Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, January 16, 2005
by Susan Ives
I usually begin my workshops in peace and justice history by dealing everyone a card from a deck we call “the great peace march.”
Everyone lines up in chronological order. If you have the card for 1350 B.C. — the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah, in the first recorded act of civil disobedience, refuse to obey Pharaoh’s order to kill male babies — you stand at the head of the line. If you were dealt 1997 — the International Campaign to Ban Landmines receives the Nobel Peace Prize — you bring up the rear.
Get to know the people in front of you, I tell them. Get to know the people behind you.
Who do you think were Gandhi’s mentors? Jesus! Henry David Thoreau! Susan B. Anthony! Leo Tolstoy! The names ring out. Yes, he followed in their footsteps.
Ida B. Wells Barnett! W.E.B. DuBois! Dorothy Day!
And countless peacemakers whose names we have forgotten.
The 11 African American indentured servants in New Amsterdam who filed a petition for freedom, the first recorded legal protest in America.
The 1,000 Parisian women who bravely stood between the Prussian and French troops during the Franco-Prussian War.
The half a million women in Indonesia who demonstrate for their rights on International Women’s Day, 1955.
And Martin Luther King Jr., did he just have a dream one night and birth the civil rights movement the next morning? No. He had a path to follow.
In 1950, King, a 20-year-old student at Crozier Theological Seminary outside Philadelphia, attended a speech given by Mordecai W. Johnson, then the Howard University president, who had recently visited India. King wrote that the “message was so profound and electrifying that I left the meeting and bought a half-dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works.”
Ten years later he made the trip himself: “A few months ago I had the privilege of traveling to India,” he wrote in 1960. “The trip had a great impact on me personally and left me even more convinced of the power of nonviolence.”
In January 1969, Coretta Scott King returned to India alone, to receive the Nehru Award For International Understanding on behalf of her martyred husband. At the ceremony, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi observed, “Dr. Martin Luther King drew his inspiration from Christ and his method of action from Mahatma Gandhi.”
César Chávez learned from King. And Jody Williams, who launched the land mine campaign, learned from Chávez. And we all learn from those who went before us. We follow in their footsteps.
This lineage of peacemakers sometimes sounds like the boring begats in the Bible. Forty generations of unpronounceable names: Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab …
But it’s more than a list of names: It’s a whole different way of viewing history. From this perspective, history isn’t the moldering events that are behind us but rather the prophetic pioneers who are still before us, the ones who show us the way. We move into history, not out of it.
You would think that with all of these trailblazers clearing the path to peace and justice that the way would be deeply incised and easy to follow. No so. There are other roads that beckon us: the well-worn ruts of war, interstates of oppression, the streets of greed, paved with gold.
The road to peace is the road less taken. To follow it requires a map, a compass, a guiding star.
In my deck of cards, King is somewhere in the middle of the pack, but in truth, he is our North Star.
When we follow in his path, when we march on Monday, we are not just marching with Martin Luther King Jr. We are following in the footsteps of all who went before him, of those who followed. And even more important we are keeping that path of peace clear so the generations to come can find their way through the undergrowth.
The event Monday is not just the Martin Luther King Jr. March. It’s the great peace march, following in the footsteps of all who have gone before.