Sacred Democracy-Glimmers of Empathy in the Shadows of History

by: Posted on: September 08, 2013

Editor’s Note: Damon’s fifth ‘Sacred Democracy’ column.


In previous columns, I’ve made—or at least argued—the case that the core value of a “living democracy” must be a pervasive attitude of unconditional amity. This would be true at the level of its citizens’ personal emotions and in the institutional infrastructure of the society itself, such as its laws, regulations and governmental policies. For a culture to be a democracy in anything but “name only,” it has to be dedicated to empathy for all.


We discover ourselves of late in the shadows of a pair of landmark events, both of which speak to our time as if the conscience of our checkered history were returning to haunt us. The first is the March on Washington, which took place on August 28, 1963, and the second is the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law by Lyndon Johnson on the sixth of August two years later. We were reminded of the March a few weeks ago, as many honored its 50th anniversary—and we were reminded of the Act on June 25, as the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to dismantle its provisions ensuring that no state could enact rules to intentionally deny its citizens the right to cast their ballots in the act of suffrage.

What perhaps those two milestones had most notably in common was the moral influence of Martin Luther King, who delivered his “I have a dream” speech at the earlier event, and who sat prominently beside LBJ at the latter. For me personally, however, the twin events were timely bookends to my own two-year odyssey into the mystery of racial injustice, as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa. The ’63 March took place a week before my departure for Ethiopia, and the ’65 Act became law a week before my return to the U.S. Dared I hope to believe that fairness had been realized in the two years I was gone?

The early years of the sixties were an eye-opening and heart-opening time for me. My literary explorations had led me from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the verse, fiction, and essays of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright and James Baldwin, then finally to that poignant jewel of expose journalism by John Howard Griffin, called Black Like Me. My political explorations led me to civil rights demonstrations in nearby Paterson and Hackensack, New Jersey, and even across the Hudson River in New York City. And finally my emotional explorations led me into a hopeless relationship with an African-American girl from Paterson—who foresaw that it was hopeless long before me.

Why I didn’t become a freedom rider instead of a PCV I really can’t say. Aside from the question of where I’d be of the most service, it must have seemed that I’d more readily know black people in Africa than in my own country. And while I’ve had many black friends in America since those long ago times, including fellow PCVs, there was more than a grain of truth to that sobering idea. I found more opportunity in Ethiopia than I’d ever had here to experience and express my heartfelt empathy across the racial divide.

Empathy, after all, was what the Peace Corps was all about. Again, aside from the services we’d all volunteered to bring to developing countries around the world, perhaps the more important goal was that we would forge friendships over there, and come home with the capacity to “feel into” the inner natures of people other than our own nationality, or locality, which in those years invariably meant people of other races. And who knows, perhaps we’d even be able to follow up on the efforts of the freedom riders and others, who paid such a high price to get that Voting Rights Act passed under LBJ’s leadership.

But by then he was up to his ears in Vietnam, which is another story, except that within just a year or two of my return, thousands of us returned PCVs had formed the Committee of Concerned Volunteers, in hopes of leveraging the influence we thought we had earned by our service toward an opposition to that unjust war. There was almost the feeling that the civil rights victory had been won, at least the hardest parts of it, and it was now the war that had to be opposed. Nor was it lost on us that it was being waged against a non-white enemy. “I ain’t got nothin’ against them Viet Congs,” said Muhammad Ali, hoping to exert his influence—just as empathy for our GIs was a hope we also harbored.

Well, we know that it took us ten more years to pull out of Saigon—and LBJ is remembered more for that war than for the historic act of empathy he signed into law in 1965, even as he was escalating our involvement. Maybe that’s why those five Supremes thought they could undo LBJ’s act, under the callous ruse that times have changed since then and that the nine (mostly southern) states the act covered have progressed in their empathy to such a level that legal restraints are no longer necessary to keep them from re-enacting prohibitive laws to keep people of color from the poles. Straight faces anyone?

While I was in Africa, the European powers were just releasing their hold on the colonies they’d artificially divvied up and were leaving in no shape to govern themselves. I saw up close how colonialism, racism, and corporatism worked hand in hand to bring profit to power at the expense of native populations, installing puppet leaders who were taught nothing of governance beyond institutional corruption. Later, I met RPCVs who’d served in Latin America and had the chance to witness U.S. imperial policy in our own hemisphere—as most of us were feasting on the fruits of those banana republics. Often the PCVs were the only Americans there who weren’t despised by the local inhabitants.

Americans were greatly admired in Africa, though, for reasons not unlike those of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his fellow anti-soviets in the Gulags, who saw us as paragons of democracy (till he was allowed to move to America). We were anti-imperialists to the Africans, and people lovingly welcomed a few of my friends and me as we hitched-hiked from East Africa to South Africa in the summer of ’64, just as LBJ was pushing his Gulf of Tonkin ploy through Congress. We crossed six or seven newly emerging countries along the way, observing bitter-sweetly the joys people found in their novel freedoms, knowing it was going to take more than nominal voting rights to forge viable nations.

What the Europeans’ colonial presence was leaving in their wake was a host of “countries” tribally skewed within arbitrary borders and no clue of what it meant to be a democracy. It was saddening to a point that made the appearance of civic order we found in South Africa seem almost preferable for its aura of stability. Mandela had been locked up for just a couple of years and was hardly a household name. The American tourists we met, hardened by Jim Crow laws back home, were charmed by its natural beauty and its European culture and amenities. The country’s non-whites, carefully catalogued from darkest to lightest, were kept fittingly out of sight by pass laws and curfews. But unlike other tourists, we’d been prepped in Ethiopia by (black) South African exiles, and spent our time among (white) enemies of the state, many of them banned from public activities.

The company of radicals we kept included novelist Alan Paton, Rand Daily Mail editor Allister Sparks, lone member of the Progressive Party in the national Parliament Helen Suzman, and numerous outlaws including the banned lawyer Rowley Arenstein and John Benjamin, husband of Pixie Benjamin, who was in prison in the eighth week of a hunger strike and would have a famous folk song written in her memory. Nonetheless, despite the heart-rending experience of knowing these and other white South Africans, whose capacity for empathy motivated them to risk—and in some cases to sacrifice—their life and limb on behalf of non-white countrymen, the most haunting experience I took away from my month in that afflicted “democracy,” was of a conversation I had with a pro-apartheid Afrikaner (one of only a handful we met) the day before we left.

When I asked this man, a wealthy farmer who was used to encountering agreeable Americans, how he could countenance the injustices being visited upon the millions of his fellow human beings, he looked at me as though he couldn’t believe his ears. “Fellow human beings?” he replied in his distinctively Boer accent. “The kaffirs are scarcely more human than the animals in our game parks! Primitive creatures, yet deeply grateful that we treat them as if they were human!” He then looked me soberly in the eye. “You must know that we take our signals from you Americans, who pioneered your heartland in the very same centuries as we did, with our wagons and our Bibles and our rifles, against our own hostile, godless natives. We brought civilization to our lands just as you did. And we intend to defend it just as you do, against the enemies of our civilized, white society.”

And now there’s been nearly half a century of shadowy history for all of us since that eventful summer, and the question of empathy is still very much up in the air—as is the question of democracy. Isn’t it interesting how the two are so closely bound together?

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