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What historical figures can teach us about change and action

In this file photo dated 1931, Mahatma Gandhi talks to a crowd in India. Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and many other historical figures have much to teach us about social change and action.
Associated Press

As a young boy, teenager and emerging adult, my father consistently taught me by example the responsibility of religious and racial tolerance, something I now appreciate in even deeper ways in view of George Floyd’s inexplicable death.

When I was 13, my father, over my protests, accompanied me to Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi,” an experience I never told him, though my students all know, transformed what I considered to be a hero — Ghandi, a community organizer who brought an empire to heel and raised a nation long riven by myriad intolerances.

At 15, he took me to a Hindu temple in Detroit, an experience that at the time seemed otherworldly, but grew into transcendent beauty as I’ve appreciated the significance of symbolic ablutions and an overriding commitment to the sanctity of life.

Finally, as a senior in college, Dad paired a visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., with a visit to the mosque in our nation’s capital — some seven years before 2001. While living in Turkey for a short time, the call of the muezzin and the simple everyday devotions of those I lived with became familiar and beautiful.

I think what my father aimed at was not tolerance, though that was a start, but something more exquisite: full appreciation and celebration of all men and women, be their race, religion or cultural preferences, what they may be.

There are myriad ways to express our cultural, racial and religious solidarity with those around us at this watershed moment of collective anguish and anticipation for change.

In the wake of Floyd’s death, I sat at breakfast with one of my students who lamented that the energy and goodwill of the current call for change lacked a leading voice: a Mohandas Gandhi, a Martin Luther King Jr., a Nelson Mandela.

As a history professor, it struck me — very much in the spirit of my father’s educational impulses, that the very books, memoirs exactly, of those leaders, offer a starting point for each of us to channel our energies towards substantive change in our communities.

“Gandhi composed his Experiments with Truth,” a memoir of his activities in South Africa and ongoing struggles for human rights in India, in 1925 — a full two decades before Indian independence was realized. His reflections touch on the virtues of personal integrity and respect in a highly racialized empire.

Martin Luther King’s autobiography charts not only the tumult and sacrifice of racial struggle in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s, but his own experiments with truth, testing the suitability of different ideas — eschewing Marxism in favor of Christianity as his guiding light — to the same nonviolent crusade for civil rights for all Americans.

Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom,” like King’s memoir before him, tips his cap to Gandhi in his unique pursuit of dignity for all South Africans. Mandela demonstrated an aptitude for law as a tool for social change, but perhaps it was his meekness in learning his antagonists’ language (Afrikaans) during twenty-seven years on Robben Island’s stony prisonscape that gave proof of his sincerity in seeking racial equality.

Recent memoirs also suggest fitting starting points for increased civic engagement — the true tool that will forge racial healing and mutual appreciation. Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” tells the story of a young American, supported by a strong family, who navigated the labyrinths of academic and corporate power to find meaningful ways to unite community in Southside Chicago before and after meeting her presidentially destined husband.

Public protests mark one way to express a desire to change, but learning about ways to bring those changes about will benefit all of us if we would hope to take the step towards action, the only salve for a nation numbed by grief.

Evan Ward is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, where he teaches courses on world history.