ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
After police shot and killed Keith Scott in Charlotte, N.C., the Department of Justice responded to the protests and violence in the city by sending a special team. They sent four members of the Community Relations Service. The service is supposed to be a peacemaker in communities. For five decades, they've responded to incidents like the shooting in Charlotte or protests in Ferguson or the Rodney King riots.
Grande Lum is the former director of the Community Relations Service at the Justice Department. Thanks for joining us.
GRANDE LUM: Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: When this office was created 50-or-so years ago, the United States was a very different place. What was the initial reason for its establishment?
LUM: The reason for the establishment was, in Lyndon Baines Johnson's words, to help people reason together that there would be more conciliatory ways for people to work out even very difficult issues, to help increase voluntary compliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And it actually turns out to be true.
If you looked at what happened post-1964 Civil Rights Act, there was a lot of concern that there would be violence and resistance to it. But what actually happened was most people did comply. And through the help of folks at CRS at that time, they helped mediate between the patrons and the restaurant owner, and most really did voluntarily do so. This is actually a - I think I would say an unknown success.
SHAPIRO: So you're saying rather than suing a restaurant or a hotel...
SHAPIRO: ...That refused to comply with integration, these mediators would come in and have a conversation. And people would voluntarily comply at the end of that process.
SHAPIRO: And how does that initial mission compare to the kind of work on the ground that the Community Relations Service does today?
LUM: It is very different in many ways, yet at the same time it feels similar. One of the first situations CRS was involved in was the march from Selma to Montgomery. And as you remember in "Bloody Sunday," John Lewis and many others were injured. President LBJ asked the director - then director of CRS, Leroy Collins, to come to Selma to prevent further violence. And that was a law enforcement-community issue.
And today we still have situations. Whether it's the Keith Scott situation or the Terence Crutcher situation in Tulsa, there are similar situations. Clearly the country has moved in a great distance, yet some of the issues still remain.
SHAPIRO: And so today when a team goes into one of these settings, what is the specific goal?
LUM: The goal is to reduce tension. The goal is to bring peace. It is not to repress the protest. It is to make sure any protests that do happen stay safe.
SHAPIRO: Is there ever a tension with the fact that the Department of Justice is often involved in these situations in other ways, perhaps investigating, prosecuting protesters or the police department? And you're there as part of the U.S. Department of Justice. You might say we're not investigating and prosecuting, but saying it is one thing. Getting people to believe it is another.
LUM: CRS is incredibly careful about that. The services of CRS are strictly voluntary. If a party does not want to use the services, they can turn it down. And it takes time to build this trust. In Ferguson there were clearly situations where that perception occurred from protest groups. And over time CRS was able to build trust in those situations.
SHAPIRO: When you look at the work that this office has done over time, is there one big takeaway lesson for what's most effective, what helps in a situation like we're now seeing in Charlotte?
LUM: The big takeaway I would say is the importance of listening. These are times when people are polarized, when they're angry. Anyone in that situation - they're not in the best place to listen. And there's a helpfulness and a necessity to having a third party who can help slow the process down to help build trust between the parties. And I think helping the parties listen to each other to slow things down, to create a safe environment for them - that can make all the difference in the world.
SHAPIRO: That's Grande Lum. He's the former director of the Community Relations Service at the U.S. Department of Justice. Currently he's director of the Divided Community Project at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. Thanks a lot.
LUM: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.