What three men immediately come to mind as the most influential builders of racial justice, harmony and peace in the twentieth century or more likely in the history of mankind? What an easy question! In order of their appearance they must have been Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.
Each of these men preached love and reconciliation. Each was principled, strong, unyielding and fearless. Each was careful in their thoughts and language, contrasting freedom versus oppression and not personalizing hatred. Each focused their energy on highlighting the specifics of oppression, not damning oppressors. Each knew that steadfast courage brings both allies and oppressors to the table while whining, accusations and intemperate bullying does not. Each of them changed the world.
Perhaps most astounding about the accomplishments of these three heroes is the nature of the oppression they defeated. They confronted oppression embedded in law and enforced by governments. They had to first change the minds of the citizenry and persuade many of the righteousness of their demands. Then they marshaled the strength and persistence to confront institutionalized wrongs previously enforced as though they were just.
Too little credit is given to antecedents who gave these men the model for their passive resistance. Beginning perhaps with Abigail Adams who wrote her husband while he was in Philadelphia preparing for the Second Continental Congress, “I long to hear that you have declared an independency – and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” She went on, “Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.” She doubtless meant all men in the Constitutional sense, that is “all men and women would be tyrants if they could” as she predicted, “If particular care is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”
Countless American women spoke to each other and to their husbands and sons for another seventy-three years until at Seneca Falls, New York Elizabeth Cady Stanton opened the first Women’s Rights convention in the United States with a stirring statement of purpose:
“We are assembled to protest against a form of government, existing without the consent of the governed—to declare our right to be free as man is free, to be represented in the government which we are taxed to support, to have such disgraceful laws as give man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in case of separation, the children of her love.”
Without radio, without television, without email or social media, it took another seventy-two years of protest and persuasion for the nineteenth amendment to guarantee women the right to vote. This campaign was accomplished largely with hard work, self-sacrifice and moral argument and without violence or hatred. The movement was always focused on building a more perfect union, never on destroying the imperfect one it inherited. It never denied love of fathers, husbands or sons or sought reparations for historic sins no matter how egregious. It was always uncompromising in its moral imperative for very specific demands to make the future more perfect.
Our three twentieth century heroes followed in the tradition of these women. They, leading other adherents of that tradition, defeated state enforced injustice across three continents. They did not make the world perfect, but they as the ladies before them, altered an arc of history forged across millennia.
The problem for those seeking “social justice” today is different. With the notable exception of abuse of Native American property rights, there is little government-sanctioned discrimination in the United States today. Nearly all discrimination is individual and circumstantial. There are manifold legal protections against systematic discrimination based on bias and prejudice. This does not mean that bias or prejudice or discrimination no longer exists. It does mean that new political remedies are of limited value. The real remedy is changing hearts and minds one person at a time. This is clearly not an easy or a quick fix, but it is the only possible fix. This underlines the vital importance of moral imperatives and focus on the facts of oppression rather than on alleged oppressors.
It is strange if not frightening how a misuse of words and ideas over time warps our thinking. Poet Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936) wrote, “Good literature continually read for pleasure must, let us hope, do some good to the reader: must quicken his perception though dull, and sharpen his discrimination though blunt, and mellow the rawness of his personal opinions.” Throughout Houseman’s lifetime, discrimination meant, “Sharpness of perception and wit that mellows the rawness of personal opinion.”
Today we often define discrimination as the opposite, “Dullness of wit and perception causing cruel exaggeration of raw personal prejudice.”
When we meet a person for the first time, don’t we all (and shouldn’t we) discriminate in the old fashioned sense of the word? Don’t we ask, “Who is this person?” “Might this person become my friend?” “Does this person share my values?” “Can this person be helpful to me?” “Can I be helpful to this person?” “What can I learn from this person?” and many other questions. In our mind’s eye we look for signals that help to sharpen our perceptions. We look at posture, speech, attire, and physical condition. We look for eye contact, grace, intensity, intelligence, and empathy. We listen for experiences, values, goals, mutual interests and connections. We discriminate across many dimensions and against many standards. All of these variables together form our mental snapshots, our irreplaceable first impressions and foundations for future relationships. Unless we are psychic we have little knowledge or insight into the dimensions or standards of any discriminating individual. Age, sex and race are only three of many.
In 1960 Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Black supremacy is as dangerous as white supremacy.” He expanded, “God’s interest… is in the creation of a society where all men can live as brothers.” King would clearly advocate that when we meet a new person we ask ourselves, “How can I be a brother or sister to this person?” and “What common values or experiences do we share that will lead this person to reach out to me as a brother or sister?”
Think of the impossibility of changing the hearts and minds of men through hatred. The NAACP is a very successful association for the advancement of colored people. What power for change would they have had they called themselves the NODAWGs an acronym for National Organization for the Destruction of Aging White Guys? Or what if they used Jeremiah Wright’s axiom, “White folks greed runs a world in need”? It was, after all, governments run by powerful aging white guys that enacted constitutional amendments to cement inclusiveness for all men and women. Generations later aging white guys enacted civil rights laws that have opened wide new doors for so many. Before that, there was the blood of 360,000 mostly white Union Soldiers who gave their lives to free slaves in America while fewer than seven percent of white households ever owned them.
If President Obama had been a real disciple of King when reflecting on the question of American Exceptionalism, he might have responded; “America is exceptional because we have a great tradition of pledging our fortunes, our lives and our Sacred Honor to the cause of freedom. This tradition began with our Declaration of Independence. The Union Soldiers in our Civil War wrote it again in blood. This tradition is not just for our freedom. It reaches out across the world. Over 500,000 American husbands and sons gave their lives to defend Europe and Asia from tyranny in two world wars. Every citizen of South Korea owes a debt to over 35,000 Americans who died to prevent their country from looking like North Korea today.”
America does not always get things right, and frequently we do not find right on our first try. But America is exceptional in our shared dedication to the freedom of the individual human spirit and our belief in the wisdom of individual citizens. We understand that ending individual injustices can only be achieved by changing individual attitudes and behavior. This leads us to realize the great wisdom of Martin Luther King’s goal for all to become brothers (and sisters). On this road hatred and derision are divisive and counterproductive. If we truly want others to be our brothers we do not call them evil or greedy or deplorable or whatever-a-phobic. We do not accuse them of bigotry or misogyny. We do not believe or imply that any lives matter more than any others.
Everyone who wants America to continue in its pursuit toward becoming a more perfect union, as nearly all of us do, should inquire about all others, “How can I become this person’s brother!” That would make Martin Luther King Jr. very happy and proud.
Michael Moffitt Column
Granddad’s Dictionary: Reflections on Life in America
by Michael Moffitt
ISBN: 978-1-4908-2916-6 (sc)
Published April 7, 2014