To celebrate the paperback release of Parker Palmer’s book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, we’d like to share a story from the book’s new Introduction. This is the first time Parker tells this story in print. It’s about forgiveness and hope.
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In March 2011, shortly after I sent the final draft of this book to the publisher, I had an experience that brought to life much of what I had written about. I participated in the annual three-day Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage sponsored by the Faith & Politics Institute in Washington, D.C., and led by Congressman John Lewis. The pilgrimage began in Birmingham, Alabama, moved on to Montgomery, and ended in Selma, where we marked the forty-sixth anniversary of Bloody Sunday, a pivotal event in American political history.
On Sunday, March 7, 1965, six hundred nonviolent protesters, many of them young, gathered at the foot of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin a fifty-mile march to the Alabama State Capital in Montgomery, a protest against the ongoing exclusion of African Americans from the electoral process.
When they reached the other side of the bridge, the marchers were brutalized by state and local police, mounted and on foot, with billy clubs and tear gas. This atrocity, witnessed on television by millions of Americans, scandalized the nation. It also generated enough political momentum in Congress that President Lyndon Johnson was able to sign a Voting Rights Act into law five months after the march.
The 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge was led by John Lewis, then twenty-five years old and chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. As leader, he was one of the first to be beaten by the police, who fractured his skull and left marks he bears to this day.
It left another kind of mark on me in March 2011 to follow the seventy-one-year-old John Lewis–U.S. Representative from Georgia’s 5th Congressional District since 1987, and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom–across the bridge where forty-six years earlier he had led others in a courageous exercise of people power.
During the three days of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, I was reminded time and again of themes that are key to this book:
- the centrality of the “habits of the heart” that we develop in the local venues of our lives;
- the patience it takes to stay engaged in small, often invisible ways with the American experiment in democracy;
- the importance of faithfully holding the tension between what is and what might be, and
- creating the kind of tension that might arouse “the better angels of our nature.”
The twenty-five-year-old John Lewis and his age-mates in the Civil Rights movement were the descendants of generations of people who had suffered the worst America has to offer, but had not given up on the vision of freedom, justice, and equality that represents this county at its best. Those people nurtured that vision in their children and grandchildren at home, in the neighborhood, in classrooms, and especially in churches, creating a steady multi-generational stream of “underground” activity that was largely invisible to white Americans until it rose up to claim our attention in the 1950s and 1960s.
With the exception of such places as the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, every stop we made on the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage was at a church–the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, and the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma–where we heard sermons, sang songs, and felt history.
Through study, practice, and prayer, civil rights activists had prepared for action in places like these. And when those actions brought the wrath of the politicians and police down upon their heads, the activists returned to these places to heal, regroup, and act again.
The few white Americans who were aware of the black church prior to the Civil Rights movement generally discounted its political relevance. As a boy growing up in an affluent white suburb of Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s, I remember being told by a white clergyperson that African American religion was all about “pie in the sky when you die by-and-by,” a phrase used by capitalists who were unconsciously and ironically parroting Marx’s notion of “religion as the opiate of the people.”
“Pie-in-the-sky” was a racist, dismissive, and profoundly ignorant characterization of the role of the black churches in the United States. In fact, these churches birthed a form of social activism that eventually transformed the lay and the law of the land. Like the tiny church I wrote about in Chapter II of this book, these churches had long been helping oppressed people develop habits of the heart that empowered them to become participants in the democratic process.
At the end of the Pilgrimage, after we had marched across the bridge, we boarded a bus to take us to the Montgomery Airport for the flight home.
By happenstance, I sat just behind John Lewis and one of his staffers where I overheard Lewis telling a story.
In 1961, he and a friend were at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when several young white men attacked and beat them bloody with baseball bats. Lewis and his friend “did not fight back, and they declined to press charges.” They simply treated their wounds and went on with their Civil Rights work.
In 2009, forty-eight years after this event, a white man about John Lewis’s age walked into his office on Capitol Hill, accompanied by his middle-aged son. “Mr. Lewis,” he said, “my name is Elwin Wilson. I’m one of the men who beat you in that bus station back in 1961. I want to atone for the terrible thing I did, so I’ve come to seek your forgiveness. Will you forgive me?”
Lewis said, “I forgave him, we embraced, he and his son and I wept, and then we talked.”
As Lewis came to the end of this remarkable and moving story, he leaned back in his seat on the bus. He gazed out the window for a while as we passed through a countryside that was once a killing ground for the Ku Klux Klan, of which Elwin Wilson had been a member.
Then, in a very soft voice–as if speaking to himself about the story he had just told and all of the memories that must have been moving in him–Lewis said, “People can change . . . People can change . . .”
At that moment, I felt as if I had seen deep into the soul of a true “healer of the heart of democracy.” I saw the faith in our shared humanity that has kept John Lewis on the march for all these years, despite the abundant evidence that we are capable of being unloving, untruthful, and unjust.
I thought of this good man again on June 25, 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that Lewis had helped make possible with his own blood, sweat, and tears.
As I say in the Prelude to this book, “The democratic experiment is endless, unless we blow up the lab, and the explosives to do the job are found within us. But so also is the heart’s alchemy that can turn suffering into community, conflict into the energy of creativity, and tension into an opening toward the common good.”
When I heard John Lewis say, “People can change… People can change…,” I felt a sense of hope, not simply for “them” but for me.
The belief that change is possible–personal as well as social change–can keep us engaged with this endless experiment for the long haul, doing whatever we can to help democracy not only survive but thrive.
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(1) a chapter-length Introduction with Parker’s latest thoughts, from which the story above is taken;
(2) a detailed Discussion Guide with links to videos related to key topics in the book.
Watch videos of Parker J. Palmer and singer Carrie Newcomer in the online discussion guide.
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