulated and infiltrated by outside forces [00:13:00] because they didn’t have the leadership and the strategic IQ to know what to do….
[00:14:00] Today the spontaneity of these marches is admirable, but it’s also dangerous, because there’s really no leadership. And when you’re in a struggle and you have…. multifaceted opposition, you need leadership.
The second thing was discipline. Nonviolent protest requires discipline. …. In the sixties, when we had marches, we had training sessions, physical training sessions.We practiced having people call us names. We were disciplined. ….
[00:15:00] We had a strategy. The strategy was to protest so that the leadership could negotiate.And when the negotiations were over, we stopped the protest. My concern about this protest is that, because there are so few tangible goals and so little identifiable leadership,when does it end? Who has the authority to say, okay, we’re done or we won? And that’s one of the dangers of spontaneous protest, but no leadership, no discipline and no articulable goals.
Dr. Donald Hilliard Jr.: [00:15:37] I appreciate you saying that.And you’re not saying that you’re not with the people, you know. Because that’s the other thing that came up, in these conversations this week ….. [That the young protesters] wanting to be free agents and don’t want to be harnessed, they want to be heard. And I hear them.
[00:16:00] But as I said the other night, we need the old and the young together, because the older wise, the youngest strong and you need the old and the young together….
Are You Concerned about Backlash?
[00:18:00] Dr. Soaries: … I am concerned, but, but that brings us back to this conversation about discipline because while you can’t control backlash, you can be disciplined enough to have a strategy that can deal with it better.When you’re at random and when you’re impulsive and when you’re spontaneous, you’re not covered.
And that’s what organization does. That’s what strategy does. It anticipates backlash, and you have a strategy even for the backlash….
[00:19:00] So I’m just worried about some of the young people who just want to be heard and want to be active towards no measurable outcome, because you can’t protest all of your life…. Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence included negotiation and reconciliation, because the other side of this is that true victory comes when we reconcile.
[00:20:05] There’s certain victories that you want. So that 5, 10, 15 years from now, we want protesting police brutality to be just as rare as folks protesting eating at the lunch counter. But you can’t win if you don’t define what victory looks like.But you can't win if you don't define what victory looks like. Click To Tweet
What Are Some Goals That You Think We Should Aim For?
[00:20:49] Dr. Buster Soaries:So, you have to have concrete goals. I listed seven goals early on. I really wrote them down to give to the activists to say, listen, if you want to fight for something and know, what that something looks like, here, take these suggestions and use them in your protest.
Dr. Donald Hilliard Jr.: [00:21:12] And the Congressional Black Caucus is interested in those, in adopting some of those….
Dr. Buster Soaries:Yes…. [One is]having a national database of police officers… You know, [an officer] can be fired in Perth Amboy for abusing authority and go over to New Brunswick and get a job on the New Brunswick police department. And the Perth Amboy department doesn’t have to tell New Brunswick the reason [the officer was] fired. So,we need a national database, just like we have for child molestation. If you harmed a child in Georgia and moved to New York, your record follows you. And if you abuse your authority in New Jersey and moved to Texas as a police officer, your record should follow you. [00:22:00]
I talked aboutpsychological training for police officers…. Talked about giving incentives to police officers to interveneand to break the blue wall of silence. I talked about finding best practices, where we find the community where we have good police community relations, and then have federal resources available to teach other [police department and communities] how to behave that way.So, you know, just concrete things you can get on a local county, state, and federal level, so that you know what you’re fighting for.
What Would You Say Is One Major Goal of the Black Lives Matter Platform?[00:23:20]
Dr.Buster Soaries :[00:23:38] Their major platform formally is defund the police. … I don’t agree with this language, but I will tell you this…. What’s true in social movements is, is that you often need a vanguard [00:24:00] or, you know, the most militant or active remnant to ask for more than is reasonable, so that the fallback gets you further than you probably would have gotten.
So what’s going to happen, I believe, is that we’re not going to completely defund the police, but ……[00:25:00] I do think there’s going to be a disbursement of funds so that policing will be redefined and not completely defunded. But I think the Black Lives Matter movement having that as their platform is going to resonate and make an impact.
Have You Reached Out to the Younger Generation of Activists?
Dr. Donald Hilliard Jr.: [00:25:17] Have you ever thought about possibly having a coffee conversation, uh, sitting across the table kind of thing with these young eager spontaneous, up and coming social activists to kind of help guide?
Dr.Buster Soaries: [00:25:48] Yeah. In fact, I’ve talked to two already and I’m meeting with one tomorrow afternoon and that’s going to be my offer. And my offer is to have kind of a round table conversation with them asking me questions,me asking them questions and to see if there’s some way we can bridge the gap and, without stifling their energy and creativity, give them access to our experience.
You know, you had a friend in East orange, who was killed by the East Orange police. ….[00:26:41] And I led that protest….. And we formed a citizens’ commission, had public hearings. We studied the police manual. We introduced changes as community organizations. And so, this kind of experience, you know, gives us some capital that we can share with young activists today that they can use.
Dr. Donald Hilliard Jr.: [00:28:19] I’m all for young people. I want them to lead. I want them to go forward, but I often wonder, do they want to hear us? Not that we are their savior, but I think we can be a help.
Dr.Buster Soaries :[00:28:42] Yeah. Well, we’ll see. My sense is that they do…. but I think the onus is on us to reach out to them as best we can. [00:29:00] Um, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. I know you tried to do it. You’ve been doing it for years. And, you know, we just have to keep trying.
What is the Gospel of Bounce Back? And What Does It Mean for the Black Church?
Bishop Donald Hilliard Jr.: [00:29:18] And in light of that, my last two points here as a black preacher, you know, trained in the tradition of Samuel Dewitt Proctor, rereading his book in these times, The Substance of Things Hoped For, I’m rereading that book….Help us understand the black church and the gospel of bounce-back. …[00:30:24] there is something to be said of the bounce-back gospel that is preached in the Black Church that I think we really need in this hour.
Dr Buster Soaries :[00:30:38] What has made the Black Church so powerful … is that we always saw Jesus in both spiritual and social terms. You know what a lot of our people don’t realize is that evangelicalism at its core[00:31:00] attempts to avoid the social aspect of Jesus and only focus on the spiritual aspect. Whereas the Black Church never got caught up in that either/or. It’s always been both/and. So we saw Jesus as the one who healed the sick, who feeds the hungry and clothes the poor. And also the Jesus that calls us from sin to salvation, that offers us everlasting life.
So, the concept of bounce-back is rooted in the reality of resurrection…. You know, next year is the hundredth anniversary of the race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma—it was the worst in the history of our country— where white people killed 300 black people, burned down 600 black businesses, inclusive of a black owned [00:32:00] hotel, black restaurants, six black men in Tulsa in 1921 owned their own private planes. I mean, black people were living large in Tulsa. It irritated white people to the point of invoking violence….
But ONE day after that happened, the AME church that had been almost burnt out, people gathered, and they had worship. In that old AME building where most of it had been destroyed, they came together to worship God. Because we have believed intensely in the God of the resurrection!
Dr. Donald Hilliard Jr.: Yes, sir!
Dr. Buster Soaries: [00:33:00] And the Jesus of the joy in the morning! That’s our message. Our message does not stop with “Black lives matter.” Our message stops with “Joy comes in the morning!”
Dr. Donald Hilliard Jr.: Yes, sir! Yes, sir.
Dr. Buster Soaries :[00:33:15] And that’s been the message of the Church. That’s been the hope of people all the way from slavery up until now. And see, that’s another difference. This protest is generally not rooted in spirituality. ….Now, everybody doesn’t have to be Baptist. Everybody doesn’t have to be Pentecostal, but justice is a spiritual principle guaranteed by God.
Justice is identical twins with righteousness. The Greek word for justice and the Greek word for righteousness is the same word. And the Hebrew word for justice and righteousness, it’s all the same word. [00:34:00] So in Psalm 89, the Bible talks about justice and righteousness as being the foundation for God.
So this social protest, without any emphasis on righteousness, is going to be less capable of producing justice.
Bishop Donald Hilliard Jr.: [00:34:37] Somebody say YES right here!
This social protest, without any emphasis on righteousness, is going to be less capable of producing justice. Click To Tweet
What Is the Story of “The Shoebox”?
Dr. Donald Hilliard Jr.: [00:34:53] You referred to in some of your sermons — the shoebox. Would you end with that story?
Dr.Buster Soaries :[00:35:04] Yeah, I will…. I do want to slip in here is that my latest book is called: Say Yes When Life Says No. And I quote you in that book.
As you know, was from Virginia. My mother’s mother came here with the rich white family that she worked with. She will not a slave, but this was right after slavery…..So that’s how my family got to New Jersey, but my grandmother’s family was still in Virginia. And every time she would go to Virginia from Montclair to a family reunion, a family funeral, or any other kind of family, but I always saw her get in the car with a shoebox.
[00:36:00] I never knew what was in the shoebox until one that peeked inside and saw a piece of fried chicken in between two pieces of white bread. And I didn’t understand it. And she explained to me that we can’t stop and eat in the restaurants between New Jersey and Virginia. So we packed our lunch in the shoe box. This was my grandmother.
So for people who think we’re that far removed, just know that you and I grew up in homes where people had been treated just as badly as these TV shows and what it looks like back in the day. …. Every time I travel and go to a restaurant, I thank God that I’ve never had to eat my lunch out of a shoebox anymore because people protested that with clarity, with dignity, but discipline, and with goals, and they won.
And thank God! We got some problems, but that doesn’t include me having to eat the chicken sandwich out of a shoebox.
Two Final Words of Encouragement: Dignity and Discipline
Dr. Donald Hilliard Jr.: [00:37:36] And I will end on these two words. You said dignity and discipline. You know, we, you can never, ever go wrong when you walk with dignity and discipline and I’m so glad, and I want to honor your late father, my late mother and late father and your living mother for putting that discipline and dignity and, reverence in us.
[00:38:00] And they put something in us, that made us try to talk a little better, and made sure our shoes were shined and, you know, made sure that the table was set for Sunday dinner. There was something that they put in us that racism could not beat out of us.
You can never, ever go wrong when you walk with dignity and discipline. Click To Tweet
Dr.Buster Soaries: [00:38:21] Right. Yeah. Excellence was revolution.…The way we fought back against the racist was to prove them wrong.
Dr. Donald Hilliard Jr.: [00:38:31] Yes, sir.
Dr Buster Soaries: [00:38:32] Oh, they thought we were ignorant. Prove them wrong. They said we were lazy, prove them wrong. They said we never be anything, prove them wrong. And so, we were raised in an atmosphere where the way you fought back was by being excellent and proving the racists wrong….
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