Washington D.C.

Asking the Right Question About This Moment in History

I’ve written about politics a lot lately. Most of it is hyper-local politics, because I feel like anything else is just noise, but locally I can make an impact. But I’ve been reluctant to write about national politics. It’s just so divisive and I feel like I’m only adding noise.

But I’ll do it now because this is one of those moments.

Before I get into it though, I want to refer back to a post I wrote on Inauguration Day. I talked about how this did not feel like “normal” political division. Trump ushered in something new. I have disagreed with the “other side” before, but I have never felt so alienated in my own country. (That’s certainly a statement of privilege, and I own that.)

So while I talk about current political issues, I urge you not to dismiss me as partisan hack whining that his side is losing. This is something much bigger than that.

What Would You Do?

Recently during a family vacation my family went to the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C. This is a fantastic, gut-wrenching new museum on the National Mall that everyone needs to go to.

Part of the exhibit included a lunch counter where you could sit down and work through a survey about the civil rights movement on a touch screen.

The questions often felt unfair. We know the historical outcome, so of course we know the “right” answer.

  • Yes, I would participate in the protest.
    (But would I really have done that?)
  • When people taunted me, I would not respond in violence
    (Really? Would I have been capable of that?)
  • When other people were beaten, I would not quit.
    (OK, now I’m lying.)
  • When these circumstances continued for weeks and months,  not just a few days, I would stick with it.

As my daughter and I went through the survey, we gravitated to the “correct” answer. It was easy to sit there 60 years later and say yes, we would have done this difficult, unpopular, painful, life-threatening thing.

But would we?

I have to ask myself some honest questions:

  • Could I put work on hold and travel to another part of the country and risk life and limb?
  • How could I afford to do that?
  • How would I pay my bills?
  • Would I endanger my kids?
  • What if I lost freelance jobs because of the stance I was taking?
  • What if someone retaliated against me or my family?
  • What if my house were targeted?

Finally, I had to look at my daughter and ask if we would really do those things. I had to fight back the tears and try to steady the waver in my voice as I asked if we could keep going back to a protest after seeing friends beaten and arrested?

The Real Cost of Participation

We all want to say yes.

It’s easy to say yes in the hindsight of history from our safe perspective so many years after the bitter battle has been won.

But that’s not the true answer: We’re not all heroes.

The scary thing, though, is that we’re in one of those moments right now. People are taking action to defend our freedoms and having to risk life and limb to do it. They are risking reputation, social standing, jobs, imprisonment, beatings, and so much more (and yes, even death).

And those risks aren’t just something happening somewhere else. They’re happening in my town.

People ask those bold social media meme questions—what would you have done during [fill in the blank] historical moment?

  • Would you have risked helping slaves to freedom?
  • Would you have hidden Jews in your house?
  • Would you have sat at the lunch counter or rode that freedom bus across the South?

Well, it’s not just a meme anymore. What are you going to do?

We All Have a Role

I’ve always wanted to be that hero who marched and risked life and limb.

Of course I’m not that person. My stomach tightens up from nerves simply from speaking at a city council meeting.

And that’s OK. What I’m realizing is that some of us are those frontline heroes—and some of us aren’t. Some of us are going to march. Some are going to get arrested. Some are going to be attacked.

But others will donate. Or make phone calls. Or forge connections. Or write letters. Or knock on doors. Or register voters.

There are different roles for all of us to play. There are different ways to be heroes.

If you’re not a hero who can march and be attacked and get arrested, there are other things you can do. There are things you need to do, to enable those to march and be attacked and get arrested.

Not every hero—not by a long shot—makes it into the history books.

Martin Luther King Jr. organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott and he was attacked and arrested. Lots of heroes joined him in that work. But lots of other people sent money to support the cause. They wrote letters to demand change. They lobbied their representatives. They had conversations with their neighbors to begin changing hearts and minds. Sure, some of those folks joined the boycott or attended rallies when they could, but not everyone was on the frontlines. Not everyone can be on the front lines.

There are so many heroes that we rightly celebrate today: Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many, many more.

But there are also heroes that we don’t know about. There are people who worked behind the scenes that supported the work of Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many, many more.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, just because you see these mythical heroes of the civil rights movement and you see the daily realities of your life that keep you from taking that kind of bold, brave action—don’t lose hope.

We can’t all be celebrated heroes.

But we can all do our part.

(This sounds obvious, but I think it’s something we need to hear when we’re fired up to get involved but then tempted to bow out because we can’t manage that frontline effort.)

Change Requires All of Us to Play Our Part

I have a mortgage to pay and kids to take care of, so dropping everything and going to the border or protesting in Washington D.C. or getting arrested is probably not something I can do. But I can support those who are able.

  • Maybe I can’t skip out on work to join a march, but I can cancel my evening plans to go door knocking for a candidate I believe in.
  • Maybe I can’t get arrested, but I can help post bail for those who do.
  • Maybe I can’t work daily on a movement for justice, but I can write in support of that work.
  • Maybe I’m not the person to run for office and make the change, but I can support the campaign and speak up (write up?) against candidates who practice hate.

That’s how these things change.

It’s not like Martin Luther King Jr. gave a few speeches and the Montgomery Bus Boycott was over. It was more than a year of struggle and effort from thousands and thousands of people. And when it was over and they had won, it was still 1956. The Voting Rights Act was still eight years away.

The Right Question

As much as I cherish that moment at the National Museum of African American History & Culture, I don’t think they asked the right question. They asked if we would have put our lives on the lines like those frontline heroes, a question that’s not realistic but social pressure drives us to answer like some kind of superhero (and they shared the responses… a big majority said they would have sat at that lunch counter and taken that beating).

They made it too easy for us to lie.

They should have asked us what part we would play:

  • Would you have donated money or time or energy to those efforts?
  • When it came up at a family gathering, would you have stood up for their cause or quietly let it go?
  • Would their tactics trouble you enough that you’d ignore their cause?

It’s easy to look at history and think we’d know what to do. But just look around today and you’ll see that it’s not so simple.

A lot of people are feeling hopeless today. It’s easy to feel despair. But I’m encouraged by the example of those who came before us. Yes, the statuesque heroes like John Lewis, who issues this stirring call on Twitter this week:

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. #goodtrouble”

But I’m also encouraged by the unknown heroes who wrote checks and made phone calls and supported the cause in ways we’ll never know. (I’m also encouraged by people who have a better sense of history and understand the context of social movements.)

I look around today and I see that we have a lot of work to do. And it’s going to take all of us playing our part to move this democracy forward.

So what part will you (and I) play today?

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