Where Do We Find Our Courage?

In the aftermath of the Charlottesville Massacre (a massacre that kills one person is still a massacre in my opinion, if deliberately intending to harm many—19 were injured by the madman’s car), an activist friend posted a cry for help. This is a piece of it:

…how can I fight this if I’m scared? And if I’m scared and it immobilizes me then who else will be able to face that fear and take action? And we must take action. We white people must take action. We must be at the forefront of this fight. With our sisters and brothers of color.

All my life I have fought for justice, for people, for equity. How do I step up to this fight with my full self and do what has to be done? How are you doing it?

Here’s what I wrote (slightly edited):

Singer, actor, activist and athlete Paul Robeson. Courtesy NY Public Library Digital Collections.

Singer, actor, activist and athlete Paul Robeson. Courtesy NY Public Library Digital Collections.

It’s OK to be scared, and then do the work anyway—that’s what courage is. I know you already know this, but maybe others reading here will take inspiration.
The times in my life when I’ve done this, and there have been several, have been among the most meaningful moments of my life. But I’m no great hero—and the times when I failed to step up and do the right but scary thing are some of my few regrets. Here are two successes and one failure that I’m thinking about in particular.
1. In 1975 and 1976, I ran the Gay Center (that’s what we called it back then) at Antioch College. I left when the semester was over and began a summer-long hitchhiking trip. A few weeks later, on July 5, 1976, I stopped by for a short visit. I still had the Gay Center key and was crashing there. During that visit, some creep threw a rock through the center’s window, wrapped in a vile hate-speech note with a swastika drawn on it. I not only went to the police [and the campus authorities], but I wrote a letter to the school paper, including the full text of the foul note, and called out the perpetrator. Nobody offered any protection [nor did I request any] and I kept sleeping there until I pushed west.
2. When the US bombed Libya in the early 1990s, I called up [local peace activist] Frances Crowe and asked her where and when the demonstration would be. She said she didn’t know of one. I said “noon at the courthouse.” I was out there by myself the first day, and the passers-by were hostile enough that I was worried for my safety. But I was back the next day with a handful of others, and the day after that with about 20 folks, and I watched the tide turn. By that third day, supporters passing by far outnumbered hostiles. I felt my actions had made a real difference.
The regrets are mostly about not having the strength to verbally interrupt oppression. I’ve gotten better at this over the years. Many of the incidents were when I was a child or teen and didn’t have the strength or the skills to do this in a positive way. But I particularly regret one incident in 1986 when I should have been able to think and act differently: I failed to interrupt a neighbor’s racist comment. We had just moved in next door and I was in his living room at that moment, getting acquainted. I let the comment go by as if I hadn’t heard it. 31 years later, I still feel shame about that.
As an activist for more than 40 years, I’ve been very lucky. I’ve really only risked my life or serious injury a dozen times or so. I’ve never had to spend time in a real jail; my one and only arrest (Seabrook, NH, 1977) was part of a movement too big for the state’s corrections system, so I spent a week in a large National Guard Armory room with 700 other comrades and we made it a school of nonviolence theory and practice.

But my greatest successes bore no personal risk. I faced no serious repercussions when I started the movement that saved our local mountain, or when I set the wheels in motion for the first nonsmokers rights regulations in the city where I was living. Nobody was going to crack a nightstick over my head while I was being paid to organize the Gray Panther chapter in Brooklyn, NY.

I realize just how privileged my place of activism has been when I think of the nonviolent warriors who fought for their rights in places like Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa, and the American South in the 1950s and 1960s. I think of my long-dead friends and comrades Dave Dellinger and Wally Nelson, who served had time in prison for refusing to fight in World War II. I think of another dead friend, Adele Lerner, who came to the US to escape the Nazis and who was present at the Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill, New York that when the Klan attacked—and who was responsible for a lot of my political and cultural awareness in the early 1970s.She turned me on to Leadbelly (who’d been a friend of hers), Malvina Reynolds, and real cheese, to name three among many. I think of labor organizers, LGBT activists, and so many others who gave their lives so that my generation could have our freedom to protest. Their actions give me the courage to continue to work for a better world.
And I think about the power of ordinary people to step through the door that cracks open for a moment, to step into their greatness and change the world. The seamstress, Rosa Parks. The shipyard electrician, Lech Walesa. The activist serving a life sentence, Nelson Mandela. The humble priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan, who spent so many years in jail for direct action against the military. These and many other heroes put their lives on the line in a way I never had to.
Mind, I’m not beating myself up. I’ve chosen a path of “easeful activism” (as my yoga teacher might call it). I’ve found plenty of ways to be an effective agent of social change without getting beaten, killed, or thrown in jail. I haven’t found it necessary to be a martyr, but I deeply respect those who do. And I am prepared if the day comes where I am called to do as much or more. I will not allow fear of my own death to keep me from doing the right thing. I will continue to follow the path of nonviolent action for deep social change.
impact in the world? Please post your comments below.

Green/social change business profitability expert Shel Horowitz shows businesses how to turn poverty into sufficiency, war into peace, and catastrophic climate change into planetary balance–??while making a good profit. An international speaker and bestselling, award-winning author, his 10th book is Guerrilla Marketing to Heal the World.

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