The Civil Courage Prize: Stories from the Struggle Against White Nationalism

By Eric K. Ward

Four of the American women — mentors, teachers, comrades, story tellers — who’ve helped inspire and organize resistance to authoritarianism.

Earlier this week, the Train Foundation announced me as this year’s recipient of the Civil Courage Prize, the first in 21 years to be awarded to an American. To be called into the company of the prior Laureates is one of the greatest honors of my life — but I am crystal clear about two things. First, this is about more than just me. Second, it’s more than just an award.

More than an award, this bestowal of the Civil Courage Prize sounds a world-wide alarm:

The fact that I am the first ever American to win this prize is a clear and jarring message from The Train Foundation to governments and civil society domestically and internationally: the rise of authoritarianism and violent extremism has ended all illusions of ‘American exceptionalism.’ America’s dream of achieving a multiracial and inclusive democracy is in danger. Bigoted and authoritarian ideological movements are now an active threat to the very structures of our democracy established by the 1960s Civil Rights movement.

My acceptance of this award is an appeal to the global community for help with the threats to democracy we face here in the U.S. I also see this award as a chance to tell the stories of the some of my colleagues and the thousands of every day Americans who are working to counter white nationalism in communities across this country.

As I told the Train Foundation, “I am grateful and proud to accept this honor on behalf of all those who continue the struggle towards a strong, multicultural democracy.”

Today I want to highlight four such freedom fighters — women I admire, who’ve been mentors, teachers, comrades, each of them story tellers who’ve helped inspire or organize resistance to authoritarianism.

Suzanne Pharr, Loretta Ross, and I have crossed paths many times over the past four decades of work against white supremacists, hate violence, and white nationalism — they’ve proved that we can do more than just research anti-democratic movements: we can organize against them. Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss is an invaluable partner in Western States Center’s work on the influence of white nationalism in schools. And writer Rebecca Donner has brought us the just-in-time story of her great-great aunt Mildred Harnack, the only American to serve in the leadership of the German resistance during Hitler’s rise to power. Each of them exemplifies the stories of American resistance that we — and the world — need to hear.

SUZANNE PHARR: ORGANIZER, WRITER, STRATEGIST & POLITICAL HANDYWOMAN

“Though never thinking of myself as a writer before,” Suzanne says on the new website documenting her 60 years of movement work, “I became an organizer who also wrote to name our experiences, examine them, and describe what was happening in the world around us.”

Suzanne’s first book, Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism (1988), blew open my consciousness around gender oppression and further advanced the analysis of interconnected oppressions presented in the ground-breaking Combahee River Collective Statement. I wonder how many today realize that we owe our current understanding of how we construct a healthy alternative to white nationalism and white supremacy to BIPOC and anti-racist white lesbian feminists from the 1970s and 80s?

Transformation: Toward a People’s Democracy is Suzanne’s latest, a movement book offered at no cost “for anyone working for an expansive vision of social justice.” Of it, she writes:

The overarching theme is the need to grow an inclusive and just people’s democracy, and an argument that it is worth fighting to defend and build the fragile unfinished democracy we have. In the spirit of this democracy, this collection is offered for any way you might use it on the path to ward off authoritarianism and to build a people’s democracy, to resist division and to build unity, to reimagine and bring about a radical transformation of the world.

~ From Transformation: Toward a People’s Democracy by Suzanne Pharr

I urge you to spend some time on Suzanne’s website, and download and share her books — they are essential reading for the work of achieving and defending inclusive democracy.

LORETTA ROSS: ACTIVIST, PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL, PROFESSOR

Like Suzanne Pharr, Loretta Ross embodies the belief that how we treat each other matters. Everything Loretta does is worth checking out but I particularly urge you to drop whatever else you’re doing to watch her new TED Talk on “Calling in the Call Out Culture.”

In it, Loretta tells the story of her mentor (and adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) the Rev. C.T. Vivian, saying “When you ask people to give up hate, then you need to be there for them when they do.” To do that, she says, “I needed to find another moral compass for my work. And that compass needed to shift from hate to love.” Having lived through tremendous trauma herself and working in some of the toughest settings — “most Black women don’t go to Ku Klux Klan rallies on purpose,” she says — Loretta has concluded something critical about how we move forward:

I really want to build a culture and a world that invites people in instead of pushing people out — a calling in culture. With blaming and shaming you’ve guaranteed one thing: you’ve invited them to a fight, not a conversation, because you’re publicly humiliating them. Fighting hate should be fun. It’s being a hater that sucks.

~ From Calling in the Call Out Culture, a TED Talk by Loretta Ross

Besides being two of the most effective organizers I know, Loretta and Suzanne show us the joy of doing transformational work.

DR. CYNTHIA MILLER-IDRISS: AUTHOR, SCHOLAR, SPEAKER, EDUCATOR

While Loretta and Suzanne and I get to spend time with grassroots organizers and change agents at the community level, Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss does the heavy lifting in the halls of power, testifying before Congress and regularly briefing policy, security, education and intelligence agencies in the U.S., the United Nations, and other countries on domestic violent extremism and strategies for prevention and disengagement. Her latest book, Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right, is the definitive work to understand how the far-right is operating today. Soon to be released in paperback with more applied tools to counter the recruitment of young people including a Readers’ Guide we partnered on to support educators, Hate in the Homeland is truly required reading for anyone working to counter authoritarianism.

In Cynthia’s essay for The Atlantic this summer, Extremism Has Spread Into the Mainstream, she argues for an understanding of extremism as “a public-health problem, not a security issue.” She tells the stories of contemporary governmental responses to far-right violence in Norway, New Zealand, and Germany to illustrate to the U.S. that another mindset is possible:

These plans all emphasize resilience as much as risk. They integrate the fight against systemic racism with efforts to combat extremist ideas. Communities in the U.S. are hungry for this kind of support. They are hurting and are seeing their residents fall for conspiratorial thinking and express white-supremacist ideas….Across the country, coalitions of citizens are taking it upon themselves to learn how to prevent radicalization in locally grounded ways, often integrating with efforts to combat broader forms of hate.

~ Extremism Has Spread Into the Mainstream, by Cynthia Miller-Idriss

Cynthia and her research lab, the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University, help us at Western States Center to be more effective — and more courageous — in our work.

REBECCA DONNER, AUTHOR + MILDRED HARNACK, AMERICAN NAZI RESISTANCE LEADER

I usually tell stories in clusters of three but on this topic, I had to include a fourth. The Civil Courage Prize reminds us that the struggle against tyranny and authoritarianism is a global story. It’s also a story with a long and honorable history. We stand on the shoulders of giants like the late Congressman John Lewis, and the generations before him. Our ancestry is full of ordinary people who did extraordinary things in the service of fairness and freedom. One of them is the previously unknown Mildred Harnack.

Mildred was a young American woman who found herself living in Germany as Hitler rose to power. She spent more than a decade organizing resistance against the Nazis among the very group most targeted by their propaganda and recruitment — students. Eventually she was arrested and her execution by guillotine, ordered by Hitler.

Her great-great niece Rebecca Donner has brought us Mildred’s story in the instant New York Times bestseller All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days. It’s a story that reminds us that our resistance to white nationalism has a long arc. Midred Karnack embodies the courage that we each can and must find.

Rebecca Donner spoke to NPR about being in the final stages of revising the book when the U.S Capitol was stormed on January 6, agreeing with the interviewer that “it was shocking how quickly the guardrails came off” in 1930s Germany but that “the guardrails held in January of this past year”:

… our democracy is really quite fragile. And of course, in writing this book, I knew this intellectually, but [January 6] was the first time that I had a visceral sense of it…. And our democracy still is intact. We still have a Constitution…. [When] Hitler came to power, there was a constitution. The Weimar Constitution guaranteed freedom of speech, freedom of the press, women could vote, women could hold political office. And all of these things, all of these rights were taken away from Germany’s citizens. We still have all of those rights. It’s my hope that people… can see Mildred as a kind of inspiration in these tremendously unsettling times and understand that we must always take that risk of resisting, of standing up to bullies — and that we cannot take democracy for granted.

~ Rebecca Donner Tells The Story Of Her Great-Great-Aunt, Executed For Nazi Resistance, NPR

THE STORIES THAT KEEP OUR EYES ON THE PRIZE

Suzanne, Loretta, and Cynthia have all informed, inspired, and improved Western States Center’s work over the years — through the example of their courage in the face of great personal risk. Through their incredible intellect and analysis. And through their skillful ability to encourage others to tell their stories, speak truth to power, and build power through organizing and action.

I’ve written before about The Women of Color Leading us Now and Black American Patriotism (“We Want the Flag Back” with Lecia J. Brooks). But Mildred Harnack’s story — a white American woman executed by Hitler for her work in the resistance — stirred a deep sense of pride in me about who we can be, across lines of race, religion, gender, and nationality, when we answer the call of duty in response to rising authoritarianism.

Each of these women — and thousands of other Americans, some whose names we’ve heard, many whose names we’ll never know — embody the attributes of the Civil Courage Prize: those “who resolutely pursue freedom for many despite the consequences to themselves.”

I bow my head in gratitude and respect to the Civil Courage Prize Laureates who’ve come before me — and to the organizers, scholars, and story-tellers like Suzanne, Loretta, Cynthia, Mildred and Rebecca, and the musicians and culture-makers, too. You keep us going.

You tell the stories that expand our imaginations beyond the scarcity myths of authoritarianism. You help us keep our eyes on the prize, and keep our feet moving up the mountaintop.

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