Dissent is built into the foundation of the American nation (Declaration of Independence); it is woven into the fabric of our democracy (Constitution & Bill of Rights); it is the well-spring from which greater civil rights have been nurtured and realized (e.g. Women’s Rights movement, the Union movement and the Civil Rights movement). Dissent is a 100% American tradition; a patriotic action; a legitimated form of redress of grievances with judicial affirmation. It’s non-violent form is most acceptable, but it’s violent formulation cannot simply be eschewed when precipitated by dictatorial and tyrannical governmental means that attempt to destroy the very foundations upon which our democracy is built (the Revolutionary War).
Dissent is on my mind today because of two major happenings in our country: the “Occupation of Wall Street” protests throughout the nation and the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. They are both monuments to the place of non-violent dissent in the furthering of the American Ideal of rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness; of the American Vision of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people; of the American Dream of one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all. But, they are more than simple representations.
The Martin Luther King Memorial reminds us vividly of the many people who put their lives on the line to protest American apartheid: the segregation of races in public facilities, particularly in schools and housing, the discrimination against people of color in jobs and wages, in banking, in living accommodations, in voting, in all manner of ways that were intended to keep “them in their place” which was always a lesser place; a place which targeted and maintained “them” as inferiors. Such discrimination was the poisonous plant that grew out of the defiled soil of slavery. Slavery of black people, and the elimination or herding of native Americans onto restricted reservations, were two stains upon the formation of our Republic because they influenced our Constitution, public policy and the prejudices of our citizenry, for generations.
Let us never forget that many people actually gave their lives in this great civil rights struggle, including Dr. King and so many of his followers. I think today of the four young girls lost in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist church in Montgomery, of Viola Liuzzo the homemaker, of Jonathan Daniels the seminarian, of Michael Schwerner organizer, James Chaney apprentice, and Andrew Goodman student, of Medgar Evers army veteran and activist leader. And, there are so many more….
I think today of one of my personal heroes, who put herself in jeopardy by going to St. Augustine, FL in the summer of 1964 to participate in a sit-in. The arrest of Mary Peabody-- the 72 year old mother of the governor of Massachusetts and wife of retired Episcopal Bishop, Malcolm Peabody-- for attempting to eat at the segregated Ponce de Leon Motor Lodge in an integrated group, made front page news across the country, and brought the civil rights movement in St. Augustine to the attention of the world. If ever there was a woman who could be seen as a comfortable, white Protestant of patrician background, Mrs. Peabody was it. But nothing could be farther from the truth: she was an activist involved in many endeavors (see more about Mary Parkman Peabody at oasis.lib.harvard.edu/oasis/deliver/~sch01116)
She was someone I was privileged to have known. In fact, she and her retired husband lived just a few doors down from me at the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, MA. Her husband, Malcolm Peabody, the former Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Central New York, under whom I began my quest to become a student at the seminary, was my Bishop for as long as I can remember, from my days as an acolyte in my local church to my acceptance at ETS. The first summer after my first academic year at ETS was a busy one, but was made all the more bearable by the kind offer of their house for the summer for me and my new bride, which they kindly extended again during my second summer at ETS.
Between those summer sojourns at Phillips Place, there was a snowstorm in the Boston area that was unrelenting, and that disrupted transportation and other services (most likely January 20, 1961). As I was about to walk to God-knows-where, I walked by the Peabody home and there was a figure bundled up in a substantial hooded jacket, trying to shovel out their long walkway to the street. I thought it was the Bishop, but when I got closer to ask if I could take over the shoveling, it turned out to be Mrs. Peabody who was determined she was going to dig them out, no matter what. Upon my insistence that I would be glad to do the shoveling in thanks for their on-going generosity, she relented (I was careful not to say anything about age or gender!). Let me tell you, that was the longest, toughest walkway I have ever shoveled, before or since! I was exhausted at the end of it.
Mrs. Peabody never shrank from a task; she was not satisfied until a difficult situation or problem was addressed with vigor, just as she did not shrink from the call to address the national injustice known as segregation; she viewed it as a duty. She was nearing 70 when she tried to shovel that walk; she was 72 when she went to St. Augustine to stage a sit-in. I’ll just bet you there were times when she influenced her Bishop husband and her Governor son on their commitments, their duty, and their responsibilities! I write about her in this context because she clearly represents the heritage of our founding fathers (and mothers); she represents that ideal that we must address injustice; that we must dissent when government or public policy leads to tyranny or just plain discrimination.
We are individually responsible for the health and well-being of the American Ideal, the American Vision, the American Dream. The demonstrations reportedly now going on in over 190 cities throughout these United States are live protests in response to the dysfunctional nature of our government and of our economic system. It is too early to say how significant these will be, but this we do know: these are not hippie demonstrations; they are not unorganized; they are not purposeless; they are not attempts to abrogate law and order.
At our local “Occupation”, I saw many signs of what this protest is about. It‘s about:
- the threat of plutocracy or oligarchy to our democratic system: the 1% dictating policy and outcomes for the other 99%
- the inequality of our economic system: the advance of the profits and riches of the 1% versus the stagnation of the wages and benefits for the broad middle working class; and
- the use of governmental entities and legislation to ensure that this subsidization of the rich remains intact;
- the duty of the rich to pay their fair share in taxes and contributions to the nation’s welfare;
- the overwhelming need for American jobs;
- the tax breaks and policies and incentives that have favored large corporations and enabled them to do what they want, when they want;
- the unfavorable treatment of labor unions and their collective bargaining rights; their destruction;
- the destruction of our democratic system by the infusion of vast amounts of money into our politics in order to influence legislative and regulatory outcomes in favor of the 1%;
- overturning the unfortunate Supreme Court Citizens United decision which sees money in politics as unrestricted free speech for corporations as individuals;
- other concerns include: war, the environment, education costs.
When mass dissent raises complicated issues and questions that must be addressed and answered by our governmental and societal leaders, it is important for us to remember its place in our history, and to respond accordingly. The narrow response of law and order borders on oppression; the response of personal attacks represents elitism, and the response of indifference speaks to nothing less than irresponsibility. Reasoned and reasonable dissent requires a positive response from our government and our people for it is the life-blood that keeps renewing and strengthening our exceptional democracy. To be intent on oppression of every form of dissent is to be on the side of anti-democratic responses that betray American values, and that deny this important thread of our heritage.
Purposeful dissent is part of My Vision for America. It is woven into the fabric of our Democratic Republic; it is part of what makes us great, for many of its forms and manifestations have advanced us toward our Ideal, our Vision, our Dream. We as a nation can never accept the status quo as all there is meant to be, for we know that there is greater freedom, broader rights, and stronger justice toward which we must strive. We are a nation of strivers who believe, with Martin Luther King, Jr. that we have a Dream to be realized. That is why we are called to let freedom ring; to keep hope alive; to pledge ourselves to liberty and justice for all. It is why we revere Lincoln’s words in the Gettysburg Address that call us to look beyond ourselves and our failings to a greater cause:
“It is for us the living… to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced… to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”