The great problem to be solved by the American people is this: whether or not there is strength enough in democracy, virtue enough in our civilization, and power enough in our religion to have mercy and deal justly with four millions of people lately translated from the old oligarchy of slavery to the new commonwealth of freedom.
— Frances Harper, 1875
Young people have heard of the injustices of slavery, segregation and their aftermath. As historian Jeff Kolnick recently described in MinnPost, this legacy is “the very air we breathe.” The understandable anger that young people often feel about injustices also can fuel the “us against them” mentality that is contributing to fraying of the nation’s civic fabric.
Young people haven’t heard about the commonwealth of the black poetess Frances Harper. It created hope and common ground across racial, economic, and partisan divisions. It can do so again.
‘The commons, shared civic resources’
Commonwealth meant popular government; four states (Massachusetts, Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania) are still known as commonwealths. It also meant “the commons, shared civic resources” built by the labors of everyday people. This is the “public work” citizenship tradition. In it, ordinary citizens develop authority for their claims to equality in the world they help to create.
This view animated the poetry of Langston Hughes, the African-American poet. In “Freedom’s Plow,” written in 1941, Hughes proposes that common people have authority and audacity to be free citizens because of their labors in building the common world: “Out of labor-white hands and black hands-/ Came the dream, the strength, the will, / and the way to build America/ America! / Land created in common, / Dream nourished in common/ Keep your hand on the plow/Hold on!”
I learned about the commonwealth and the claims from civic construction as a young man working for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s civil rights movement. The bookends of King’s career – domestic workers walking to work rather than ride segregated buses in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the garbage workers on strike in Memphis in 1968, with their signs, “I am a Man” – convey the dignity and public value of work. “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep even as a Michelangelo painted,” he told Cleveland high school students in 1967. “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance.”
Chronicling history of civic construction
This story of civic construction is now told in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which I visited last fall. The museum doesn’t sugarcoat the horrors of racial oppression. But it pairs these with stories of building a common world. It describes resistance and also other kinds of work of civic construction like creating churches, schools and colleges, women’s organizations like the Council of Negro Women and labor groups like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
These created resources for black communities, which also became vital parts of America’s commonwealth. “To shield their families from the unfairness of segregation, African Americans created communities that served their social, political, and religious needs,” reads one display. “The activities and organizations they created provided them the opportunity to interact with one another and hold positions denied to them otherwise. Building communities together, they also developed the skills in oratory, organization, and leadership that ultimately served them so well in demanding their rights as citizens.”
Such citizen work fed into the citizenship schools across the South. “Civil rights activists established nearly 900 Citizenship Schools in rural areas throughout the South,” reads the museum description. “The immediate goal was to help African Americans pass the literacy tests required for voter registration. However, the schools also trained people to become activists themselves and work for change in their own communities.”
Central to Minnesota’s history
When I moved to Minnesota, I discovered that the commonwealth vision of civic construction is central in the state’s history. The “cooperative commonwealth” was the vision of populist movements of farmers and workers, enshrined in the “Commonwealth Platform” of the Farmer Labor Party in 1934. It was also a favorite term of Yankee business leaders who settled in the Twin Cities. Elmer Anderson often talked about the commonwealth, believing in the obligation of businesses to support civic life through financial and personal involvement in building schools, libraries, museums, orchestras, parks and other commons.
The black freedom struggle combined civic construction and a vision of “liberty and justice for all.” I’m convinced that the vitality of the commonwealth in Minnesota history was the reason for state leadership in civil rights, even with a largely European-American population. It is also the reason for Minnesota’s national leadership in the Civic Health Index survey of voting, volunteering, involvement in neighborhoods and other elements of civic life, measured each year by the National Conference for Citizenship.
In a time of eroding faith in democracy and looming threats to the commons, from schools, colleges, and libraries to water resources, coastal areas, and public parks, remembering the commonwealth and the tasks of civic repair can generate the hope we need. The commonwealth vision makes democracy a way of life, not simply a trip to the ballot box, and puts citizens back in as its agents and architects.
Harry C. Boyte, Senior Scholar in Public Work Philosophy at Augsburg University, is the author of “Pedagogy of the Empowered: Awakening Democracy through Public Work”(forthcoming Vanderbilt University Press, 2018).
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