On the surface, this may seem a foolish question. “Of course they are” some would say. We hear them all the time on the campaign trails, in the media and on the floor of Congress calling for change, calling for progress. They regularly proclaim that we, the public, must contribute to them, vote for them and support them in order to achieve change. Each political party assures us that it has the answer.
But history tells a very different story. As recently as the past presidential administration and the current one, each of the two major parties have had respective control of Congress and the White House – yet neither party in control accomplished anything meaningful in the way of equality.
In fact -– if you look further back in history, you will see that all major progress in the way of gender and racial equality have catalyzed from the efforts of private citizens rather than politicians.
Susan B. Anthony is best known for her achievements in obtaining women’s right to vote, but she actually started working for racial equality at the age of 17 by collecting anti-slavery petitions. In 1856 she became the American Anti-Slavery Society’s state agent for New York. In addition to her many efforts to achieve racial equality for members of society, Susan B. Anthony played a major role in women’s suffrage and the passing of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which gave women the right to vote. Could Congress have passed such an amendment without her efforts? Yes, but as is almost always the case, politicians were not leading but following.
Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were not politicians either. In fact they were each at a much greater disadvantage to achieve change than any politicians of their times. Regardless, they and many other private citizens worked to bring about equality and progress. Harriet Tubman not only worked to abolish slavery, she was later very active in the women’s suffrage movement. After Rosa Parks boarded bus No. 2857 in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, she received death threats for her efforts to achieve racial equality. Still, in 1999 Congress gave her the Congressional Gold Medal which bore the legend “Mother of the Modern Day Civil Rights Movement”. Those political leaders were acknowledging that she had led the way rather than they. Dr. King was a number of things in his lifetime, but not an elected politician. Yet, his efforts changed the direction of our country. State and national politicians could have acted at any time, and they eventually did, but only in response to his and others’ efforts. It is notable that of all the national holidays authorized by federal law (5 U.S.C. 6103), only one recognizes a politician (President George Washington). The only other persons recognized with a national holiday are Dr. King and Christopher Columbus.
So in these days of division – division that often is caused by politicians – it is worthwhile to ask where we place our hope and trust. Is it in people seeking to obtain or hold on to political power? Or is it in each other? Our family, friends, coworkers and neighbors?