by Wade Rathke
Little Rock One takeaway from the memorials to civil rights leader and organizer, Congressman John Lewis, has been the repeated invocation of the violence that was the handmaiden of the struggle. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached nonviolence to anyone who would listen, and, tactically, that became the norm and how the movement is remembered, despite Rap Brown’s famous quote that “violence is as American as apple pie,” and the iconic pictures of the Black Panthers, armed to the teeth. Only some people listened. The near death beatdown administered to Lewis – and many others – on the Pettis Bridge is a vivid reminder of the prices paid in blood for rights that existed only on paper.
Making change is messy. It’s not pretty. It’s not silky smooth, it’s sandpaper rough. What’s the old saying? “Laws are like sausages. Better not to see them being made.” The quotation is often attributed to Germany’s Otto Von Bismarck, the famous chancellor. Others date the expression to the mid-19th century. It doesn’t matter when it was first uttered, it’s as true today as it was then. Part of the what makes this a chaotic process is that when changing laws are driven by external forces, like all of us, outside the halls of government it is often a case of the immovable object versus the irresistible force.
We have to do what it takes to make change. Force is involved, whether iron-fisted or pattycake.
Susan Schiff, a historian writing for the New York Times offered a great reminder of how the winners often – and with help – whitewash the blood and thunder out of the process of change. She writes,
In the history books… we generally sanitize the violence that preceded the Declaration. Even before de Tocqueville, it had been preferable to subscribe to his account of the Revolution, a contest that “contracted no alliance with the turbulent passions of anarchy” and that proceeded “by a love of order and law.” De Tocqueville gave Boston a pass. Well before the 1760s, imperial officials were run out of town. Effigies hung from trees and fueled bonfires. Townspeople broke windows and hurled stones. They tarred and feathered. They smeared the homes of their enemies in dung. In 1765, amid the Stamp Act protests, a “lawless rabble” dismantled most of Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s Georgian mansion in a matter of hours…Called to account for the vandalism, patriot leaders like Samuel Adams denounced the destruction…. On the one hand, a people’s rights were under siege. Looking ahead to future generations, Adams labored to define what John Lewis would two centuries later term “good trouble.” If the Bostonians remained silent, Adams warned, they assented to their losses.
At ACORN we always used to say if we had a dollar for everyone who ever said that they agreed with our demands, but they opposed our tactics, we would have been swimming in money. I’m not arguing the ends justify the means, because that is never the case, but I am arguing that the means achieve the ends. It’s not for everybody, but we are obligated to do what works by whatever means necessary.
Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International