College students from across the country assembled for a national Conference on Religion and Race in Washington, DC, in November 1963. Three of us from the University of South Florida were among them, the presidents of the campus Hillel and Wesley foundations and me, editor of the campus newspaper. We bunked at the Peace Corps headquarters in Chevy Chase, where we also gathered for small group strategy discussions and plenary sessions. We were there to make our voices heard by visiting our Congressional representatives and urging them to vote for pending civil rights legislation.
As we left USF in Tampa, we joked among our close friends that while the president was on the road in Dallas, we were heading to Washington to run the country while he was away. Someone has to do it, we said, laughing. Some joke.
The Civil Rights Law passed the following year. The extent to which our youthful voices influenced that positive result won’t truly be known, but I’m grateful that my voice was among them at this important moment in our country’s history.
We returned from Washington to the news of our president’s assassination, a tragic reality that dominated our thinking, eclipsing fresh memories of what we’d accomplished in Washington. But some important life lessons I learned there remain with me still. Politics, I learned, is about the pursuit of power, the power to control the lives of other people. That’s real power, and we all know what happens when it’s abused. I also learned that one voice can change a mind and influence a vote. That’s real power, too.
Last night, 300 concerned North Carolinians packed the gallery and raised their voices in protest at our state’s legislative building as Republican legislators rushed through bills that would severely curtail the power of our newly elected governor, a Democrat. The people in the gallery made their voices heard, and for that, 20 of them, several of whom are my friends and members of my church, were arrested.
Speaking up takes courage. I’m proud of these courageous friends and of my experience as a student in 1963. Unless we make our voices heard, by our silence we are consenting to the abuse of power.