Like many other Americans, I went to bed early on the morning of November 9, shocked at an election outcome virtually no one had predicted. I knew I would have a hard time falling asleep, even at 1 a.m., so I turned on the light to read. The night before I had finished volume two of Taylor Branch’s epic history of the American Civil Rights Movement, so that night I began volume 3.
Far from settling me to fall asleep, it only raised more questions.
“Nonviolence is an orphan among democratic ideas,” Branch opens the book. “It has nearly vanished from public discourse even though the most basic element of free government—the vote—has no other meaning. Every ballot is a piece of nonviolence, signifying hard-won consent to raise politics above firepower and bloody conquest... The whole architecture of representative democracy springs from the handiwork of nonviolence.”
In the run-up to the election, I blogged regularly about the ways I thought that conversations about Big Questions could help deepen the national conversation. After the shock of the election outcome, I struggled to find my footing. But reading Branch’s words that night planted a seed that has taken root in the weeks since, and it goes something like this:
Up until November 8, 2016, I took for granted that the kinds of civic conversations that are the focus of our work at Ask Big Questions are nonviolent conversations. I think many of us did. There was no need to state explicitly that getting together for a conversation about a big human question required a commitment not to be violent. Yes, we had ground rules: about confidentiality, about welcoming and encouraging respectful, productive disagreement. But we never had to say, “By staying in this circle, we all commit not to physically harm one another.”
The election and its aftermath have changed that for me. Never in any of our lifetimes has a president assumed office with such questions about his legitimacy. Never before has the threat of political violence been so close to the surface. Not since the Civil Rights Movement have basic existential questions, about violence and sacrifice, been so front-and-center.
Sacrifice and Solidarity
“Of all the rituals relevant to democracy, sacrifice is preeminent,” writes Harvard professor Danielle Allen. “Since democracy claims to secure the good of all citizens, those people who benefit less than others from particular political decisions, but nonetheless accede to those decisions, preserve the stability of political institutions.” Allen wrote these words with the civil rights movement in mind—a moment when, as Branch describes it, the African-American community in the South finally said, “Enough,” and stopped simply abiding by an unjust system. Their struggle of the 1950s and 60s led to, in Allen’s words, a re-constitution of America.
What was so utterly astounding about the Civil Rights Movement that King led was its principled commitment to strategic nonviolence. If the African-American population of the South had risen up in arms, that would have been par for the course in human history. But King’s movement, from Montgomery to Birmingham to Selma and back to Montgomery, rested on the ethic that people’s consciences could be moved, and their votes changed, through nonviolent resistance. And of course, it worked.
That much we know. But another element of the Movement’s nonviolence was the profound sense of solidarity that permeated it. “Nonviolent pioneers from the civil rights era stand tall in the commitment to govern oneself and develop political bonds with strangers, rather than vice versa.”
Read that sentence again. What Branch is saying is that the activists of the 1950s and 60s were committed to governing first and foremost themselves—not others; and that they were committed to developing political bonds with strangers, including those who sought to do them harm (as most famously and tragically epitomized in activist Michael Schwerner’s last words to the Klansman who killed him during Freedom Summer: “Sir, I know just how you feel”).
In other words, what drove the Civil Rights Movement was not the vision of doing right simply for the African-American community, but of radically shifting the American political imagination through understanding and empathy.
Keeping the Faith
In recent weeks a lot of people have asked me about the tension between seeking to understand and empathize, on the one hand, and committing to activism and advocacy on the other. They seem to be mutually exclusive. But I think Dr. King, Mickey Schwerner, and the other heroes and martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement show us that they’re not.
We don’t have to reach for sainthood. People who threaten us with physical violence are not people we need to love. Nor are they the targets of a persuasion campaign through strategic nonviolence. But they are not people we can ignore either.
King shows us the way. We can be deeply, fiercely committed to our political positions and practice our commitment to nonviolence and empathy. We can hold up and live out our vision of justice because we care about our fellow citizens, not in spite of them. And that starts with seeing ourselves as part of a larger We: the community of citizens, the community of humans who share this land, We the people.
Dr. King said it himself, when he eulogized Jimmy Lee Jackson in Selma in 1965: “Jimmie Lee Jackson is speaking to us from the casket, and he is saying to us that we must substitute courage for caution… We must not be bitter, and we must not harbor ideas of retaliating with violence. We must not lose faith in our white brothers.”
Keeping that faith in one another, insisting that there are indeed questions we all share, stories we can all tell, and listening we can all do for one another, is more essential than it has ever been.