Something is Happening Here: The Emergence of a Movement

Western States Center
6 min readNov 3, 2021

By Eric K. Ward

Accepting the first Civil Courage Prize awarded to an American on Oct. 29 at the Oregon Jewish Museum & Center for Holocaust Education, Eric K. Ward shares stories of the resistance to authoritarianism and bigotry.

“Something is happening here/ We all know the old road’s a dead end.
Over and over is over/ And again will be never again.” ~ Ana Egge, “This Time” (co-written with Dick Connette)

Over these past two weeks, I began to glimpse something on the horizon that’s been a long time coming. A movement is emerging. A movement committed to preserving democracy. A movement grounded in the rejection of bigotry and political violence as a solution.

When the Train Foundation announced they would award the Civil Courage Prize to an American for the first time in its 21-year history, they were recognizing this nascent movement.

America is starting to have a serious conversation about white nationalism and political violence.

That conversation is now on the nightly news, thanks to Integrity First for America bringing a civil suit to hold white nationalists accountable for the deadly Charlottesville riot and the continuing investigations and reporting of the detailed planning and intentional violence of the attempted coup of January 6.

The conversation is taking place in dozens of convenings, from our biennial Activists Mobilizing for Power, to last week’s The Alarming Rise in White Supremacy and Nationalism at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and America’s Human Rights Crisis at the New School, to gatherings organized by many of our national partner organizations — such as the Eradicate Hate Global Summit and Gonzaga University’s upcoming International Conference on Hate Studies.

“We’ve entered a world of political violence and I don’t think anything’s going to be the same,” Charlottesville defendant Richard B. Spencer was quoted as saying as the plaintiffs’ lawyers laid out their case on the opening day of the trial last week. If his movement has its way, the change he predicts will roll back all the gains of the 20th century civil rights movements and replace our multiracial democracy with a white ethnostate.

The problem for white nationalists and their alt-right allies is that the majority of Americans don’t share their vision. Yes, 2020 had the most reported hate crimes since 2001. Yes, public opinion surveys find more people than we would like support Trump’s Big Lie, preposterous QAnon claims, core tenets of white nationalism, and the use of political violence. There is no question: we are in dangerous times.

A MOVEMENT WITHOUT A NAME

It is time for us to focus on the majority of Americans who believe in a different vision, a vision of inclusion and shared prosperity. Americans from urban, suburban, and rural communities. Democrats and Republicans and Independents and none-of-the-aboves. Progressives and conservatives, anarchists and antifascists. Artists and people of faith, students and teachers, small business owners and both local and national business leaders.

These are the people who may not yet see themselves as a movement, members of a movement that doesn’t yet have a name. What the movement is ultimately called is significantly less important than what it seeks to accomplish. It’s a movement that places shared values over factional ideologies. That seeks to find common ground underneath the silos of identity largely imposed on us by racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry. A movement that seeks to include rather than convert or purge.

Many who make up this pro-democracy movement-that-doesn’t-yet-recognize-itself-as-a-movement have been recruited, paradoxically, by the white nationalist movement. The dystopian vision of a race war being pushed by white nationalists — “Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the anti-government Oath Keepers, ….declared in September that ‘civil war is here, right now’ because of violence rattling Portland, Ore.” reported The Washington Post — is invigorating a rededication to defending democracy. (I shared some examples of what this looks like in my last Medium post, Galvanizing a United Response to Hate & Political Violence.)

Last week’s Civil Courage Prize Awards Ceremony, broadcast from the Oregon Jewish Museum & Center for Holocaust Education, provided an opportunity to honor those on whose shoulders this emerging movement stands: the thousands of people throughout the United States who’ve been killed or risked their lives to resist bigoted violence and authoritarianism.

The five anti-Klan demonstrators shot in the Greensboro, North Carolina massacre in 1979. Ethiopian student Mulugeta Seraw, lynched by neo-Nazi skinheads in Oregon in 1988. Hattie Mae Cohens and Brian Mock, also in my adopted state of Oregon, murdered in a homophobic firebombing in 1992. Heather Heyer, killed four years ago in Charlottesville by a 20-year-old who admired Hitler. The more than 140 Capitol Police officers injured by pro-Trump rioters during the January insurrection. These are but a few of the many taken or harmed by hate violence and political violence during my lifetime.

They join the late Congressman John Lewis, forever the United States’ patron saint of civil courage, and those killed during the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century, and during the brutal eras of Jim Crow, forced labor, chattel slavery, and Native genocide. With them, the stories of the countless and mostly unrecognized resisters, rescuers, allies and accomplices. The ordinary people in communities in every corner of our country who have come together under difficult circumstances in order to say, In a world full of darkness, I won’t turn out my light.

MUSIC OF THE MOMENT, FOR THE MOVEMENT

Oftentimes music can give voice to the spirit of what doesn’t yet have a name. We are grateful to the Civil Courage Prize team for honoring the centrality of music and new narratives in our work against authoritarianism. The Awards Ceremony opened with Ana Egge — a leader in our Inclusive Democracy Culture Lab — singing This Time (co-written with Dick Connette) as we viewed the honor roll of Civil Courage Laureates from nations around the world. In that moment, listening to this quintessential piece of Americana music honoring their collective courage in the face of tyranny, I am betting we could all feel it: we are part of a movement.

“So many good people/ Been beat and shot down.
But a new revolution/ Is coming around….

We’re demanding the dream/ Is no longer deferred
That our nation of laws/ Live up to its word.”

~ Ana Egge, “This Time” (co-written with Dick Connette)

After my acceptance speech, the ceremony ended with me in conversation with Ana and a closing song, one she wrote about learning and unlearning bigotry, Lie, Lie, Lie.

Ana’s music was the perfect coda to one of the story arcs I shared in my acceptance speech: the day I decided I wasn’t going to run from bigotry. That day in 1979 I was attacked in a hate crime while I waited for the bus from school. It was three years before the multi-racial English reggae band UB40 would release I Won’t Close My Eyes, but those lyrics made their way into the Courage Prize ceremony too, in tribute to all of us in the United States and around the world who choose to say, “When the future don’t look bright/ Though the road seems too long/ In a world full of darkness, I won’t turn off my light.

A MOVEMENT FOR DEMOCRACY, BELONGING & OPPORTUNITY

“When in the course of human events/ A more perfect union makes most perfect sense

In the land of the free, oh say can you see/ Then we will have justice and peace.” ~ Ana Egge, “This Time” (co-written with Dick Connette)

What is the next stage of resistance to growing authoritarianism in the United States? We must nurture the transformation of the anti-bigotry field and the majority’s aversion to bigotry into a full-fledged social movement. A movement that centers democracy, belonging, and opportunity. A movement that consciously seeks to avoid becoming that which we critique. One brave enough to heed the great sage Audre Lorde’s warning, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the masters house.”

White supremacy can be seen as the master’s house — and white nationalism, the political movement seeking to renovate that house through a campaign of ethnic cleansing. But inclusive democracy in America is not the master’s house. It is the people’s house, a space of radical inclusion built through the relentless labors and blood of Black and Indigenous communities and those who have joined in this intergenerational moral campaign for human dignity and fairness.

Lean in and listen with curiosity. Read more stories of courage — and tell your own.

Try on the belief that’s long existed in the Black community and civil rights communities: everyone is redeemable.

Imagine a movement to redeem the soul of America. To make this a country where everyone feels at home. It’s about kindness, not ideology or identity. That’s what it means to be human.

Read my full Civil Courage Prize remarks here or view the speech here.

Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Race Forward and Executive Director of Western States Center.

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Western States Center

Based in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States, Western States Center works nationwide to strengthen inclusive democracy.