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For peace, justice to win, proponents must stop being passive, Pitts says

April 16th, 2018

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Columnist and novelist Leonard Pitts Jr. was already a busy man before the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, ratcheted up his schedule.

A number of news media outlets have invited Pitts to speak to their audiences after white supremacist and white nationalist groups clashed with counter-protestors over the weekend of the Aug. 12-13, resulting in the death of one of them, a young woman, as well as two others in a police helicopter crash.

Pitts was able to make time before a CNN interview to talk about his upcoming visit to the Bethel College campus.

He will help celebrate the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution’s (KIPCOR) 30th anniversary with a public presentation Sept. 12 at 7 p.m. in Memorial Hall (a change of venue from some previously printed material).

The title for his talk is “What Now? America in the Age of Trump.”

It’s anybody’s guess what that might ultimately include, Pitts says, as fast as things are changing. “Speeches [of mine] from six months ago are already outdated,” he says.

He is certain, however, that Charlottesville will figure in some way.

Pitts, who now lives with his family in Bowie, Maryland, is a native of southern California who graduated from the University of Southern California. He currently writes a syndicated column for the Miami Herald that is one of the most popular in the country.

Pitts has a long list of awards to his credit, most notably the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

He is the author of seven books, the three most recent of which are novels, including Freeman (2012) and Grant Park (2015).

Pitts maintains a busy speaking schedule with college, civic and professional groups around the country – and his audiences skew heavily to “white and over 50,” he says, although he takes every opportunity to speak to younger people, especially students.

Pitts will meet with a Bethel class in the afternoon (not public) before giving his evening presentation Sept. 12.

He “tries to keep the message consistent,” no matter who the audience, but might have to “spin it differently.”

“When I’m asked, ‘What can I do?,’ that can come from different places,” Pitts says. “Students are just starting out their lives, while adults may be coming to the end.

“The answer depends on who’s asking. Older people say they no longer have the energy, the wherewithal, to go stand in the streets. To that I say: ‘Then teach it, pass it down.’ There is so much experience out there from those who were active in the ’60s and ’70s [in the Civil Rights Movement and anti-Vietnam War protests].”

In young people today, Pitts says, he sees “less apathy and more energy” than he did a decade or two ago. However, that energy is not directed – “the thing the ’60s generation was very good at.”

“Look at [news] footage from the 1960s [of civil rights actions],” he says. “People weren’t just saying: ‘This exists.’ They wanted to demonstrate the need to desegregate. They wanted to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.”

He sees “a lot of anger and dissatisfaction” these days, he says, but no one really coming up with an effective answer to “What should I do?”

“So much has shifted and come into focus” over the past months since President Donald Trump took office, Pitts says, now “filtered through the events of the past several [weeks].”

His challenge to white America is clear in his latest columns – see, for example, “Don’t kid yourself – America is not ‘better’ than the bigotry and violence we’ve seen,” at

“People who want to see a more peaceful and just society have to do more than just talk about it,” Pitts says. “The other side is not just sitting around.”

“Educate yourselves,” he urges. Teach what you know. And find a way to act.”

Pitts’ evening appearance Sept. 12 at Bethel is free and open to the public. KMUW-FM, Wichita’s public radio station, is media sponsor.

Pitts will sign books following his Bethel talk. The novels Grant Park and Freeman can be pre-ordered from Watermark Books in Wichita,

If you aren’t able to meet Pitts in person, Watermark can mail your signed copies on request.

Bethel College ranks at No. 1 in College Consensus’ ranking of Kansas colleges and universities, and is the only Kansas private college listed in the analysis of top colleges and universities, for 2017-18. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.