In the preamble to this marvelous letter, David addresses those of us who are of his same generation, explaining his "kairos" intuition that led to his writing the letter that follows. Several of us who received it knew instantly that the full letter deserved wide circulation, for which I (and others) obtained his permission. Hopefully you'll see it posted in several places!
My fellow-Friends from the 20th Century (!),
Although you might be appalled at the length of what's below, I still wanted you to see what I've just sent to our IYM Adult Young Friends via their list-serve. It builds on various "conversations" I've had with a number of them, in person and/or via this medium.
If I've been writing too much, I can actually blame some of you (grin!) who have been encouraging me, somehow giving me the idea that I have something to say. Time will tell.
All I know is that every once in a while, there's a sense of "kairos," the "fullness of time," "things coming together." Events of this last week in the American political scene constituted that for me... taken in tandem with the historical parallels that some have been suggesting.
So, I thought, "It's time for reflection, for mining historical lessons, for thinking out loud, for sharing what I think I've discovered at this point in my journey." Whether this was the right venue for it or not, I have no assurance -- and yet I keep getting this question of, "What were the '60s like?" So, I thought I should set some of it down in writing while some of us are still around.
Read this only if you want to take the time and have the inclination -- I won't feel bad if you don't. And, if you have commentary, I'll gladly receive it... and it can be completely unvarnished.
From: David H. Finke
Date: Fri, 08 Feb 2008 23:10:10 -0600
To: Adult Young Friends - IYM
Cc: Emily Stewart - FGC Youth Program
Subject: Thoughts on Then and Now
My dear adult Young Friends in IYM,
You are on my heart so often, and a few of you have given me permission to write you frequently and at some length. In recent days, I've felt moved to share some more reflections with all of you. I do hope I'm not intruding, and of course I welcome any of you getting in touch with me directly if we'd like to pursue these ideas... or discuss them on this listserve.
It occurs to me to quizzically title this, "An Epistle from the 20th Century." The "epistle" part doesn't connote a formal document from a gathered body, but rather has the sense of a personal letter which tries to address some weighty matters that are both contemporary and eternal. I'm not a blogger, but I do love to write letters -- and email makes it so simple. The "20th Century" part simply acknowledges that the bulk of my life will have been spent before this present century and millennium, and yours will be in this one. And, we have the blessing of overlapping and hopefully learning from each other. That, for me, is a rich privilege -- for us to share parts of our lives with each other: us individually, and us corporately in our beloved Religious Society of Friends.
My present reflections are prompted by two dates in this past week (not counting my birthday and our wedding anniversary, both of which were interesting but not earth-shaking.)
One was February 1st. On that date in 1960, my freshman year in college, 4 courageous college students (whose names are remembered by almost no one) took a step which changed American society and contributed to some of what our country can give to the world -- a positive possibility which is seldom seen these days. They went to a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, NC, sat down and ordered coffee -- after having shopped in other departments of that "dime store" where their money was gladly taken.
The staff was thrown into utter consternation. Blacks, if they wanted a snack, were expected to order it downstairs for take-out, and use a side door. One of the four, whom I heard interviewed on NPR last Friday, said he had never felt so free and whole in his entire life -- before or since -- as when he and his buddies took a seat on those stools... even before they tried to be served. In that moment, he acted not in terms of definitions and expectations of his race, but rather simply as a human being -- someone who wanted a snack and expected his money was as good as the next person's. How obvious!
The "Greensboro Four" were not served that day... nor were they arrested, by a cop who repeatedly walked behind them, mumbling and slapping his nightstick in his palm. Everyone left at the end of the day. Next day, the 4 were back: Same scene. Day after that, 16 college students took seats at that counter. Then 300 came. Then 1000. And that was just in Greensboro. A spark had been lit, and within days those liberating, nonviolent flames swept across the South in what we soon called "The Sit-in Movement." There's so much I could say about that (maybe later). In the meantime I hope you can incorporate study of their vision and methods and personnel and dynamics into your own ongoing education.
My personal connection (I do love to spin out tales from my own "movement history"!) was that we in Oberlin had daily reports from the South -- telephone conversations transcribed and rapidly disseminated throughout campus. (Think what the Internet and cellphones and video could have done. And that's not even counting YouTube, Facebook, IM, texting...) For years there had been an exchange program between our campus and Fisk University in Nashville. So our students there gave us a first-hand feel of what was developing in that town, which in upcoming weeks shared its leadership and inspiration with hundreds of campuses, South and North. Some of this has been preserved in documentary films of that era (every library has them); more can be gotten from books like David Halberstam's "The Children" -- describing students who took on the city's power structure and racist traditions and in a matter of weeks changed them.
It was not accidental that for the whole prior year African-American students in Nashville had been taking training workshops in the theory and practice of Gandhian nonviolent resistance led by a young Methodist minister, Jim Lawson, sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. When the spark came from Greensboro, the Nashville students were prepared. They were ready to act on their own behalf, but they also shared their skills with others. They became the winds and flames of change that swept the South and gave a sense of purpose and possibility to those of us in the North whose lives up until then had been spent in "The Eisenhower Years" -- times of conformity and smug self-satisfaction as a society.
But those were also times of accelerated militarization in a Cold War that for a decade had us all teetering on the brink of apocalyptic global destruction. We lived in fear of the hair-trigger of "Instant and massive retaliation," the official doctrine of "MAD" -- "Mutual Assured Destruction," fueled by fears of "The Red Menace." The '50s had also been the time of that domestic terror collectively known as "the McCarthy Era." To challenge anything which was unjust though traditional was to risk suspicion or ostracism (if not prosecution) as a "Red," a "communist sympathizer," or a "pinko." Overnight, from one campus town in the South, the shell started to crack.
One of the privileges of my life was to have been in a college environment precisely when the example of nonviolent social change through disciplined and joyous direct action -- starting with those mobilized black Southern students and their Northern allies -- showed possibilities and set the stage for a host of other movements which, in retrospect, we lump together as "The '60s." If and as you want, I can trace through some of the pluses and minuses of that time, lessons experienced and learned. For me, the opportunities both for doing voter registration work (before federal Civil Rights legislation had been accomplished) and working against the nuclear arms race (especially above-ground nuclear testing) were distinctly inspired by what started February 1st, 1960. Students did it; we too could do it.
The other significant date of this past week was "Super Tuesday," the time of the largest collection of Presidential primaries this nation has yet seen. Among the barrage of post-election analysis I've heard frequent allusions to the feel and spirit of the time of John F. Kennedy -- his election, his administration, and the sense of promise popularly associated with that. There is certainly truth in that comparison, though I urge a deeper analysis.
To confess: I voted for Barack Obama, with the single deciding factor being his early opposition to the war in Iraq. It's true that other votes in my family (for Sen. Clinton) canceled out my vote: We in Missouri -- as a State and as a family -- split exactly 50/50. Also, as in our Society of Friends, we respect the personal choices which may take Friends to different conclusions. I add in passing -- but earnestly -- that we should never confuse Quakerism (or our version of it) with a particular faction of the Democratic Party.
So this last Tuesday evening after the polls closed I was at a "watch party" (also hopefully tagged as a "victory party") downtown here in Columbia with other Obama folks. Quite similar to what happened at the same location a year ago when we elected Senator Claire McCaskill, the hall was filled with excited, fresh, committed, enthusiastic young people mostly of college and grad-school age. I could feel our age difference melt away.
They had clearly been the "shock troops" of leafletting, phoning, door-to-door canvassing, getting out the vote. Most were white, but one of the major coordinators was black. And all of them were under, I would say, 25... or 30 years old at the most. Their efforts had largely been campus-based, but it helped double the usual turnout numbers for this county. Very few old-time party regulars were there; They have been quite cautious before committing to one or the other of the remaining Democratic Presidential candidates. Always looking to see "which way the wind is blowing" !
If you've never gotten involved in politics at the precinct/ward/ community level, I urge you give it a try sometime, to get a feel of the spiritedness and vision, the camaraderie and just plain fun... and often a lot of free sandwiches or donuts! There's a sense that at the grassroots, democracy has a chance and we can make a difference. And one gets to know some new friends.
But was what I experienced this past Tuesday "like the '60s"? Yes and no.
The "Yes" part was the huge resonance with Barack's message of hope, of possibility, of looking forward rather than backward, of banking on change rather than fear, of trusting and listening to "the little people" rather than the Fat Cats. The shouts and chanting -- in the hall where I was and in the televised venue in Chicago where Obama was speaking -- were highly reminiscent of civil rights rallies that I've been at in the '60s. Some of the cadences of Barak's speech were similar to what I've heard in black churches where I've spent time. There was clearly manifested an Energy -- indeed, youthful energy that sets a pace of work which others of us may have to struggle to keep up with. It got my juices going.
We also heard a lot about the parallel between Barack's relative youthfulness (42, I think) and JFK's -- about 44 when he was elected. The sense of a hopeful future in each case was in contrast to a past (indeed a present) which had been viewed with impatience if not disgust. In both cases there was the conviction that "We can do BETTER that this..." whether the "this" was racial injustice or cultural stagnation or limited vision or alienation from the world... or, in the present, the agony of endless war in Iraq, the erosion of civil liberties, the increasingly despised role of America in the world.
But what about the "No"? That is more complex. Bear with me, please. Obama is, I think, being seen as a potential agent of change, who will bring both a fresh content, a fresh style, and a fresh constituency to politics, who will try to bridge partisan divides. (Remember his speech in 2004 to the Democratic Convention: "There are neither Red states nor Blue states, only the United States.")
JFK, on the other hand, I can assure you was NOT in himself a social change agent. Whereas Obama's previous experience has been as a community organizer (on Chicago's South Side, from which we first elected him to the Illinois State Senate -- I was a constituent!), Kennedy's background was rooted in privilege and comfort. His Dad was a classic Democratic Party wheeler/dealer, part of the "kingmaker" in-group, as ruthless and unprincipled as when (I think I'm right) he made his first fortune in the Prohibition-era bootleg traffic. Joe was out to buy the Presidency for his son, the way that Bush Sr. did for Bush Jr.
Although this seldom comes across in easy journalistic phrases characterizing -- or caricaturing -- the '60s, those of us doing actual social change and justice work (nonviolent direct action for Civil Rights, or opposing the nuclear arms race) saw Kennedy and the Democratic Party establishment as "part of the problem rather than part of the solution." If you study the origins of SDS (about which I could comment first-hand) and read the "Port Huron Statement," you will get a feel for this. It took the "Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party" demonstrations at the '64 Democratic Convention (Atlantic City) to begin to break the stranglehold that the "Dixiecrats" had on the party. That struggle was not easy nor was the outcome a foregone conclusion. Kennedy's choice of Lyndon Johnson as a running mate was part of an old ritual of "balancing the ticket" to keep on board the segregationists who, in 1948, had bolted the party rather than support Truman, who had integrated the armed forces.
The popular image is of JFK, in all his youthfulness with his storybook wife and the "Camelot" myth, giving the nation a vision of getting to the moon, and "asking not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." The truth, though, is that he was a committed Cold Warrior: He allowed the "Bay of Pigs" CIA-led invasion of Cuba, and his later showdown over missiles in Cuba brought us as close as (we believe) we've ever come to World War III. He crusaded against an alleged "missile gap." In no way did he challenge American Imperialism.
In terms of Civil Rights, it is true that Kennedy made a well-timed phone call to the King family when MLK was in jail... and for some of us, it had "opportunism" written all over it. Eisenhower/Nixon had taken a "hands-off" "local-issue" approach to integration. (The exception being that when a federal court order was defied in Little Rock, Ike sent in the Airborne troops... which Bob Wixom can tell you about in the first-person.)
It is true that Kennedy launched the Peace Corp during his term. It is also true that there was already a genuine grass-roots inter-campus movement growing for such an entity: The design for a "Youth Service Corps" was written by the father of my roommate's girlfriend, and that roommate at Oberlin organized a conference which brought together student leaders to learn about and boost such a concept! Kennedy -- seeing the enthusiasm already building -- told his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver to go make it happen. And, it did.
Lest I sound like a tired old radical for whom liberals can never do anything original or trustworthy or good, let me try to clarify and focus on my point: And that is, the dynamic for the significant social changes that started in the early 1960s did NOT begin with government, or those aspiring to political leadership. It began with ordinary folks, doing things that in retrospect looked extraordinary, but which -- with a sense of vision and solidarity and indeed joy and a whole lot of singing -- became possible.
This was the lesson that people should have learned from the Montgomery Bus Boycott half a decade earlier. Martin Luther King didn't start it or bring it to its successful conclusion -- as much as I respect and honor him. It started with a well-trained youth activist (Rosa Parks headed the youth branch of the NAACP in Montgomery, and had been to Highlander Folk School in Tennessee for nonviolence training). She worked with a Sleeping Car Porters' union official (E.D. Nixon) who sensed that Dr. King -- the newest black preacher in town, serving the most conservative parish -- could be a spokesperson-- not only because he was eloquent, but strategically because he was not already identified with the various traditional factions in the black community.
And then, what really made it happen was the thousands of oppressed black citizens who month after month stopped cooperating with the indignities of a segregated transportation system, and who were willing to stand up to a brutal police/court system and overwhelm it with their numbers and staying power. (A Quaker f/Friend of mine, Steve Chase, who teaches environmental activism at Antioch University, has written a paper on this, which I'll be glad to send to anyone.)
Am I putting Kennedy down? I hope not too much. It's a commonplace now that whatever civil rights advocacy he had could not get through Congress; that happened only with the arm-twisting of his Texan Vice-President who succeeded him -- and after several more years of demonstrations, and the martyrdom of many more who were working for voting rights and public accommodation.
Politicians respond; they seldom actually lead. I must admit that, in my viewing of "the Kennedy legacy," I cannot forget that JFK put American troops ("advisors") into Vietnam, quite unchallenging of the role that Eisenhower had picked up after the French left in defeat. It was, in my view, a mixed heritage at best. AND, the fact of his assassination elevated him to near-sainthood in the minds of many... of which I did not count myself.
So does this mean I think we should never trust politicians to carry out our visions, or work for their election if they advocate principals with which we agree? Not at all! I've lost count of how many campaigns for which I rang doorbells (in Chicago and now here in Columbia,) because I wanted to be part of the pressures on the candidate for advancing progressive change rather than upholding the status quo. I will always treasure the experience of having worked for the election of Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington -- and remember the thrill (if not disbelief) of his actually winning, and then seeing him get to work shaking things up from top to bottom.
The moneyed nature of politics means that we can usually always count on those with privilege and influence, "the vested interests," "the Establishment," to have the ear of those in public office to whom they contribute. Others of us simply have to get attention by helping politicians get elected and/or re-elected... for which they need us as much as they need those with money. If we've been in their campaigns, we have a better chance of their listening to us when they're in office.
It's a balancing act, contending as it were for the "soul" of a candidate/official. It's a calculated move... and not necessarily the calling of everyone, even of "progressives." Even the best of politicians will have their failings, their blind spots, giving us occasional disappointment. An expectation of perfection in human institutions only sets one up for disillusionment. And yet, a cynical expectation of venality and duplicity can simply take one off the playing field, leaving it to others.
Parenthetically: I got a lesson in politics early in my freshman year from a visiting speaker who had helped organize the United Auto Workers in the 1930s. Kermit Eby was his name, and he was a minister in the Church of the Brethren (as well as the only professor at the University of Chicago not to have a PhD.) I followed him back to his room to talk longer after his speech; very fortunate! He said, "If you 'Let George do it,' George WILL do it... but in George's own way, not yours." In other words, if you want to have an effect, you've got to get personally involved, and not be a perennial spectator.
OK, now what about a Quaker perspective? What I've said so far could simply be standard stuff you'd get in a history or poli-sci class. Maybe interesting, but not the real reason I'm writing you, my dear Fellow Friends.
The first thing to remind us of is that Quakers have had a somewhat different view toward government than our cousins from the other Historic Peace Churches, the Anabaptists, Mennonites, and Brethren. Especially given that The State was murderously out to eradicate them -- the one thing that Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist governments agreed upon. These "sectarian" Bible-believing Christians saw government as part of "Babylon," the world under control of Evil rather than what Jesus taught, what God calls us to.
At best, they might concede (along with St. Paul, himself a political prisoner) that government had a role in suppressing crime, but they as Christians would have no part of it: the True Church's calling was to the Kingdom of Heaven -- working for a peace "not as the world giveth." It was inconceivable that they would contend for public office, or have any political stake in that which was "worldly." The impulse was to separate from "the world" and live righteous lives in distinct, committed Christian communities that would be a light of example to the rest of the world. And in large parts of Quaker history, we shared much of that perspective with them -- especially as to withdrawing from support of or participation in war (which is, after all, a major business of national governments!).
However, starting with William Penn (and with some earlier expectations for success of social justice in the Cromwellian Revolution,) Quakers generally were willing to invest themselves in the Body Politic, and hold it accountable to standards of equity and justice. In that first generation they even set up a kind of FCNL lobbying group in a coffee house near Parliament to plead for their concerns.
This (as I've argued in a talk I gave at IYM a few years ago, and could send you) was a motif of engagement rather than withdrawal. This was what Penn called his "Holy Experiment" of Pennsylvania, his "frame of government." And, for a number of decades it seemed to work -- until new non-Quaker immigrants outnumbered the Quakers and wanted tax dollars to go for military defense against Indians. Then, rather than vote war taxes and appropriations, Quakers as a body withdrew from the colonial legislature -- and from then on (in America) had a suspicious view even of working with others politically for various social justice causes. An interesting development... slowly changing as we got toward the 20th century.
I think my own fundamental view about government and Quakers crystallized in the early months that I was working for American Friends Service Committee in the peace-education program of the Chicago office (1967-73.) Those were times when many anti-war folks demonstrated an intense hatred for President Johnson and the war that he kept escalating. With Nixon's election in 1968, that venomous contempt and a willingness to derail the war "by any means necessary" transferred to the new administration. The anti-Vietnam-War movement was, in many of its manifestations, anything but a "peace movement" as Quakers and most pacifists would have understood it. Part of my job, which I understood with great relish, was -- where we could -- to provide a different "tone," examples of creative nonviolence rather than raw rage, models of social change for which people took personal responsibility and around which they experienced Community.
It was in this setting that I -- all of 26 years old! -- was shown a particular passage (printed in the Philadelphia YM's "Faith and Practice") written by young Edward Burrough in 1659. (Just now I see that he, too, was 26 years old.) Burrough entitled his remarks "To the present distracted and broken nation" -- certainly my sense of where America was in the late '60s. (I think that the political and social turmoil at the time of Fox and his colleagues was surely more daunting than whatever we've had in the U.S.) Our executive secretary Kale Williams -- a committed Quaker who was always teaching me things -- quoted what I soon committed to memory:
"We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government, nor are we for this party or against the other... But we are for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom, that these may be exalted in our nation, and that goodness, righteousness, meekness, temperance, peace and unity with God, and with one another, that these things may abound."
What an amazing and for me liberating alternative perspective! How different this was from the highly partisan, vitriolic, and often manipulative "peace politics" into the middle of which I was plunged, struggling to find my way through the labyrinths of various coalition efforts.
The question then for me, as a Quaker peace activist, became not so much what was the correct program for forcing our government to get out of Vietnam. Rather, it became what positive, creative contribution could we make -- as either members or agents of the Society of Friendsi -- in terms of the social struggles of our day? Where could we relieve suffering? Where could we witness for Truth?
Our job wasn't to pick the right candidate and make sure he got into office, or compel the adoption of a particular plank in a party's platform. Nor was our job to overthrow a particular economic system. Rightly understood, we had the opportunity to show the "Fruits of the Spirit" -- nicely outlined in Paul's letter to the Galatians (5:22-23)... and certainly on Burroughs' mind as he wrote. We weren't in the business of converting people to Quakerism (though a remarkable number like myself stuck around and joined Friends at worship after first meeting us on vigil lines or in draft counseling.) But we could find and give mutual encouragement to like-minded peacemakers, regardless of label. Those possibilities are never-ending.
The peace movement already had a lesson in the relative failure of placing all our hope in one candidate, when concerned if not terrified "peace people" across the land flocked to the support of LBJ in 1964 against Barry Goldwater, who if elected (so the thinking went) would surely get us into war. And guess what we got with Johnson, after the Tonkin Gulf fabricated episode? For a full decade right after I got out of college the political landscape was irretrievably distorted and sullied by the War in Vietnam, and my generation still suffers from it. My lesson? Never put all your political eggs (energy, expectation) in one basket. No candidate has or shall be The Messiah. There's another one to whom I give that title and allegiance.
I think that even if some of us as Quakers find ourselves understandably drawn to electoral politics, it serves us well to remember several larger thoughts:
(1) "Politics" isn't just about going through electoral rituals every few years. It has to do with ongoing relations between the government and the governed, holding our public servants accountable, and being able & willing to replace them when they fail to serve The Public Good. Being an active "constituent" is every bit as important as being a campaign worker.
(2) We can have significant impact in helping to define the issues, putting matters of peace and social justice onto the public agenda, giving effort to learning for ourselves and then helping others discover what are the "pressing issues of the day."
Politics itself can be -- as it has been for a number of generations of students since my time -- a huge turnoff. But getting involved in issues like global trade equity, workers rights, food supplies and nutrition, health care, combatting poverty, advancing education, upholding human rights of all kinds, opposing militarism, addressing overarching environmental concerns in which life on earth as we know it could be radically altered --- that kind of activism helps shape the landscape to which candidates must either address themselves or find themselves irrelevant and out of a job. "Politics" can simply mean being a responsible part of the "polis," the whole society, of which "politicians" are only one (though a highly-visible) part.
(3) Our inner spiritual life, that which sustains us and gives us vision and strength, must be central rather than tangential to our political expression. I know that you in Illinois Yearly Meeting -- and probably with your young adult Quaker colleagues from across the nation and the theological spectrum -- are on to something when you want to examine "Spirit-led activism." To the extent that you delve into this and share your discoveries and your insights, and show your examples, you will be a vital part of the renewal of our Religious Society. You can remind some in my generation -- who came to Quakers because we knew they were anti-war -- that there are things we are FOR rather than just what we're against.
A person need not necessarily engage in "religious talk" in order to be making a witness to one's religious convictions. You can -- as so many of your are doing -- "Let your lives speak." Your movement as it has coalesced and come to older Friends' attention in recent years has reminded us that our calling is not to persuade each other but to love each other. Something of God's Spirit is moving among you in a powerful way. It reminds me that the phrase occurring most often in George Fox's writing was not about "that of God in every one" but rather that "The Power of the Lord was over all."
Stay centered in that Power. God is blessing you, and the rest of us through you.
With all my love, -DHF