We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always – home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country – all of us –
facing the stars
hope – a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it – together
Robert Blanco, Inauguration Poet
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2013 was also the second inauguration day of President Barack Obama. And it came right after the weekend of National Service Day. Many recognized that the confluence of these three occasions represented an important historic moment. It is also a moment, no matter whether you are pleased about Obama’s being elected to a second term or not, that requires this country’s residents to respond to that drum tapping on our rooftops. We need creativity, focus and drive and we need to use our collective ears and eyes, strategic brains, empathy and courage to find the way forward.
Meanwhile, over the past few weeks, the PBS program “American Experience” has been running a remarkable three-part documentary about the abolitionist movement in the United States. The last installment of “The Abolitionists” will air tonight on most PBS stations and if you watch the series all the way through, you may find that it can serve to provide a backdrop for the events of the past three days.
The history relayed in “The Abolitionists” is one filled with enormous complexity. The program discusses the way that tactics based on a sense that “moral suasion” would make slave owners repent interwove with – and in some cases, gave way to – tactics of violent insistence. In the struggle against slavery, a sense of wanting to do things within the bounds of respectability gave way to an understanding that a respectability based upon inequality is unworthy of us. Then there is the underwriting of slavery by vested economic interests, the back and forth movement of laws, the wrestling for control of the message as it developed along with the situation. It all adds up to a profound recounting of the complexity and pain that is inherent in making structural change in pursuit of justice.
But as Obama said during his inaugural address, “We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.” And we are imperfect.
Some of the beauty of “The Abolitionists” is in its relating of the degree to which activists fell in and out of love with one another’s beliefs. Throughout the civil rights movement, activists have grown to understand each other’s points and positions over lifetimes, and what really matters is the persistent audacity of a belief that things must be made to be different and a fairly clear sense of what that difference must be.
President Obama called the people of this country to action on Monday and the First Lady urged us all to service. And bringing our responsibility to one another center stage is important; when a child is mentored or a playground is cleaned or a house is built or a woman is answered by a volunteer on a rape hotline, it is valuable beyond dollars. You could buy that act, of course. You could pay someone to do it, but it would reduce the value of the act by removing the will to be of service. The worth of service accrues to the doer, the receiver, and the community.
But sometimes we need to think more carefully about the context in which we are performing these loving acts of community. Is the act of service without a will for change sufficient? We also need to consider what structural change is necessary to make the future we want for the world. Sometimes I worry that we, the people working for change, have lost sight of the basics. We imprison more people in the U.S. than in any country in the world and our wealth gap is among the highest. We are potentially facing an economy that threatens to need fewer and fewer of us to make it work and have just been through a process where we bailed out the very institutions that took us to the cleaners. Maybe we are ready for a change.
This feels like a moment full of tense energy. The status quo will not be an option for our children. We need a vision that involves us in the rebuilding of this country. We need a vision that places value on community. Part of that value is in interaction that requires chutzpah and a sureness of spirit. We need aspirations for justice and sustainability that some people may disdain, ridicule, or attack. It requires us really mixing it up. Being of service to our future requires that risk.
Obama acknowledged this when orating about our “diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention.” He said, “My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together.” Seizing the future together would be nice, but so often in this diverse country, change does occur through conflict. That is why it is so risky. That is why it requires leadership from people of principle working for the common good of us all. That is why it requires you.
Today’s activists have a duty to explore the world’s nature and then to name and work for its possibilities. That will not always be easy, but the thinking about it and acting for it will be exciting beyond measure. As another poet, Langston Hughes, wrote, “We have tomorrow bright before us like a flame.”