Keep Your Eyes On The Prize

No, this isn’t another Springsteen post, although it is informed by my total saturation in his latest album, a collection of old folk songs.

I have despaired lately about my ability to help our community make real change. As an organizer, can I really accomplish anything? Change seems impossible. The powers that be are on the march and we’re just a terribly worn down speed bump. I read a piece like Sean Kirst’s piece on his blog The rain, raw sewage and the lake and I feel like someone punched me in the gut. In a few sentences Sean points out that our campaign to stop the County from ruining our neighborhood with a raw sewage treatment plant at Midland Ave. has been irretrievably lost.

Not only that, he uses the supportive language for our plan for underground storage that we begged the media to use for over five years. AAAGH! Why now? What good now does it for the paper to say ” it made me think about how nice it would have been, just once, if we had done things in the way of so many progressive communities – and solved the problem up front, in its entirety, and not left the final answer to our children.”

Of course, it’s not the Post Standard or Sean’s fault. I’m not mad at them. I’m mad at myself for caring so much. Why have I chosen a profession that takes up most of my waking hours with worry, rage and angst? Why can’t the good folks win once in awhile? Pondering these questions while listening to Bruce’s latest album gave me a partial answer. The title of this post refers to the gospel song that was later adapted as a freedom song by the civil rights movement. The lyric that races around my mind lately:

“I’ve got my hand on the gospel plow/won’t take nothin’ for my journey now
Keep your eyes on the prize/hold on.”

The song both embarrasses me and gives me great comfort. No one ever said that changing the world was going to be easy. No one guaranteed success. The good guys (in the Californian gender-free sense) often lose. How you respond to this knowledge dictates your ability to continue in the fight. Baby boomers such as myself (and later generations as well, I guess) are particularly prone to these demons. The world has revolved around our desires and wishes for so long that we naturally assume that state of affairs will follow us into our chosen careers–even the world changing biz.

Prior generations understood that change may be imperceptible and may never be witnessed by those currently struggling. The cumulative struggle of generations may finally lead to the tipping point where rapid and final change may occur, like the drops of water wearing away the stone. However, individuals are largely single revolutionary digits, contributing their labor to something they cannot control. Spirituals and folk songs spoke to that understanding and gave support and strength to those in the fight. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it in his final speech I’ve Been To The Mountaintop:

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! ”

Great victories are long, complicated events. Civil War Reconstruction ended in 1878 and the great Civil Rights Acts weren’t signed until 1964-65. Many thousands of activists struggled, suffered and died for African-American freedom during that time. The Soviet Union lasted from 1917 until 1989, dissidents and activists in many countries labored for the freedom eventually gained by forces such as Solidarity and Charter ’77. The recent verdict in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld by the U.S. Supreme Court validated the 60 year old arguments made by dissenters to the execution of Japanese war criminals at the end of World War 2. The author of the Hamdan decision, Justice John Paul Stevens, was a law clerk to original dissenter Justice Wiley Rutledge.

I’m not trying to conflate the small struggles that I am involved in on the city’s Southside with the great people’s struggles of the past century. I’m merely trying to point out that struggles for peace, justice and freedom are necessarily complex things. Whether fought on the grand stages of history or on Midland Ave., patience, faith and endurance are indispensible. I may be learning a hard lesson in this throw away culture, but it is a valuable lesson nonetheless.

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