We. Shall. Overcome.

Since Michael Brown was laid to rest, “We Shall Overcome” has lodged in my mind – not the song so much as the title. We. Shall. Overcome.

I’ve needed these words these past couple of weeks. I believe we all need these words. In the wake of the tragedy and the ongoing unrest and mistrust in Ferguson, Missouri (in communities all across America, really), we need these words as a refrain, and as a reminder. Here are a few thoughts on why I think these words matter so much, especially if we want a world in which there is progress…in which we witness fewer funerals like Michael Brown’s.


This first word is the fulcrum for change. The way forward is the way of togetherness, shoulder to shoulder if not hand in hand. No individual, no matter how brilliant, charismatic, connected, or celebrated, will be able to shift the poles of our society. Individuals certainly have a role to play in stirring up waves of revival and revolution: exposing uncomfortable realities, speaking truth to power, choosing to stand up rather than sit out, setting examples that defy stereotypes. But it is the collective response that will carry the day.

The people must rise up. The people must demand better. The people must say enough is enough. For there to be real, lasting progress in America, systems will have to change, and systemic change requires seismic force – the kind of force that can only be generated when people march in step and lift their voices in unison.


This second word reminds us that the future tense still applies to the dreams of the Civil Rights Movement. In the wake of so many shootings (Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Kimani Gray, Kendrec McDade, Timothy Russell, Amadou Diallo, Timothy Stansbury, Jr., and on and on)… in the shadow of a prison industrial complex that incarcerates blacks at six times the rate of whites … under the auspices of a criminal justice system that is much more likely to sentence black men to death – via execution or permanent disenfranchisement … we can no longer pretend that we conquered prejudice and inequality when we felled the walls of Jim Crow “back then.” We might share the same water fountains these days, but we’re a long way from sharing the same cup. The jobless rate among blacks remains above twelve percent while the jobless rate among whites has fallen to below six percent. Blacks currently hold six cents for every dollar in assets held by whites. Even if a black man currently resides in the White House, white is still very much the color of power, wealth, and privilege in America.

This gap between white and black in our nation, where all men are supposedly created equal, is wide and deep. In some respects, the gap is so wide and so deep that if we ponder it with even a modicum of honesty, it might well drive us to despair. How can we bridge such a gap, much less fill it in?

That’s why we must remember “shall” is more than the future tense. It’s also the tense of hope. “Shall” means there is no question as to what will occur. It will occur – or else. If you receive a summons in the mail that states you shall appear in court on a given date at a given time, you are expected to be there. It doesn’t matter if your sick child keeps you up late the night before, or there’s a traffic jam that morning, or the time conflicts with a meeting at work. You are obligated. Your presence and participation are required. “Shall” declares that there aren’t any excuses.

We need to develop a moral resolve around this word “shall” that matches its legal resonance in order to keep moving forward. As wide and deep as this gap currently is, it has been wider and deeper. The parts that have been filled in have been filled in by people who believed the gap could be filled – that it shall be filled – one day.


This third and final word reminds us that if we want to see change, we’re going to need more than optimism, or even resolve. We’re going to have to fight for it. We must fight without hatred and never in pursuit of vengeance, for if we respond in kind we accomplish nothing except the substitution of one violent scheme for another. But we must fight nonetheless. We will have to fight because there will be resistance – active and passive, physical and political. The way forward is up – against the pull of gravity, against the social, economic, and ideological currents (and constraints) of our society. It won’t be easy. If the forces aligned against justice and peace lacked power or weaponry, we would not have to overcome them. Overcoming anything is never easy. But it need not be complicated.

The word “overcome” provides a clue as to where we can (perhaps should) begin. “Overcoming” in the way of peace starts with a simple choice: the choice to come over, to give and receive invitations, to gather around tables, to share meals, to start and join conversations, to lend a hand, to explore the world outside our bubbles of comfort and familiarity. Through the connections that are made through personal interactions, hearts can be softened, minds can be renewed, relationships can develop, and partnerships can form. All of which, not surprisingly, brings us back to “we.”

We. Shall. Overcome.

May we go forth and fight the good fight. Our lives and our souls depend on it.


A Way Forward

Say what you will about Bill Clinton (and there is much that can be said), the Clinton Global Initiative is bringing people and ideas together in ways that few other organizations are – or even attempting.

The theme for this year’s CGI gathering (September 30) was “Mobilizing for Impact.”  For the opening discussion of this theme, President Clinton convened an international panel of influential leaders from the business, political, and non-profit worlds: Bono (U2; ONE Campaign); Khalida Brohi (Sughar Empowerment Society); Mohamed Ibrahim (Mo Ibrahim Foundation); Christine Lagarde (International Monetary Fund); and Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook).

I watched the live webcast of this panel discussion and was humbled by the scope and scale of the world’s problems being discussed; but I was also so very inspired by the  initiatives these intelligent, articulate, and courageous folks are launching against those problems.  All of them are mobilizing ordinary people and most definitely having an impact.

Sadly, in the days immediately following the panel’s broadcast, the discussion was overshadowed by Bono’s hilarious, impromptu impersonation of Bill Clinton prior to the discussion.  For months, that’s the only video of the panel I could find.  Yesterday, I finally found the actual panel buried in a YouTube upload from Laureate International Universities.  I’ve edited that video down from 2+ hours to just under 57 minutes and present it here in hopes that others might discover it.   Even if you just listen to the audio while you’re doing other things, I encourage you to listen (if not watch).  Here are a few of my favorite insights:

“Six thousand people dying every day of preventable disease isn’t a cause, it’s an emergency.” – Bono

“You can’t have it both ways.  You can’t give alms to the poor [with one hand] and have [your other hand] around their throats.” – Bono

“If you want people to be free of corruption, they have to have capacity.  If your government [national, local, or institutional] doesn’t have capacity, you’re a sitting duck for corruption.” – Bill Clinton

“We realized our approach was wrong. We were standing against people’s values, something they had believed for centuries. We had to change course and go to them in a way that promoted and respected what they believed – and in that tell them, ‘here are some things we need to talk about, some things we need to let go.’ ” – Khalida Brohi

“Across all cultures, boys are taught to be leaders and girls are not. Girls are criticized for being ‘bossy.’  Boys never are.  That has to change.”  – Sheryl Sandberg

“It’s mostly [about] people [not money].” – Christine Lagarde

What I’ve distilled from this lengthy and wide-ranging conversation is a basic roadmap for the way out of the machine – regardless of what the specific problems or circumstances might be at any given time: converge -> connect -> collaborate -> innovate.  It’s going to become my basic template for just about everything in the new year.

I am also coming away with a reaffirmed belief that, whether you’re talking about a church committee meeting or an international political conference, one of the essential ingredients for progress and justice is daylight. We must insist on transparency in governance.

I’d love to hear what you come away with.

Clinton Global Initiative 2013 Opening Panel Discussion: Mobilizing for Impact

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