Like many others I was challenged by the passion of veteran civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis when he spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington: “We cannot give up. We cannot give out. We cannot give in.”
"Stand your ground for freedom and justice,” said Myrlie Evers- Williams, whose husband was shot in front of his home in 1963. Other speakers were equally riveting.
How will we – how will I – respond to these stirring calls? Did they just inspire us for a day when we remembered the heroic struggles of a remarkable generation, or will they spur a new activism, a new commitment and a new willingness to pay the price of real change in America?
In a country focused on short-term goals, easily distracted by the next headline, so engrossed in social media that we often can’t pay attention to the needs of our neighbors, and obsessed with a drive for personal fulfillment, what will generate the energy to sustain a movement for social justice that is visionary enough to include everyone?
The great gift of the Civil Rights Movement was the belief that there is a “divine spark” in every person – even the perpetrators of oppression. That core principle, along with a high degree of discipline, courage, and faith in America to be its best, gave a moral backbone to the movement and drew people of all backgrounds to work together.
Initiatives of Change (IofC), the organization for which I have worked for more than forty years, describes itself as a movement of people committed to the transformation of society through change in human motives and behavior, starting with their own. We work to build trust across the world’s divides. We train peacebuilders who take constructive action in many countries. We are not partisan and tend to avoid advocacy.
But in listening to John Lewis and others I was reminded of IofC’s heritage as a revolutionary movement, with a radical approach to personal and social change. It’s founder, Frank Buchman, who mobilized people of every walk of life with his vision of “remaking the world,” once said that in his view this meant “being originative of alternatives to evil” in economics, government policy and other areas of public life. As a consequence he was frequently attacked by both the right and the left.
To stand our ground for freedom and justice in America today as Myrlie Evers-Williams challenged us means advocating for a living wage for every working American, (see War on Americas poor), for reform of our criminal justice system, and for schools where every child gets a quality education. It means resisting voter suppression efforts and calling out the corruption of our political system by vested interests. It means holding ourselves to the same high standards that we demand of others.
Columnist Charles Blow wondered recently who will be this generation’s "most dangerous" American – a reference to the label given by the FBI to Martin Luther King Jr. as “the most dangerous Negro.”
Where should we stand our ground? Will we be dangerous to evil? We should not doubt that there will be a price to pay for confronting powerful interests. Are we prepared to pay that price?