Read Time: 17 minutes
Each February, our nation recognizes Black History Month, and celebrates all the amazing achievements of Black Americans – both past and present.
No matter your race, background, or ethnicity, this month should be something that you are excited to celebrate. It’s a time to learn about the leaders of the past and consider how you can pick up where they left off. It’s a time to reflect on their accomplishments and consider how you too can make an impact on the world. And it’s a time to remember all parts of our nation’s history – both the positive and the negative.
For me personally, I had very little exposure to Black history growing up. I’ve even wondered if it’s a month that is appropriate for me to celebrate and be part of.
But I’ve come to realize that this month is important for everyone to take part in. And I now take this month to prioritize learning, listening, and engaging in challenging conversations.
That’s why I wanted to bring you in on one of these important conversations that I’ve had during Black History Month with two men who I believe will go down in history – Dean Nelson, the Executive Vice President of Government Relations, and Benjamin Watson, a former NFL tight end and Vice President of Strategic Relationships for Human Coalition.
I hope this conversation will challenge you, encourage you, and motivate you to learn more about Black history, engage in these conversations, and love people the way God calls us to love each other.
Responses have been edited from the original conversation for clarity and brevity.
Dean Nelson, Executive Director, Human Coalition Action: I’m really excited to have this conversation with both Benjamin and Jeff. This is going to be an open ended, frank conversation.
Jeff, this is Black History Month. Originally started by Carter G. Woodson celebrating Negro History Week, it’s expanded to what we now refer to as Black History Month. As the President of Human Coalition, who focuses on pro-life issues, but also human dignity, tell us a little bit about your thoughts about Black History Month and what it means to you and to Human Coalition.
Jeff Bradford, President, Human Coalition: I’m so excited that Black History Month is this month and that we’re celebrating it. This is an important month and it’s important to celebrate our history – and especially understanding Black history. I think for anyone, it’s important for us to know our history. It provides us our heritage, our identity, and really honors those who have come before us and paved the way for so many people.
I’m concerned that we don’t study it enough. Honestly, when I was growing up, it was not something that we studied much. So, I’m excited to continually learn more about Black History Month.
Dean: Benjamin, with all that we have gone through last year, and even at the beginning of this year in America, there are tensions that exist. Give us your thoughts on why Black History Month in 2021 is particularly important for America.
Benjamin Watson, Vice President of Strategic Relationships, Human Coalition: It’s really important. I think this year, I really was looking forward to Black History Month in a way that maybe I haven’t before. And I also feel like we’ve been in a kind of Black History Month for the last 12 months, to be honest with you. Because after what happened in 2020, so many people of all backgrounds and ethnicities have wanted to dig into Black history… I feel like there’s been this kind of hunger to understand Black history in a way that maybe there hasn’t been before.
Right now, it’s important that we, no matter what our background is, lean into this and really receive and learn and embrace what truly is American history. For us to love the country fully, we have to understand her fully – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Dean: I have a picture behind me of Frederick Douglass, who has become a hero for me that I highlight a lot during Black History Month. Benjamin, do you have a favorite person that you reflect on during Black History Month? And if so, why?
Benjamin: It’s interesting you have Frederick Douglass. I think because of you, I’ve read more and more about him lately and I have learned a lot more about his life and his story and just the incredible times that he lived in. Just his story of being right on that cusp of enslavement and freedom, and walking that line. And understanding the horrible side of this country, but also understanding the beauty.
Obviously, you have people like Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells. And obviously, when you look at the Civil Rights Movement, and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and so many people and groups that did so much.
And then, even if you look at people in your own family, like for me personally, I think about people like my grandfathers, both of them. One of them grew up in Norfolk, Virginia and he served on a military base during World War II. The Nazis were there in prison, and they could use a bathroom that he couldn’t use. He had to walk all the way to the other side of the base. Even though he was an American, he was working for our country, they could use facilities that he couldn’t use. He had to go somewhere else.
And I think about my other grandfather in Washington D.C., and the things that happened to him. But I also think about all the progress that was made through their lives and how we carried that baton.
So long answer to your question, but what I’m trying to say is that there may be one or two people that you identify with their story, but there are so many people and groups and movements that are waiting to be discovered.
Dean: You know, it’s interesting you point that out. I was reading about Carter G. Woodson, and one of the things that he emphasized was that it wasn’t designed to highlight just the famous people, but really to give attention to the hundreds, the thousands, and the millions of ordinary people. Black Americans who worked, sacrificed, and made a difference. And so, I really appreciate the way that you’ve expressed that.
Jeff, how about you?
Jeff: You two men are my heroes, to be honest with you. When we talk about Black History Month, it’s not something that I’ve always even understood that I can be a part of. Am I allowed to feel like I can be a part of that? Knowing you guys, having you as my friends, you make me want to understand more.
Honestly, I think both of you men will go down in history and I think you guys have voices that can change the world. I really do. You are fighting the good fight.
I think it’s important that we have friends that are from other backgrounds and other races and ethnicities to learn their heritage. And that’s what’s so good about highlighting this month.
Dean: I’ll tip my hat to Benjamin. He has definitely used his platform in such a tremendous way, and I’m honored to be working with him.
Jeff, since you’re the President here at Human Coalition, what makes you be passionate about the pro-life issue with this intersection of how it has impacted the African American community?
Jeff: As Christ followers, we are called to love each other. And I believe that love is what changes the world.
At Human Coalition, we purposefully have gone to where the needs are the greatest, and unfortunately, that’s still at many times in African American and in minority communities.
In fact, 75% of our clients are in a minority community. So, we are looking at the value of every human being, no matter their skin color, race, background, or their spiritual background. Every person is valued because of who they are.
We believe in human dignity and justice. Those are for all of us. And that supersedes any background or ethnicity. Our people love people. That’s what we’re about.
Dean: Benjamin, the first time I heard about you was a few years ago. You were still a professional athlete in the NFL, but you drew attention to the disproportionate impact of abortion in the Black community. In a tweet, you referenced Margaret Sanger and you essentially said that her plan was working.
Talk to us a little bit about both professionally in the NFL and now as a Vice President with Human Coalition, how you draw attention to this as a justice issue. And perhaps the responses that you got as an NFL player and responses that you’ve gotten as a private citizen.
Benjamin: People are going to respond emotionally, and rightly so. Life is at stake, and so many people have been hurt by people who have performed abortions or people who said that they were against abortion.
Justice is about giving people their just due. We see that word over and over again in Scripture. We see justice and righteousness coupled together in Jeremiah and Isaiah and Proverbs. You’re going to see all those things flowing from the heart of God.
What I found was that so many other people feel that way about the pro-life issue, but are scared to say something. They are silenced by their corporations or maybe by their families. They feel like they may lose a job. And I counted it as a joy to be able to say, you know what, I can speak this truth and as long as I go ahead and perform, I’m not worried about losing my job. I’m speaking for you. And I’m also speaking because this is the truth. And the preborn is the most vulnerable population.
Specifically, when it comes to Sanger and eugenics, we know the history there. We also know that much of what happens statistically from an abortion standpoint has great disparities racially. Is there a nefarious plot going on? Is it just coincidence?
I think that that a deeper look says that there’s both. There is inherent racism in the abortion industry. There is inherent racism in a lot of other industries. I don’t look at the abortion industry as any different than a lot of other ones who are impacted by abortion in this country. And so, on the one hand, you have an abortion industry that, yes, has their clinics in areas that are usually minority populated. But also, many of those disparities come from or are outcomes of the other disparities that we see in things like education, employment, and residential segregation.
Dean: Jeff, I want to speak to you for a moment as the leader here at Human Coalition. It’s a growing non-profit organization that is focused on ending abortion. We’ve grown to become one of the largest pro-life organizations in the country, but you’ve tried to set a tone in our corporate culture that values everybody – men, women, Black, white, and Hispanic. Talk to us a little bit about how you look at leading this organization into the next decade, creating it as an environment where people from all backgrounds feel accepted.
Jeff: One of the things that I think is most important in any home and any businesses is the culture. How do you lead? How do we each individually lead our businesses, our homes, this organization?
And first, it just comes out of a heart of truly loving people – just loving who they are and valuing every person, regardless of their backgrounds, or their race, or any of those things. We just start from that standpoint of being people who love the Lord and treat each other, love each other, the way that we want to be loved.
We have purposely gone where the need is the greatest, and as I mentioned before, that is predominantly in minority communities. We recognize that there’s even differences of how we work with minority women – especially Black women – who have a higher rate of infant mortality during pregnancy. It’s important that we have staff that understand those things and that we reflect the culture that we’re serving and the communities that we’re serving.
We’re trying to learn, we’re trying to have conversations like this, and we’re trying to help each other through those kinds of things. But again, I think it all starts with just loving our neighbor and continuing to build an organization that rescues lives and understands our clients at a really deep level.
Dean: You know I’m going to ask you, Benjamin, to be open and honest on this one. My wife is mixed race. She oftentimes complains to me because she works in the non-profit world, and sometimes, she’s frustrated because she feels like that some of the white leaders that they engage with almost want Blacks that they perceive as conservative to do fan service for them. That is to say, they want them to say stuff that they can’t say publicly themselves.
What would you say to those white evangelical leaders, let’s just use that, that would help them to better understand some do’s and don’ts when it comes to engaging with diverse communities, particularly as Christ followers?
Benjamin: Yeah, that is a heavy question right there. I think that specifically right now, it’s even more important for white evangelicals, since you’re using that term, to understand the words coming out of your mouth and what’s not coming out of your mouth. We talked about love. There’s another “L-word,” and that’s listen. We have to listen.
We don’t lament very well either. What we’ve seen over the last 12 months, people were hurt. So, the first thing you do is lament. Meaning, you have to weep with those who are weeping. You have to mourn with those who are morning. Whether you understand it or not, you have to say, you know what, people are hurt, someone lost a family member, this is impacting an entire community, an entire nation. People are hurting for some reason, so let me sit back and say, I’m going to hurt with them before I start asking questions.
It’s about lamenting, and then it’s about listening. How can I best help you if I’m not willing to listen to what your needs are? How can I best serve someone if I’m not willing to step into your shoes? How can I best love someone, as you said, Jeff, if I don’t know how you perceive love and how you need love?
When it comes to this issue and the Black conservative saying certain things, I’ll also say that it’s always about the truth. The truth is not conservative or liberal. The truth sometimes will go against your trial. We are to be people who operate in truth and in dignity and in justice.
Dean: I’m remembering, Jeff, probably one of the proudest moments that I’ve had at Human Coalition is when you and I made a trip to Memphis. We were there to work with Bishop Vincent Mathews of the Church of God in Christ and we literally had the opportunity to stand in front of the pulpit where Martin Luther King gave his last speech there at Mason Temple.
Human Coalition has long had this belief that God has blessed us and anointed us to be part of ending abortion. And you felt so passionate about it, that you wanted to go to Memphis to meet with Bishop Mathews there at the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). Can you talk about how strategically you see COGIC and other organizations, particularly in the Black community, helping to end abortion?
Jeff: I don’t think we’re going to end abortion without the Church, without Christ followers banding together and unifying to end abortion. And I think COGIC is one of our most strategic and important relationships. Their heart for the Lord and for this subject is a potential game changer.
I think sometimes we over complicate the issue of abortion. Many people think that this is so big that it could never be ended. But we see it very differently. Women want to choose their child. They want to choose life. But they just don’t feel like they have people standing in the gap, coming around them.
And I do believe if the Black community changes the perspective on the issue of life, I think the nation follows. I really do. It’s not just COGIC, it’s every church that can come around and help these women who are really in one of the most difficult circumstances of their lives. We just have to continue to work together, unify, and coalesce really what’s already out there.
Dean: Benjamin, I’m going to toss this to you as we get ready to close. As we talk about ending abortion, dealing with racism, would love to ask you, as you wrapped up your career in the NFL, you could do a lot of things. But why Human Coalition?
Benjamin: I think that the breadth of Human Coalition’s services sets them apart from so many others. For me, it goes back to this being a justice issue, and seeing the work of Human Coalition walking beside women and providing for them and caring for them. And also the legislative part of it. Because I truly believe that if we’re going to end abortion, yes, the individual is important. But the institution is as well. When we look at chattel slavery, hearts had to change, yes, but laws on the books had to change as well. And sometimes hearts lag behind laws.
Also, one other thing when it comes to ending abortion is men. I heard a man say one time that things like domestic violence, poverty, sexual abuse, abortion – these things won’t end until men act like men and do what we’ve been called to do.
Abortion, it’s been said, is men’s largest abuse against women. We use it to control. We disguise it as choice and something virtuous. But really, we’re absolving ourselves of our responsibilities. The challenge to myself as a man, and all men that I come in contact with, is don’t believe the lie that this isn’t a man’s issue.
I do believe that abortion can be ended, but I think that it’s a multi-pronged approach. I wholeheartedly agree that the Church has to lead in that way. We have to start talking about this in our churches. We look at churches and the fact that four in 10 women in churches have had abortions. That means that at least four and 10 men in churches probably are impacted. But in order for the Church to be the culture-changing catalyst in this issue, as it should be, this has to be brought up boldly from the pulpit. And in so many churches, it is not this not being talked about.
Dean: This has been a great, great conversation. I appreciate both of you, and we’ll just close by saying, Happy Black History Month!
Benjamin: Happy Black History Month!
Jeff: Happy Black History Month – God bless you!
I hope this conversation was as much of a blessing for you to read as it was for me to participate in! While there are only a few days left in Black History Month, the learning, the listening, and the conversations should not stop at the end of the month.
Learning about Black history and engaging with your brothers and sisters in Christ should continue throughout the entire year.
On behalf of the entire team at Human Coalition, Happy Black History Month!