Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Free Radicals - Individual Efforts Can Change the World

The premise of my forthcoming book from Cambridge University Press, Radicals in Their Own Time: Four Hundred Years of Struggle for Liberty and Equal Justice in America,* is that the efforts (mostly unwelcomed, at the time) of certain individuals throughout the nation's history have played huge roles in first identifying, then guaranteeing the freedoms we enjoy today. In this book I focus on the lives of five so-called "free radicals": Roger Williams, Thomas Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, W.E.B. Du Bois and Vine Deloria.

Yesterday's column by Bob Herbert in the NY Times, "Changing the World," speaks to the mind-set of these sorts of people:

"The tendency now is to assume that there is little or nothing ordinary individuals can do about the conditions that plague them.

"This is so wrong. It is the kind of thinking that would have stopped the civil rights movement in its tracks, that would have kept women in the kitchen or the steno pool, that would have prevented labor unions from forcing open the doors that led to the creation of a vast middle class....

"Being an American has become a spectator sport. Most Americans watch the news the way you’d watch a ballgame, or a long-running television series, believing that they have no more control over important real-life events than a viewer would have over a coach’s strategy or a script for 'Law & Order.'

"With that kind of attitude, ... Rosa Parks would have gotten up and given her seat to a white person, and the Montgomery bus boycott would never have happened....

"The nation’s political leaders and their corporate puppet masters have fouled this nation up to a fare-thee-well. We will not be pulled from the morass without a big effort from an active citizenry, and that means a citizenry fired with a sense of mission and the belief that their actions, in concert with others, can make a profound difference.

"It can start with just a few small steps. Mrs. Parks helped transform a nation by refusing to budge from her seat. Maybe you want to speak up publicly about an important issue, or host a house party, or perhaps arrange a meeting of soon-to-be dismissed employees, or parents at a troubled school.

"It’s a risk, sure. But the need is great, and that’s how you change the world."

Individuals like Williams, Paine, Cady Stanton, Du Bois and Deloria had plenty of reason to be discouraged - and they sometimes were, to the point of despondency. They bent, but they didn't break - and they ended up changing the world.

Who will be the free radicals remembered from our current era?

* Release date: summer/fall 2010