From 1965 to today: WMU professor on race relations

FILE - In this March 7, 1965 file photo, state troopers use clubs against participants of a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala. (AP Photo/File)

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — A Kalamazoo man has made the issue of racism his life’s work.

Dr. Lewis Walker grew up in Selma, Alabama. He witnessed a black man hanging from a tree when he was 6 years old. He was not in Selma for “Bloody Sunday.”

Walker was the first full-time African American professor at Western Michigan University. He has since retired but his work continues.

“Now I’m looking mainly at police departments and the treatment of minorities. And I think in Ferguson or Cleveland simply says we cannot afford the kinds of police cultures, police practices, police behaviors that have been manifested in Ferguson,” Walker said.

Walker says there are a lot of similarities between what happened in Ferguson and what happened in Selma. He says both harbor important lessons in moving race relations forward because both happened in the full view of the public.

“It was a situation that played on television, ABC as I recall, that exposed an entire country to a system that had been oppressive and abusive to black people ever since the invention of Jim Crowism or the establishment of Jim Crowism,” said Walker.

Walker says police in Selma felt that they acted out of deputy because of segregation laws and because of the culture at the time.

“The viciousness of that saying ‘we are really in control.’ And I’m going to run right now to Ferguson where there is a culture there that has been internalized by the police officers – this is what can do with impunity,” Walker said.

He has been working with the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety to establish better practices for officers dealing with the black community.

Walker says officers have expressed to him their frustrations over Ferguson saying “it is unfortunate that the Ferguson or the Cleveland or the New York situations allows people to paint all of us with that broad brush stroke.”

The issues are not simple, says Walker, but 50 years after “Bloody Sunday” he says progress is being made.

“At least now we are being forced to embrace the challenges. There is more conversation today, 2015, then in 2012, in 2010.”

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