Dr. King’s Question To Today’s Social Movements

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Darkness cannot drive out darkness

Dr. King’s words have been echoing through me for the last few days: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

There’s a prophetic, universal truth in those words that makes them so powerful — the truth that we are faced with a choice, in every moment, of whether to love or to hate. Whether to unify or to divide. Whether to recognize the others for their heart and courage, or to dismiss them. Whether to see abundance or to see scarcity. Whether to hope or to despair. And when we choose love, it is a light in the darkness. When we choose to work together, despite all the voices that say we shouldn’t or we can’t or it’ll never make a difference, it is a light in the darkness. When we choose to be more interested in the courage and commitment and greatness of another person than the judgements and criticisms and complaints about that person, it is a light in the darkness.

What we so often don’t see is that in choosing that Yes over the No, in choosing possibility over futility, we have already made real, in this moment, the vision of the world we want to live in. In the moment that we choose to be of service to those around us, we have already made real the true American dream of liberty and justice for all. Then all that’s left is to act. Once we have chosen to call forth those qualities that truly define us, then the only question is what will we do to be that light in the world. What will we do to support others, and in so doing to call forth the greatness that defines them?

This, I believe, is the most important question that our social movements today face. The question of hate or love, violence or nonviolence is not a tactical one. It is among the most fundamental strategic questions we can ask, seeing that strategy is about how what we do will help us reach our goal.

If our goal is love, then no amount of hate will bring us there. If our goal is a brighter future filled with dignity and respect, then no amount of the darkness of anger or cynicism will bring us there. We can either choose Yes or No to that future, to the goodness in us and to the contributions we are here to make to others.

And it is in us to say Yes. We were born to say Yes to love.

The darkness in social movement organizing isn’t always obvious, but it is important to see. It shows up in negative rhetoric, in fear-based messaging, in the ways we define and discount others as enemies.

It also shows up, I think, in the perceived scarcity and perpetual urgency that has organizers working impossibly long hours and pushes them harder and harder until they burn out. Where will all that truly bring us but to a place of seeing even more scarcity, and to the darkness of tired hearts and used-up passion?

We are consuming our way through people as if they were coal and oil.

Over-consumption cannot drive out over-consumption; only gentleness and care can. 

Speaking from my own experience of burnout and depression in social movement organizing, this is as much a personal question as it is a community one, and the cost cannot be overstated (this is, in part, why I am a coach). The challenge is at both levels. The perception of scarcity and urgency can be as much an internal driver to work far past your limits (of time, energy, enjoyment) as it can be a reason for organizers to pressure and overwork each other, even with good intentions at heart.

The simple question is are we willing to choose sustainability? Are we willing to support each other with gentleness and care? Are we willing to set aside the all-too-pervasive beliefs that scarcity and overworking are the only way so that our true compassion and contribution can emerge?

This is where we must start. That choice, simple as it is, is the choice to bring light into our lives and work, and it is the seed for all of the brightness and justice and care and love that we are working toward. Our work becomes more powerful, more just and more whole the moment we choose this way of loving.

I see all this too in the powerful words of Barack Obama at the end of his speech “A More Perfect Union” — a speech he delivered in March of 2008, 45 years after Dr. King spoke those words, amidst the swirling negativity around his association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright:

There is a young, 23-year-old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, S.C. She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.

And Ashley said that when she was 9 years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that’s when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.

She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches — because that was the cheapest way to eat. That’s the mind of a 9-year-old.

She did this for a year until her mom got better. So she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents, too.

Now, Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother’s problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn’t. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and different reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.”

“I’m here because of Ashley.” By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.

But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the 221 years since a band of patriots signed that document right here in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.

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