Robert Woodson: Lifting Black Communities Through American Values

As we approach Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Philanthropy Roundtable is recognizing the work of civil rights activist and Woodson Center Founder and President Robert L. Woodson, Sr. in lifting up communities by promoting solutions that reduce poverty, restore families and help create economic opportunity. 

Former civil rights activist Robert Woodson has long held views that put him at odds with others in the civil rights movement, stretching all the way back to April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. 

As protests raged in over 100 cities across the country, and some civil rights leaders preached violence, Woodson served as a peacemaker, counseling young rioters in his community to stand down. His message: this is not the way. 

Woodson certainly shared their outrage. He had experienced virulent racism, especially as a young African American Air Force recruit during basic training in the Deep South in the 1950s. He led protests against segregation in the 1960s. He long admired Dr. King, and met with the civil rights leader just months before his assassination. 

Woodson simply believed resorting to violence was not the best way to honor the legacy of a man who spent his life preaching nonviolent civil disobedience; perhaps more importantly, he believed violence would not help the Black community achieve what its members wanted most: full access to the American dream. 

In the five-plus decades since Dr. King’s death, Bob Woodson often has found himself in disagreement with those who may share his goal but not his approach. 

For example, Woodson would rather focus on the resilience of Black communities than the disadvantages they face or the historical oppression they have experienced. 

“History is full of inspiring examples of Black people succeeding against the odds, including building their own schools, hotels, railroads and banking systems when doors were closed to them,” Woodson wrote in a January 17, 2020 opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal. “These accomplishments were made possible by a set of values cherished among the Blacks of the time: self-determination, resiliency, personal virtue, honesty, honor and accountability.” 

Woodson also doesn’t believe in eliminating standardized tests or lowering standards for Black students, because these types of policies imply “the presence of Blacks means there’s the presence of incompetence and diminished agency.” 

And what about campaigns like The New York Times’s 1619 Project which seeks to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative” instead of our founding principles and documents? Woodson argues they run counter to Martin Luther King Jr.’s fundamental message. 

“[Dr. King] insisted that the very principles of law and Constitution that seemed to be oppressive were, in fact, promises of freedom to all, without regard to race,” Woodson wrote in an op-ed for The Hill commemorating Martin Luther King Day in 2018. “As he noted in his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, the founding American principles were a promissory note to be cashed by all who lived here, not a rejection slip.” 

Principles in Action 

If the promissory note to all Americans embedded in the U.S. Constitution is to be fully realized by Black communities, Woodson has always believed solutions to social problems must come from strong leaders in these communities.  

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Woodson served as director of U.S. programs for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and helped the Urban League develop community-based solutions to crime as director of the organization’s Department of Criminal Justice. He then joined the American Enterprise Institute in 1974 as a resident fellow and led its Neighborhood Revitalization Project. 

For the next several years, Woodson studied grassroots community organizations close-up, and gained an even greater appreciation for their effectiveness in achieving positive social change. This led to a career-transforming realization. Instead of merely observing these organizations for the D.C.-based think tank, he wanted to actively help them attain success. 

In 1981, he founded the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, renamed the Woodson Center in 2020, where he has served for four decades. 

The Woodson Center’s mission is “to empower community-based leaders to promote solutions that reduce crime and violence, restore families, revitalize underserved communities and assist in the creation of economic enterprise.” 

The organization’s approach places an emphasis on local solutions, free market values and faith. Programs include a K-12 Black history and character curriculum, which tells positive stories about Black Americans, and Voices of Black Mothers United, which unites mothers of fallen children in Black communities. The program focuses on identifying sources of violence and developing positive policing relationships. The organization also launched 1776 Unites, “a movement to embrace the original ideals and values that this country was founded upon.” 

In addition to this, the Woodson Center’s Community Affiliates Network (CAN) is a nationwide network of over 500 organizations and leaders solving community problems “from the ground up.” CAN provides leadership training and technical assistance, and also offers grants to members to support operations.  

Now 84 years old, Woodson plans to retire from the center this year. He says he is ready for “younger leadership to take it over for the next 40 years.” While no successor has been named, the center’s next leader certainly will benefit from Woodson’s consistent and crystal-clear vision for how to achieve a just and equal society.  

By promoting values such as liberty, opportunity and personal responsibility; by developing programs that emphasize Black excellence; by supporting homegrown community leaders; by creating a culture that embraces America’s founding principles, Woodson has been saying all along, if you want the American dream for all, this is the way.  

For more information about the Woodson Center’s mission, vision and programs, please click here

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