Whenever people organize for change, there's no shortage of people to tell them they won't succeed.
The most common and easiest response to people's movements is cynicism. The cynic sits apart, scoffing at the naivete of the organizers, citing all the many reasons why change can't happen, won't happen.
Chances are, the organizers know the odds against them. But it's easier to scoff and sneer than it is to do the hard work of changing the world. The cynical pose also protects against the pain of disappointment, and the appearance of having backed a loser. When there is a setback, the cynic can say, "I knew it wouldn't work".
The facts they spout are often correct. Everything they say may be true. And so... what? Do nothing? Lay down? Let them walk over us without even putting up a fight? This is the real problem with such entrenched cynicism: in terms of action, it's the exact same thing as apathy. It acquiesces. It allows.
When I hear critics like this, I like to remind them - and myself - of some successful people's movements in history. I mean, England doesn't rule India anymore, does it? Jim Crow doesn't rule the American South.
The greatest people's movement of my own lifetime has to be the end of the apartheid system in South Africa. Last night I watched "Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony", a movie that gives a capsule history of the anti-apartheid movement, with an emphasis on the role of music in the revolution. I recommend it, as both history and inspiration.
Apartheid was signed into law in 1948, and implemented over the next ten years. There was resistance from the very beginning, most of it nonviolent.
Things got worse. Much worse. The Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 was a turning point in both organized resistance and the government's repressive response. In the 1960s, movement leaders, political singers, and anyone who was considered a threat were imprisoned or exiled. The movement went underground, and developed a military wing.
The 1976 Soweto uprising was another turning point. The uprisings - and the subsequent massacres - strengthened international awareness and sympathy. The government strengthened its noose.
Think of this. Apartheid was signed into law in 1948. Here we are almost 30 years later, 30 years of movement and struggle, and it appears that little has been gained. Some of the most brutal times still lay ahead. But that appearance is deceptive.
In the 1980s, the South African government declared a state of emergency. News agencies were banned from showing riots, so the government could do its dirty, murderous work in secret. By now the revolution was a full-scale war. The South African government appeared to be wholly intractable, an immovable object. Again, deceptive. The movement was still building, and things were changing. On the outside, it was hard to see. Maybe it was hard to see from the inside, too.
In 1990, Mandela was released from prison. In 1991, he was elected President of the African National Congress. In 1994, he became the first democratically elected President of the Republic of South Africa.
It happened. It took many lifetimes. Not everyone who contributed lived to see it happen. It took organization, it took will, it took every tool revolutionaries have ever used, including violence. But it happened.
Not only was apartheid abolished, but through Mandela's own genius and leadership, it was achieved without the post-revolutionary apocalypse the white majority feared. Whites were not massacred. Black people did not drag white people from their homes, kill them and burn their houses. (That was the image always used, the rationale for continuing the untenable system: we have to keep them down, because if we don't, they will drag us from our homes and slaughter us for what we have done.) The white minority was not exiled, or imprisoned. And - even more astonishing, given history -the revolutionaries did not set up a dictatorship.
Apartheid ended, and democracy began.
This happened. We saw it.
I remember Soweto. The movement to divest - to persuade American institutions to pull assets out of South Africa - was my first activist experience in university. I vividly recall Mandela's release, and later, his triumphant visit to New York City. (I know he was in Toronto, too!)
This happened. The odds couldn't have been worse, the stakes couldn't have been higher, but it happened.
If this interests you, I recommend this movie "Amandla!". Although it's a broad overview, there are some startling moments - a freedom fighter who gave birth to her child in her prison cell, an interview with some white former riot police, recollections of what prison was like the day someone was to be executed. (There was mass singing, hand-clapping and foot-stomping. The prisoner went to the gallows singing!)
I also recommend a book I read many years ago, Move Your Shadow by Joseph Lelyveld. (It's out of print, but worth finding used or in the library.) It vividly depicts, on the most basic, human level, what apartheid meant in every level of society, from the richest to the poorest. After I read this book, it drove me crazy when progressive Americans would say there is apartheid in the US. There is inequality, for sure. But we shouldn't devalue the black South African struggle by imagining it was merely inequality.
A good movie about the incredible Truth and Reconciliation Hearings is "Long Night's Journey Into Day" - not John Boorman's ridiculous "In My Country". I was fascinated by the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings. It was a wildly revolutionary idea - perfect fodder for any cynic to scoff at. It also worked.
While I'm at it, I'd like to note that one of the many things that made me sick during the media lovefest after Ronald Reagan died was the appalling fiction of Reagan as a champion of freedom. Anyone who was involved, however tangentially, in the anti-apartheid movement knew that that he was exactly the opposite. As a US President, he did what US Presidents do: he supported the regime in power, as long as it was economically beneficial to the United States. The US could have done so much to pressure South Africa into dismantling apartheid. It did just the opposite. But the people succeeded anyway.
Amandla is Xhosa for power.
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday.