I will start by apologizing for the following lengthy post, as I took the content from author Paul Rogat Loeb’s “Soul of a Citizen.” As much as I wanted to paraphrase, all of his words seemed too important.
“Virtually all of America’s most effective historical movements met with repeated frustration and failure before making significant progress progress toward their goals. At few points prior to victory could participants have proved their individual efforts mattered. On the contrary, the reverse often seemed true. As the U.S. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once wrote, “Most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done.” Only in retrospect does the link between small beginnings and profound social change become fully evident. Only then is the true value of persistence in the face of difficulty revealed.
Think of the apartheid-era campaign for South Africa divestment. American economic interests supported the apartheid government almost from its foundation. After the 1960 Sharpeville massacre for instance, a consortium of U.S. banks (led by Chase Manhattan) invested heavily to shore up the Pretoria regime, which seemed on the verge of collapse. In response, one of the first Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) protests was held on Wall Street. Challenges to American economic support of apartheid surged and receded for the next twenty-five years. Then, after the U.S. Senate failed to pass a sanctions bill in 1984, a stream of people staged acts of civil disobedience at the main South African embassy in Washington, D.C., and at local consulates nationwide.
These protests in turn rekindled large-scale social activism on America’s campuses. Even as their generation was being maligned as apathetic and uncaring, students organized rallies, petition drives, and marches, built protest shantytowns, staged sit-ins, and set up blockades – all aimed at persuading colleges and universities to divest themselves of stock in companies doing business in South Africa. Their movement caught fire as global television showed the South African government beating, gassing, and shooting peaceful demonstrators who challenged worsening economic conditions, substandard education, and a new constitution that would permanently disenfranchise black South African citizens.
At Columbia University, the divestment campaign was led by the Black Student Association (BSA). Participants used speakers, public forums, referendums, and door-to-door canvassing of the dorms to win support for their cause. They even secured an endorsement from the faculty senate. When university trustees refused to meet with the campaigners, a dozen students launched a hunger strike, and then a sit-in that they expected would last a few hours. Instead, several hundred people joined in, and the sit-in lasted three weeks. Not only did Columbia divest the following fall (while administrators insisted their action had “nothing to do with the protests”) but its students inspired similar efforts across the country, prompting some 150 institutions to withdraw more than $4 billion in investment funds. The student movement proved to be the key factor in the U.S. congressional vote that finally approved sanctions against South Africa over Ronald Reagan’s veto. By ending U.S. moral and economic support, this historic decision placed enormous pressure on the South African government and its white population to finally move toward democracy.
Movement participants acted mostly because they felt they had to do something, even if it had little impact on university policy. “Going into it, I wasn’t at all sure the university would respond,” said Winston Willis, who later headed Columbia’s BSA. “I doubted the trustees would give in. Columbia’s an immensely powerful institution. But a number of us felt so strongly about the issues that we were willing to risk arrest, suspension, or expulsion, and to sleep outside night after night in the sleet and rain – in case maybe, just maybe, they would.”
The sit-in was particular hard for African American students on scholarships, many of whom were the first in their families to go to college and had no safety net of money and personal contacts. But letters and phone calls of support came from across the country. The students persisted, and their efforts bore fruit they had scarcely imagined. When Nelson Mandela was freed and came to speak in Harlem, Winston attended. He went, he says, “with a sense that I’d played a part, no matter how infinitesimal, in helping to get him out. Friends gave me a copy of that first ballot where blacks got to vote, which I still keep in our study. Recently another friend from those days, whose wife’s father is now an official in the new South African government, went to visit. Desmond Tutu shook his hand and said, ‘You don’t know how important it was what you American student’s did.’ We had no idea our actions would have such an impact.”
I’m sure at this point we have all felt the frustration that after 6 years, the genocide in Darfur continues, despite our efforts. But let us take a look at what our voices and combined efforts have accomplished rather then grow weary and feel helpless.
In the last year we have seen ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo pursue arrest warrants for Sudanese president Bashir who could be indicted as early as the 15th of this month. We saw Darfur become a major focus in the 2008 U.S. presidential and vice-presidential debates. Afterwards, debate moderator Gwen Ifill’s office thanked people, saying it was because of the letters received that a question about Darfur was asked. We have elected a president and vice-president who have vowed to focus more on Darfur and who’s administration has been active in bringing peace to Darfur. Not to mention all the humanitarian aid that has been given to those who have had to feel their homes.
Let’s use these milestones we have accomplished as fuel to continue to work for peace in Darfur and the rest of our world.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A final victory is an accumulation of many short-term encounters. To lightly dismiss a success because it does not usher in complete order of justice is to fail to comprehend the process of achieving full victory.”
Working with you for peace,