The Only Way We Really Change
Walter Murray and I were classmates at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) in 1985. We both had careers before attending the Divinity school, and were colleagues at the Boston City Mission Society, serving people in the poorest neighborhoods of Boston.
Before coming to HDS, I had been a family therapist, working mostly with poor, Hispanic families in southern California. Walter had served as the first African-American, Affirmative Action Officer at Vanderbilt University. Studying Gandhi’s nonviolent satyagraha (“truth-force”) movement, we saw its deep impact on the ethics and foundations that built and sustained the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.
Walter was personally involved in that terible struggle, and he told me this story:
"One day we were beginning a civil rights march through Birmingham, Alabama. It was at the height of the conflict between civil rights workers and the Birmingham police. We prepared ourselves relentlessly, cultivating the discipline we would need to be strong enough to march – nonviolently - through the city.
"Bull Connor (the commissioner of public safety) had readied his men and dogs for a confrontation with the marchers. I took my place in line. Close by was my friend Marcus, an enormous football player. He must have been 6’4”, 275 pounds. Kathy, his girlfriend– who looked small enough to fit under his arm – marched between us, so we could keep her safe.
"We started to march. As we walked, crowds of people came from everywhere. They started to shout at us, throw things at us, generally abuse and harass us. Still, we stayed in line, and kept marching.
The crowds got bigger, and they got mean - real fast. We were terrified of getting hurt, even killed. But we were committed to doing this. Without violence. No matter what happened.
Then - all at once - the police and the dogs were ordered to attack. Big men in uniforms with Billy clubs were swinging everywhere around us. One of the police, I still remember his face, so ugly with hate, looked to be coming right at me. Marcus tried to block him.
"But that policeman was so full of fear and anger all mixed up, he just swung and screamed and kept coming at us, wild and flailing with his club, like a rabid dog. One sharp swing somehow managed to get through us, and landed square on poor Kathy’s head. The sound of that crack turned my stomach. She just fell, her whole body crumpled like an old suit of clothes right there on the ground. Her head was bleeding.
Marcus, trained all his life as a defensive tackle, watched his girlfriend collapse, a pile of flesh and bone at his feet. Then, he turned so fast and looked straight at this cop, I just knew he was going to do to that cop the only thing he ever knew to do: smash him into the pavement so he never got up again.
"But then, he stopped. And his eyes just looked and looked. He just stared right into the soul of that policeman, who just stood there, paralyzed, confused, not sure what was going to happen to him. But Marcus just looked at him, and it felt like forever.
"Then, this massive young warrior of a man, trained all his life to protect those he loved, took his muscled arms and reached out – and then reached down. He picked Kathy up, held her bleeding head - like you would hold a baby. With Kathy in his arms, Marcus and I just kept on walking."
Walter said “I was so humbled. The power of that presence, that deep moral courage. In that moment I had to find in myself that same, firm inner ground. We had all taken the same vow, a vow that could not be broken: To find in ourselves that place on which we would, at all costs, no matter how painful or dangerous, always stand firm.
“But that was who we had to be; we knew we had to refuse any other way. We had to renounce violence. Of any kind. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be any different - or any better - than they were.
“It was,” he concluded, “our only hope for change.”
"Leadership" has become sexy. It is the topic of choice in the publishing world. You cannot pick up a book review, or wander the internet, without stumbling onto a cacophony of books, articles and blogs about this practice. Each offers its own patented plan, proving that by doing exactly what this person did, or becoming just like that successful celebrity entrepreneur, we will have everything we need to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
But people don’t ever change by becoming someone else. People change by seeking, finding, and nourishing the best of who they are. They persist through the dark, heart-shredding times. They reach deeper into their true nature, the source of their best wisdom, courage, and passion. We all carry in us an inner knowing that can lift us up, if only we will first learn to stand our ground.
When we demand our best, we rise. We can see past the tsunami of all the immediate terrors and woundings that plague us daily. And, when we stand firm in the best of ourselves, upon that most noble, honorable, ancient ground of our being, we can see the way through. We know the path clear home.
This, Walter told me, is our only hope for change.
Thirty years later, I have yet to find anyone selling a better plan for real, lasting change than that.