Tapping the spirit of the civil rights movement

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When Harry Boyte was 19, he single-handedly faced down the Ku Klux Klan. It must have been a confidence-building moment because, four decades later, he’s now ready to change the way we run the country.

Boyte, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship (www.publicwork.org) at the University of Minnesota and a resident of St. Anthony Park, is one of the organizers of the November 5 Coalition, a national group that hopes to remake the process of how Americans choose our leaders.

Named for the day after the 2008 presidential election, the coalition’s professed goal is nothing less than the transformation of U.S. politics from a “spectator sport” to a “new civic politics” that will renew our traditional Lincoln-esque ideal of government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

The coalition’s mission statement calls for an “all-partisan alliance” of both Democrats and Republicans that will restore American politics to a system “driven by the priorities of the people, not sound bites, special interest money, partisan gridlock, and polarizing rhetoric.”

Cynics might say that the banner of political reform is hoisted regularly every four years or so. Calls for an end to politics as usual are universal — especially around election time. What political candidate or group, however venal or intemperate in practice, has ever come out in favor of special interests and inflammatory rhetoric? So what distinguishes the November 5 Coalition, and how is it going to make itself heard above the political din?

Maybe the answer lies in the life experiences of Boyte himself. The 60-ish Boyte is a native southerner who spent his youth testing the strength of his civil rights ideals in the harsh proving grounds of the old segregationist Dixie. He credits his time in the civil rights movement as being the formative experience of his life, and he believes the nation is on the verge of another watershed moment like that long-ago struggle.

“I’m convinced we’re on the threshold of a new civic movement,” he says. “It’s driven by people’s despair in the face of privatization, gated communities and the erosion of social capital. There’s a multiplying set of global problems that nobody’s doing anything about.”

There may be problems aplenty, but Boyte has energy and appetite for the struggle. After all, how can voter apathy and political pettifoggery faze a man who spent his youth grappling with the likes of southern sheriffs and the Ku Klux Klan?

Boyte says his parents were effectively disowned by their extended families because of their integrationist leanings, but he himself didn’t take a personal stand until his senior year in high school. When he did, it derailed his immediate future and set him on an activist path that has led directly to his present work.

As a teenager, says Boyte, “I didn’t know any other white kids who favored integration.”

In 1963, the family was living in Greensboro, North Carolina. Boyte, a talented competitor in high school track, met a black runner of his own age, but because of segregation the two boys realized that they would not be able to compete against each other. After thinking it over, Boyte refused to compete in a state championship meet unless black athletes were allowed to participate as well.

Reaction was swift and personally devastating. “I lost a full scholarship to Harvard,” Boyte recalls. His high school principal, furious at young Harry’s stance, had blackballed him to several Ivy League college admission officers.

If Boyte was dismayed, he didn’t let himself be swayed from his course. He soon became one of the few white faces on the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

It was then that he had a memorable encounter with the Klan. During an integration campaign in Florida, the 19-year-old Harry found himself alone and surrounded by Klan members in a hospital parking lot. Dredging up the basest insults they could think of, the good old boys called him a Commie and Yankee.

Whereupon Harry showed his mettle as a community organizer. “I ain’t a Yankee,” he responded in his best Carolina drawl. “I’m a southern boy. And I’m not a Communist; I’m a populist. Poor whites and blacks should make common cause.”

Whether the Klansmen were beguiled by his accent or persuaded by his rhetoric is unknown, but the situation was defused. The segregationists and the civil rights worker began to talk.

Eventually, reports Boyte, “One old guy scratched his head and allowed as ‘There may be something in it. I ain’t a Christian; I’m a Hin-doo-ist, myself.’”

The encounter ended with handshakes all around, but Boyte saw the man he calls the “philosopher of the KKK” once more. The old man later took part in a tense Klan march through a black neighborhood. Boyte, who was standing with other civil rights workers on the sidelines, says, “I was the only white face on the sidewalk. The philosopher saw me in the crowd, smiled and waved.”

Working for the best-known southern civil rights organization gave Boyte a ringside seat for some of the major events of the 1960s. It also taught him some unforgettable lessons on how to succeed in the great arena of American social activism.

“You need to ground organizing for social change in the richness of American tradition,” he says. “All great organizing stories are tied to the capacity to frame issues with deep majoritarian resonances.”

Fashionable alienation, in other words, may go down well in the hothouse environment of radical campus politics, but it does nothing to convince average American voters that you have the answers to their troubles. Nor does it help to belittle or ignore America’s cultural roots in the name of social change.

Those are lessons that modern activists and others need to remember, according to Boyte.

“There’s been a detachment of professionals from the community,” he says, citing what he calls a shift from “civic-centered professionals” to “disciplinary-centered professionals.”

He regrets the disappearance of men like Hubert Humphrey’s father from public life. According to Boyte, the future DFL leader learned politics by observing his father, a small-town druggist who ran an impromptu, lifelong civics seminar from behind the counter at his drugstore. Community-based professional men like the senior Humphrey, says Boyte, have given way to nomadic lawyers, doctors and other experts who look to the audience of their colleagues for their validation.

Is it any wonder that Americans have grown disenchanted with professionals in general?

“There’s been a loss of faith in technocracy,” says Boyte, adding that activist groups like the November 5 Coalition need “experts, but they should be only part of the mix.” He quotes a saying that describes his ideal: “Experts on tap, but not on top.”

Citizen control and person-in-the-street involvement are vital to any social movement, says Boyte. But how can an organization that is a model of the democratic process compete successfully against a tightly focused, highly disciplined hierarchy of special interests?

Boyte cites a list of civic victories by ordinary people, everything from environmental preservation in Seattle to neighborhood learning centers that are being set up in St. Paul with the support of the current Coleman administration.

And he remembers his past. He’s rarely discouraged.

“I grew up in the segregated South. Everybody I knew — black and white — was absolutely convinced that that world would never change. I saw that fatalism dissolve over the years.”

In those days, ordinary people created extraordinary change. Harry Boyte is betting it can happen again.