A day before the new year begins, I’m looking hard for hope.
Way back in 1959, the Kingston Trio sang a song that began:
“They’re rioting in Africa, they’re starving in Spain.
There’s hurricanes in Florida, and Texas needs rain.
The whole world is festering with unhappy souls…”
Has anything changed? Where can we find any reasons for hope for 2015?
Reasons for despair in the new year come easily. The Advocates for Human Rights cataloged 15 horrible examples from 2014, beginning with the Boko Haram kidnapping of 276 Nigerian school girls and going on around the globe. The congressional torture report and the continuing failures of grand juries to indict and of police departments to discipline officers for killing Black men and women (Ferguson, New York, Los Angeles) filled the past few weeks with pain and despair.
Outside in the streets, too many people still lack homes and jobs and food enough to eat. Too many jobs offer minimum wages and soul-sucking working conditions. Too many children are kicked out, pushed out, failed out of school.
In our gardens and farms and rivers, poisons threaten honeybees and monarch butterflies and the food we eat and the water we drink.
And yet hope lives on.
In Minneapolis, young people lead Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, and in St. Paul young people organize in the NAACP youth branch. In Thailand and in London, young people adopted the three-finger salute popularized in the Hunger Games movies in their protest against the Thai coup and human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch explained:
“’The Hunger Games’ movies take place in a dystopian totalitarian society in the future, divided into districts outside a wealthy capital. The heroine, Katniss Everdeen, comes from District 12. Last week, outside the latest film’s premier in London, a group of anti-coup protesters held up a sign reading ‘District Thai.’”
Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman shot by the Taliban, won the Nobel Peace Prize this year for her work on behalf of women and girls and education. She called on everyone to “wage a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism,” and said:
“The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them.”
Today’s organizers stand on the shoulders of giants who have gone before. Despite the bitter, continuing relevance of the Kingston Trio’s song, we have moved on from their moment. The giants of the civil rights movements moved us farther along the path to justice, making the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Rachel Carson’s warnings in Silent Spring led to bans on many pesticides and to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. The percentage of seniors living in poverty has been cut in half over the past five decades, a result of increases in Social Security and the passage of Medicare.
Giant figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. played a big role in making these changes, but the biggest part of the change was the constant, faithful, hope-filled pressure from below, from the masses of people organizing and organized at a grassroots level. These are the people who filled the streets of Montgomery, walking rather than riding the segregated city buses. These are the people who faced police dogs and fire hoses and the children who held their heads high and walked through hostile crowds to desegregate schools. These are the people who founded battered women’s shelters and drove to rescue families in the middle of the night. These are the farm workers who organized in the fields, and the people who boycotted grapes and lettuce in support of their efforts.
Today, these are the people filling the Mall of America and stopping traffic on the highways, demanding an end to business as usual, chanting the names of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and insisting that their deaths must bring change. Today, these are the people digging up vacant lots to plant food and patiently (or impatiently) sitting through candidate forums and school board and city council meetings. Today, these are the people writing letters to Congress and sending testimony to environmental agencies, and knocking on their neighbors’ doors to ask them to vote.
Today, and tomorrow in 2015, these people are you and me, and we are the reason for hope.