“[Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.” John Lewis
Democracy is not a state. It is an act.
On Tuesday, Georgia, an anchor of the Confederacy and the place where the lynching of a Jewish man led to the formation of the Anti-Defamation League, elected a Jewish Senator and its first Black Senator since Reconstruction with record-setting voting by both parties. Yesterday, Congress gathered to do its Constitutional duty to affirm the results of November’s presidential election. At the same time, the President incited a mob to storm the Capitol, endangering the lives of the Vice President, Congressional leaders, and police and staff, and sending shockwaves around the world as we watched insurrection on our television screens.
Yesterday was a testimony to the fragility and vulnerability of our democracy. It was a reminder that evil can indeed triumph when good people remain silent. And it was yet another undeniable snapshot of the disparate realities facing white and Black Americans.
It was impossible to watch yesterday’s assault on the Capitol and not be struck by the contrast between the white rioters seeking to overthrow the election, who were allowed safe access to the seat of government, and Black marchers protesting racial injustice, who were tear gassed and violently dispersed a few blocks away this summer. Some of yesterday’s rioters carried Confederate flags through the Capitol building, a noose was set up on the Mall, and a new Congresswoman cited Hitler favorably in a speech leading up to the riots.
Many leaders have responded to yesterday’s attacks by saying that “This is not who we are.” However, as Senator Mitt Romney said yesterday, the burden and duty of leadership is to tell the truth. And the truth is that Georgia’s racial progress and the Capitol riots are both “who we are.” No matter our political party, we should rightly celebrate evidence of progress and accomplishment, and we also need to be honest about the continued presence and legacy of racism and white supremacy in our culture and institutions. We need to celebrate the voter engagement by both parties in Georgia, and we need to condemn attempts to overturn a free and fair election that has been litigated without any evidence of widespread fraud.
I am glad to be partnering with you as we move into 2021, to build stronger, more equitable communities across the state, where all Rhode Islanders can thrive. Our mission is more critical than ever. And in this moment, we need to recognize that our work, and our voices, are needed now more than ever. As John Lewis said, “It is not enough to say it will get better by and by… Each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out.”
Philanthropy needs to be thoughtful and strategic in our response to our current reality, using both our financial resources, and our influence and voice to address the injustice in our communities, and to empower positive civic engagement so that grassroots organizations and the communities they serve can develop solutions to their own challenges. We also need to think through ways to resource and support leaders of color and the communities they serve. The positive change we witnessed in Georgia this week was the result of decades of community engagement by grassroots leaders. We have so many strong leaders of color in Rhode Island, who are, in John Lewis’ words, “ordinary people with extraordinary vision [who] can redeem the soul of America.” We need to support them.
Next week, we will be having our monthly Funder Briefing on Tuesday at 10am. Later in the month, we will be resuming our Racial Equity Catalyst Group (if you have not already completed the Racial Equity Catalyst Group programming survey, please fill it out here) and will be having a timely session on civic engagement and community mobilization with local leaders and national funders.
Please let me know if there are other ways that GCRI can be a resource to you as you move forward.
When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide. John Lewis