Philadelphia has celebrated and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King recently. On January 20th, across the city, and our tri-state region, people engaged in projects to honor his legacy. King’s work was based on the promise Christmas brought. Regardless of one’s religion, the work of Christmas is to introduce us to love without limits, or, peace through nonviolence. King carried this message into action. However, we live with a deep tension in our world. That is because the dominant message of our times is the opposite. The dominant message is that peace comes through victory, accomplished through violence and war.
Which do we choose? Do we use violence, or, nonviolence to create peace? It can be easily argued that this question is the central negotiation of the human race. Everyday, from our neighborhoods to world events, we see this question posed…and answered, differently. For me, it has been a personal task to hone my own answer. My conclusion is to work for peace through love and justice, using nonviolence.
Perhaps the most peaceful, powerful, nonviolent warrior for justice I had the honor of meeting was Dr. James Forman (1928-2005). James Forman was a powerful African American leader in the American 20th Century Civil Rights movement. He and an African American woman colleague keynoted a conference at my Unitarian Universalist church in Madison, Wisconsin in the early 2000‘s. I went to listen.
The church auditorium was full. Afterwards, I went forward to speak with him. I didn’t even get close. So, I settled for being part of a group question and answer session following the refreshments. We gathered in a beautiful room, looking out at nature. I sat in the third row. Both he and his colleague were there. By the end, I had been changed forever. I had learned all I needed from my third row seat. But, I get ahead of myself. First, a little more about him.
Although, James Forman, Executive Secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s, does not have the name recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr., or, Julian Bond, he was a revered leader of his day. His accomplishments are legendary and cannot be adequately presented here. Instead, I use two quotes to represent him.
“He imbued the organization (SNCC) with a camaraderie and collegiality that I’ve never seen in any organization before or since,” said Julian Bond (Senator-D-GA Legislator), chairman of the NAACP and SNCC’s communications director during Mr. Forman’s tenure.
“Jim performed an organizational miracle in holding together a loose band of nonviolent revolutionaries who simply wanted to act together to eliminate racial discrimination and terror,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who was a member of SNCC. “As a result, SNCC had an equal place at the table with all the major civil rights organizations of the 1960s. Americans may not know Jim’s name as a household word, but if they look around them at the racial change in our country, they will know Jim by his work.”
The question and answer period lasted a couple of hours. A thoughtful Mr. Forman sat square in his chair. Although it was a long discussion, his eyes never left us. I think I remember his hands on top of a cane, set firmly in front of him. He was totally present. Any of us who have reached our early 70’s know that is a solid feat. I do not remember his colleague’s name. Even if I did, I might withhold it. You will see why in a moment.
As the discussion continued, I began to notice a marked difference between the two of them. Her content was interesting and well articulated. But, her message was tainted with the corruption of blame and accusation. She was angry and bitter. Mr Forman was not. I am sure he had been angry, often. He had been through many years of arrests, discrimination and violent actions perpetrated on him, his family and friends. And, I am sure he still had moments of anger. But, it was not who he was. He was simply powerful. He had transformed his anger into pure grit, purpose and power. He did not emanate anger, or, any hint of revenge or violence. He emanated power, peace and acceptance. He was all about speaking from that place. He truly had peace in his heart, and justice on his mind. The balance was palpable.
I absorbed the lesson he gave me. I understood more clearly why the personal inner work was the core to creating a world of justice though love and peace. Right through to today, I work to be peaceful within myself, so that I might extend the power of peace to just one other person. And, then, maybe, I can help create peace in the world. My New Year’s resolution is to continue this work. We can each be a powerful warrior for peace, whether it is in our own hearts, with our neighbor or leading a group. May we each know and act from this place of true power.