The “Self-Organization” of Society

“I have seen the face of poverty and idleness in the mines of West Virginia. I have come face to face with facial hatred on the south side of Chicago; Catholics stoning fellow Catholics on the steps of a church because they were black. In the last few years, I have traveled five hundred thousands miles around the world seeing at first hand the deep barriers of culture, belief, prejudice, and superstition which divide us from our fellow man... ‘What can we do about it?’ you ask. There is much you can do. For the need is not merely for laws or Presidential action, but for the self-organization of society on a large scale to solve the problems.”
New Hyde Park, NY| May 30, 1964

Our Quote of the Week reminds us of a powerful action we can take together: to organize ourselves into a society that brings opportunity and justice to all. As we pause on this Memorial Day to remember the soldiers who have been killed in the line of duty, let us reflect on what we, the living, can do to honor them.

Sargent Shriver spoke these words in a Memorial Day tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt in 1964. Given at the Roosevelt family’s home and final resting place at Hyde Park, the speech refers to Shriver’s generation as the “Inheritors of an Age.” Shriver says of Franklin Roosevelt, the President who led the US through the Great Depression and World War II:

“Roosevelt laid the foundations of today’s affluent society, and established the principle that the nation was responsible for the general welfare of all its citizens. Although poverty and injustice remain, we have today, for the first time, the legal and material resources to end them. In our dealings with the world, he thrust America, almost against its will, into the center of the world arena. He strengthened us to defeat our most brutal and powerful enemies and destroyed the isolationism and parochial outlook which had kept the United States from assuming its responsibilities as part of a greater world community.”

As part of his own response to the Great Depression and World War II, Shriver devoted himself to a life of service, embedding the notion of “self-organization” into both the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty. He believed in “community action,” the idea that a community needed to organize and lead from within, to solve the problems that it faced on its own terms. But he also believed that we, the human family, were a global community, and that certain injustices, such as poverty and war, could be solved by strengthening understanding and collaboration on a large scale.

This Memorial Day is a particularly difficult one for most of us. We continue to live with the uncertainty and loss caused by the COVID-19 crisis. Many of us still cannot gather together to mark even the most solemn of occasions. As we continue to deal with a crisis that has exacerbated the scourges of poverty, inequality, injustice, and bigotry, let us heed Sargent Shriver’s call. Let us organize to protect and uplift each other, so that we may create a peaceful future for all of us.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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