An Open Letter to my Father on Father’s Day and the 35th Anniversary of his Death

Witness to the Truth[The writer’s father, Rev. John H. Scott, died on June 22, 1980. His life story is recounted in the book, Witness to the Truth: My Struggle for Human Rights in Louisiana by John H. Scott with Cleo Scott Brown.]

Dear Dad,

When I first anticipated writing an anniversary letter to you on the 35th anniversary of your passing, it was going to be a cheerful letter.  I was going to talk about the good things that have happened in the lives of your children and grandchildren.  I was going to talk about how proud you would be that our mother’s lessons about family love are being practiced not just by your children, but also by the grandchildren, many you never met.  But something happened on the way to this letter.

I have been distracted from the good in my life to focus on the evil in society.  Last Wednesday night, a white man went to a black church for Bible Study and after sitting in the class for about an hour, he pulled out a gun and killed the innocent people who were assembled.

I thought back to the Birmingham bombing that killed the little girls attending Sunday School, but I also thought back to the Wednesday night that you were shot.  You and most of the family were coming home from Prayer Meeting, talking about the service, when out of nowhere a car pulled into the pass lane, paused and filled your car with buckshot.  If things had gone as the shooter had planned, I would have lost not only you, but my mother and four siblings.

I thank God that he spared all of your lives and you lived long enough to see all of your children become adults.  Rev. Clementa Pinckney will not have the opportunity to see his children grow up because a cold-blooded killer chose to end his life and the lives of eight other people ranging in age from 26 to 87.

The shooter supposedly said to the 26-year old black man who was killed that black men “rape our women”.  If he was concerned about the black rapists, why did he go to a church and shoot 6 black women?

It is not enough that nine innocent lives–6 women and 3 men–were taken, but the many reactions, especially from public officials, have not engendered much confidence that the country is taking away any lessons from this tragedy.  For example, the governor of South Carolina said that there is only one person to blame for the shootings–the shooter.  She and others are not willing to accept the fact that something needs to be fixed to stop these types of actions. One person pulled the trigger, but many others helped to enable him or took no action to prevent such a tragedy.  One person pulled the trigger, but so many others are destroying black people every day through their overt and covert actions. Yes, Daddy, thirty-five years later, we still have a long way to go to address racism and white privilege in the United States.

Daddy, the Confederate flag is still flying at the South Carolina Capitol.  Why?  Because state law mandates a two-thirds majority vote of the legislature to take it down.  I remember when you needed two white people to identify you so you could get registered to vote and you could not find them. Similarly, the black S.C. legislators have not been able to find enough white legislators to vote to remove it, and the governor, who is of Indian descent, has refused to support its removal.  Yes, there are still people who refuse to acknowledge that the South lost the Civil War in 1865.  Some of those same people refuse to accept the 2008 election results when an African American was elected U.S. President.

The magistrate in the bail hearing for the shooter called the family of the shooter, “victims” and singled them out for sympathy.  The Governor of Texas called the shooting an “accident”, but the shooter reloaded and killed people who were trying to pray with him and for him.  I remember pinning a letter to you on the first anniversary of your death saying that at least you left the earth before you had to witness the election of Ronald Reagan as President.   Well Dad, we have elected officials now that almost make Reagan look like a moderate.

Even though there were early reports that eight people had been killed in a black church and that the shooter was a white man, the news networks did not see the need to cut away and give full coverage to the developing story.  Coverage did pick up the next day, but Wednesday night, I had flashbacks to when you were shot–when there was a complete news blackout. If it had not been for the black press, there would not have been any coverage.

What would be your message this Sunday morning if you were still here.  I know that you were a believer in forgiveness because you forgave the men who shot you. But how do you explain forgiveness and God’s will to children who are not able to make sense out of what happened in Charleston?  Your words would be similar to the words of our Bishop William P. DeVeaux who stated, “If you don’t give it up and forgive, you will never get it right.” I know you would explain the importance of forgiveness.  You would talk about what the Bible teaches us about forgiveness, but also the damage that holding in hatred and anger does to the victim.

Since you are no longer here to give me the message I need to move forward past this tragedy, I went to your book, Witness to the Truth, and found these words:

“Never let a hateful or unkind person pull you down to their level….Anger and bitterness give other people control over your mind, your thoughts, and your behavior….Sometimes unforgiveness can even make you physically sick while the object of your unforgiveness generally is not even being affected. On the other hand, forgiveness works on the other person rather than you and it works from the outside in.”

Beyond forgiveness, I know you would want me to see the lessons learned.  You would want some positive change to come out of the killings.  You would not want us be so fearful in church that we will not be able to worship God. You would want to see my faith strengthened by the tenacity and resolve being demonstrated by the families of the victims. You would want us to come out of this adversity with stronger faith and great resolve to chip away at racism, injustice, bigotry and inequality.

Thank you for being a good role model and for leaving me, my siblings, your grandchildren and all who read your book with life lessons that we can apply at a time like this.

Love Always,

Your Daughter, Elsie L. Scott

Remembering Dr. Jewel Limar Prestage, My Academic Mother

Jewel Prestage

by Dr. Elsie L. Scott

I join my colleagues in mourning the passing of the “mother of black political science”, Dr. Jewel Limar Prestage, my academic mother. Dr. Prestage had a track record of teaching, mentoring and producing successful students that may be unequal in academia. These are just some of her success stories in the Washington, DC area: Ike Leggett, County Executive of Montgomery County, MD; Dr. Carolyn Williams, former undersecretary of HUD; Dr. Maya Rockeymoore, President and CEO, Center for Global Policy Solutions; Dr. Shiela Harmon Martin, Chair, Political Science Department, University of the District of Columbia; and Atty. Weldon Rougeau. It has been reported that she produced at least 45 Ph.D.s and over 200 lawyers, elected officials and governmental and business officials. Two of her students went on to serve in the U.S. Congress, and several served in the Louisiana legislature. In my class of nine political science majors, three of us earned Ph.D.s, three earned law degrees (one became a judge), one is an A.B.D., one earned a master’s degree and the other was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the armed services and was killed in combat.

Twiley Barker, Jewel & me

Dr. Twiley Barker (Jewel’s academic father), Dr. Jewel Prestage & Dr. Elsie Scott

She was a role model for us as black women. She received her Ph.D. at the age of 22, and while still an undergraduate, managed to find a smart, handsome, supportive man who she married while she was in graduate school. Their 60-year marriage was an example of collaboration, love, support and respect. She was the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in political science, and she was a trailblazer in research on women, having co-authored one of the early books on women in politics.

Dr. Prestage became my second mother after I joined her program at Southern University. Before I met her, I had planned to attend law school as my father had tracked me to do. She insisted that I get a Ph.D. instead. I know that Desiree Pedescleaux, Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Spelman College, had a similar experience with Dr. Prestage.

She mentored and mothered all of her students, but I felt very special because she chose me to follow in her footsteps and go to the University of Iowa. She wanted me to be the second African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in political science frDr. Prestage and me at her SU retirementom Iowa. That did not happen because I hated Iowa as much as she loved it. She was, however, successful in keeping me from dropping out before I received my master’s degree. She would make phone calls to the professors and to me to try to get us to find common ground. She did not drop me when I left Iowa after completing my master’s program, with 12 hours toward my Ph.D. She kept me as a mentee and celebrated when I chose to join her former student, Dr. Mack Jones, in his new Ph.D. program at Atlanta University.

My friends who went to other schools, especially majority white universities, did not understand what was so special about Jewel Prestage. We revered her because she  aggressively sought financial assistance for us to pursue graduate study.  In an underfunded program, she found resources to expose us to outside programs and activities that would help our career advancement. She connected us with our “big brothers and sisters” who had achieved what we were striving for. She cared about our academic success and about us as individuals. When we graduated, she did move on to the next group of students, she continued to open doors for us well after we graduated, and she checked on our well-being.

Like my mother, she was very proud of my accomplishments and was always looking for ways to let others know about me. She invited me back to Southern University and to Prairie View University to speak to her students. She nominated me for awards and introduced me to people she thought I should know. She collected news clippings of my achievements and shared them through other mediums.

We, her former students, joked about phone calls with Jewel. You had to set aside a long period of time for a Jewel call—at least an hour. Even when you told her you were in a hurry, she did not rush off the phone. Jewel Prestage did not believe in rushing, whether it was to class or to catch a plane. I am glad she did not rush us because we got a chance to receive the real essence of a mentor. With each phone call, she was polishing her “jewels” to be the valuable gems she knew we could be.