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The Warriors of Peace

January 21, 2009

The inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States, is a sign. It is a symbol of progress we never even imagined was possible during the civil-rights movement. And we were dreamers. We truly believed that through the power of nonviolent action we could actually build a beloved community, a nation at peace with itself. But never in my wildest imagination did I ever believe I would see this day.

It took decades of sacrifice and centuries of conviction to get us to this point. It took thousands of people struggling, straining, praying, hoping against hope that "trouble would not last always." It took men, women and children willing to lay their bodies on the line for a distant vision of a humane society that left no one out and no one behind.

Perhaps what we, as citizens of a democracy, must also never forget is that first and foremost it took a double standard. It took a nation that wrote in its founding documents a beautiful testament to its faith in human dignity, but submerged its moral resolve for the sake of commerce. It dragged men and women from far-off shores and locked them in chains. It has taken centuries of struggle to right this one fundamental wrong, and the struggle still continues.

It took a Frederick Douglass saying "Those who favor freedom and [criticize] agitation are [people] who want crops without plowing up the ground, rain without thunder and lightning." It took slave revolts and a secret society of freedom--servants strategically calling, "Steal away, steal away ..." It took women sewing signs into their quilts and hanging them on clotheslines to point the way. It took the powerful sacrifice of a Harriet Tubman, a courageous conductor on a railroad of humanity, who could not be satisfied simply to save herself. It took a society of friends and abolitionists, hundreds of men and women of conscience who defied unjust law and unfair customs, hiding fugitives in the clandestine corners of their homes, lighting a road to freedom under the blanket of night.

It took "a house divided against itself" and the descent into a civil war. It took more than 620,000 deaths to hold the Union together. It took an Emancipation Proclamation and an uneasy peace. It took a federal mandate of Reconstruction to heal the scars of a wounded nation. It took the first African-American members of Congress elected just after the war, the establishment of public schools and historically black colleges by men and women of faith. It took the bitter backlash against this progressive change in the form of legalized segregation and racial discrimination. It took minstrel shows and "Birth of a Nation." It took a civil-rights movement to get us to the moment we are witnessing today.

In the movement, we were blessed to look toward the leadership of some of the best minds in America--people like Thurgood Marshall, Constance Baker Motley, A. Philip Randolph and Walter White. But ours was not a movement of leaders. It took ordinary men and women with extraordinary vision, able to see beyond the limitations of injustice and believe in a cause greater than themselves. They made the difference in our society.

It took the maids and washerwomen, farmers and janitors. It took the butlers and waiters, porters and street sweepers. They were the marching feet that filled the city and county jails. Trained in the techniques of nonviolent resistance and inspired by the preaching of Martin Luther King Jr., they were transformed into warriors of peace. They bore the burden in the heat of the day and braved the terror of night. Somewhere I read that the stone that is rejected will become the cornerstone. It took the forgotten of this nation, people heaped with every disadvantage and despised for their lowliness. It took them to rise up and defend their humanity to save us from ourselves.

They stood in unmovable lines, and kept standing, day in and day out, persistently waiting on the courthouse steps trying to register to vote. They were evicted from their farms, fired from their jobs and run out of their towns. This army of peace knew the price they might have to pay, but they did not give up. Just like Harriet Tubman before them, they said, "I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other."

What many today may not realize is that segregation and racial discrimination in this country were legal. It was against the law for blacks and whites to sleep in separate rooms in the same hotel, to sit together on a public bus or to be served together in a restaurant. So people felt justified to harm a group of peaceful, nonviolent students in Nashville who would sit down at a lunch counter and wait to be served. Someone might put a lighted cigarette out in our hair or down our backs or pull us off the stool. They might beat us, arrest us and take us to jail. And we would be the ones charged with disturbing the peace.

It also took violence--unspeakable public demonstrations of hatred for all the world to see. It took the murder and mutilation of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy visiting his uncle in Mississippi. It took the deaths of two whites and one black in 1965--Andy Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner. It took the children of Birmingham to suffer police dogs and fire hoses. It took the bombing of a church that killed four little girls leaving Sunday school. It took a harvest of decades and thousands of "strange fruit," dead men lynched and left to swing from the branches of the South. It took the murders of a deacon named Jimmie Lee Jackson, Medgar Evers and Viola Liuzzo, to name a few. It took a brutal attack by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge one Bloody Sunday to win the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And it took members of the press who dared to use their cameras, their pads and their pens to tell the story.

It took what Mahatma Gandhi accomplished in India and attempted in South Africa, the words of Emerson and Thoreau. It took the Springfield race riot of 1908 when mobs of white citizens destroyed the black section of town that led to the founding of the NAACP. It took the creation of the Big Six organizations of the civil-rights movement, and it took one man to emerge as the voice of change. It took Dr. King to turn the steps of the Lincoln Memorial into a modern-day pulpit in 1963 and say, "We must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force ... Many of our white brothers have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone." It took a national, ecumenical movement and an international call for change.

It took the federal government to act as a sympathetic referee in the cause of civil rights and social justice. It took the decisions of the Warren Court and courageous federal judges who stood alone, defending federal law throughout the South. It took legal action after legal action to dismantle segregation. It took presidents saying yes when they were inclined to say no. It took Truman to desegregate the military and Eisenhower to send in troops to protect the Little Rock Nine. It took Attorney General Robert Kennedy to federalize the National Guard to save the lives of Freedom Riders trapped by a mob in a church in Birmingham. It took President Kennedy being willing to understand the injustice of discrimination, and it took the leadership of a master politician named Lyndon Johnson to pass the most effective civil- and voting-rights legislation this nation has ever seen.

It took art and poetry, gospel and jazz. It took spirituals, ballads and the blues. It took the bitterness of school busing and the struggle for affirmative action. It took all this and so much more. And when I look back I know that the sum of our work did not equal the generosity of this outcome. It took a higher power and a full measure of grace to get us to the point where we are today. It took the men and women of today to rise above apathy and disenchantment. It took them to get involved in the political process and use the power of the ballot to usher in a nonviolent revolution, a revolution of values and ideas that changed the course of our history.

So today people wonder whether our work is done. Has the struggle for freedom finally been won? With the election of Barack Obama as president, can we finally lay our burden down? If we read the words of Dr. King, we will discover that politics was not our ultimate goal, but just one mighty step on the pathway of peace. We will hear him say, "True peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice."

Freedom is not a state, but an act. It is a series of actions we must take to secure that dream of peace. We still have not reached that day when "justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." That was King's dream. The rejected are still among us, heaped with indignity and despair. Maybe, just maybe, our history will help us see the error in our law, in our policies, customs and traditions, so they will not have to rise up again to prove their worth. The election of Barack Obama is not the final resting place, but it is a major down payment on the fulfillment of that dream. We have come a great distance, but we still have a distance to go before we join to create one nation, one people, one family--the American family. Until that day, the struggle continues.