Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day. It’s hard to think of a man in recent memory more deserving of a holiday. It is not only the success he had in bringing about greater racial equality that is admirable about the man but the way he went about it. He took the ideas Gandhi and Thoreau forwarded and used them to create a movement that will shine its light through history.
But as instrumental as Martin Luther King was in the civil rights struggle, it was at its root a mass-movement. Without taking anything from Reverend King, there were many, many heroes associated with the movement. In fact, each and every man and woman associated with the civil rights struggle was a hero.
We tend to forget the idea that each and every one of us has within us the ability to be a hero, if only to our children or those in our relatively small sphere of interactions. But the civil rights movement would never have been successful without thousands of individuals banded together and behaving heroically. Each member of the non-violent movement had to work within the constraints of rules regarding their behavior in order to send the proper message to the world. Those who opposed the civil rights movement would have been thrilled to see the violence of protestors as justification for their own violence.
Perhaps it is easier to see the accomplishments of a movement as the doings of a single individual, perhaps the human mind needs to break things down to simple symbols in order to understand. But in doing so we lose a really powerful message, the message being that heroism is not a job that is done by a few, the way some are dentists and some are musicians. The potential of heroism exists in each of us, needs to exist in a great many of us in order for a movement on the scale of the civil rights movement to be successful. That button from potential to actual must be switched on in order for the human race to meet the difficulties we face so they will be handled in a way that will make us feel good about what it means to be human.
Let Jim Zwerg be an example. Very few people have ever heard the name but he was as brave as any in the civil rights movement. A white guy from Wisconsin, he somehow got the call to be part of the Freedom Ride. When the bus pulled into Montgomery Alabama, it was ambushed and Zwerg took a beating that left him in a coma for two days. You can watch a 4 minute clip of what happened here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6KW05KdahPM
Here is a message from Jim Zwerg:
The potential is in all of us. However much we may need leaders, the spark is in all our hearts and ultimately the responsibility is each of ours, all of ours. It may be frightening but you are never alone. As it is in your heart, so too is it in the hearts of every person you meet.
When you are afraid of that potential within yourself, when you are afraid that nobody will stand up for you when you have stood up for others, remember Jim Zwerg. Remember that there is a Jim Zwerg in every group of people. You don’t want to let Jim Zwerg down. He’s invested too much into the fight for others to abandon it. Remember that when you stand up for right there will always be a Jimmy Zwerg right there beside you. That potential for good is within you as it is in your neighbor. Martin Luther King did not magically show up to lead us all into the Promised Land. Rather, he looked deep into his heart and found there something we all share. If Martin Luther King led us, then he led us to the realization that we all can act in the manner that he acted. He led us to the realization that we MUST all act in similar faith and bravery in order to be the kind of people we truly wish to be. Do it for Jim Zwerg, for the Jim Zwergs that you know are out there, doing their part.