February was established as Black History Month in 1976 to recognize and celebrate the central role of African Americans in U.S. history, and was chosen in honor of the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Fittingly, twenty-five years later, this month has been marked by the spreading democracy movements in the Middle East and North Africa, from Egypt, to Tunisia, to Libya. Core to the significance of this parallel is the fundamental belief that true democracy evolves only when marginalized communities participate and have voice, mostly by demand.
Common to both, unfortunately, is also the use of violence to suppress the movements – from water hoses, attack dogs, and the deployment of the National Guard to prevent nine Black students from integrating a high school, to tear gas, rubber and real bullets, and the use of foreign mercenaries to quash peaceful protests –stemming from the fear of the loss of power and of uncertainty. As leaders appeal to the fear in attempts to justify their actions, we must remember that—while there may be great unrest as societies transition towards greater democracy—that the disenfranchised, by that time, have already suffered through the violence of poverty, lynchings, disappearings, and politically-motivated imprisonments. And that democracies at any stage of formation and development thrive and sustain themselves best when they are inclusive and actively engage those who have the least political and economic capital.
Furthermore, we must take heart in the hope and empowerment expressed by the movements, especially as they resonate and spread through the planned organizing and more grassroots calls to action. As more people and communities across countries in the region join in the demands for greater accountability from their leaders and voice for all members of society, we are constantly reminded that our own democracy is still a work in progress, and that it is only made possible through the courage and determination of our predecessors who sat and stood boldly in the face of open hostility and wrath.
Ultimately, to really honor and celebrate the democratic movements of past, present and future, we must continue to engage and advocate on behalf of all people through civil discourse and action. “Civil” does not mean or imply passivity, consensus, or compliance, but applied with intentionality means respect and realism around differences, deliberate involvement, and recognition of and adherence to the rights of each individual. From civil discourse and action come true understanding and solidarity around common values, the roots of democracies.
Tides proudly focuses on civil discourse and racial justice in our work, and we invite you to join us in celebrating Black History Month, and join the conversation in Tides’ National Dialogue on Tolerance.