The civil rights movement in the US is a testament to the fact that nations can and do change to correct injustice. Change also occurred in South Africa to correct the horrible system of apartheid—which was actually more similar than dissimilar to the situation that existed in the South at the time Civil Rights Journey begins. It happened in Eastern Europe with fall of Communism. It is happening now in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.
The question is not so much can a nation change but how, and the kind of new order that replaces the old order. The early Communist movement was viewed by its followers as a positive change to address the horrible working conditions and economic and class disparities that were prevalent at the time. The outcome of that change turned out to be in many respects worse than the injustices it tried to address. Often violence and bloodshed are associated with change as was the case in our own Civil War and in many countries where dictators and oppressive governments have been overthrown.
One of the most important legacies of the civil rights movement in the US is that with relatively little bloodshed our country was able to change the laws that enslaved many African Americans and to diminish (but regrettably not eliminate) the culture of racism. Yes, lives were lost, and many people were harmed; but it could have been a lot worse. The reason it was not a lot worse was due in large part to the principle of non violence, which was at the heart of the civil rights movement . The non violent aspect of the movement was one of the main reasons Embry and I were motivated to head down to Southwest Georgia in 1966. That non-violence was being questioned by some in SNCC and, at the time, was both disconcerting and frightening to us and is one of the themes in my book.
So how do you bring about change to correct injustice in a non-violent way? How do you avoid the collateral damage that is so often associated with change? Strong leadership is part of the answer–and we had that in the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr, John Lewis and others as described in Civil Rights Journey. But it often takes more than that. It takes a lot of people –ordinary people—joining a movement and doing small things to make a difference. These things begin to add up and tip the balance. But there is always the risk that the movement could get out of hand and turn in a wrong direction. That is the risk of trying to bring about change for the better.