On May 8, 2011 Mary King delivered the keynote address at the commencement ceremony for the Ohio Wesleyan University Class of 2011. Mary’s address reminded the audience of the power they have to help bring about concrete change in the world, as she did after being graduated from OWU in 1962. Mary went on to encourage the graduating class to bring meaning to their lives by making a difference in the world. Selected excerpts of Mary’s address are included below; you can watch and listen to the address in its entirety online.
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I left Ohio Wesleyan from the very position that you are in today, to join the civil rights movement. It was thanks to Miriam Willey and B. A. Jones that I was able to make my way into the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced snick). No yellow-pages listing said phone here to put yourself on the line. I needed the help of these two fine Ohio Wesleyan educators to make this transition to SNCC, which has recently been called by historian Peniel Joseph the most significant organization in post-World War II America. My experiences working at the heart of this epochal movement more than any others define my life.
In Atlanta and Mississippi, my job was to tell the stories that southern white news media and editors routinely ignored. To them, deaths of black people or atrocities against them were not deemed newsworthy. Working with Julian Bond in a tiny office, with one manual typewriter and telephone apiece, we built an alternative media system to break the news. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. Getting a reporter to a jail, or covering an arrest, could save lives—including our own.
We used the most advanced technological methods available, but we had nearly nothing in print to teach us how to use nonviolent methods to fight for equal rights. Several professionals, who had spent time in India with participants in the independence struggles on the sub-continent, returned to the United States with personal knowledge and Gandhi’s writings. Bringing tangible wisdom from East to West, they shared it by word of mouth in hundreds of workshops or mass meetings in churches. Today, it is much easier to learn nonviolent civil resistance. The works of the scholar Gene Sharp have been translated into nearly forty languages.
Numerous human rights now considered “universal” had first to be fought for through nonviolent struggles. Only later were they codified. In the 20th century, people’s movements secured basic human rights for much of the world’s population, through women’s suffrage, anti-colonial, civil rights, and democracy movements that intentionally rejected the use of violence as the means to an end.
This form of struggle was used to obtain collective bargaining and the right of laborers to organize. Without it we might still have a 7-day work week. It enabled people to defy foreign occupations and coups d’état, and to resist genocide. Most of Denmark’s Jews were saved from death by the Nazis because of a national nonviolent mobilization, in which the entire society united as one. Ordinary persons have changed their societies through action methods deliberately chosen because they do not accomplish their goals through harm, injury, or threat of physical assault. Often with meager resources, relying on themselves, they were able to make their situation more just without creating new forms of oppression.
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The frequency with which citizen groups turn to civil resistance is increasing, and our comprehension of how it is effective is accelerating. The fact that basic works and case studies by foremost scholars and theoreticians are available for download in dozens of languages partly explains the success of recent democracy movements North Africa and the Mid-East.
When the elections, political parties, parliamentary action, or even lobbying and interest groups of institutionalized politics fail, people can exercise their inherent political power through nonviolent collective actions. Now, for the first time, violent resistance as the world’s automatic, default method for challenging grievances and rights-based struggles in the 21st century has a chance to be eclipsed by strategic employment of nonviolent action. It can be a practical substitute for armed struggle and guerrilla warfare, utilized in place of violent strategies, including civil war, rioting, terrorism, and conventional warfare. Your analytical skills let you understand how important these developments are.
Empirical evidence and hard data now show that countries that experience bottom-up, grass-roots nonviolent struggle are more likely to sustain human rights and democracy once established than when violence has been used. Scholars have shown that nonviolent movements succeed more often than violent insurrections.
Perhaps the most remarkable transnational movement of the modern age was the women’s suffrage movement in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Yet more remained to be done. In the 1960s, I was a co-author, along with Casey Hayden, of a document called “Sex and Caste,” which arose from discussions among women working in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. Movements often morph, shifting their targets from one issue to another as they succeed. Be prepared for transformation! Historians now believe that second-wave feminism was sparked by our “Sex and Caste.” Calling it second-wave feminism is a tribute, honoring an earlier wave of women’s rights action.
One secret to gratification in life is to choose something much larger than you yourself in which to be involved, either full time or as a volunteer. Every Returned Peace Corps Volunteer I’ve met has told me that he or she gained more from their two years of service than they were able to give. Some fields and professions are highly fulfilling and enriching in a similar way. Over the years, teachers have said to me that they wished there was a civil rights movement that they could join, because they would like some form of activism. Don’t you realize, I respond, teaching is a form of activism!
Cast your eyes across the world stage. Women’s rights is becoming a central moral issue of the twenty-first century. Gender affects virtually all of human life. Over thirty years, the study of gender has emerged as a critical requirement for building peace. It is now widely understood that the socialization of men and women is crucial to the building of more peaceable societies.
The evidence is solid that the education and status of women stabilizes and uplifts the whole of societies — for men, children, and women. Uplift of women and their increased participation in public policy is now perceived as fundamental to economic growth, health status, reducing poverty, sustaining the environment, and consolidating democracy in societies long bowed down by authoritarianism and tyranny. The data are irrefutable.
Yet formidable social and cultural factors prevent policies and action based on scientific evidence of wide-ranging benefits for everyone from educating women and girls. Perhaps you can be instrumental in working on this. Both men and women are tackling these issues in Africa. Colleagues of mine in the University for Peace and its Africa Programme are leading the way. They never forget that approximately 1.5 billion women and girls in the world have no rights: they are sold into marriage, in forced marriages, surgically mutilated, and experience many forms of violence, some of it involving systematic trafficking.
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