Modern founders

The Baltimore Sun

The following essay is adapted from a speech given by Baltimore author and historian Taylor Branch on Feb. 22 at Washington College in Chestertown. Mr. Branch, former Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana and Cambridge civil rights leader Gloria Richardson were there to receive honorary degrees. We reprint Mr. Branch's remarks today, the final day of Black History Month.

I am honored to share the platform today with Sen. Birch Bayh and Gloria Richardson, who epitomize the combination that has enthralled me for so many years of study. Let us salute the bond between an active citizenship and a responsive government, which can achieve miracles in the cause of freedom.

Your school is named for George Washington, the founder of our country. The achievements of the civil rights era came out of his crucible. They are not relics of some quaint and esoteric past that we can forget.

Gloria and Senator Bayh were nothing less than modern founders, doing just what George Washington did. That is, they confronted systems of hierarchy and subjugation. Then, they created a new politics of common citizenship, resting on the basic democratic propositions of self-government and accountable public trust.

In that sense, their work is not about the past. It's about the future - because we hold the promise of democracy in our hands. It's fragile. It's still new.

Only a century ago, the world was canopied with dictators and kings and czars. At the funeral of King Edward VII in 1910, they made poor Teddy Roosevelt march way at the rear among the few nonroyal representatives. Since then, fascism and communism have come and gone, insisting that democracy was too weak to survive.

And yet here it stands, a hope of the world, all too often taken for granted. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his movement showed us something very profound. He put one foot in the Constitution and the other in Scripture. "We will win our freedom," he said, "because the heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands."

He put one foot in the doctrine of equal votes and one foot in the doctrine of equal souls, to march sturdily ahead as a modern founder, refining the soul and practice of our republic. On these two feet, I want to fashion two challenges for you as a treasured community of faculty, scholars and students. One is to recognize the exciting breadth of democracy as a test of heart and mind. It is hard. It is profound.

Can a people dedicated to democratic self-government rise above addiction to oil? Or addiction to poverty? Or addiction even to slot machines and cigarettes? How do the political questions of our day connect with democracy's fundamental tests of self-government and public trust?

I say the connections are deep and wide. They ought to be studied and debated - everything from corporate governance to the role of violence in our society.

We live in a great cathedral of votes - votes not only for Congress and for president, but also votes on Supreme Court decisions and juries. Votes on boards of directors govern great corporations and this college alike, along with your Little League and PTA, your charitable organizations and countless committees. Visibly and invisibly, everything runs on votes. And a vote is nothing but a piece of nonviolence.

That is a great lesson from Dr. King, built on civic and spiritual faith. Hewn out of the stubborn past, where power rested on sword and conquest, we believe in votes and nonviolence instead. And to me, the most neglected question of our time is the relationship between violence and democracy.

Dr. King showed most profoundly that in an interdependent world, lasting power goes against the grain of violence, not with it. This inspiration went around the world. Both the Cold War and South African apartheid ended to the strains of "We Shall Overcome." The civil rights movement remains a model for new democracy, sadly neglected in its birthplace. In my conversations, most of the rare people today who discuss Dr. King's prophecy, who embrace or respect it, are military officers.

This is a second challenge. There is no subject today more pervasive in our world and more salient to students than violence. And yet it is one of the least-studied subjects. How can we resolve the great contradiction between our assumption that violence anywhere is prime evidence of sickness - for husband and wife, parent upon child, out in the streets, or between nations - and our eager belief that violence can dispatch evil neatly at the end of every Hollywood action film and the beginning of every world crisis?

These are pressing questions from the legacy of the civil rights era. Please rescue our atrophied public discourse and restore the anguished possibility of Dr. King, who called on every citizen to be a prophet of justice. Unity in that struggle is the engine of hope.

For me, as a white Southerner who grew up in a nonpolitical, even an anti-political, family, the most miraculous lesson is that a movement led by African-Americans, who had been denied basic rights of democracy - with its lessons and benefits - nevertheless had the nonviolent courage, political genius and indescribable grace to lift us all toward the true meaning of our professed values.

That is an enduring gift. Let us take it forward.

Taylor Branch, a Baltimore author, won the Pulitzer Prize for history for "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63."

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