Inspiring a new generation of leadership: Justice veterans launch Greensboro Declaration
On September 12 – one day after commemorations were held across the United States to remember one of the most tragic days in modern American history, and amidst shocking reports of global violence – veterans of the past century’s most remarkable struggles to expand American democracy gathered in three different cities around the country to proclaim their vision for a new day. In New York City, Washington, and Detroit, stars aligned, and stars spoke.
All who had “ears to hear and eyes to see” were put on notice that these veterans, who have led the nonviolent revolutions that redefined American political life for generations, are not done yet. They will not sit idly by while the gains for which they risked their lives are eroded, either by ignorance or intention. They may not live to see the next American Revolution through, but with the strength of their being and the wisdom they’ve earned, they will continue to fight.
They came together to acknowledge that at this stage of their lives, they have a different role to play. To those of us who are young and who must continue the struggle, they offer themselves to encourage, to mentor, and to teach.
And so, last Wednesday morning at 11:00 a.m., stood several of these leaders in the shadow of a statue of a man who has come to symbolize a movement of millions who fought for a transformed America. In front of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, with the Capitol Building in sight, representing the National Council of Elders, Joyce and Nelson Johnson (of the Beloved Community Center), Arthur Waskow (of the Shalom Center), Bernice Johnson Reagan (of Sweet Honey in the Rock), and Lewis A. Brandon III stood and read aloud the “Greensboro Declaration” [PDF version attached at the bottom of this page]. The elders named this statement for Greensboro, North Carolina, which in 1960 was the birthplace of the sit-in movement to end racial segregation, and this summer was where they first gathered as a group.
They each took turns reading from the statement, occasionally inviting other assembled supporters to join in. Then Rabbi Waskow sounded the shofar and Bernice Johnson Reagan led us in song.
Then arrived the U.S./Mexican Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity, 110 persons strong, who had just come to Washington to finish their month-long trip across North America. They came to meet the NCOE elders, and there were moving exchanges of encouragement and gratitude at the conclusion of the service. Dolores Huerta, one of the elders, had expected to be present that morning; instead she met the Caravan at its concluding service: a candlelight procession down 16th Street from St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church to Malcolm X Park. She offered her own expressions of gratitude and words of encouragement to the Caravan and all those who had joined the community in Washington.
Having engaged in the movement to expand American democracy for nearly 100 years, it should surprise no one that many of the names associated with the NCOE are also dear to the history of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. We can hope that our work proves useful to a movement of conscience that deeply impacts a new generation Americans.
Whatever comes of my generation of activists, we will not fail because our elders did not try to teach us, encourage us, or urge us onward. We will not fail because they did not offer to accompany us as far as they themselves could go. Their journey is now ours in a way that it can no longer be theirs; they are expecting us to take the lead, as many of us already are all over the country. Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, we have work to do!
[Photos courtesy of the Beloved Community Center. Click here for more photos of the September 12th Greensboro Declaration launch in Washington.]
Lucas Johnson serves on the National Council of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (USA), the International Committee of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the board of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. He lives in Savannah and Atlanta, Georgia.