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Democratic Citizenship

By Ethan Vesely-Flad

“What is the nature of democratic citizenship, in the world in which we live?” asked Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the trilogy of books on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement. “And what is the role of nonviolence in democratic citizenship?” he continued, in a public conversation on “Gandhi, King, and the Future of Nonviolence” with scholar Jonathan Schell this April.

This theme — democratic citizenship and nonviolence — is the heart of Dr. King’s legacy for the peace and justice movement today, along with the recognition of the integrative nature of movement-building for social transformation. What are our responsibilities for engaging the society in which we live? What is our commandment for doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with spiritual intention? Within the social justice community, how can we avoid segregating our issues from one another, in the same way that peoples and communities have been forcefully separated by institutional powers throughout history?

In another public conversation in April, also timed to mark the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s death, two civil rights veterans discussed similar questions. “It seems to me that we need to hold ”˜citizenship workshops,’ to help educate people for democratic responsibility,” said Vincent Harding, who wrote much of Dr. King’s famous “A Time to Break Silence” 1967 speech delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City. “Where democratic leadership and capacity are concerned, when will we realize that we in the United States are still a ”˜developing nation’? We have less than 50 years of history as a multiracial democracy!”

Harding was speaking with Dorothy Cotton, who worked closely with the Kings at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Cotton (pictured here, underneath a photo of Dr. King that hangs at the headquarters of the Fellowship of Reconciliation) noted that the more that people criticized Dr. King, “the more he moved into a deeper understanding of nonviolence.”

Both pairs — Cotton and Harding, as well as Branch and Schell — honed in on two key concerns for our peace and justice work today. The first is the belief that the struggle for racial justice is separate and distinct from others, especially resistance to militarism. Since the anti-Vietnam war movement is often described as a separate effort from the civil rights campaign, “We do a disservice [to King] by making these two different stories,” said Branch. “They can’t be segregated,” and the effort to do so has impaired effective activism in the 21st century. The second is the continuing cry for a charismatic national leader. “If things were going to change, we had to change them ourselves!” Harding and Cotton agreed, and called on people to claim their power, not waiting for someone else to inspire us to action.

So what must we do to resist what Dr. King called the “cult of conformity,” which pervades even our activist community?

I spoke with Rev. Phil Lawson, another civil rights veteran and life-long justice-seeker. In 2006, Lawson co-founded the Black Alliance for Just Immigration with fellow Methodist clergyperson Kelvin Sauls (see poem, page 13), seeking to counter those who say that the U.S. black community is divided from the “immigrant” community. “It seems to me that immigration, environmental justice, the prison system, and the targeting of Muslims and Arabs are the most pressing issues for justice activists in our country today,” I said. “Would you agree?”

“Don’t forget LGBTQ rights!” responded Lawson. “And none of these should be separated from one another.”

It is that kind of thinking — and a commitment to creative nonviolent action — that informs this issue of Fellowship, which looks at movement-building today in the light of Dr. King’s legacy. Daniel Berrigan reminds us of King’s final anti-militaristic words, spoken on his behalf by his widow Coretta; and Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou looks at the failure of the faith community to build a vibrant, high-profile anti-war movement today, as it had during the time of King’s participation in Clergy and Laity Concerned Against Vietnam. Anissa New-Walker addresses the recent U.S. spate of hate crimes, especially in the North; while Hawah decries the gun epidemic in our culture. Johnny B. Hill considers the rapid growth of globalization in the context of his speaking and preaching; and Rima Vesely-Flad describes the process of building an effective movement to counter the prison industry. John Goodwin, who took most of the classic photos of King featured in this issue (and in countless other magazines and books), inspires us to not just document social issues, but engage them — through his own witness against the death penalty.

In a movement that has long focused on achieving national visibility — what is it that our culture remembers most of Dr. King, after all, but the March on Washington — wise elders remind us that “it’s not marching” that we need, but a deepened commitment to taking hold of our power. “If things were going to change, we had to change them ourselves,” Harding and Cotton proclaimed. Even as we follow in their footsteps, let us also seek to break new ground.

Ethan Vesely-Flad is Editor of Fellowship (

Fellowship is a quarterly print magazine published by FOR. Selected articles are available online. Want access to all of the articles? Subscribe for just $15/year, or free with any donation of $50 or more!