As a paradigm of dignity, David Brooks selected A. Philip Randolph. Brooks writes, "Confronted by humiliating racism, [his family] hewed to a code of moral refinement and gentlemanly conduct that jarred with their material circumstances." About Randolph's father a biographer wrote that he was "guided by the values of civility, humility, and decency, inspired by religious and social service, and utterly devoted to the idea of dignity."
About Randolph, Brooks writes, "These qualities--his incorruptibility, his reticent formality, and above all his dignity--meant it was impossible to humiliate him. His reactions and internal state were determined by himself, not by the racism or even by the adulation that later surrounded him."
What a stirring tribute. I hope I sometimes embody that kind of dignity.
Randolph was a civil rights and labor leader and Brooks writes that "the chief challenges of Randolph's life were: how do you take imperfect people and organize them into a force for change? How do you amass power while not being corrupted by power?" These are excellent questions.
Yesterday I was reviewing an essay by the theologian Stanley Hauerwas on faith and politics in which we wrote, "The difficulty is that following a crucified Lord entails embodying a politics that cannot resort to coercion and violence; it is a politics of persuasion all the day down. It is a tiring business that is slow and time-consuming, but then we, that is, Christians, believe that by redeeming time Christ has given us all the time we need to pursue peace."
Brooks draws on David L. Chappell's book A Stone of Hope, which I highly recommend, to discuss the two different civil rights movements. He writes, "The first was northern and highly educated. People in this group tended to have an optimistic view of history and human nature." The other group was the "biblical prophetic tradition" and they thought the optimists practiced a form of idolatry. Brooks again:
One consequence of this attitude was that the prophetic realists were much more aggressive. They took it as a matter of course that given the sinful nature of man, people could not be altered merely by education, consciousness raising, and expanded opportunity. It was wrong to put one's faith in historical processes, human institutions, or human goodness. . . Change comes through relentless pressure and coercion.
How did nonviolence work? "Nonviolence allowed the biblical realists to aggressively expose the villainy of their foes, to make their enemies' sins work against them as they were exposed in ever more brutal forms." We must not be fooled into thinking that nonviolence didn't mean exposing the sins of the opponents.
In this chapter Brooks also draws attention to Bayard Rustin, the gay man who contributed essential elements of the philosophy of nonviolence and organized the March on Washington. He writes that Rustin viewed nonviolence as a form of discipline which would weed out our own moral corruptions.
Brooks also details the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr, though I believe the civil rights leaders moved beyond Niebuhrian realism to a more liberationist theology. Nevertheless, this section on Niebuhr is informative for current religio-political movements of protest and resistance:
Niebuhr argued that, beset by his own sinful nature, man is a problem to himself. Human actions take place in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension. We simply can't understand the long chain of consequences arising from what we do, or even the origins of our own impulses. Niebuhr argued against the easy conscience of modern man, against moral complacency on every front. He reminded readers that we are never as virtuous as we think we are, and that our motives are never as pure as in our own accounting.
I admire the concluding paragraphs of this chapter:
The story of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin is the story of how flawed people wield power in a fallen world. They shared a worldview based on an awareness of both social and personal sin, the idea that human life is shot through with veins of darkness. They learned, Randolph instantly and Rustin over a lifetime, to build an inner structure to contain the chaotic impulses within. They learned that sinfulness is battled obliquely through self-giving, by directing life away from the worst tendencies. They were extremely dignified in their bearing. But this same sense made them aggressive in their outward strategy. They knew that dramatic change, when it is necessary, rarely comes through sweet suasion. Social sin requires a hammering down of the door by people who are simultaneously aware that they are unworthy to be so daring.
This is a philosophy of power, a philosophy of power for people who combine extreme conviction with extreme self-skepticism.
You can find the previous post in this series, on the magnanimity of George Marshall, here.