E. Ethelbert Miller asks: In your essay 'Holding onto Truth: Gandhi and King' you make reference to the ten points of the "Commitment Blank." During the Civil Rights Movement it was circulated among activists. Did Ella Baker create this? Could you elaborate on these commandments for volunteers? They seem like the type of knowledge and information that should be shared by everyone participating in today's Occupy Movement. Might you agree? However the tenth point reads as follows: Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration. Today it seems as if new activists prefer what is considered horizontal democracy and a leaderless movement. Can you offer any clarity into this matter?
Sunday, December 18, 2011
THE ESSENTIAL E-CHANNEL: HOLDING ONTO TRUTH
"The troubles of the world, my husband said, were due to incompleteness. Greece gave us noble philosophy and poetic insights, but her glorious cities were built on a foundation of slavery...The individual, Martin said, should strive for completeness within himself...One of the failings of the Movement was that, while we taught people to fight against the system, and how to respect themselves, we didn't teach young people that they would have to fight all over again...Freedom is never guaranteed; you have to fight for it." Coretta Scott King, My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr.
I've been living with the inspiring Decalogue known as the "Commitment Blank (or Form)" since the early 1990s when I began work on my novel Dreamer. I honestly don't know if Ella Baker composed this document. (That is an excellent research question for an essay or article.) And I don't know if I can bring any clarity to Ethelbert's question about "horizontal democracy." But, if pushed into a corner, I guess I would say, tentatively, that a possible problem with a horizontal, leaderless movement may be that the protesters, while admirable in their youthful, idealistic rejection of any form of hierarchy and in their desire for egalitarianism, may be leaving themselves open to their members taking off in an undisciplined way in many directions, which dilutes their focus and causes confusion in regard to their ultimate goals and tactics. (For example, protesters who resort to violence only play into the hands of their opponents.) The brilliance of the Civil Rights Movement at its best was its clear focus, represented by the Commitment Form. The Movements leaders (and, yes, there were strong, widely admired leaders) had specific goals clearly defined during the Montgomery and Birmingham campaigns, and well thought out strategies for realizing those specific goals. If the initial goals of a Movement are not agreed upon and clear to everyone (such as "Muammar Gaddafi must go") it can be difficult to determine a line that distinguishes success from failure.
But something I do know with certainty is that Martin Luther King Jr. said that in the black liberation struggle we always have to work on two fronts, one public and the other private, one external and one internal. One effort is to constantly improve the social world; the other is to constantly improve ourselves. Both efforts are necessary; they reinforce and strengthen each other. All this King addressed in the sermon he said was his favorite among all his speeches, "Three Dimensions of a Complete Life." The men and women of the Civil Rights Movement worked out the Commitment Form, which nicely complements Mahatma Gandhi's vision of satyagraha, in practice as they moved from one campaign to another in the south. This form(ula), this insight, was fully developed by the time of the electrifying Birmingham campaign in 1963. Men and women, and then children filled the jails of “Bull” Conner in a massive act of civil disobedience. They---and all the volunteers---were asked to sign this document, which is as follows:
Commandments For Volunteers
I HEREBY PLEDGE MYSELF---MY PERSON AND BODY---TO THE
NONVIOLENT MOVEMENT. THEREFORE I WILL KEEP THE FOLLOWING
1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
2. Remember always that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation---not victory.
3. Walk and Talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
4. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
5. Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
6. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
7. Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
8. Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
10. Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.
I sign this pledge, having seriously considered what I do and with the determination and will to persevere.
This was not simply a pledge for civil disobedience. This was a grand vision in which the personal and the political were one, a blueprint for how to live. (And how similar its spirit is to the words of Horace Mann that inspired Coretta Scott King, an Antioch student, when in his address to the first graduating class he said, "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity." Italics hers.) I say all this as a Buddhist who has taken formal vows, the Precepts, as a lay person. (My very Christian wife of 41 years once said that she saw me as being like a Unitarian, someone always looking for the beauty and best in the world's religions and sciences, and I guess she was right about that.) I hope that someone gives to each and every protester in the Occupy Movement a copy of the Commitment Form, and gets them to sign it. Why don't you, E-Channel reader, print off this post right now, and sign it. You'll feel good, if you do. And M.L. King, wherever he is, will thank you for doing that.
With this 218th post or brief essay, the E-Channel project comes to its conclusion. I want to thank E. Ethelbert Miller and all those who followed this literary project for a year, for their comments, for the emails they sent to us, and I especially wish to thank those who shared some of these posts in the classroom with their students. As I write these final words I'm again reminded of something my father always said when he came to the end of a demanding job, when he lifted that last heavy box, laid on that last layer of paint, or when he removed the cigar from his mouth, smiled, and happily cast his gaze at the last remaining piece or item that brought a long task successfully to closure:
That's the one I was looking for.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 8:34 AM