When I drive up to South Bend’s Civil Rights Heritage Center, west of downtown in the carefully restored Engman Natatorium, I like the tidy brickwork and the old-fashioned stone lettering with its elegant curves and flourishes. When I go there to hear a public talk, a open-mic poetry reading, or a film screening, I like even better the feeling of community that people have worked on there. I walk into the building sure that the folks filing in came to think and talk about making our community better. We won’t all have the same perspectives or experiences, sure, and that’s good, but you can count on the person in the next seat sharing an ethical concern about our region. In hard times, that’s great for morale.
But down deeper, I like the everlasting symbol of the building itself: as a segregated public swimming pool, it was once a site of the most blatant kind of civic racism, but the building has been recaptured, its spirit renovated and turned toward better use. Getting there took a lot of work, over many years, yes. But the building reminds me that activism and social change are always real possibilities, if only we know how.
Not that the task is easy, or even encouraging, sometimes. When I ask myself, who is the average American these days, I picture someone demoralized or angry. A person who doesn’t often speak in public because it’s hard to believe it matters. A person who doesn’t know how to cut through the chaotic noise of news and political media. A person who feels ineffectual as a citizen and doesn’t know where to turn except to live a quiet private life. That’s my hunch about the average American these days.
But the film I saw recently at the Civil Rights Heritage Center had a practical insight that I can’t forget. This film was called Banished. It’s a documentary about towns for decades after the Civil War that chose to expel their African American residents. In one of those towns, a group of well-meaning citizens gathered not long ago to bemoan the fact that the Ku Klux Klan once again set up shop in the town and remains even today. “Why?” a resident asks. “Because they are comfortable here,” is the answer they are given. People holding those views are comfortable in your community. Nobody makes them ashamed or embarrassed. Nobody gets in their face about it. They stay because they are comfortable here.
Isn’t that an interesting theory? Doesn’t it hint at a path forward? Let’s try a thought experiment. When you were a child, if your mother saw you quietly steal a candy bar at the grocery store, would she have let you remain comfortable? Oh, dear listeners, we each know the particular flavor of discomfort our own mother would have inflicted at that moment. Only the sociopaths among us don’t squirm to think of it.
Now let’s try our thought experiment in the realm of politics. How about the shameless vote theft practiced from time to time by both parties, called gerrymandering? Would certain Democrats in some states and certain ‘Publicans in others stifle our voices and steal the value of our votes by gerrymandering unless we let them feel comfortable doing so? Probably not. I’m not saying that a certain kind of politician is easy to shame.
A distinguished journalist who retired to our community once said that, in general, politicians know they don’t need to listen to citizens unless citizens have persuaded those politicians that their voices have reach and staying power. I love that formula. Reach and staying power. In other words, making them uncomfortable, embarrassed in front of others, ashamed maybe, today and tomorrow and the next day, with no let-up in sight. A political method can grow from there.
What are our chances? Who knows. But it’s better than sitting in isolation, simmering away with ineffectual anger, which is my sad guess about where many of us are today. I hate letting others make me feel that way about myself.
Music: "BLUES 'ROCK'" by Justin Johnson Playing Slide Guitar with a River Stone
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