Robert C. Byrd, Independence, and Change

(Fourth of July thoughts - sorry they're a few days late!)

Life is change. Life is what? Change. - Judson Laipply, speaking at Leadership Safari at Central Michigan University in 2005

Much has been said about Robert Byrd, his career, his life, and his longevity. There may not be much that I can add to the discussion, except for a few thoughts of my own.

Every life can teach us a lot. Senator Byrd's life is no different. Here's a man who was born into poverty, who lost his mother when he was a year old (and who himself could have easily fallen victim to the same influenza outbreak which killed her), and who transformed himself from leading his Ku Klux Klan chapter to leading the fight to preserve our Constitution.

The most important thing we can learn from Byrd's life and career is that nothing is permanent. People change, things change - change is the law of life.

A Changed Man

If you had told me that a former Ku Klux Klansman who would have rather lost his freedom than fight with blacks was in the US Senate, I would have been appalled. Likewise, I was quite disappointed several years ago to hear that Robert Byrd, whom I had already come to respect at that time, had a rather dark past.

But yes, it was true. Also true is that once in the Senate, he tried to filibuster the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and opposed Thurgood Marshall's nomination to the Supreme Court, among many other things.

Yet who else was there to stand up for the Constitution when it suffered abuse after abuse after abuse in his later years? And what a courageous stand he took in the run-up to the Iraq War - joining just 22 of his colleagues in saying no to one of the worst foreign-policy blunders any President has made. And he did vote to confirm our first Latino justice, Sonia Sotomayor.

It may seem that, in many respects, Byrd changed with the country - as other Americans became more accepting of minorities, Byrd himself shifted. I would agree, though I would also argue that Byrd shifted much more in the direction of liberty and justice for all than most people. Here was a man who went from the Klan to being one of the more liberal members of the Senate. But while blacks are no longer sprayed with firehoses, they still find it more difficult to thrive in our society than whites. And of course, they are not the only group to be denied equality.

A Changed Country

Yet, as hard as it may be to see it, change has happened. Just look at who's in the White House. Or consider that 150 years ago, people who looked like him were enslaved. Or what about the fact that some of the Founding Fathers were themselves slave-owners, including Thomas "All men are created equal" Jefferson.

We can be thankful that participation in our representative government is no longer limited to the aristocratic class - not being a property owner, I probably wouldn't have been allowed to vote in 1810, and even if I could vote, I wouldn't have been able to elect my state's US senators.

Yet I can still remember the chill that ran down my spine the first time I found myself in a voting booth. It was the primary election in 2006. Our fine Governor, Jennifer Granholm, and our smart Senator, Debbie Stabenow, were unopposed for renomination, though both faced potentially tough fall campaigns. I was happy to support them and other Democrats running unopposed, as well as a neighbor of mine who was running for Congress in the only contested Democratic primary on the ballot that year. I also voted for a judicial candidate and in favor of three ballot proposals in Kentwood.

Of course, I also got to vote for myself for the first time. I was one of three people running for three spots as Democratic precinct delegate that year. Needless to say, I won - and I'm glad I took my friend's advice to run in the first place.

Through voting and getting involved, I felt a sense of power - power to help choose our leaders, power to make my voice heard, power to make our community and country better.

Our Republic, Our Power, Our Responsibility

"But ScottyUrb," you might say. "Look at what's going on. Our government is broken. Congress is dysfunctional. Greed and arrogance reign supreme. Since when do we have any sort of power?" Well, I understand that sentiment. I'm ticked off about a lot of things related to government right now. But as the Declaration says:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The point? The government gets its power from us. Even the wealthiest, most entrenched politicians depend upon you and me for their continued (mis)use of power. It's up to us to choose whether they can keep that power, or whether it should be lent to someone else.

Change Will Happen - Good or Bad

The lesson of that history is that you must not despair, that if you are right, and you persist, things will change. -Howard Zinn

Zinn was right - except that I believe things will change no matter what. The world simply does not go on without changing. Times change. People change. Leaders change. Heck, even forms of government change. Life is change!

The question is whether or not that change will be for the better.

Just as Senator Byrd changed for the better, America has changed for the better since Mr. Byrd went to Washington. (Incidentally, he was a US Representative when Rosa Parks refused to take a back seat - literally and figuratively.) Yet we are still right to want more change for the better. Freedom to serve, regardless of who we love. Freedom of marriage. Freedom to be paid the same as our colleagues for doing the same work. Freedom of privacy.

How will we get that change? It all starts with believing that we can make that change. That's how we got Obama in the White House. It's how they ended segregation. it's how our Founders successfully broke apart from the Crown. Cynicism and pessimism aren't how we get things done; knowing that we have the ultimate power is how we will accomplish this change.

What kind of change will you help create? What will you do to bring about that change?

Will you sit around and complain that things are rigged, or that we're screwed?

Or will you actually take charge - like our Founding Fathers, and like those who have fought for equality over the years?

No comments: