The best way to begin my remarks and to frame the conversations that will take place here today is with two quotes from the noted anthropologist Margaret Mead who said: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has." Mead also made this memorable observation: "Never depend upon institutions or governments to solve any problem. All social movements are founded, guided by, motivated, and seen through by the passion of individuals."
Let us consider those two observations. The first one tells us that a small committed core of people working toward an agreed upon goal is far more important than waiting until you have a majority of the people on-board before you undertake any mission. That means that however we calculate the total population of the Greater Rochester area, the people presently assembled in this room right now constitute a core that is large enough to accomplish some significant things in and for this community. The second quote reminds us that most of the major social movements in the history of this country were fueled by the passions and deep personal convictions of committed individuals, and not by the coercive power of governments or the financial resources of previously exisiting institutions. Governments and institutions will have a role to play in making permanent any social transformation, but they are rarely, if ever, the prime movers in social transformation.
Look back on the major social and political struggles in this nation’s history and see how true are the words of Margaret Mead. It was a tiny core of committed individuals in 1776 that first began to imagine that thirteen British colonies could become a free standing and independent nation, even though they would have to overcome the opposition of what was then the most powerful army in the world. It was a small core of individuals that began to suggest that a nation built upon the brutal system of human slavery could abolish that evil practice and provide equal rights for those who had once been denied all human rights. It was a small, but committed core of individuals that insisted that every right enjoyed by men, including voting rights, should be enjoyed by women as well. Today that struggle continues as a small group of people continues to insist that it is morally indefensible for women to earn less than men for doing the same job. All of these movements, each one of which ultimately, succeeded, or in the case of equal pay will ultimately succeed, began with “a small core of thoughtful and committed individuals.”
This reality is being played out right before our eyes in one social struggle after another. Consider the on-going human quest for equal opportunity and an improved quality of life for all people. It is true with the LGBT community and the struggle for equal rights and marriage equality. It is true for those who oppose the voter suppression efforts that have arisen since parts of the Voting Rights Act were rolled back last year. It is true for those who are warning about climate change and dangers to our environment. It is also true in communities all across this country that are working to attack the lasting vestiges of racism and segregation in this country; groups like the one gathered here today. The obstacles may seem large and formidable. The opposition may seem organized and overwhelming. Those fighting for social transformation may seem to be too few and too powerless to effect any meaningful change. However, before this group takes any actions whatsoever, it needs to be convinced of the fact proven by history over and over again; “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” Also remember that social movements are best fueled not by the power of governments, but by the passions of individuals.
Having said what is possible, it is equally important to learn from history about how committed individuals have proceeded in their attempts to alter the course of history. In other words, what was the plan or the program to which human passions were directed? Passion and enthusiasm are wonderful things if they are directed toward a clear and obvious goal or objective. The power of a laser beam is less effective if it is waved back and forth between multiple targets. However, when that laser beam is focused upon a single target over an appropriate period of time it can accomplish great things.
The first thing this group will have to do is determine where to focus its efforts and energies? Where will you direct your passions? You have come today with five broad areas of focus and with goals for each of those areas. Do you propose to address all five simultaneously? Are you prepared to prioritize your efforts? Have you consulted broadly enough to be sure that these are the best ways to proceed? Remember that all previous social movements succeeded because their goals were crystal clear to all involved; independence from Great Britain, the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, the end of Jim Crow laws, marriage equality, and minimum wage issues just to name a few. Conversely, most social movements that began without a clear and achievable goal were short-lived and ineffective. Passion without a clear plan is a formula for eventual failure! Enthusiasm without a clear agenda is an exercise in futility!
The second issue that must be considered is how much each of us is willing to sacrifice in pursuit of whatever goals we finally establish. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his 1963 Letter From the Birmingham Jail, “Human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts of men and women willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.” Meeting in this room is a start, but meetings like this must eventually give way to meetings with those people and forces that are identified as most contributing to the problems we are attempting to change. Are we prepared to accept criticism from those who do not agree with our efforts? Are we prepared to suffer the loss of friendships as we advocate for things that even some of our closest friends do not support? What price are we willing to pay to create the outcomes we all desire?
We in Rochester celebrate the names of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas
s, but we do not always remember the price that each of them paid for the causes they embraced. It was exceedingly difficult to advocate for a woman’s right to vote in this country in the mid-19th century, but Anthony did that and suffered the consequences. It was dangerous to be a run-away slave who was publicly speaking about the abolition of slavery in this country when the Fugitive Slave Act was in full force, but Douglass did exactly that and suffered the consequences. The reason that most social movements involve small numbers of people is because most people do not want to suffer or sacrifice at any level for the sake of social transformation. They may enjoy the big rallies where there is safety in numbers, but they do not want the struggle to cost them anything in blood, sweat or tears.
Let me ask you this simple question, would you have signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, knowing that such an act would result in your being labeled a traitor by the British Empire overseas and by your loyalist neighbors at home? Would I have been willing to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in March of 1965 knowing that my march to Montgomery for voting rights would lead me into an encounter with the Alabama State Police on horseback? I am certain that nothing nearly so eventful will be involved in whatever struggles we undertake here in Rochester. Nevertheless, whatever struggle we do undertake will require some sacrifice of time and energy, and some investment of personal prestige and commitment. Leave now if all you want to do about racism and social inequity in Rochester is attend meetings like this. Big, public meetings have yet to change anything in this country. However, meetings like this can be the incubator in which significant change can begin if the people that are willing to meet are equally willing to work!
Finally, let me remind you that success in social transformation does not come easily or quickly, and there could be some setbacks along the way. Unjust systems and deeply entrenched prejudices and practices will not vanish away simply because we express our displeasure with them. Those who benefit the most from the status quo will resist any change as long as possible. Whatever you intend to accomplish with your five areas of focus, remember there are pre-existing and deeply entrenched institutional forces that have both created the problems you oppose, and that will work in many different ways to preserve their advantage and their power. However, you must always believe that right will triumph over might.
I remember watching the movie Glory about the all-black 54th Massachusetts army regiment during the Civil War. The climax of that movie was their assault on Fort McHenry on the coast of South Carolina. The soldiers attacked both at night and in the day. Despite great opposition they managed to scale the walls of that fort in the teeth of cannon bombardment and intense rifle fire. Once they got inside the fort I just knew they would win that battle. However, when the screen went black and the next morning rolled around, the Confederate flag was still flying and hundreds of soldiers from the 54th were being buried along with their white officers. The battle to capture Fort McHenry failed, but with the sacrifices made by more than 180,000 black soldiers, many of them former slaves, the Civil War was won.
Do not underestimate the size and scale of the issues you are about to tackle. If any of this was easy it would have been resolved long ago. It reminds me of what is so often said about playing baseball at the Major League level. “If hitting a 100 mph fastball was easy, everybody would be doing it.” Some things are hard to do and only a few are up to the challenge. The people in this room right now are enough to take on the issues that confront us in Rochester if we are willing to work toward and sacrifice for a common goal. Remember the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”