It was one of those warm spring days in the nation's capital when the fresh promise of new possibilities seems, just for a moment, to defy the entrenched ways of Washington. Surrounded by the impressive vista of monuments and museums on the Mall, I stood behind a rough lectern on a makeshift stage, looking into the eyes of one thousand low-income people -- mostly single mothers who had been on welfare. My job was to speak, and my topic was hope. In a city where the currency is power, these poor Americans seemed a bit out of place. Not used to having much clout in their political system, you could tell they were feeling the energy that comes from just being together. They had come on buses from urban and rural communities to lobby the Congress for a new welfare-reform bill -- one that would effectively help people like themselves escape poverty and move to self-sufficiency. I told them a story.
I remember another group of people who wanted to change things meeting in a high mountain town in Mexico, two thousand miles from Washington, D.C. Two hundred fifty Christian leaders from fifty countries (mostly from the Southern Hemisphere) were gathered for a whole week to ask how they could learn to do a new kind of "advocacy." Having spent years doing service to the poor in their own countries, and now engaged in effective community development projects, they still saw the poor losing ground. So they had come from Latin America, Africa, and Asia to ask how they together might help change the rules of global trade and transform international economic practices enough to give poor countries and their people a fair chance to break the bonds of misery and deprivation. I told them the same story.
I've also told the story at Harvard University, where I teach part-time. In my class at the Kennedy School of Government, the students wrestled with the question of what to do with their lives after graduation -- trying to sort out the differences between career and vocation. Harvard graduate students are being groomed to run the systems of power that the poor mothers in Washington and the Christian leaders from the global south want to change. But they too are looking for reasons to hope that some transformation might be possible.
I've told the same story at countless public gatherings and town meetings in hundreds of communities across the length and breadth of the United States, where people of faith, conscience, goodwill, and fragile hopes want to make a difference but are searching for ways to do it. Maybe you are like some of the people I've talked to.
Here's the story.
I urged the moms on the Mall not to waste any valuable time while they were in Washington. I wanted them to be able to quickly recognize the members of Congress whom they had come to see. They're the ones, I told them, who walk around town with their fingers held high in the air, having just licked them and put them up to see which way the wind is blowing. It's quite a sight -- men and women walking all around the Capital grounds with their wet index fingers pointed at the sky. The political leaders are really very good at figuring out the direction of the wind, and are quite used to quickly moving in that direction.
It's not a matter of malice for most of them. I've met quite a few politicians, and in fact many come to Washington because they truly wanted to to do the right thing. But after a while, they get entrenched in Washington's ways, and change seems ever more distant. Power and wealth are the real governors here, and people adjust to those realities. Even the ones who still really want to make a difference will you they can't without public backing, and they don't often find it.
Many of us believe that by replacing one wet-fingered politician with another, we can change our society. But it never really works, and when it doesn't we get disillusioned. We then get tempted to just grumble, withdraw, or give up altogether on ever changing anything. But that's where we make our mistake.
The great practitioners of real social change, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, understood something very important. They knew that you don't change a society by merely replacing one wet-fingered politician with another. You change a society by changing the wind.
Change the wind, transform the debate, recast the discussion, alter the context in which political decisions are being made, and you will change the outcomes. Move the conversation around a crucial issue to a whole new place, and you will open up possibilities for change never dreamed of before. And you will be surprised at how fast the politicians adjust to the change in the wind.
Then I gave them a historical example.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had just won the Nobel Peace Prize and was ready to come home from Norway. The freedom movement had achieved a great victory in securing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and King was honored as the newest Nobel laureate. But the civil rights leader decided to stop by Washington, D.C., even before heading back home to Atlanta -- because he needed to meet with the president of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
King told Johnson that the next step on the road to freedom was a voting rights act, without which black Americans in the South would never be able to really change their communities. But the nation's master of realpolitik told America's moral leader that he couldn't deliver a voting rights act. Johnson said he had cashed in all his "chits" with the southern senators to get the civil rights law passed and that he had no political capital left. It would be five or ten years, the president told King, before a voting rights act would be politically possible. But we can't wait that long, said King. Without voting rights, civil rights couldn't be fully realized. I'm sorry, Johnson reportedly told King, but a voting rights law just wasn't politically realistic. They would have to wait.
But Martin Luther King Jr. was not one to simply complain, withdraw, or give up. Instead, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began organizing -- in a sleepy little town nobody had ever heard of, called Selma, Alabama.
On one fateful day, King and the SCLC leaders marched right across the Edmond Pettis Bridge, alongside the people of Selma, to face the notorious Sheriff Jim Clark and his virtual army of angry white police. On what would be called Bloody Sunday, a young man (and now congressman from Atlanta) named John Lewis was beaten almost to death, and many others were injured or jailed.
Two weeks later, in response to that brutal event, hundreds of clergy from all across the nation and from every denomination came to Selma and joined in the Selma to Montgomery march. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel came down from New York to march beside the black Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr., as did more ministers from around the country than had ever before come out to support the civil rights struggle -- which, for them, had also become a religious one.
The whole nation was watching. The eyes of America were focused on Selma, as they had been on Birmingham before the civil rights law was passed. And after the historic Selma to Montgomery march for freedom, it took only five months, not five years or ten, to pass a new voting rights act: the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King had changed the wind.
I remember a panel discussion, many years later, where a famed presidential historian proclaimed, "And Lyndon Johnson, in a dramatic act of presidential courage, went to a joint session of Congress to call for a voting rights act!" I said it was a great thing that Johnson had responded to the challenge as he did (other presidents might not have), but that it was King, not Johnson, who had painted a vivid picture for the world to see that changed the winds of public opinion and made a voting rights act now possible. The Selma campaign had transfixed the nation, dramatically shifted the public debate, and fundamentally altered the political context to make a new voting rights law politically realistic.
from Jim Wallis, God's Politics, 2005, pp. 20-23