Making Change Happen (2 of 2)

Posted by: eric on August 5, 2009 at 10:13 am

The Abolition of Slavery: A Spiritual Awakening

The movement to eliminate the national shame of slavery was, of course, driven by a growing social, moral, and spiritual awareness on the part of millions of Americans. However, that sense of awareness did not turn into action until a series of political events brought the conflict between North and South to a head, culminating in the election of Abraham Lincoln and the decision by the southern states to attempt secession.

Today’s Millennials are ripe for a similar awakening of conscience that will help produce massive social changes. In fact, there are some startling similarities between the pre-Civil War era in the United States and the situation we face today. In a recent Time magazine article, historical novelist Kurt Andersen penned this description of the United States in 1848, when the Civil War generation was just coming of age:

Miraculous new communications technologies have suddenly appeared, transforming everyday life. Everything is moving discombobulatingly fast. Globalization accelerates. Wall Street booms. Outside San Francisco, astounding fortunes are made overnight, out of nothing, by plucky nobodies. The new media are scurrilous and partisan. Marketing spin and advertising extend their influence as never before. A fresh urban-youth subculture has emerged, rude and vibrant, entertainment-fixated and violenceglorifying. Christian conservatives are furiously battling cultural decadence, and one popular sect insists that the end days are nigh. Ferocious anti-immigration sentiment is on the rise. Both major American political parties seem pathetically unable to deal with the looming, urgent issue of the day. Insurgents practicing asymmetrical warfare have, practically overnight, threatened to bring down the political order of Western civilization. And the President has tapped into patriotic rage to invade a poor desert country, having dubiously claimed that the enemy nation represents a clear and present military danger to America.

The pre-Civil War period was a time of unprecedented national peril in a country deeply divided along social, racial, economic, geographic, and political lines. It’s entirely possible that the resulting upheaval might have destroyed the country permanently. But thanks to the emergence of a number of inspiring, farsighted leaders (including Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and above all, Abraham Lincoln), as well as the remarkable dedication and selflessness of an entire generation of Americans from every background, the nation emerged stronger than ever—purged of the curse of slavery, politically reunited (though still split by bitter disputes and resentments), and poised for two generations of amazing geographic expansion and industrial growth. It is hoped Generation We will rise to the challenge with the same courage and wisdom their ancestors showed a century and a half ago.

The Progressive Movement: Social Reform Reshapes Politics

Yet another model of revolutionary change for America can be found in the Progressive Movement of the first two decades of the twentieth century. Driven by discontent over how our economic and political systems had adapted—or failed to adapt—to the impact of such changes as industrialization, westward expansion, massive immigration, and growing demands for equality among citizens, the Progressive Movement mobilized hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country behind a broad array of causes.

Some of the reforms championed by the Progressives are now taken for granted—antitrust laws, conservation of natural resources, banning of child labor, limitations on hours of work, workplace health and safety regulations, and rules concerning food and drug safety. Others have been forgotten or superseded—“bimetallism” rather than the gold standard, prohibition of alcohol, nationalization of industry.

But on balance, the legacy of the Progressive Era was a giant step toward making the United States a more democratic nation—one in which the rights of all people, from manual laborers to captains of industry, were recognized and respected, and in which economic freedoms are sensibly and fairly balanced against the needs of working people who might otherwise be exploited. And on the constitutional level, three amendments that helped bring the United States into the twentieth century—the 16th (the income tax, passed in 1913), the 17th (direct election of U.S. senators, 1913), and the 19th (women’s suffrage, 1920)—were all products of the Progressive Movement.

Many leaders were responsible for the accomplishments of the Progressives, including social reformers (Jane Addams, Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Margaret Sanger), writers (Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell), and organizers and educators (W.E.B. DuBois, John R. Mott, Booker T. Washington, Gifford Pinchot). Ultimately, the support of elected political leaders was needed to give the Progressive reforms the force of government and a permanent place in national life. Politicians such as William Jennings Bryan, Robert La Follette, and Theodore Roosevelt each adapted or developed portions of the Progressive agenda and used them to spearhead national movements for reform.

In a recent speech he gave when accepting an award from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, journalist and television commentator Bill Moyers aptly summarized the role played by yet another visionary politician in bringing many of the causes of the Progressives into the political mainstream. Moyers also noted how the Progressive Era foreshadowed our own time, in which America again stands poised to pursue dramatic and long-overdue systemic reforms:

In his forgotten political testament The New Freedom (1913), [Woodrow] Wilson took up something of the ancient, critical task of the public intellectual, a fact all the more remarkable in that he was president at the time. Louis Brandeis, the people’s lawyer, was his inspiration and the source of this vision, but Wilson stood for it, right there at the center of power. “Don’t deceive yourselves for a moment as to the power of the great interests which now dominate our development.” “No matter that there are men in this country big enough to own the government of the United States. They are going to own it if they can.” But “there is no salvation,” he said, “in the pitiful condescensions of industrial masters. Guardians have no place in a land of freemen. Prosperity guaranteed by trustees has no prospect of endurance.” From his stand came progressive income taxation, the federal estate tax, tariff reform, and a resolute spirit “to deal with the new and subtle tyrannies according to their deserts.”

Wilson described his reformism in plain English no one could fail to understand: “The laws of this country do not prevent the strong from crushing the weak.” That was true in 1800, it was true in 1860, in 1892, in 1912, and 1932; it was true in 1964, and it is true today. We have often been pressed to the limit, the promise of the Declaration and the ideals of the Gettysburg Address ignored or trampled upon and our common interests brought low. But every time there came a great wave of reform, and I believe one is coming again, helped along by the bright young people this foundation is nurturing.

Freedom Movements of the Twentieth Century: The People Rise Up

The twentieth century saw more than its share of revolutionary movements. Some were destructive, such as the Communist upheavals in Russia and China, and the fascist movements in Germany and Italy. But others were largely peaceful and almost entirely beneficent, including a variety of third-world independence movements spearheaded by India’s Mahatma Gandhi and symbolized, a generation later, by Nelson Mandela’s battle against apartheid in South Africa. For Americans, the greatest example is our own civil ment, led by the martyred Martin Luther King, Jr., and supported by hundreds of thousands of brave activists—black and white, women and men, young and old—who put their bodies and their honor on the line in support of the cause of justice.

In these movements, the pent-up longing for freedom shared by millions of people was channeled by great leaders into demands for peaceful change and the overthrow of once-powerful repressive elites—changes much like those we believe Generation We will soon demand.

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