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Task Force to Overcome Racism in Topeka
The Task Force to Overcome Racism in Topeka (TFORT) was a voluntary organization that came into existence in the late 1980s for a brief time as a response to a simple truth--that Topeka, Kansas, the city of Brown v. Board of Education, remained a hotbed of crushing racism against the large African American community there.
The formation of this group was nurtured by an unusual collection of people that included the first African American school board President of the Topeka Schools, members of the Brown family, and a number of white people.
The other side of town
As with so many American cities, most of Topeka's Black residents lived in one part of town--in Topeka's case, the east side--where they were chronically under-employed, harassed by police, and, despite "Brown," continued to have educational opportunities not on par with those of whites. White families found ways to continue defacto segregation by moving to so-called "rural" school districts positioned in a ring around the Topeka city school district. As the City of Topeka expanded westward, incorporating more land, the borders of the school districts remained unchanged. Rural school districts built new facilities to serve the new predominantly white patrons living within the city limits but outside the borders of the Topeka city school district (see white flight). Efforts nationally to have the courts remedy this through busing across school district boundaries were rebuffed (see Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education).
In the state of Kansas the prison population was disproportionately represented by citizens of African American heritage. While various groups in the city were wrestling with issues of discrimination and equity, no organization of the predominant racial group (whites) was taking on the burden of breaking down the racism that perpetrated conditions such as those described above.
Formation of TFORTTwo things coalesced to bring TFORT into existence. First, the United Methodist Church in the United States had, in that time, identified racism as a major spiritual crisis that needed to be addressed. A huge initiative on the national level came to Kansas in the form of a "Kansas Area" conference on racism held in Wichita. Meanwhile the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Topeka was having a series of discussions on the issue of white racism. One aspect of the UMC initiative was formation of Religion and Race committees at the local church level. Kay E. Meadows, then President of the Topeka's school board, and an African American, was co-chair of the Religion and Race committee at Highland Park United Methodist Church with Patrick D. Sheehy, a new member of the congregation.
A dialogue between the UU and UMC groups began, other collaborators were recruited including the Bahá'í Faith in Topeka, and a secular TFORT was formed. The fundamental vision of these people was an understanding of the problem of racism as a kind of "original sin" of the white majority and that for racism to be dismantled, the white majority should play an activist role. The name in the group stemmed from a belief that racism would some day be brought down--a "task force" is dissolved when its charge has been fulfilled. Of course, racism is a powerful adversary by no means easily defeated. No one in the group had delusions about this. At the same time, only African American members of the group had a true appreciation for the ways in which racism could fight back against them personally.
Attacking the problemFor many months TFORT was nothing more than an extension to and elaboration upon the discussion group from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Members believed it was important they first educate themselves before they could begin crafting a strategy for attacking the problem. This discussion lasted much longer than many in the group would have wished. However it resulted in an interesting plan of "attack" that included three overlapping strategies to be employed, preferably, in an order of constructive to confrontive.
The strategies were these:
- Constructive engagement,
It was believed that the line between each of these strategies would be blurred. It was desired that movement to the next strategy would not take place until effort at the first was exhausted. The group then identified the venues for the coming struggle. These included: workplace, education, faith communities, justice and housing. Others would be added as resources and interest allowed. Sub-committees formed around each of these work areas.
Concerned Citizens for Equal JusticeAs this story continues, some of the results of these efforts and collaboration with a successful African American group called Concerned Citizens for Equal Justice will be explored (this organization provided a very effective informal advocacy for members of the African American community who were coming before the courts).
The story has both an unhappy and a happy ending. In the end, the community of Topeka gained at least some greater insight into its own internal machinations. Long after TFORT had dissolved, the local newspaper (Topeka Capital Journal), The Menninger Clinic and other community institutions began taking an active role in a self-examination that has reaped some benefit. Doubtless many members of the community believe, with good reason, that more work remains. The collapse of TFORT is not easy to describe from a neutral point of view and more research is required. This article is not finished.
- Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Topeka.
- Description of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race in the church's Book of Discipline.
- Concerned Citizens for Topeka, a contemporary organization working on overcoming hate in Topeka, Kansas (not related to TFORT or CCEJ).
- The Topeka Peace and Justice Center, an umbrella peace and justice organization continuously in existence from this era.
- Bahá'í Community of Topeka, Kansas.
- Kansas East Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
- Addicted to Hate Series on disbarred Topeka lawyer Fred Phelps that was never published in this form by the Topeka Capital Journal.
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