Jan 10

"This restless democracy of ours"

by Sargent Shriver Peace Institute | 01/10/2022 11:49AM | Quote of the Week


Our Quote of the Week resonates for us today as it must have for its audience almost 57 years ago. As we continue to grapple with the many health, economic, and social effects of the pandemic in the midst of acute political polarization, it is not an overstatement to say that we are in a moment of crisis. Yet, within this crisis lie the kinds of opportunities to which Sargent Shriver alludes with his words.

This week's quote is from Sargent Shriver's 1965 University of South Carolina Commencement Address. The speech underlines the importance of service in ensuring equity and opportunity for all. Shriver refers to the era of the time as a revolution for "property rights ... against financial poverty, [and for] for the dignity of all people." He adds: "Like it or not, you are part of this struggle. The battle lines are clearly drawn — between those who care, those are committed to the cause of human freedom and human equality, and those who stand opposed, or, apathetically by the wayside."

Notable in Shriver's words are his emphasis on "the dignity of all people" and on the fact that everyone is "part of this struggle". He is, in effect, reminding us that by definition, if we are to have a democracy, we all must take part, and we all must enjoy its privileges and shoulder its responsibilities. His words also imply that a true democracy is strong yet resilient. It can withstand changes and challenges, and can evolve while continuing to protect all who participate in it.

Shriver's characterization of his current moment as one of revolution is understandable, given the notable social changes that were occurring in the 1960s. The battles fought for civil rights, the influx of an unprecedented number of women into the labor force, the efforts to alleviate the crushing burden of poverty, and the renewed spirit of service nurtured by initiatives such as the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty, all combined to make this an era of great change. But change can bring with it upheaval, and these many challenges to the status quo brought about tensions and even violence at every level of society.

While our own era is very different than Sargent Shriver's, his words in the speech still resonate, and they remind us that we too have opportunities to take apart "the entire fabric of our life" and put it back together. The social and economic devastation of the pandemic; the repeated examples of racial inequality and violence, most notably in the extrajudicial killings of citizens such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery; the attacks on voting rights in states across the country; the refusal of the former President to concede the election of 2020; and the subsequent attack on the US Capitol by some of his supporters -- all of these events have put our democracy under terrible stress. During this time, it is up to all of us to do what we can -- vote, volunteer, speak up, and support our communities -- with conviction and compassion. It is up to all of us to show that we are, in Sargent Shriver's words, the "committed to the cause of human freedom and human equality".

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