You just had to be there


This week we pause to commemorate one of the signal moments of the Civil Rights movement: Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s address to the March on Washington in 1963. While so much progress has been made in the half century since King proudly intoned “I have a dream..” there is yet more to be done — much more.

True though it may be, this sentiment is, however, little more than a platitude. Of course there is more to be done. There is always more to be done. There has always been more to be done.

Part of our greatness as a nation is the fact that we don’t rest on our laurels. We are a society of movers, agitators, instigators and questioners. It is not an easy lot, but as the Friends Peace Committee asked in 1961, “If what your country is doing seems to you practically and morally wrong, is dissent the highest form of patriotism?”

For countless American patriots, the answer is a resounding “yes.” As our national history attests, that dissent has taken many forms. Be they quiet sentinels peacefully resisting or loud firebrands advocating forced change, we have produced many laudable figures.

Of the louder stripe, we might recall David Walker, the African-American abolitionist, whose 1829 pamphlet, Appeal…to the Colored Citizens of the World…, urged slaves to fight for their freedom. Popularly regarded as one of the most radical documents of the antislavery movement, it was widely reprinted after his death.

Individuals like Walker presaged the fiery and inspirational rhetoric of Islamic activist Malcolm X who famously advocated racial progress “by any means necessary.” Of course Malcolm X gave us many more moderated and philosophical aphorisms including, “Power in defense of freedom is greater than power in behalf of tyranny and oppression because power, real power, comes from our conviction which produces action, uncompromising action.”

Religious conviction has often proved to be an effective catalyst for broad change. Minister, educator and writer Richard Allen was born into slavery in Philadelphia, Penn., in 1760. Allen converted to Methodism at the age of 17, after hearing a white itinerant Methodist preacher rail against slavery. In 1816, he founded the first national black church in the United States, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1787 Allen, along with Rev. Absalom Jones, helped found the Free African Society, a non-denominational religious mutual-aid society dedicated to helping the black community. A century later, NAACP founder W. E. B. Du Bois called the FAS “the first wavering step of a people toward organized social life.”

The arts have long provided a pulpit from which to advocate change. Music in particular has been an effective vehicle to prompt change.

Names such as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Michael Stipe and Nina Simone remind us of that fact.

Then there are those who have managed to wear many hats. The 19th century abolitionist, Quaker poet and journalist, John Greenleaf Whittier, became a household name both in America and Europe.

Sargent Shriver also comes to mind. Shriver was a political administrator, military leader and diplomat. He was perhaps best known for designing the U.S. Peace Corps, which was established in 1961. Shriver served as first director of the organization from its inception until 1966.

Of course there are so many more who could be mentioned. As above that is the nature of our democratic society. Perhaps more importantly, the march that we now pause to commemorate gives us a larger lesson: we don’t have to be famous. We just have to be there