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Former U.S. ambassador to South Africa Delano Lewis has ancestors on his father’s side who were slaves in the pre-Civil War American South.
For Lewis, who grew up in a segregated neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas, to become an important player in national and international government, business and politics, the issues about race and race relations that have arisen since the May 25 death of George Floyd are all about America’s failure to face “the legacy of slavery,” he said.
“I can sum it up by saying this is one of the defining moments in my lifetime,” Lewis, 81, said about Floyd’s death.
“I can’t tell you the impact of the George Floyd murder,” said Lewis, who retired to Las Cruces with his wife, Gayle, after a 35-year career in Washington, D.C. and Africa. “There had been other incidents as inhumane as George Floyd. How and why did this spark a revolution … in this country and around the world of white, black, brown, all ages, all genders?
“It’s providence, it’s timing – the pandemic, people being locked in their houses – and technology,” Lewis said. “Many of these deaths – police brutality against African American males and some females – we learn about maybe hours or days or weeks later. This one was almost real time. It was so vivid, and it reached so many people. It sparked a realization that something’s not right in America as it’s related to the police and particularly African Americans.”
“Actions are being taken all over the country and all over the world in positive directions,” Lewis said. “People are talking about race where they’ve never talked about race before.”
“This is all about slavery,” Lewis said. Before the Civil War, “those who seceded wanted to embrace slavery,” he said. The Union won the war, and the country stayed together, “but we have not dealt with the issue of slavery.”
American slaves were freed Jan. 1, 1863, by the Emancipation Proclamation (word about the end of slavery didn’t reach the Southwest until June 1865).
After that, “what were they going to do?” Lewis asked. “They had no education, no homes, no way to feed themselves. And no one had really talked about that. Then there were efforts on the part of the government to make amends,” he said, to set up schools, to “talk about employer/employee relationships on the plantation instead of slave/master” and about blacks renting and owning land.
But those efforts “began to fall apart and we’re still struggling with it,” Lewis said.
Lewis grew up with segregated lunch counters and theaters, and he graduated from the only all-black high school in Kansas in 1956. Two years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public-school segregation was unconstitutional in its landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
The defendant in that case was the board of education in Topeka, Kansas, just an hour west of Lewis’ hometown.
Lewis earned his law degree from the Washburn School of Law in Topeka, and he worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, served on the staff of Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts (the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate), served on the boards of Colgate-Palmolive, Eastman Kodak and other Fortune 500 companies, was a top executive at Verizon, CEO of National Public Radio and a regional and national director for the Peace Corps in Africa.
He led passage of Washington, D.C.’s Home Rule Act through Congress in 1973, nearly got elected to the D.C. city council and headed Marion Barry’s transition team into the D.C. mayor’s office in 1978.
Lewis was U.S. ambassador to South Africa 1999-2001.
Lewis has authored two books, “It All Begins with Self” (2015) and “No Condition Is Permanent: A Collection of Memories” (2018), and he founded the Left, Right, Forward Education Foundation (lrfef.org).
At present, he is helping NMSU expand its international focus, partnering on a new national project called The Black Experience to chronicle the stories of Black America and talking about race and America’s future with his 11 grandchildren.