People are practical. They want change but feel powerless, alone, do not want to be the blade of grass that sticks up above the others and is cut down. They wait for a sign from someone else who will make the first move, or the second. And at certain times in history there are intrepid people who take the risk that if they make the first move others will follow quickly enough to prevent them being cut down. And if we understand this, we might make the first move.
What the (civil rights) movement accomplished was historic, but soon it came into contact against obstacles far more formidable than the signs and badges of racial segregation. First, an economic system that, while lavishly rewarding some people and giving enough to others to gain their loyalty, consigns a substantial part of the population to misery, generation after generation. And along with this, a national ideology so historically soaked in racism that non-white people inevitably form the largest part of the permanently poor.
What the (civil rights) movement proved, however, is that even if people lack the customary attributes of power – money, political authority, physical force – as did the black people of the Deep South, there is a power that can be created out of the pent-up indignation, courage, and the inspiration for a common cause, and if enough people put their minds and bodies into that cause, they can win. It is a phenomenon recorded again and again in the history of popular movements against injustice all over the world.
Ordinary people can be intimidated for a time, can be fooled for a time, but they have a deep-down common sense, and sooner or later they will find a way to challenge the power that oppresses them.
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage and kindness.
What we choose to emphasise in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see the worse, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself and marvellous victory.