Friday, June 20, 2008

Commemorating Juneteenth: Yes, We Can

Today is the day on which we celebrate the announcement of Emancipation in Texas--and, by extension, everywhere in the United States. It is the day on which slaveholders were instructed to inform "their" slaves that these human beings had been unjustly held as chattel, and were henceforth free to live their lives as human beings, free to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

I am celebrating Juneteenth by reading John D'Emilio's biography of the visionary civil rights leader Bayard Rustin--Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (NY: Free Press, 2003).

D'Emilio notes that, from his combined Methodist and Quaker roots, Rustin derived a strong belief that people--the American people, people across the globe--could build a participatory democracy true to the fundamental principle of democracy: a place at the table for everyone. Rustin was not a starry-eyed optimist. He was a realist seasoned by struggle to claim his own rights as an African American (and as a gay man).

Despite his constant struggle against those who sought to relegate him to second-class citizenship, to deny him a place at the table, and to suppress his voice, Rustin continued to believe that democracy was possible. As D'Emilio notes,
He [i.e., Rustin] argued that out of the civil rights movement there could emerge a coalition of conscience capable of becoming a new progressive majority in the United States. His strategy rested on a bedrock optimism that the American political system was flexible and responsive enough to embrace change of revolutionary dimensions. He believed that peaceful democratic means were adequate to the task of remaking relations of power. Rustin also had faith that individual human beings themselves were just as flexible and that, over time, they could be moved to recognize the worth of every one of their fellows and act accordingly (p. 4).
As I read this assessment of the bedrock assumptions underlying Rustin's thought and his social activism, I'm struck by how closely it parallels the thought and activism of another prophetic 20th-century African-American leader, Mary McLeod Bethune. I've blogged about Dr. Bethune and the college she founded a number of times previously.

As did Bayard Rustin, Mary McLeod Bethune regarded democracy in America as an unfinished project. Both of these critically important black civil rights leaders maintained that, until we make a place at the table for everyone, our democracy has not fulfilled its promise. Both called on their followers to keep analyzing the needs of the social groups around them, to identify who was, at any given time, being shoved from the table, and to work to bring that excluded group to the table.

Both argued strongly that the movement for civil rights for people of color had to be connected to the movement of for civil rights of every excluded group, because it is in the very nature of democracy to demand an extension of rights to every group shoved from the table.

As Dr. Bethune noted on 12 Jan. 1939 in her opening statement to the Second National Conference on the Problems of the Negro and Negro Youth, “But we recognize that no such ‘united democracy’ can possibly exist unless this ‘common opportunity’ is available to all Americans regardless of creed, class, or color” (Bethune Papers, Bethune-Cookman University; in Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith, ed., Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World [Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999], p. 233).

In Dr. Bethune's view, the essence of democracy--its genius--is the recognition that we need everyone at the table, because everyone has something to contribute. No individual or no single group can provide all the gifts a participatory democracy needs in order to be vital, creative, humane. Hence, Bethune argued that educating youth to respect those who are different is not merely essential if democracy is to flourish: such education also opens the one being taught tolerance to a much wider range of ideas, viewpoints, and perspectives than that afforded him or her by his own culture of origin:
The essence of Democracy is the concept that no one group or individual is all-wise or has a monopoly of all the virtues. Training ourselves and our children to have both tolerance and respect for opinions diverging from our own, is one of the best possible ways to promote brotherhood—among the peoples of the world, and among our neighbors in our block! (“The Lesson of Tolerance,” June 16, 1952, Bethune Papers, Bethune-Cookman University; in McCluskey and Smith, p. 267).
This vision of the unfinished project of participatory democracy led Bethune to the conclusion--central to her mission as an educator--that we have an obligation to train the generations that will inherit the world after us to "remake the world," to struggle, within new cultural contexts and new historical settings, to identify who is being shoved from the table, and to work to remove barriers of exclusion that vitiate the democratic process:
I listened to God this morning and the thought came to me, “Any idea that keeps anybody out is too small for this age—open your heart and let everybody in—every class, every race, every nation.” We must remake the world. The task is nothing less than that “(Address to a World Assembly for Moral Re-Armament,” in McCluskey and Smith, p. 58; emphasis in original).
Mary McLeod Bethune and Bayard Rustin sound so much like soul mates in their view of the unfinished project of participatory democracy, that it is tempting to look for connections between them. And such connections are there.

They are there in that both were seminal thinkers of black (and human) liberation in the 20th century. But they are there in other respects, as well: both were strongly influenced by Methodism and its belief in the need for followers of Christ to work against social injustice wherever it was found. And Dr. Bethune knew Bayard Rustin and had close connections to his family. D'Emilio points out that Mary McLeod Bethune stayed with Rustin's family as she passed through their area of Pennsylvania on repeated occasions.

Given these connections, one must ask whether Dr. Bethune would have agreed with Bayard Rustin when he argued in 1986, a year before his death, at an interracial gathering in support of gay civil rights,
Indeed, if you want to know whether today people believe in democracy if you want to know whether they are true democrats, if you want to know whether they are human rights activists, the question to ask is, "What about gay people?" Because that is now the litmus paper by which this democracy is to be judged. The barometer for social change is measured by selecting the group that is most mistreated. To determine where society is with respect to change, one does not ask, "What do you think about the education of children?" Nor does one ask, "Do you believe the aged should have Social Security?” The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people (as cited from speech transcript; "Introduction," in Bayard Rustin, Time on Two Crosses, ed. Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise [San Francisco: Cleis, 2003], xxxix).
I'm inclined to answer my question with a resounding yes: if Mary McLeod Bethune had lived to 1986--if she were living today--she'd be working for gay civil rights as ardently as she did for the civil rights of other marginalized groups. She'd be standing with her brother Bayard Rustin.

She'd be standing against the churches and church leaders who say, "No, we can't." To these, she'd be saying, "Yes, we can." She'd be standing against church-based institutions of higher learning whose response to gay rights is "No, we can't." Mary McLeod Bethune would be saying, "Yes, we can."

Yes, we can. Because we have to. That is what being a democracy is all about.

That is what being a humane society is all about. And that is what being a follower is Jesus is about.

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