By Harry C. Boyte
In a coincidence of history, President Obama took the oath of office on the Martin Luther King Holiday, January 21, 2013. He sounded a call for collective action, with his hand on Martin Luther King’s bible.
Like King a half century ago in his “I Have a Dream” speech, Obama employed a language of citizenship, declaring that all must work together as citizens to advance the founding creed of the nation and to meet challenges of today. Obama has immersed himself in study of the black church tradition of call and response, which King brilliantly embodied. And in the citizen response to Obama’s call, we can use lessons from the civil rights movement.
Martin Luther King is rightly remembered this year as a dreamer. But to see King only as a dreamer is to miss his greatness.
Stretched out on the floor in a sleeping bag in my father’s hotel room, I heard King practice the speech in the early morning hours of August 28th. My father had just gone on staff of King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the only white on the executive committee. Dad called me, hitch-hiking in California before college, and told me to come back. “We’ve planned a march to get the attention of the nation,” he said.
In “I Have a Dream,” King strikes a bold tone. “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights,” King said. King’s Dream speech was also a call to citizenship, to act with the welfare of the whole society in mind:
“In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
King lived what community organizers describe as the tension between the world as it is and the world as it should be. This is hard to do. The strong tendency is to split the two. On the one hand we have our ideals and those who embody them. On the other there is the vicious, violent world and of course the evil doers who are seen as its agents.
King refused this Manichean division of the world. He rooted his dream in the soil of human fallibility. He was fully aware of the propensities toward pettiness, jealousy, meanness in everyone – including himself. It was his ability to dream coupled with his rootedness in the human condition with its full complexity which made Martin Luther King great.
This rootedness of King is often missing in today’s tributes. The current controversy over the King Memorial in Washington illustrates the pattern.
In 2011, the poet Maya Angelou told the Washington Post she was upset at the paraphrase of a quote on the Memorial. The quote, from a sermon King gave on March 4, 1968, read: “If you want to say that I was a drum major say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.” On the Memorial the inscription was shortened to read “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.”
Angelou said, “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit. He never would have said that of himself. He said, ‘you might say it.’ It minimizes the man. It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was.” After a wave of such criticisms, the Park Service agreed to remove the inscription.
I have high regard for Maya Angelou and her writing. But she was wrong about King.
The sermon wasn’t creating a hypothetical. King begins the sermon querying those who condemn James and John for their request, recounted in the 10th chapter of Mark, to sit at Jesus’ left and right hands. King says:
“Why would they make such a selfish request? Before we condemn them too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. There is deep down within all of us kind of a drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.”
King continues, the problem is not the Drum Major Instinct. It’s that the follow up question, for what? is rarely asked. That’s the meaning of the quote which was taken off the King Memorial. King’s “for what” drew deeply from conversations with co-workers in the movement. For instance, Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington and long-time adviser to King, was indispensable to creating the platform for “I Have a Dream.” Rustin’s question was always how to move from the world as it is to the world as it should be, or, put differently, how to put power behind vision.
By the mid-sixties, Rustin had become alarmed about the growing tendency of young activists, both black and white, to substitute “posture and volume” for strategy. In 1965 in an article in Commentary, “From Protest to Politics,” he challenged this tendency and proposed an alternative. “The civil rights movement must evolve from a protest movement into a full-fledged social movement—an evolution calling its very name into question,” he said. “It is now concerned not merely with removing the barriers to full opportunity but with achieving the fact of equality.”
Rustin argued that the movement for equality requires institutional transformation, not simply moral exhortation. I see the civic transformations of colleges and universities, promoted by the American Commonwealth Partnership in partnership with the White House and the Department of Education, as examples.
Similarly, King also often visited the Dorchester Center in Georgia, where he heard stories and drew inspiration from those being trained in SCLC’s Citizenship Education Program (CEP) to create citizenship schools. Septima Clark, an early teacher, developed CEP’s vision statement: “to broaden the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepen the concept to include every relationship.” Such broadening involved change in identity from victim to agent of change, a story told vividly in the book by CEP director Dorothy Cotton, If Your Back’s Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement. I worked for CEP as a college student.
King is remembered in his last years for his fiery criticism to the Vietnam War and poverty in America. But we need to recall that he was also a Drum Major – and co-worker — in the movement for equality and for broadening the scope of democracy.
His marching orders have never been more relevant.
By Harry C. Boyte
At a level deeper than policies and prescriptions, elections are contests about different collective narratives — the story that each candidate is telling us about the future. These involve not only the candidate and what he or she will do but what the rest of us do as well.
All of us need to flesh out a new story for our future by building on President Obama’s successful challenge in the second debate to Mitt Romney on the Benghazi attack which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other US citizens.
Obama applied the “terror” label to the attack in his first public statement. But the more important aspect of the Administration’s response was a “different kind of politics.” Such politics, far from demonizing opponents, is based on recognizing different interests and finding common ground where it is possible. Though it goes against the grain of our highly polarized society, examples can be found, in very different places.
For instance, Minnesotans United for all Families is using such a politics in their fight against a proposed anti-gay marriage amendment to the state constitution. Such politics is emerging in efforts at reform in higher education. It has roots in civic and populist movements like the freedom struggle of the 1950s and 60s.
In the case of Libya, such politics needs to be explained.
In fact, Obama’s White House and the State Department responded to the Libyan attack and more broadly to demonstrations across the Arab world in the wake of an anti-Muslim film released on YouTube, in ways far different than the simplistic “good versus evil” foreign policy touted by Romney and his neoconservative advisers. And their response, in significant measure, worked.
By now, Mitt Romney’s story is well-established. He is less a diabolical right winger portrayed by many on the left than a “boss” who tells lame jokes and waits for people to laugh – and they better, as James Lipton of “Inside the Actors Studio” put it on Chris Matthews show “Hardball” after the second debate.
A boss-president would also throw his weight around in the world. A US leader trying to be a global CEO in the 21st century is a worrisome thought.
Do we want a boss or a president? Lipton asked, comparing Barack Obama, facing down Romney on the issue of Libya, to Gary Cooper on “High Noon.” Lipton has Romney down cold. But he misses on President Obama.
Obama generates hope and connects best with the American public when he is a “citizen president,” not a town marshal but rather an organizer of collective efforts to address common problems. Obama is more like Will Rogers, who brought communities together to address their challenges in his movies of the 1930s, than Gary Cooper in “High Noon.”
Obama’s role as citizen organizer, widely missed (or dismissed) by political pundits, was key to the 2008 ‘Yes We Can’ campaign. Obama revived it in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention this year, when he declared that “as citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.”
Such citizen work is a different kind of politics. It engages people “where they are,” not where one would like them to be. It recognizes the right of people to be different, based on respect for their stories, interests, and cultures. Far from being weak or apologetic, it requires great skill and poise.
Such politics appeared in Obama’s Cairo speech to the Arab world on June 4, 2009. Long practiced by successful diplomats as well as by community organizers, it has been at work in the aftermath of the Benghazi attach and in the midst of the anti-American violence after the anti-Muslim YouTube video.
Republicans charge that the Benghazi attacks were part of the global Al Qaeda movement and that the Administration has been covering up the connection. But facts on the ground appear to be far more complex.
David Kirkpatrick reported in the New York Times on October 16 that Libyans who witnessed the assault and knew the attackers say they had another motivation. “A well-known group of local Islamist militants mounted the attack in retaliation for the American-made video. That is what the fighters said at the time, speaking emotionally of their anger at the video without ever mentioning Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, or the terrorist attacks of 11 years earlier.”
It was important for the president and the State Department to send a message that “no act of violence will shake the resolve of the United States,” as Obama put. It was equally important to signal respect for Muslims and for Islam, and to recognize that the anti-Muslim video generated legitimate anger.
This was the strong message of the administration immediately after the attack and in the weeks following, from UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s remarks on news shows to Obama’s speech at the United Nations. The press corps and voters should be pressing Republicans about their views on such respect.
As a result of the US message, Libyans turned out in large numbers in pro-American demonstrations expressing shock and shame about the Benghazi attack. Libyan officials declared their intentions to work with the FBI team investigating the attack. Across the Arab and Muslim world, the combination of behind the scenes pressure and public pronouncements from the administration distancing the US from ant-Muslim views calmed the situation.
Violence and anti-American demonstrations subsided.
In sum, the Administration’s different kind of politics helped to tame a wave of anti-Americanism threatening to get out of control.
Americans are desperate for such politics, in a time of profound dysfunction in ‘politics as usual.’
Harry C. Boyte is Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership.
This article was originally published on huffington post.
By Harry Boyte and Bill Muse
By coincidence, September 4th marks two events. They seem unrelated, but both signal an enduring pattern of American history: Significant advances toward “a more perfect union” takes the work of the whole people, not simply the efforts of political leaders, experts, or famous personalities.
A concept of the late political theorist Hannah Arendt, the common table which both unites and separates us, helps to explain why.
September 4th is the release date for If Your Back’s Not Bent (Atria/Simon & Schuster), the long awaited history of the Citizenship Education Program (CEP) of the civil rights movement, written by Dorothy Cotton, its chief architect and director. Cotton was the only woman on the executive committee of Martin Luther King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The book is named for a talk by King at the end of a CEP training program which concluded, “If your back’s not bent, nobody can ride on it.”
In it, Cotton tells the story of the movement’s “best kept secret.” The grassroots adult citizen education program, largely ignored by mainstream media and standard histories which focus on marches, demonstrations, politicians, and famous leaders, transformed legions of men and women across the South from victims to active citizens, agents of change. In turn, they had lasting impact. They made their communities and the nation places of greater freedom and more inclusive justice for all.
September 4th is also the launch of “Shaping Our Future — How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want,” dialogues in at least three hundred communities over the coming year about the public purposes of higher education.
Shaping Our Future is organized by the new American Commonwealth Partnership, a coalition with hundreds of colleges, universities and other groups promoting higher education as a public good, and the National Issues Forums, a non-partisan institute promoting public discussions. Martha Kanter, Undersecretary of Education, will participate in the launch, along with Muriel Howard, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Syracuse University, Scott Peters, Co-director of Imagining America, a consortium of schools involving artists and scholars in public life, Kaylesh Ramu, president of the Student Government Association at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Bernie Ronan, chair of The Democracy Commitment and others.
The launch, held at the National Press Club, will be live-streamed here.
Shaping Our Future dialogues will explore questions such as how higher education can best prepare a highly skilled workforce, provide opportunities for all Americans to attend college, strengthen values such as responsibility, integrity, and respect for others, and develop skills of citizenship in which students and others learn to work across differences to make needed change.
Early experiments show discussions can bring people together across partisan and other differences. “Seeing the different levels of a university present in one group with community members truly provided unique input,” said Laura Lake, a student at Winona State University who moderated an early discussion. “Seeing the differences between the views was extremely interesting. What was more exciting was seeing the areas they agreed upon — that higher education does indeed help us create the society we want.”
A concept in political theory helps to illuminate the dynamic described by Laura.
Hannah Arendt developed the idea of a “table” which acknowledges differences while also offering the possibility of discovering areas of commonality. “Interests constitute something which inter-est, which lies between people and therefore can relate and bind them together,” she argued in her classic work, The Human Condition.
The common table is connected to “world-building,” which allows people to shift focus from feelings about each other to common tasks. As the feminist theorist Linda Zirelli puts it, “Foregrounded in Arendt’s account is something less about the subject than about the world… the human artifact, the fabrication of human hands, as well as affairs which go on among those who inhabit the man-made world together.”
Half a century ago, the civil rights movement served as a common table. It captured the nation’s imagination with images of everyday citizens risking lives and livelihoods to transform the culture of racial bigotry and structures of discrimination. Demonstrations and speeches were visible manifestations, but these channeled vast grassroots energies, cultivated in everyday experiences like the Citizenship Education Program.
The common table focused the attention of millions of Americans on the task of promoting “liberty and justice for all.” The table of change also evolved, taking up other areas of discrimination against women and minorities, in addition to African Americans, like Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, gays and lesbians, and people with disabilities.
It also energized all of American society.
Today, we face new and daunting challenges. Public opinion research by the Kettering Foundation shows that Americans are deeply worried about long term problems which neither government nor markets, by themselves, can solve. The U.S. economy struggles with challenges in a tough global environment. We’ve become an increasingly divided nation, dramatized by this hyperpolarized election. Values like responsibility, integrity, and quality in work seem to be fading. Too many, from Washington to Main Street, are unable to work together to solve problems. The country sees growing economic disparities. Many who work hard and play by the rules are slipping out of the middle class.
These are complex and multifaceted problems. Families, schools, religious groups, non-profits as well as government and business will need to be at “the table of change” if we are to address them. But as shown in the ongoing Huffington Post blog which recounts stories of colleges as agents and architects of change, higher education has far more to contribute to the work of building a more perfect union than is commonly realized.
Shaping Our Future will acquaint large numbers of Americans with stories and methods of colleges and universities that act as agents and architects of change. The discussions will also invite the whole people, not only those in higher education, to be change agents. Strengthening higher education’s contributions to solving problems, building healthy and prosperous communities, and creating a sustainable democracy is important to all of us.
We believe such conversations and the civic work that flows from them can help to create a common table. Though public opinion research shows higher education’s public contributions have slipped from view of most people — who see college only as a ticket for higher paying jobs — Americans overwhelmingly recognize higher education’s importance. Nearly nine out of 10 people say Americans are better off going to college.
One of the objectives, indeed, of the National Issues Forum is to help participants find common ground, a path they can travel together. We need a common table, a way to find common ground, more than ever if we are to recall King’s words in Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
Harry C. Boyte, National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, worked as a field secretary for SCLC as a college student.
Coalition of Colleges and Nonprofits to Conduct Hundreds of Community Forums During the Next Year
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
A yearlong, nationwide series of deliberative forums dialogues on how higher education could do more, or operate differently, to strengthen America’s economy, culture, and civic participation will be launched by a coalition of nonprofit and educational leaders on September 4 at 9 a.m. at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The project, Shaping Our Future: How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want, is being led by the American Commonwealth Partnership and National Issues Forums Institute, both nonprofit, nonpartisan groups.
While there is heated discussion among education, political, and business leaders about how to address the many challenges facing higher education, this initiative will help students, faculty, and other citizens weigh different approaches to problems and seek common ground for action. The deliberative dialogues—to be held in at least 300 communities—will explore questions such as how higher education can best work to insure a highly skilled workforce to maintain the nation’s economic strength and competitiveness, promote equity by providing opportunities for all Americans, and strengthen values such as responsibility, integrity, and respect for others, as well as develop skills to seek common ground or work through differences in a civil manner.
The September 4 panel launching this initiative will include: Martha Kanter, U.S. Under Secretary of Education; Bill Muse, president of the National Issues Forums Institute; Harry Boyte, national coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership; NancyCantor, chancellor of Syracuse University; Muriel Howard, President of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities; Bernie Ronan, chair, The Democracy Commitment; Kaylesh Ramu, president, Student Government Association, University of Maryland Baltimore County; and Scott Peters, co-director, Imagining America.
“Preparing all students for informed, engaged participation in the civic life of our communities is notjust essential, it is entirely consistent with the goals of increasing student achievement, closing achievement gaps and preparing citizens to understand their role and responsibility in our democracy,” Martha Kanter, U.S. Under Secretary of Education, said.
WHAT: Shaping Our Future How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want
WHERE:National Press Club, Holeman Lounge, Washington, D.C.
To RSVP, please contact Phil Lurie, at email@example.com or 202-393-4478. For additional information about Shaping Our Future, visit http://www.nifi.org/issue_books/detail.aspx?catID=6&itemID=21640.
By Angela Bonfiglio
For a number of years, I have found a variety of sources of inspiration to see why it is important to be an active citizen in the world and for me personally to take action and participate in what is most important. This inspiration has come from sources such as my faith, inspirational leaders, people who believed in me, and being struck by some of the deepest issues that face our society, such as racism, poverty and inequality in schools. It is an imbalance in equity and fairness that is at the core of many of these issues.
As humans we are always changing. This is especially true in college where opportunities continue to arise as learning takes place inside and outside the classroom. If the person I was, knew the person I am today, we would not recognize each other.
At the end of my sophomore year at Augsburg, I became involved in Redeemer Lutheran Church, located on the North Side of Minneapolis. Redeemer is a different kind of church. It is focused on the immediate community around them, but utilizes the agency of its diverse membership to be “a beacon of hope” for the neighborhood and for the world. Between the church and the non-profit, Redeemer is involved in projects including housing, food sustainability, youth, anti-racism, and employment. In North Minneapolis there has been disinvestment for a number of years, which is reflected in high unemployment rates, poor schools and a population exodus.
As a part of a scholarship from Augsburg, I was supported to work at Redeemer, and was asked to be the Program Coordinator for the Redeemer Afterschool Program (R.A.P.), which was being reworked into a weekly outreach program focusing on arts and music as a tool for building youth leadership and community. I was very excited about this opportunity and said “yes” without really knowing what I was getting myself into.
I had the opportunity to take on a leadership position and figure out more about what it means to work with others. Along the way the children we worked with provided inspiration and helped us understand how the program should be run based on their needs.
My latest source of inspiration has come from my experience studying abroad in Namibia. I was there for a six week summer program with the Center for Global Education at Augsburg for a class on development and an internship with the Namibian Women’s Health Network. I was exposed to a number of people who are working in their communities to make a difference and create change around huge problems that the country faces, such as having one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world. I was also inspired by people who served their time and energy with such a sense of care and joy. It was beautiful to watch a small community at work, building on each others’ activities. I was constantly thinking of my Redeemer community and ways that I could bring back lessons from this experience. I was given so much more than I ever gave over those six weeks.
Now as I continue my role at Redeemer, these sources of inspiration provide fuel for the work that I do. Our goal for R.A.P. is to build a beloved community where kids feel a sense of safety and belonging. My experience in Namibia definitely helps me in thinking about what the beloved community means in my own spaces and places here in America.
Angela Bonfiglio is an undergraduate student at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota majoring in sociology and minoring in youth and family ministry. She works at Redeemer Lutheran Church in North Minneapolis as the afterschool program coordinator. She recently spent time studying abroad in Namibia with the Center for Global Education and interning with the Namibian Women’s Health Network.
We sat in his office in the State Capitol. He laughed that he had “survived the session, and can look back at it with some humor.”
“The question, ‘what is the purpose of higher education?’ is profound. Higher education needs to be so much more than getting a credential. As a society we place an amazing emphasis on getting credentials. In many corporate settings the higher education degree is used as a sorting device in employee selection. Obviously we all know the degree is important but it should not be the sole determination of whether or not an individual will be a good employee or a good citizen.
“In the end, I believe the most important role of higher education is to prepare people to be life-long learners, to be immersed in life experiences, and to give back.
“I spoke to 300 young women at Girls’ State the other day. They were all high achievers. I’m sure most will be going to college. They will make A’s and so forth. I asked them, ‘What do you want your life to be remembered for? What do you want your legacy to be?’ These are questions that are not often asked. In many cases young people probably have not had the life experiences to think about the meaning of ‘success’ beyond academic success.
“When I think back on my high school class, the high achievers in academic terms weren’t necessarily those who achieved financial success or who gave back to their communities. A focus on achievement is good. Getting good grades is good, but not at the risk of producing individuals who may think in narrow terms. A cancer researcher maybe brilliant in terms of his or her ability to understand the workings of a living cell but may be less able in terms of human interaction and problem solving.
“We need to have a discussion in the legislature about the purpose of higher education.”
Harry Boyte is a National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP)
The article originally appeared on the National Issues Forums Institute’s website.