Every year in late May some 20,000-plus graduates old and new assemble on the bucolic campus of Princeton to renew old acquaintances, meet new grads, and remember why Princeton was so significant in shaping their lives. Part of that rich experience involves lively discussions of major issues of our times featuring both alumni and University faculty.
One such seminar was held Friday, May 20. In one of the largest lecture halls, McCosh 50, over a hundred of us heard a panel discuss the future of democracy in America. The discussion was chaired by distinguished history professor Julian E. Zelizer and included knowledgeable public servants, attorneys, activists, and journalists.
The animated discussion drew a breathtaking conclusion — to wit, the current situation is a crisis of major proportions going beyond the analysis so current today: the insoluble impasse between our two parties and major fractures in our democratic election systems.
Its seriousness, panelists contended, matched the political crisis of the 1850s. The panel was filled with exhaustive analysis. But the best solution they could suggest was make voting mandatory and reintroduce the study of civics in public school curriculum.
I was profoundly disappointed and wondered what my major professors back in the day, such as Eric Goldman (American history) and David Donald (19th century American history, scholar on the Civil War) would have said. What they taught me still inspires my civic and religious stewardship in the very present.
At the seminar I tried in vain to lift up to this troubled assembly my own personal answer. I believe the message from these keen observers in ages past lies not in singular votes or the makeup of political parties.
What can save our nation are movements which mobilize political action over the long haul. That was surely the case with abolition, labor unions, temperance, women’s suffrage and more recently civil rights as well as sexual equality.
As for me, an 82-year-old retired Methodist Clergy, I have joined the Poor People’s Campaign to address the crisis our nation faces and to truly build “a more perfect union.” I have diverted half of my church tithe to such movements and considerable volunteer time. I have even been arrested on two occasions working in this campaign.
This movement is the outgrowth of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream that we can combat the four fold problems of endemic poverty, white racism, a war economy, and ecological devastation.
This is a nationwide movement with vibrant organization in nearly every state —even Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. It reaches to local as well as national dimensions.
They are supporting our local efforts in Memphis to resist an underground pipeline through poor neighborhoods. Go to the website to check out our extensive white papers on all these issues. You can join a local group or support financially.
These are moral movements which span election cycles and have compelling narratives and ethical as well as spiritual claims — the stuff that changes and makes history. To me, more than any other strategy it addresses the keenest and most decisive issues of our times and most serious threat to our democracy in over 170 years.
Friendly wags on the periphery of faith communities remind us that prophet and saints are remembered while their holy messages most often ignored. That has been the case with Dr. King. But if he is indeed the moral prophet for our times, the Poor People’s Campaign is a movement response to the deeply worrying questions raised in McCosh 50 during our reunion.
Editor’s note: Fred Morton is retired Elder in United Methodist Church and native of Memphis, Tenn. He holds a A.B. degree in history from Princeton, a B.D. degree from Duke University, and an M.S. in psychology from Murray State (Ky.) University. He has served churches in Memphis as well as served as Campus Minister at Murray State. Currently he is involved with MICAH Memphis (Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope), where he serves as co-chair of the sub task group on courts and procedures