Sunday, January 19, 2014

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

Sometimes it is not possible to make progress without taking very large risks.  Tomorrow we honor a man and a movement that took big risks.  The photo is from the 1963 March on Washington.  Here's a link to Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech, which took place against a backdrop that is almost unimaginable to young people today.  And I don't mean the backdrop of hundreds of thousands of people shown in the photo.

As a sidebar to a spirited  discussion of moral reasoning last week, I described to the graduate students I am teaching this quarter how very shocking it was for a small town college freshman who had been raised a Catholic ("love thy neighbor" and "put yourself in the other person's shoes") and a Constitutionalist ("all men are created equal") to learn that there were places in this country where it was not safe for black persons to go. 

Black people could not stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as whites, or even use the same drinking fountains.  (Even the military was segregated until 1948, when General Eisenhower recommended it and  President Truman gave the order.)

It was called segregation.

Here are a couple of  1963 Birmingham photos to indicate what was done to blacks (and whites) who tried to integrate those facilities.

Dogs, fire hoses and cattle prods were the favorite weapons of intimidation practiced on those who took big risks to bring about change.

We've seen over the past five or so years how social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have the power to show the world desperate conditions.  Back in the early 1960's it was up to network television and our country's major newspapers to write articles and to broadcast pictures  that led eventually to change.  If you ever doubt the need for a free and open press in this country, think about the critical role the press has played in historic events like this, but earlier, for instance, with the internment of  Americans who happened to be Japanese during World War II.

I am proud to say I played a part in this movement, though the risks I took were far less than so many others.  I wanted to do the right thing, which meant speaking up and out, marching, raising money, delivering food and clothing and helping to register voters.   That meant getting spit on, called any number of offensive names, and physically intimidated, not just in the South but also in Iowa.

Along with many of you tomorrow, I'll listen to NPR rebroadcast many of Dr. King's speeches and be transported back to those moments, those days.   It's not long ago that we were listening to some of JFK's speeches from that same time, when we were exhorted to full citizenship.  When I hear Dr. King in particular, I recognize the power of great speech and  powerful songs that bound us in common purpose.  It was not until after President Kennedy had been assassinated that the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.  Four years later, Dr. King himself was assassinated.

Speaking out today is so much easier than it was then, with far less risk.  It's harder for villains to hide and for injustice to go unreported.  The Internet has brought us all into a virtual world where we no longer have to remain marginalized or even silent. 

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