The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III

“We must face the tragedy of our history,” the Rev. Dr. Otis B. Moss III told a Harris School of Public Policy audience, but must not “fall into despair.”

“In other words,” said Moss, senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, “I won't give up.” 

Moss’ message of hope and momentum came as the Harris School concluded its Black History Month events with Feb. 23’s “Love, Justice, and Looking Toward the Future.” Held in person at The Keller Center and livestreamed, the program continued Harris’ monthlong focus on the power of social movements. 

The South Side pastor was purposely chosen for this last of four Harris Black History Month conversations, said Michelle Hoereth, Assistant Dean, Diversity and Inclusion.

Michelle Hoereth, Assistant Dean, Diversity & Inclusion

“We started out the month talking about social movements and ‘How did we get here?’” she said, adding that she wanted to end on “this notion of hope and how do we collectively and individually kick that can a little bit harder down the street and start to make great progress.”

Introduced by Roland White, MPP’22, as a “preacher, activist, and author” influenced by Zora Neale Hurston, August Wilson, Howard Thurman, jazz, and hip-hop, Moss embraced the challenge of putting a coda on the February discussions. He illuminated his remarks with stories about religion, music, and history as well as politics, policy, and promise.

“I've been given a task,” he said, “to talk about the power of social movements to deal with the idea of love and of justice in this particular, peculiar, postmodern era and unique moment in history that America finds itself in, as we are teetering” he said, between democratic ideals and a move into authoritarianism.

“It’s a strange moment,” he said.

To start he turned to Malcolm X, whom he described as “the prophet of Black self-esteem” and said his “words and his deeds still echo in the halls of history and give inspiration to activists and spiritual leaders to this day.”

“Now, some who fall on the very conservative side may raise the question ‘Why would I lift up a Muslim icon today, at this moment?’” Moss said. “And I would say, truth is not exclusively held within Christian vessels, humanist frames, or secular boxes, Jewish Torah, or Buddhist practice.” 

Moss said that in his tradition of Black or Africanized spirituality one “sees the sacred imprint of God upon all humanity,” which means God speaks, or truth flows, from a variety of sources, be they Nipsey Hussle, Kendrick Lamar, or Malcolm X. 

“It is Malcolm,” he said, “who states: We declare our right on this Earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in society, on this Earth, this day, which we intend to bring about by any means necessary.”

“Malcolm is saying,” Moss added, “that the community will determine the methodology of transformation and liberation. It will not be the state. It will not be politicians. It will not be the status quo. It will not be the 1%. But the community has the answer in terms of what should be implemented in order to transform the community.” 

“This is very difficult within the American context,” he added, “because we operate with such a hierarchy, in such a way that … I know best for you.”

America, he says, still operates with an “antebellum/Confederate frame in terms of public policy.” People are needed, he said in remarks that drew applause, who are willing to delve into destructive policies “and everybody at the Harris School needs to kick out all these other folks who are running around.”

To make a point, Moss shared his “remix of Malcolm,” something he labels “By Any Greens Necessary,” which he said describes how Trinity United Church of Christ is “transforming our little, small turf on the South Side.”

Carter G. Woodson

That transformation, he said, includes efforts like the church and community’s push for renovation of the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, which is named for the UChicago alum who in 1926 created "Negro History Week" — the precursor to Black History Month. That renovation, completed in 2018, included the demand that the work be done by people from the community, including those from what Moss refers to as the “mass incarceration system.”

This creative approach to community development is the framing, he said, needed to build a new democracy.

“In order for us to be able to move into a new democratic future, in order for us collectively as a nation to build a Beloved Community, in the words of Dr. King, we must face our history,” without, he said, falling into despair.

“We have to recognize, he added, “that when we work collectively, we can play new music together that we've never played before.”

“What I love about jazz,” he added, “unlike any other music, you see each instrument can sound like itself, but at the same time, these instruments were not supposed to play together. The saxophone was designed for the marching band. The piano was specifically for classical, European structures and music. The trap drum set was to be played not with African polyrhythms, but with a simple marching sound. And the bass was to be played with a bow, not your fingers. But when the jazz band came together, each instrument had the right to solo.” 

What is beautiful about the solo, Moss said, “is you never hear the saxophone telling the piano to ‘sound like me.’ You never hear the piano telling the drum to ‘sound like me.’ You never hear the drum trying to tell the bass ‘you must sound like me.’ ”

“In other words, wherever I come from, my voice is just as important,” Moss said. “I may not have the same background as you, but I can play in the band and we can create some new music. And that's really what democracy is all about. … If we allow each other to solo, in the words of John Coltrane, we will be able to create ‘A Love Supreme.’ Something beautiful can happen in the process when we dare play in the band together and we use a new framing to transform our communities.”