Scott Rasmussen: If you want to change world, look outside of politics
One of the most important lessons anyone can learn about America is forgotten every election season.
The lesson is simple: politicians don’t lead the nation, they lag behind. Change always comes from outside the political process, often from surprising places.
On April 19, 1960, that truth was dramatically demonstrated at city hall in Nashville, Tennessee. A 21-year old African-American female student led the city forward by asking the city’s 49-year old white mayor the right question at the right time.
In political terms, the mayor had all the power and prestige. He had been an elected politician for more than a decade. The young woman had no political status. In fact, at the time of their encounter, she was not even allowed to drink at the same water fountain as white women.
But Diane Nash had something more powerful than politics on her side. America’s founding ideals proclaimed that all of us are created equal and that we all have the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. In Nashville of 1960, as in many other times and places, it was clear that the reality did not match the rhetoric.
To remedy this, the young student learned the power of non-violent protests to overcome politics and physical intimidation. To combat segregated lunch counters, Nash and others launched a sit-in movement to dramatize the situation. Tensions mounted over a period of months as black students began sitting at the forbidden lunch counters. They were verbally harassed and many were beaten. Hundreds were arrested.
As Juan Williams noted in Eyes on the Prize, “Nashville’s business community was pushing for a settlement. Sales had slumped because whites were afraid to come downtown and blacks were boycotting the stores.”
But the political dynamics favored the status quo.
That all changed on April 19. About 5:30 in the morning, dynamite destroyed the house of a black city-council member who had defended the protesters.
In response, thousands of protesters marched silently to the steps of city hall. Mounting the steps of City Hall, the young woman asked Mayor Ben West “Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?”
The mayor said yes, it was wrong. With the political obstacle removed, the merchants quickly resolved the situation. The lunch counters were desegregated and steps were taken to ensure that there would be no more violence at the lunch counters.
There were still many other battles to be won before legal segregation was brought to an end in Nashville. But the decisive moment came when a 21-year old student ignored politics and asked the mayor a question of right and wrong.
Looking back on it years later, Mayor West offered an interesting assessment. He said that it was a moral question, “one that a man has to answer, and not a politician.”
Change came from the outside, not from the politicians. And our nation moved one step closer to living up to its highest ideals when the politician answered as a man and got politics out of the way.