"Social History: Our Rudder in the Midst of Storms,"by Henry Hampton November 1992 issue of Poverty & Race
I like to remind audiences and colleagues of the vision that drives most of us. It is not ideology, but the belief in a nation that welcomes diversity and insists on opportunity. However, there are many competing visions of America, and in difficult times, when resources are short, the differences grow more painful and the risks more dangerous.
Our nation is at a critical juncture, probably not unlike those years during Reconstruction, during the turmoil of the `30s, during the years after the Brown decision. Such moments open up America to the possibility of real change, and that adds even more pressure for good, truthful history.
History may seem to be a luxury that can await calmer times, but I fear not. History is our rudder that can keep us on track in the midst of storms.
Most of Blackside's [Hampton's production company] work is designed to try to empower the users of our programs and materials, to present viewers with the messy, difficult business of social history, to try to illuminate lives today with choices made in the past.
At the center of all this work are the basic questions. What is the responsibility of our government to its citizens, and of the citizens to the government? Why is a series on the War on Poverty important? By almost any perspective, I think most agree that our nation and the national idea are about to be greatly tested. And our greatest failure as a nation remains our inability to deal with racism and poverty. It is under pressure that the weaknesses can destroy the whole. We are at great risk, and need to move quickly toward cures.
What do we hope to accomplish in revisiting these times and events? While giving some history on poverty in America, we believe it is important to deliver stories that confirm the enormous human potential and the ways of leadership development that came out of the War on Poverty. Probably the most important untold story is that of the thousands of grassroots leaders, people who have made a difference in their communities, people who have been elected to the wide spectrum of political offices. Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has a wonderful line that goes simply, "Memory is a snare, pure and simple. It alters, it subtly rearranges the past to fit the present."
Memory is a snare. Nothing highlights this better than watching Presidential Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater pull forth the War on Poverty as the major cause of the L.A. riots. The War was not an unqualified success, but even its failures had many positive benefits. And more often than not, when failure occurred, it was due to a lack of readiness and the conscious hostile objections of those who disagreed with its intent.
We need to talk of a highly responsible activist government that attempted to highlight the problems of poverty and race and move those issues to a higher priority for the nation.
We must tell of powerful individuals and institutions that resisted change and often caused failures that did not have to be.
We must treat fairly not just the many successes that got labeled as failures, but those that failed for the good reasons of poor direction, political infighting, and sometimes outright theft.
We hope to gather insights from communities that have generated workable programs; to see what worked and what didn't; to track how national policy found its way into the neighborhood; to tie the events of Los Angeles to earlier times and focus on solutions that really worked in the post-riot environment; and to put poverty, especially in the urban centers, front and center for America, with viable, credible solutions included.
G.K. Chesterton tells us that good history is the ability to walk to the top of a tall hill. From there we can see not only the past, but the future. Americans are bad at visiting history and making it available, especially to those whose lives have been severely damaged by poverty and racism.
But one of the great benefits of revisiting such times can be finding strength and a freshened belief that something can be done. For example, it seems clear that, in 1992, we are faced with a situation that threatens our future because of the problems of racism, drug abuse, poor education, unemployment, crime, horrific violence. These problems seem insurmountable, but for anyone who watched and resonated to the history of the American civil rights movement it is clear that challenges faced in the segregated South were equally daunting, and that success was gained through discipline, creativity, courage, intelligence, and faith. It does not happen immediately, but stories well and often told tie the past to a people who may seem adrift and dangerously without roots.
If we look at today's landscape, I have great hope that much knowledge and many solutions can be found. These are just some of the key elements to one of the most successful movements in world history - lessons that changed the nation.
Also, the recapturing of the history gives us the opportunity to see the difficulties faced by those who conceptualized and implemented the early War on Poverty. It will allow us to watch idea and policy become program, and then to see the results and consequences of that action.
There are powerful lessons, and instruction can be taken from the miracle of the civil rights movement that is directly applicable to the problems of today. Lessons like the impact of coalitions. The role that government - municipal, state, federal - can appropriately play. The role of the law. Political options that can be used to propel a movement forward. The multiple strategies - people seem to think the movement was a single act of impulse, almost, to stand up and move into the streets. They ignore the intelligence and the strategic awareness that was in play, which allowed the movement to succeed.
Why did it work? It worked because it was accessible: you could go to your church, you could go someplace and get into the movement. It had achievable objectives: you didn't have to wait for the whole thing to come down to find so wins. And it cut across class lines part because the jeopardy was common all blacks.
There were vanguard movements, which were critically important - things like the Black Panther Party and SNCC, that shook up the basically conservative civil rights movement and moved it forward. There were independent community financial sources and foundations and churches and businesses and individuals, keeping open the traditional money linkages from the local community, which could be controlled and controlling. And people need to learn how to recognize victory and defeat. It's amazing how many of us fight, fight, fight, and then somebody has to tap us on the shoulder and say, "By the way, you won."
There are bad lessons we taught our children, which perhaps we have not fully incorporated ourselves. Sometimes people believe the only way to get something done is through confrontation, while the arts of negotiation and compromise need be elevated as well as successful weapons.
We have strong organizations, political and church-based, that surely can serve as successful models. And finally, the role of media, which could be, in the years of the movement, either friend or foe. Often in the beginning it was very much friend, transmitting what was basically a regional event out to the nation and making it an international phenomenon. Media was the prism that gave the leverage that made the civil rights story work. And there was brilliance in the quick recognition of the potential of media. The dramatic and moral power of marchers petitioning hostile governments for their constitutional rights helped create the television news industry and was fired into our memories.
Media, particularly television, which has played such an important role, needs to be understood and carefully followed, because it is your prism as well for much of what you are doing, both within your neighborhood and in the world at large.
Now that media system which often served as the single prism is changing greatly, and can no longer be relied on the way it was. The technology has ex-panded, as well as the number of broadcast options. There has been an enormous capacity increase. The audience has become fractionalized, which means that it's no longer possible to have major national events - I call them "water-cooler programs" - that will allow people to stand around and react to something they've seen. You see it now and then - The Civil War was one, I think Eyes was one, especially among African Americans - and I believe that we intend to make our programs the type of events around which we can generate enormous support, programs that will elevate themselves out of the clutter of conventional broadcasting and of the technology.
Outrage has been overused. There's little left to shock. Even the death of starving children in Somalia - you have to shake yourself to remind yourself that this is real, that it's happening at that moment. But t.v. has a unique capacity to focus. It can do it around Rodney King, or the Charles Stuart case here in Boston. It can also do it around positive ventures, and I think we all need to think of ways to manipulate it so that we can use it to our own agenda.
I have gone into such great detail on the lessons of the civil rights movement and the shifting landscape of media because I believe much of what we have learned can be applied to our time. And as we go about the business of rebuilding our urban neighborhoods, we must minimize the mistakes of the past and focus hard on the successes, for circumstances may not allow another opportunity. Unless we confront these issues, we may find ourselves in a flawed democracy of high walls and private security guards.
As surely as I stand here, I know that there will be uprisings that threaten the public good. I have held these words of Frederick Douglass close:
"Those who profess to favor freedom and deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want the rain without thunder and lightning, the ocean without the mighty roar of its waters. This may be a moral struggle or physical one, but it is a struggle, for power concedes nothing without a demand-it never has, it never will. Find out just what a people will submit to and you will find the exact amount of injustice and wrong that will be visited upon them, and it will continue until it is resisted with words or blows or both, for the limits of tyrants are proscribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."
Douglass was speaking of the Civil War, but those of you on the front lines know that there is a dangerous quality of resistance and frustration in neighborhoods abandoned too long, in places of too little hope. Places where young men and police stare at each other across bloody streets, and justice is defined as getting home safely at night.
But you have in your successes created that most powerful of human weapons, a spirit that will not be stilled, an intent to change the world. While memories can trap us, revitalized dreams can empower the poor far beyond the barriers that now hold them and will hold us all prisoners.
Just two final thoughts. Even while we struggle with our own belief in the nation's future, we must help rebuild the public trust of all Americans, but particularly the poor. They must have some faith and trust that they can claim some part of the American promise for themselves and their children.
That trust is now in jeopardy, and it jeopardizes us all. People without hope are dangerous people, and we must renew our commitment to see that all have opportunity and access. Many will be surprised that, out of a sustained assault on poverty and racism, we will free America and truly make it the powerful, humane prosperous country that we know it can be.
The writer Roberto de Robertor said that among all human constructions, the only ones that withstand the dissolving hands of time are the castles in the air. Those castles are the drums that drive us forward, the dreams that give us courage to meet the challenges of a time such as this. Most of us understand the diagnosis of what ails our nation; the issue now is to chart a course and a vision, for shared dreams are at the very core of rebuilding public trust.
Graham Greene says eloquently that there is a moment in childhood when life opens up and lets the future in. For America, this is such a moment, and we must seize the day.
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