Heroes of Democracy in the Twentieth Century

In the waning years of the twentieth century it is time to recognize the significance of the Civil Rights Movement as a major contribution to democracy. It was Vincent Harding whom I first heard say that the Civil Rights Movement was about democracy. In the on-going process of building a democracy, that Movement which dominated so much of the middle part of our century has played a crucial role.

There cannot be democracy in a society which does not value all its peoples; that I heard recently from Mel King, a highly respected African American here in Boston. That is one of those self-evident truths, which sometimes I do not “see” until someone like Mel King brings it to my attention.

From that truth a quick look at our history makes it clear that the nation which was established by the Constitution of the United States of America was not a democracy. Our nation was founded on a contradiction which asserted equality and at the same time established a social contract in which African people were enslaved, in which Native peoples were regarded as savage barriers to development, into which women were not invited, and which protected the rights of those who owned property over those who did not. Until that fundamental contradiction is resolved and the reality of life in our homes, on our streets, in the institutions of society*** values all people, we will not be a democracy. The Civil Rights Movement insisted that Black people were to be valued and respected as full and equal citizens. To claim and win that for any group of people is a “movement” toward democracy.

The Civil Rights Movement emerged from the wounded and proud hearts of Black Americans, and they confronted our nation with a truth which demanded action, nudging us closer to equality and democracy. The recognized leaders of the Civil Rights Movement rode the shoulders of many who in previous years struggled, labored, and risked both in quiet dignity and shouted protest to call us to account.

To begin to name those heroes of the twentieth century would inevitably leave out many; any list would focus only on the recognized “leaders” and I do not want to do that. There were thousands of others giving life to the “movement;” while they may be lost in the footnotes of history, it is they who were the movement. I want to acknowledge my debt to them all.

The movement reaches far back into the beginnings of the century. It is an evolving consciousness among Black people reflecting an ever-growing anger with the “lot” assigned to them in American life, followed closely by a determination to effect change, backboned by the dignity of racial pride. The early years of the century made clear that separation and unequal treatment was to be the style of the “democracy” Blacks would experience. Came the first World War, and an expanded consciousness of a world-wide connection with Black and other peoples of color, and with it the conviction that in a world now supposedly “safe for democracy,” this nation was no longer “safe for hypocrisy.”

The awakening consciousness was fanned by the Black Renaissance, led by a remarkable chorus of Black writers, musicians, and performing artists whose lives spoke the prophetic words of truth about justice, equality, and democracy. Political activism called upon the national powers to do justly, while at the same time exhorting the Black community to save itself. Gradually there emerged the great mass which became the Civil Rights Movement, led across the land by giants of determination, persistence, and moral power.

Backsliding there has been surely, and it will continue in the face of a reluctant majority of the nation, sometimes supported by, often manipulated by powerful forces of the status quo. On the eve of the new century we move with a vision of the democracy we want to build; that vision is shared by countless numbers of people representing oppressed groups of varied description, building on and working from the base of the Civil Rights Movement. If we still want that democracy we have looked for, we must regain the spirit, the conviction, the moral courage of the Civil Rights Movement. There can be no higher calling or mission for our nation.

A few weeks ago at a conference of The Black Educational Movement in Boston, I listened to reflections from people who had given leadership to the events which brought the desegregation of the Boston schools. It was a re-counting of a local movement towards democracy, many of the stories told reminded me of the consistent courage which characterized those efforts. One statement took on special meaning for me, and becomes the focus of this essay. Elma Lewis, a respected, even revered Black leader of Boston, commented on her conviction that when the history of this century is written it will be finally said that Black people were its heroes. Her thought settled into my being, and linked with Vincent Harding and Mel King becomes this expression of gratitude for the heroes of democracy in this century.

Those are easy words to write; the task now is to make gratitude vibrant in the works of every day.