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A day for racial amity

In this 1921 file image provided by the Greenwood Cultural Center via Tulsa World, Mt. Zion Baptist Church burns after being torched by white mobs during the 1921 Tulsa massacre.
In this 1921 file image provided by the Greenwood Cultural Center via Tulsa World, Mt. Zion Baptist Church burns after being torched by white mobs during the 1921 Tulsa massacre.Anonymous/Associated Press

It was very thoughtful of the president to schedule one of his rallies in Tulsa, Okla., on June 19.

Though, to be fair, I’m guessing that neither the president nor anyone who works for him was aware that Tulsa was the site of one of the worst massacres in American history, when Black men, women, and children were slaughtered in a spasm of racist violence, or that June 19 is popularly known as Juneteenth, commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

Oh well. Maybe we can look forward to another rally in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 15, to mark the 57th anniversary since some racists murdered four Black girls while blowing up a church. Loads of time to prepare.

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But, given the moment, I’m more interested in what’s happening Sunday. From 4 p.m. to 5:30, there will be a live-streamed event put on and consumed by people of every color and creed and political leaning.

The National Center for Race Amity has never been more relevant, in a country trying to find its footing in the wake of a videotaped lynching of a Black man under the knee of a white police officer. Founded in Boston 10 years ago, by the irrepressible William “Smitty” Smith, the NCRA has been at the forefront of improving relationships between people of all colors and classes.

On Sunday, the NCRA will host a YouTube and Facebook gathering meant as a break after all the demonstrations and trauma experienced in the last few weeks.

I will watch, if only to hear Andrea Baker sing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

Rainn Wilson, he of “The Office” fame, will be on hand, too. In the promo video for the event, he looks more like the Unabomber than Dwight Schrute.

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“Hey, be kind to my brother Rainn,” William “Smitty” Smith said. “He’s a good guy, on the right side of everything.”

Smitty’s been on the right side of everything his whole life. In 1964, he was one of three Black football players to break the color barrier at Wake Forest. He and his buddies Bob Grant and Ken Henry jokingly called themselves the Junior Jim Crow Killers.

The white coaches thought Smitty was uppity and benched him. He became an organizer during the civil rights movement, a calling higher than hitting a hole and gaining some yards for the Demon Deacons. But not before he and Grant, who went on to play in the NFL, threw buckets of water on a burning cross outside their dorm.

Smitty has been in the trenches, in the Carolinas, Boston, and beyond, long before everything exploded in Minneapolis last month. His annual conference, held in Boston or one of its suburbs, brings together a diverse group of thinkers, trying to make sense of something that has divided this country since the first slaves were brought here in shackles.

The cast of folks appearing Sunday runs the gamut, from Courtney King-Tunis, the CEO of Pantsuit Nation, to Penn Badgley from Netflix’s “You,” to the great Regie Gibson, to Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans. Charlie Baker, too.

Smitty’s buddy Don Mullan, an Irishman who did much to expose the unlawful killing of 14 unarmed civil rights demonstrators in Derry in 1972 on what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” will speak.

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Smitty and Mullan crisscrossed America and Ireland together, telling the largely unknown story of the bond between the great Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell, the liberator of Catholics in Ireland. Before he went to Ireland, Douglass was pessimistic about the chances of slavery being abolished. After listening to O’Connell, his mood changed. He returned to America invigorated, and helped make history.

In that small moment — a Black escaped slave, and a white Irishman who understood bigotry and discrimination — racial amity was not only possible, but revealed as a special power.

William “Smitty” Smith has spent his life preparing for where we are now.

“We’re in a moment,” he said. “We have to seize the moment.”


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.