I would also say at the outset of my remarks, it's a little intimidating to be in a room with this much brainpower and this many degrees. I don't consider myself an academic at all; I consider myself a practitioner, so please couch my remarks as one who works in the fields of imagining America and placemaking. And, in that vein, I want to lay a few things on the table, and then open it up for a bit of Q & A.
One section of my remarks will be about stories from the past, primarily the civil rights movement, that I think illustrate lessons that we can take in how we use story to bring action about, and then a few stories from the development of the Center itself, which illustrate similar points.
But I want to start with my own story that happened just a few months ago. I was giving a speech and, at the end, we had a Q & A, and there was a woman sitting right in the front row, and she was maybe mid-30s.
And she raised her hand, and she said, "I grew up hearing the stories of the civil rights movement, and they were so important to me because my parents had marched. They had been there, and they're really a part of who I am. And my children are now 15 and 12, and I can't get them to care. How do I get them to care about these stories? Because I wasn't there; I can't have the same sort of storytelling that my parents did."
I waited a beat, and I said, "Have you ever heard of Moses?" and she said, "Yeah, of course."
I said, "Did you ever meet Moses?"
Everybody loves this. I said, "Well, how in the world did you know about Moses?" She said, "Well, I've heard the stories of Moses."
I said, "That's exactly the point, and not just the story of Moses, but if you think about the story of Moses for a minute, is there any storytelling device that is not in the story of Moses?"
It's the perfect story in many ways. It should not be a surprise that the story of Moses lives on. Charlton Heston was able to make a movie about it without changing much of the script.
So, let me illustrate three stories from the civil rights era that I think have some insights on this topic.
One is a famous phrase that you may have heard about the city in which we are standing, Atlanta. For those of you from Atlanta, what's the most famous phrase in Atlanta? Atlanta is the city that is . . .
There's actually something much more interesting about the story. In 1946, a guy named Primus King—he was an African American preacher from south Georgia—sued for African Americans to be able to vote in the Democratic primary in Georgia. And why was it important to vote in the Democratic primary in Georgia? Because the Democrats controlled everything. Whoever won the Democratic primary won the election. No Republicans were in office.
He sued. He happened to get a lawyer who was pretty good, named Thurgood Marshall, [audience laughs] to come down to Georgia to argue the case for him, and he won. African Americans got the right to vote in the Democratic primary in Georgia in 1946.
Now, this didn't have an impact on state elections—there weren't enough African Americans—but it did have an impact on the city of Atlanta. In fact, it created a unique coalition in which African Americans and liberal whites elect the mayor of Atlanta. Mayor Hartsfield had been mayor when this decision came down and immediately understood where the coalition was that would allow him to win, and he coins the phrase "the city too busy to hate" not only as a marketing device, but as a political coalition device.
He actually was trying to signal that he's progressive. He's actually trying to imagine an Atlanta that's not yet to come, and he actually is empowering voters to put him in office with a certain kind of mandate. The notion of "the city too busy to hate" is actually trying to speak into existence and is trying to empower the power that will allow him to bring it about.
Now, of course, the city wasn't too busy to hate. There was plenty of hate in Atlanta. However, this also became a bludgeoning stick against segregationists in the city, because people started to use it with one another.
Well, if we're the city too busy to hate, that means we can't do X. We must do Y. We must find a way to peacefully get through this. We must do these things if we believe that.
And this phrase, though it is worthy of skeptical snickering, actually is a quite powerful grounding tool during the civil rights movement. And so, I think the key notion from this is that even a phrase that may not be true and may be fairly flip, if correctly played with some backing, can actually have quite an impact.
The second is a song from the era. There are lots of freedom songs. We know lots of freedom songs. I almost had Ted come up here and start singing, but I can't sing.
Complete the phrase: Ain't gonna let nobody . . .
Well, one, because it does have the elements of physical marching, of the physicality of the movement itself. "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around. Gonna keep on walking. Gonna keep on marching."
But, two—and most interestingly to me on this point—is that the song was changed by the protestors over time to reflect either current victories or exactly the moment they were facing.
It actually became a mantra that was used in real time by the protestors to fortify themselves and to declare where they were, and they changed it at every moment to either signal where they were going or exactly the victory they had just achieved. The story of that song has not only legacy, but it has real-time impact, and it is one that continued throughout the movement.
The third story to illustrate the point is the "I Have a Dream" speech, but not the half that everybody knows. My favorite part of the "I Have a Dream" speech is the first half, everything before "I have a dream," and the reason is because King does something that is so intellectually powerful that it's missed by most people.
Gary Wills talks about this a little bit in his book about Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
When Lincoln goes to Gettysburg, he says, in essence, "Slavery must end because all men are created equal."
Now, why does Lincoln have to reach back to the Declaration of Independence? Because the Constitution's not a good place to look for ending slavery at the time. Slavery is plenty protected by the Constitution. Lincoln has to reach back to the most fundamental argument he can make, that the founding of the country has this aspiration that we, of course, know is not true and is exclusionary. But he reaches back to the foundation argument that says, "If you believe that, then slavery must end."
Where does King make the "I Have a Dream" speech from? The steps of the Lincoln Memorial. What does he start with? All men are created equal, and all we are asking is that our rights are honored. When we came to cash our check as citizens, it came back marked "insufficient funds."
King does two things in this story. One, he makes the most fundamental argument he can make. He's not making a civil rights argument. He's not making a Constitutional argument. He's making a fundamental American argument. If you believe in America, we have to get rights. White people watching that could nod their head up and down in 1963.
He also uses a very common touch in the story. We got a check. We're citizens. We went to the bank. It came back marked "insufficient funds."
You don't have to be a scholar to get it.
It is worth knowing that sometimes the most powerful stories are simply the images that are brought to bear.
Now, three quick stories from the development of the Center. Some of you may or may not be surprised that someone who looks like me is the CEO for the Center for Civil and Human Rights. Rounding to the nearest 1,000, how many times do you think I've been asked [audience laughs] how does a white guy get to be a CEO of the Center for Civil and Human Rights?
When I first came to the job, I was 33 years old and, as Shirley Franklin, the mayor of Atlanta, likes to remind me, nobody knew who I was. And I had 125 individual or small-group meetings with people when I first got the job, in order to explore the idea of the Center for Civil and Human Rights. And in those conversations, I quickly realized that my personal narrative was going to make or break whether or not I could have relationships with people.
"Why you?" was what was on everybody's mind.
It's a fair question, and I quickly understood that there were a few things that made that match work. One I mentioned earlier. I would sit down with a civil rights leader, someone who had been in the movement, someone who was a self-professed member of the street committee, and they would say, "Who are your people?"
And I would say, "Well, my father was a preacher."
"Oh, you're a preacher's kid?" That changed everything. I'm not a businessman anymore. I'm not somebody who went to Harvard. I'm a preacher's kid. So were they, or they were a preacher. It changed the entire dynamic of the meeting.
The second thing that would happen is I would get the civil rights quiz.
OK. And I would always ask them: "What is your greatest fear?" And they said, "That we will be forgotten. That our grandchildren won't care."
And I would say, "I am your grandchild. I am the bridge between you and your grandchildren. I was born in 1973. This is not my story. I am the swing guy. I translate." And that notion of me being a bridge worked, and it allowed us to build trust.
They would tell me their stories, and then I would be the one to carry them into fruition in a new institution. And it took me about six months to figure out how this would work efficiently in a conversation, but it was so crucial. The lesson is that as we do this work, who we are, who our people are, and what it is that you're going to do is vital. And we may not like the fact that we have to pass tests and that we have to have these conversations, but, once we do, the intimacy that is created will allow us to do the work together.
Second story: Mayor Shirley Franklin, who was the mayor at the time and is still the board chair, played a crucial role on two very important questions.
One, there was some resistance to linking civil and human rights in one institution. There was a fear that we would whitewash the civil rights history. There was a fear that we would not cover human rights in depth. There was a fear that we would make it too Disney. There were all of these questions that were asked, and Shirley used one story that illustrated something so perfectly, I use it all the time still.
She told the story of having asked mayors around the country for advice, and that the mayor of Denver at the time had told her that she would face a lot of crises, a lot of fires that she had to put out, a lot of things that would come up unexpectedly, but that she should carve out time to work on a few initiatives that would be for 50 years in the future. And, she should think about them as lasting 50 years or more, because that framework would help her make decisions in a certain way.
She would tell this story at almost every gathering early on in the development of the Center, because it did a few things very quickly. One, it said, "This is not about the icons; it's about the icons' grandchildren."
Two, it said, "It's not only about history, but its application to the future."
Three, it said, "The way we tell the story has to take into account technology. It can't just be traditional."
It was, basically, setting the stage for everything we would do without having to say it, because she simply said, "We're building it for 50 years from now, and that's my commitment that I'm making."
The other great moment that came is that the land that the Center lives on was owned by Coca-Cola, and it was offered to be donated, and there was a backlash. The community said, "I'm not sure that we want it there. Shouldn't it be at the Morehouse/Spelman campus? Shouldn't it be on Auburn Avenue near the King Center? Shouldn't it be someplace else?"
And the story that became so vitally important was not connecting the Center to downtown but was connecting the Center to Olympic Park. Because some of you may remember Atlanta in 1996 was actually against Athens, Greece, for the Olympics. Athens had a pretty good case. It was the 100th anniversary.
Andy Young and Billy Payne made a different argument. They said, "Atlanta came through a period without exploding, and it is a model for the world of which is to come, and so you should bring the Olympics to Atlanta because we can model the world that the Olympics is trying to achieve."
Was it true? Not really.
But the story of the Olympics and Atlanta's Olympic legacy allowed us to put the Center in what I would argue is the right place.
Some of you may know—and you will certainly once I tell you and you go to the Center today, if you have this in the back of your mind, it will make sense—as we thought about bringing the story to people who did not know it, people who were not familiar with it, we said, "Who is the best kind of storyteller that exists? Who can make you care about something that you have no knowledge of?"
We said, "Well, filmmakers and theater artists. They can make you care about gladiators. They can make you care about Martians. They can make you care about antebellum time. They can make you care about Mississippi in 1962. They can make you care about anything. Why don't we get one of them to do this?"
So, we went out and got George C. Wolfe. He used to run the Public Theater and won a couple of Tonys, wrote The Colored Museum, cowrote Bring in 'da Noise/Bring in 'da Funk. Now he does films.
Brought George down. He started thinking about this, and he said, "The issue with the storytelling of the civil rights movement is not that it's not an incredible story; it's one of the most dramatic stories in American history. It's that we haven't embraced the drama. We haven't told it with all of the vigor in an institution that we should have, and we have not told it in a way that opens up to for people to say, 'Ah, that looks a whole lot like what's happening in Syria. Ah, that looks a whole lot like what's happening in Egypt. Ah, that looks a whole lot like what we're arguing about with immigration.' We haven't done that. We haven't liberated the story to be able to do that. That's what I want to do."
So, that's what he has done, and he has liberated it in a way that there's no audio guide to the Center. There is no one way that the Center tells you its story. It is a discovery for each individual to curate his or her own experience. We've turned the story, in essence, on its head, so that each visitor goes through and picks and chooses what they care most about, and curates an experience. Then they walk out saying, "It meant something to me because I saw this, and I saw this, and I saw this."
And you poll the next person, who says, "It meant something to me," but their choice of things is quite different, which I think illustrates the most important point of these stories and storytelling for any sort of social change, and that is the stories must create agency for the participant.
It is not enough to tell a story for knowledge or for empowerment; it has to create agency. It has to allow them to say, "This is now my story."
I will end on a story that I told somebody as we walked in. We intended that the Center—and I think you are intending it in this conference—to create ways and places and time, moments and spaces, in which people can define a new reality.
I had a 16-year-old girl come up to me one Saturday. I was at an event. I was introduced as the CEO. She comes up to me—a 16-year-old African American girl comes up to me and she says, "The Center changed my life."
I said, "Really?" I said, "Tell me."
She said, "I never really understood how these stories applied to me until I went to the Center and I experienced what it was like to sit at a lunch counter, and I saw the faces of the young people who were part of the movement, and I saw how it connected to human rights today."
She said, "Can I tell you something else?"
I said, "Sure."
She said, "To see 80-year-old white people cry at the same time over the same thing I was crying over gave me hope."
Three days later, I was at an event, and I had two 80-year-old white people [audience laughs] come up to me and they said, "We spent four hours in the Center, and we were so impacted, we had to come back the next day to spend four more hours, and we wept, and we thought about our own history, and we walked out hopeful because we saw young people doing the same thing."
It's not our story. It's not your knowledge. It's the agency that is created in others to say, "Ah, Moses is my story. King is my story. Dorothy Height is my story. Malala, this morning, is my story."
That, to me, is the key lesson that I have learned in doing this work, and I think that all of us have the ability to do this in our ways, and I hope that these points bring to mind some ways in which you can work. It is a pleasure to be here, and I would love to open this up for a few questions.
We wanted to create a way in which you got the Freedom Riders' story in a very quick way, and then you could go more deeply into it. So, as you approach what looks like a bus—it's not a real bus—you will see the mug shots of Freedom Riders in essence wallpapering the bus.
As you approach it, you get the story of the Freedom Riders. There are a whole lot of them. They were black and white. They were men and women. They were young, and they changed this nation. And then you can queue their stories. You can see a film about them. You can go more deeply.
Now, a young person could be empowered by that story simply because they say, "Oh, people who look like me did this, and so I feel more empowered because I'm 16, and I can now go do this."
But if we then showcase the techniques that were used, if we then showcase the stories, they can then say, "Ah, the stories of the civil rights movement, the stories of the Freedom Riders, the way they did something, I now have a better application for those stories. I know them in a way that allows me to transcend time and put them into today," to me, that is the agency piece.
It is not enough to feel like I've got the ability or the standing; it's then to say, "Ah, I actually have this, the toolkit."
That is my distinction between them, and there may be more articulate ways to do that, but that's how we think about it—or, at least, how I think about it.
One of her biggest fears that she said over and over the years upcoming before her retirement is, "I'm afraid nobody's going to teach Frederick Douglas. I'm afraid nobody's going to teach Harriet Jacobs," and she actually last year had to integrate the civil rights movement into her English course because history was not getting to it. It was near the end of the semester. [laughs]
How do we get some of these northern students, who really maybe aren't getting the material in high school, who aren't going to have somebody to access a bridge for them, how do we get them to know that these things are important and valuable information?
One is, I think we have to consider when we talk about social types of movements that we need to work history backwards. Now that is very against the curriculum and very against the standards, but . . . we did a bunch of focus groups for the Center, and one of the things that a 15-year-old boy once told me is . . . I was talking about our vision, and he said, "Look, man."
He said, "I can search it faster than you can tell it to me."
"What I can't get is authenticity. If you give me authenticity, that's why I would want to be a part of it."
Working backwards gives a young person a foothold to uncover back into history how it was relevant. Much easier than, "Once upon a time, there was a guy named Ben Franklin, and Ben Franklin was really important."
In fact, there have been some studies that we can't go much further back in our minds than our grandparents, and then it's all sort of ancient. Now, if you think about that, freshmen this year are not remembering 9/11, so what's ancient to them? Civil rights movement is getting pretty close. World War II certainly is. The revolution might as well be Rome.
So, I think we have to be doing two things. One, creating authentic experiences, ways in which they actually have a chance to be immersed in this, physically a part of it.
Two, I think we have to consider doing some things backwards, starting with Malala, and there's a great example. Malala wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala can very quickly get you to King because Malala can get you very quickly to Gandhi, right? I mean, there's a direct thread that runs right through there.
Well, now you can throw in Mandela. Now you can talk about the Arab Spring. We're all over the place in social justice in two minutes based on somebody today, as opposed to saying, "Let's go back, and once India wasn't free. The British were part of it, and we were drinking tea."
But at other times, it's like, "Well, this is who we aspire to be, and if we don't put those pictures out there, how can we become what we want to be?"
I feel caught in that, so I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about that gap between imagining—how we imagine our best selves and where we're at, and what do we do with that gap space?
One, is it based in some sort of truth? Is there actually something there, or is it simply spin, right? When clean skies really means "more pollution," that's just marketing, right? That's just a political phrase. But if you actually have some data, even if it is nascent that is moving the direction . . .
The other is: Is there actually work being done on it? Can you actually point to efforts? It's not only intent, but also it is action. It is rolling up of the sleeves. There is actually something that is, in fact, happening.
I think if both of those things are in place, then it's not only fair game to be aspirational in this sense, but it's also quite helpful because then what ends up happening . . . what's the strongest force of any social movement? It's when a bunch of people who are not the leaders wake up in the morning and say, "I'm going down there. I'm going to put my life on the line, and nobody's ever going to know my name."
I call that self-selection. They are self-selecting to be in, as opposed to anything else that they could do.
If your school is putting that forward and there's some authenticity there, then you're going to get people who want to support that vision self-selecting to come and lead, to come and teach, to come and be a part. You're actually going to imagine a reality that you are going to have foot soldiers who are going to help bring it about, if it's in some sort of truth.
I think we have to be ahead of it. If we're only reflecting where we are, we're not leading. We're not imagining. That's my thought. Maybe one more, just for time. Or maybe two more, because there was somebody in the back.
One is that any time there's separation between us as people, the question to me, the point is to try to build enough intimacy that we can have an honest exchange. Not that we actually are building consensus yet; simply we can actually talk about what's really happening. So, there are a couple pieces of that.
Part of that test was not only about what I knew, but it was about was I comfortable in my own skin in this environment? I can't change who I am. I'm straight. I'm white. I'm Southern. I'm a guy. I'm Christian. I look like a Republican.
One, a bit of deference. "What is it that you want? You are my elder? You are somebody who built the country I now live in. I am grateful to you, so I'm going to honor you by asking what is it that you want. What is it that you fear?"
It also allowed us to have the real conversation, and I think that, at the end of the day, is what all that process was about. What are we really talking about? What do we really want?
Then, the back-end of that story is what people said was, "I don't care where the Center is as long as the places that are depressed because of issues of race benefit from this effort."
We said, "Well, we can do that."
There's a street car that's now about to open that's going to run down to the King Center and literally creates bookends between the Center for Civil and Human Rights and the King Center, and is causing an enormous amount of economic development along the corridor where people were previously saying, "Build the Center."
In fact, we went out and got the data and showed everybody, "Look, the way to revamp this neighborhood is not to put a Center there; it's to do these other things."
OK, now we've got the real issue. You don't really care where the Center is, but you care that it has a benefit to some place that's depressed, so I think the process leads to intimacy, leads to the real issue, something we could jointly solve. That's what ended up happening. And then it also has the benefit of there's trust for later on when things come up.
All right, there was one, and then over here.
Front of mind to back of mind, so part of the power of the tag is to make it stick, right? To make it stick, but then also the agency perspective. If you're in the moment of argument, if you're in the moment of a social movement, you're looking for things that can be helpful. If you've got an index full of small things that you can pull from, tags, you actually have more ability to, in the moment, find what you need. And this is actually . . . well, I mean, it's not direct life but I do it this way, it's interesting.
Dr. King, his entire life, kept a card file. You remember you used to be taught to keep a card file, and each card had one idea? Or one phrase? Or one quote? And then what did you do with it? You made an outline out of it, right? You took the card. You got it on the table. You made an outline, and that's how you started it.
That's literally what King did his whole life. He had a card file from when he was in college through his entire life, and every time he had a new sermon, he'd get out his card file. He'd get on his dining room table, make a huge outline with his cards, and that's how he started.
So, it was about he had handy an enormous amount of material, but based on very small nuggets that then he could go deeper on, that allowed him either in real time, or when he was putting something together, to then put together a new framework or a new thought or idea.
So, I think it's more than just—I've been accused of being a, you know, very good at, um, sound bites, but I think there's much more to it. I think it's a way to think about—especially, you know, you have to think about somebody who's in the moment of activism. They don't have paragraphs; they've got sentences or phrases to move, right?
One more. It was in the back. Yeah, hi.
It wasn't until several years ago, when someone from the civil rights movement was talking about the power of song and the power of story and the importance of memory. I went online, did the search, and I found an oral history about my great-uncle.
There's a big middle whose ideology is about ruled law, and they're willing to say that when a policy changes to represent what is right with the will, the majority that believe that what is right can be, can be reinforced by policy, they're willing to make that move. And, yesterday, we heard Harry Boyd remind us about organizing tactics that are about moving the great middle, and that we in higher education are not very mindful about the stories that we're telling to move the middle.
I feel like I tell that story because it confronts me with the reality of this kind of push that we're—we have from one part of this country against telling complicated stories, and you see it in Tucson where there's legislation against a whole group of studies that are helping students graduate from high school, Mexican American studies.
You see it in the reality that most textbooks are going to be published for Texas, and there's a conservative school board that's dictating the parameters of the stories we tell about our history. So, my question is: How do we move the middle to tell more complicated stories about who we are in order to be aspirational about being better about who we can be, so we don't get terribly dramatic stories we've been experiencing in our most recent history that reiterate some of the tropes of the civil rights movement that we thought we had moved beyond?
It just so happened that ABC that night was broadcasting a huge movie starring Burt Lancaster. Everybody was watching it. Does anybody know the story of what that movie was? Judgment at Nuremberg.
So, I think there is a lot to be thought about this. I have two answers to your question. One is: There's been a lot of work done recently on what it is to raise great kids, and they looked at kids who had family narratives that went, "We've always been rich. We've always been poor. We did this. We did that."
And the most successful family narrative for kids is one that looks like this: "We're resilient. Our family's been up, our family's been down. Our family's had it all. Our family's lost everything, and we've come back."
We, as a country, need resilience more than we need simplistic history told to us. My argument to anyone—growing up in a town of 1,200 in Arkansas, I came from a different political reality than perhaps downtown Atlanta—resilience is something I think we all can agree upon. In a world that is as complicated and threatening as this is, resilience will go a long way, and resilience comes from complex storytelling. I think that's where we start to make this argument.
The second is the story that I'll end on. C. T. Vivian is one of my favorite people from the civil rights movement. I call him the Forrest Gump of the civil rights movement, because C. T. Vivian is at every major civil rights thing that happens.
C. T. Vivian is still alive. He's in his—he's 90 years old. He's still doing social justice work. One of my favorite stories about C. T. is that he used to march up to Jim Clark in Selma every morning and ask for African Americans to be registered to vote, and Jim Clark would sometimes ignore him and sometimes yell at him and sometimes throw him in jail. One day, Jim Clark slugged him across the jaw, and every day, C. T. Vivian would pray for Jim Clark in front of Jim Clark.
I think one of the most important things—and I will end on this—that we do in this work is not only imagine the change, but imagine a reconciliation to our enemies or to those who did not care enough to be with us, once it is over, whether it's through law and sort of law and order, whether it's through individual relationships, whether it's through community-building exercises. It is not enough to change; we've got to live with each other after we change.
Thank you all very much.