Keeping Up the Good Fight

Keeping Up the Good Fight

At 80, Seldon is not ready to stop teaching about the ills of racism

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Staff

Horace Seldon was a 45-year-old minister in search of a mission in the spring of 1968. Then, in a matter of weeks, history found one for him.

Part-time faculty member Horace Seldon (Philosophy) was honored on his birthday earlier this month for his many years of battling racism.
The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that April horrified and saddened Seldon, and convinced him that he must fight racism - a decision that would eventually lead him to teach at Boston College.

Seldon went on to establish Community Change Inc., a non-profit group that seeks to address racial issues through a variety of community activities, and served as its executive director for almost three decades. CCI, and Seldon, formed a link with Boston College when the University's PULSE Program chose the organization as one of its community-service field placements.

In 1980, Seldon expanded his BC association when he began teaching History and Development of Racism in the USA through the Philosophy Department. His BC colleagues note the course's longstanding popularity with undergraduates, who through Seldon explore the formation of American racial attitudes, as well as methods used to combat racism throughout US history.

"Students constantly talk about how valuable the course has been as a forum for discussing race in America," said Carroll School of Management Associate Dean Richard Keeley, who as director of PULSE at the time invited Seldon to teach at BC. "Horace lays out the background and invites people into the discussion without making them feel as if they've been put on the spot."

Seldon's decades of work as teacher, organizer and activist were recognized on Nov. 8, his 80th birthday, as part of CCI's 35th-anniversary celebration at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Under Seldon, the CCI provided civil rights leadership development and internship programs, sponsored forums, conferences and other events - including performances of "The Man Nobody Saw," a play about institutionalized racism - and honored Greater Boston residents' anti-racism efforts with a series of award ceremonies. In 1998, President Clinton recognized CCI as among 300 "promising practices" for improving race relations in the US.

Seldon, who now helps oversee CCI's extensive library, is not about to rest on his accomplishments - nor, for that matter, does he necessarily see himself as having accomplished anything. Whatever the gains of the past 35 years, total victory against racism is unlikely, he says, which makes the struggle all the more important.

"The permanence of racism doesn't mean you give up, any more than you give up if you're an alcoholic trying to quit drinking," said Seldon, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, in a recent interview. "To simply despair is no longer possible, so even as you live with racism, you shake your fist at it and fight it."
Talking with the young people in his classroom is therefore almost therapeutic for Seldon, who says he has relished his experience at BC.

"The quality of students in my class has, over the years, gotten better and better. I find myself stimulated and energized by their questions and comments, their struggles with the issues and their willingness to be open."

A graduate of Amherst College and the Andover Newton Theological School, Seldon says his interest in race issues developed during the course of the 1960s, especially when he began working through his church with young black people from Roxbury. The youths criticized church programs that brought visitors to observe Roxbury's social problems because "they made them feel like monkeys on display in a cage," said Seldon.

"The message was, 'Don't come into our community unless you're willing to come on our terms.' It was a very powerful statement: No matter how well-intentioned our efforts might be, they would do no good if we did not look into our own hearts, our own habits, our own communities, our own organizational structures, and then to move beyond our own perspective."

Shortly afterwards came the release of the Kerner Report, a federal study of the mid-1960s urban riots, which warned that the US "was moving toward two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal." Seldon says that he, like many other Americans, found the report troubling and wondered what he could do to respond.

The assassination of King barely a month later intensified Seldon's desire to scrutinize America's racial situation, and led to his founding of the CCI. "I felt that, if there were two societies in the US, I needed to work from the one I knew best and reach out to the 'other.'"

Those attempts to bridge the racial gap may not always work, says Seldon, but it's important to try all the same - and that is a lesson he relearns constantly even as he teaches at BC.

Seldon acknowledges that since CCI's establishment the national dialogue on race has taken many turns and tangents, including discord over affirmative action and so-called reverse discrimination, among other issues. Some widely held beliefs and assumptions about race in America that emerged in the 1960s and '70s, including those expressed in the Kerner Report, have been reexamined, questioned and criticized.

While Seldon incorporates recent events and trends into his class, he insists on taking a longer view. "America has a complicated history with race, one that goes back to its very beginnings," he said. "Jefferson, for example, wrote about the negative effects of slavery on slave owners and their children, but he never freed his own slaves.

"As a society, we need to try and understand this complexity. And that is even more important for young people who have never witnessed or experienced racism, or who doubt its very existence."


Return to Nov. 26 menu.

Return to Chronicle home page