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Men and Women of Conscience

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Posted by Mary Ann

Here’s something I was struck by as I was reading Tavis Smiley’s book on the last year of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, “Death of a King.” It’s one of the central reasons he wrote it, I think. My revelation – men and women of conscience may look like saints in retrospect, but in their time they had a very difficult time indeed choosing to do what’s “right,” because the prevailing ethos in society was so overwhelmingly wrong.

I’d like to talk about some books about men and women of conscience. But before I go off on that, I want to briefly mention Taylor Branch’s trilogy about Martin Luther King’s life. “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63,” “Pillar of Fire: American in the King Years, 1963-65,” and “At Canaan’s Edge: American in the King Years, 1965-68.”

One book I have been reading that is about one of King’s role models is “Gandhi Before India” by Ramachandra Guha. This is a fascinating portrait of a man who started out as a member of India’s middle class, and ended up as a near-religious figure who galvanized millions in the cause of rights for Indians. His philosophy and strategy of using nonviolent protest to cause social change was a virtual template for the Civil Rights movement in this country.

This just-published book covers Gandhi’s life during his upbringing in India, his years in London where he trained as a lawyer, and his career in South Africa, where he started out defending his fellow Indians on issues such as business and property disputes. In the British colony of Natal, where Gandhi lived, those issues were intertwined with the fact that the white colonists greatly feared the increasing number of immigrants from India for their business acumen and their sheer numbers. So Gandhi, the ONLY Indian lawyer in Natal, ended up the head of a political movement as well, as the government kept supporting laws that disenfranchised Indians and restricted the amount of property they could own.

It’s just striking how quickly he went from lawyer to political organizer, and it wasn’t easy. Much of the white population hated him. He was reviled in the newspapers. He was made fun of with the kind of racially stereotypical humor that would be considered shocking today. Eventually he suffered physical violence – I just read a harrowing scene where, after returning to Natal after a couple of years in India, bringing his family with him, he was set upon and beaten by a ginned up crowd (the author says he escaped serious injuries because the wife of the police chief in Durban, a white woman, got between Gandhi and the crowd and fended them off with her parasol. I think she made them ashamed of herself!) The man had such dignity and presence in the face of his political enemies, and throughout his life, there was a long list of such people.

Moving forward in chronological order – I want to mention “Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” by Charles Marsh. This book, which also came out this year, tells the story of Bonhoeffer, a German Christian, professor, minister and theologian who ran afoul of the Nazi regime and was ultimately jailed and executed, three weeks before the end of World War II.

Bonhoeffer came from an upper-class German family and, until he became politically active, led a very pleasant life – a way of life that was pretty much destroyed by the Nazis and the war. His family was cultured, kind and generous. When the Nazis started seizing control of the German Protestant church, they started advancing notions such as 1. Even Jews who had been baptized into the church couldn’t worship there. 2. Jesus was not really a Jew. Things went downhill from there. Bonhoeffer kept making the point forthrightly that the measures the Nazis were advocating ran directly counter to Jesus’ teachings. One of the depressing things about this book is how willing other figures in the church apparatus were willing to sign on to the Nazi program.

Bonhoeffer was stripped of his job and his responsibilities at university and in the church. His family was harassed. Ultimately he was jailed, and when the Nazis discovered he had participated in a plot to kill Hitler, executed, probably by hanging.

This man gave up everything. One thing he and Gandhi had in common was a strong religious background – Gandhi was raised as a Hindu but was very ecumenical and interested in all religions. Their convictions certainly helped them face some of the toughest times in their lives.

The church also plays a role in Cesar Chavez’ career. I have just started reading a new biography of Chavez by Miriam Pawel. Called “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez,” it has already been informative about aspects of Chavez’s life I didn’t know about.

Most Americans are aware that Chavez was a crusader for the rights of farmworkers in 20th century California. What I did not know was the role the Catholic Church played in teaching him about organizing and advocating. Early on, two progressive Catholic priests who were involved in recruiting farmworkers to the cause recognized that Chavez had a gift for reaching out to people. The rest, as they say, is history. This is a terrifically well written book; Pawel is also the author of a book about the farmworkers’ movement in California, so she had already accumulated a lot of background for her story.

Finally, I want to mention a biography of Jane Addams, the Chicago reformer. ”Jane Addams: Spirit in Action” by Louise Knight. Addams, born in 1860, was ahead of her time – she founded Hull House, Chicago’s settlement house for immigrants, with money she had inherited from her father. She was a grass roots organizer, a trade union organizer, an advocate of rights for African Americans and immigrants, and last but not least, women’s suffrage. Circling back to Dr. King, she was also a co-founder of the NAACP! Her efforts were not appreciated by everyone – at the age of 50 she was expelled by the Daughters of the American Revolution for her opposition to World War I. She had a sense of humor – she said at the time, “I had supposed at the time that (my membership) had been for life but it was apparently only for good behavior.”

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