Saturday, May 13, 2006
The Necessity of Risk for Progress
David Halberstam's wonderfully readable history of the role of young people in the American Civil Rights Movement, The Children, offers the following description of the leadership passion of James Bevel.
The issue facing Bevel and his friends was whether to go forward with lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville following the dramatic aciton of students in the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins.
Bevel was one of the Nashville students who, along with his friend and now Congressman John Lewis, helped lead the nation's stuggle for equality and justice in American race relations.
Halberstam captures the passion of Bevel and the impact it had on Lewis. He also reminds us that change never comes without significant risk taking.
Ironically, after the Nashville sympathy sit-in honoring Greensboro, as they debated among themselves what to do, it was James Bevel who now pushed everyone to go forward. Bevel was not interested in the cautionary doubts of his elders. He was sick and tired of waiting, he said. There had been too much of it. There was always going to be a reason not to go, and it was always going to be a very good reason. "If you asked us to wait until next week, then next week something will come up, and you'd say wait until the next week, and maybe we'd never get our freedom." They had waited in the fall, and that had taken them through Christmas, and they had waited at Christmas because they wanted to be nice, and that had been a politcal not a moral decision, he said. But now Greensboro had happened, and they were obviously far better trained than the Greensboro kids, who had acted not out of training but out of impulse. What more was there to wait for? he asked. Yes, he siad, they might not have enough money for bail, but they had not had any money the year before, and it was quite likely that they would not have very much more money in a month or two months or even a year. Nothing was going to change in the unknown, he argued--they did not know what was going to happen, what the level of resistance was going to be, and what the financial hardship would be. But, and this was the most compelling part of his argument, only by acting could they make the unknown of the white resistance become the known. As they acted, the unknown would beomce the known and they would be able to struggle with their problems one by one. Lewis, listening to him, ws impressed by his friend, sensing that there was an original and unshakable quality to his thinking. Of course there was going to be risk, Bevel said, coming up with what was to be the most basic rule of the Movement over the next five years--if there was no risk, then all of this would have been done a long time ago. They were being asked to do it only because there was significant risk. By the time Bevel was finished speaking, the argument was effectively over.