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Don't Mourn, Organize!

by Jeremy Raw


To start 1998, we wish to remind our readers of the role of the Trumpet of Conscience in building on the vision and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to address our community's problems. As a small publication, we concentrate first and foremost on offering our readers food for thought—perspectives on race relations, working people, and life in our community that rarely get attention elsewhere. In the process, we hope to incite people to action. Succeeding in establishing a society of equal justice, equal opportunity and equal rewards for equal work demands that we get together with others and get organized.

This is a key component of Dr. King's legacy, 30 years after his death. It is not just that he saw further and more clearly than others as an individual. It is also that he was capable of bringing individuals together in a unified, organized social force capable of effecting change. He was, in a word, a leader.

But as Dr. King's example reveals, leadership is not strictly a property of an individual. It is also a bond that joins people in a common purpose, toward a common goal. Leaders do not emerge without organizations: consider the role of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in guiding Dr. King to leadership of the civil rights movement.

Each of us has a role to play in making further progress toward a just society, even if we are not individually destined to become leaders like Dr. King. Each of us has a responsibility to think about how we personally contribute to (or sometimes detract from) our community's progress. But racism and injustice will not necessarily end even if all of us become good and polite: the deepest and most heartfelt politeness can become the public face of hatred and disrespect. What counts is not the individual act, but the context and environment in which that act takes place, and as concerned citizens we must constantly think about our relationship to other individuals and to society.

Fixing our community requires us each to live differently, improving ourselves as individuals. But it also requires us to live differently in relation to each other, to change our expectations of ourselves and others, and ultimately to change the way in which community and social institutions operate. None of these important changes can take place without help from many other people. Self-improvement is almost impossible in a social environment that does not value, appreciate or reward personal advances. Likewise, the social environment resists change until such time as a critical mass of people undertake to alter their behavior in a coordinated way.

All of this is, perhaps, obvious. We raise it here because the Trumpet hopes to bring about new leadership by encouraging effective organizing in the community. And we raise it because so much prevailing social wisdom denies that effective community organization has anything to do with solving our problems.

If we look at the attacks on affirmative action, or on welfare, or even at the chronic poverty of certain communities, the popular diagnosis is the same: the problem exists because of personal inadequacies. Thus, the answer to racial discrimination is imagined to be for people of color to attain equal qualifications (forgetting, of course, that skin color continues to operate in our society as a significant "indicator" of moral and intellectual character, although all it really indicates is our reluctance to break free from damaging prejudices). Likewise, the answer to the poverty of welfare families is for the mothers to get jobs (forgetting, of course, that the problem is neither laziness nor lack of qualification in most cases, but the simple nuts and bolts of low wages, no benefits, and physical obstacles like lack of child care or transportation).

Effective solutions to these problems require social intervention, not simply individual self-improvement. Moreover, social interventions are the only way to go about redressing them with anything resembling justice and impartiality. How else can we rectify generations of old-boy networks that dole out favors to the chosen few without establishing new, equally arbitrary bread-lines of favoritism? Yet in the prevailing climate of individualism, even social intervention seems suspect.

We must remember that individualism gets us nowhere. One person, acting alone, does not stand a chance against others who act as one with a common purpose (even when they act unconsciously, in conformance with some deep-rooted social convention like white privilege). As an individual, it is almost impossible to figure out what is happening and why; to stand up for a square deal at school, on the job, in the community; to demand and earn respect, equal rights, opportunities, justice, personal security. History reveals that every change of significance has come about through the combination of individuals, be it in religious groups, labor unions, civil rights organizations, or political parties. Any advance depends on the quality of our connections with others, not on our individual efforts in isolation.

Of course, when we lose sight of the need for quality leadership and the deeply rooted community organizations that produce such leadership, what we get is either fraud or hypocrisy. "Progressives" often rely on government programs to create solutions, and in so doing neglect the need to rally people into community, labor, civic and political organizations so that they can define and then fight for their own common interests. Instead of effective social action, this one-sided approach breeds institutions whose self-perpetuation seems more important than solving the problems that originally justified their creation.

Conservatives continually whine that government regulations and programs are the primary source of inequity. This stinks of hypocrisy. Conservatives aim to dismantle these programs so that they can strengthen the unaccountable, silent, secret networks of the well-connected and well-to-do. It is those kinds of elite institutions which have traditionally defined who commands wealth and public resources, who gets education, who gets hired, and who gets proper rewards for their hard work.

  This article first appeared in the Trumpet of Conscience, a Durham community publication supported by its readers' contribution. You may get on the mailing list by writing The Trumpet of Conscience, P.O. Box 3354, Durham, NC 27702.  

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