Making History Without Knowing It
ROSA PARKS ADMITTED THAT SHE WAS TIRED on that particular morning as she shuffled off to the bus stop and began a journey that was about to form part of the seminal beginning of the civil rights movement. As procedure demanded, she entered the front of the bus, paid for her ticket, then exited to the outside and re-entered through the back door to the black section. Realizing the white section was filled, the bus driver ordered Ms. Parks to give up her seat to a white passenger.
We all know what happened next and the movement her refusal helped to launch. Her own simple account of that day is still inspiring: “I had no idea history was being made. I was just tired of giving up.” That was 59 years ago this month (December 1, 1955), but in so many ways average citizens have felt that kind of despair that says enough is enough. It can’t be compared to what southern blacks endured in the 1950s, but it’s been real to many citizens in London just the same.
Londoners were tired of a politics that seemed to shift our priorities to the rear of city business. On the occasion of this last civic election they refused to give in again and settle for more of the same. The effects of thousands of individual acts of conscience were cumulatively transformative, at least in the moment. The change was clear when some 800 Londoners attended the swearing-in ceremony of the new mayor and council – an occasion that rarely drew 50 people in years previous. Perhaps without realizing it, citizens were determining that the best way to find a future was to create it – a remarkable moment in time.
Tired of the status quo, they began to imagine new ways to move forward. It was is if they suddenly reminded themselves that the purpose of politics wasn’t to win elections but to govern collaboratively, and in the process they gained a new lease on life.
They also came to understand that a jaded kind of politics was something in which they had played a part. Many of them were tired of it all and had just quietly moved off to concentrate on their own private lives. But it eventually became obvious that even their personal worlds were circumscribed by a politics that under-performed. Their sense of optimism felt increasingly hemmed in, and so many among them re-engaged.
Voting as they did, Londoners were, in effect, declaring that they weren’t going to give up their hopes to that same kind of stasis that said they should merely give over local government to others and just sit back. They decided they wanted to play a part. Yes, voter turnout was up only slightly, but those who did show up actually stood up, saying, like Parks, “we were just tired of giving up.”
This council’s being successful isn’t a sure thing. The challenges before them are imposing and there are years of status quo thinking to overcome. The risks are high. Council could be tempted to spend wildly beyond its means. On the other hand, it could fail to invest sufficient resources to give the city a new sense of being. A spirit of experimentation is in the air, a willingness to entertain the unexpected. Innovation can no longer be about tweaking a little bit here or there, but can only emerge when people who care for their city are welcomed to think freely and create. For that to occur, London has to build a culture of inventiveness and originality, regarding the odd failure as a valuable lesson that inevitably gets them closer to their purpose.
Democracy was never meant to be easy. Nor was it meant to be merely top-down. Citizens and their representatives must agree to a covenant that each will do her, or his, own part. It’s been some time since Londoners felt that way, but a couple of weeks ago things clearly took on a new tone. Citizens took their seats at the swearing-in and refused to yield them up. In remarkable fashion, they were taking their own collective oath to participate in the process – remarkable. They were there for what many hope to be the beginning of a movement. By growing tired of being tired, they, like Rosa Parks, placed a down payment on the future. Their time as Londoners has arrived and they will only succeed as they set a new direction, fulfill their covenant to one another, and derive the courage to become the heroes of their own story.