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An extraordinary conversation with the late congressman John Lewis, taped in Montgomery, Alabama, during a pilgrimage 50 years after the March on Washington. It offers a special look inside his wisdom, the civil rights leaders’ spiritual confrontation within themselves, and the intricate art of nonviolence as “love in action.”

Vincent Harding was wise about how the vision of the civil rights movement might speak to 21st-century realities. He reminded us that the movement of the ’50s and ’60s was spiritually as well as politically vigorous; it aspired to a “beloved community,” not merely a tolerant integrated society. He pursued this through patient-yet-passionate cross-cultural, cross-generational relationships. And he posed and lived a question that is freshly in our midst: Is America possible?

Civil rights legend Ruby Sales learned to ask “Where does it hurt?” because it’s a question that drives to the heart of the matter — and a question we scarcely know how to ask in public life now. Sales says we must be as clear about what we love as about what we hate if we want to make change. And even as she unsettles some of what we think we know about the force of religion in civil rights history, she names a “spiritual crisis of white America” as a calling of today.

Public theologian Ruby Sales opens up what it was like to be a teenage participant in the civil rights movement — including the impatience she had with religion and how she circled back, through her experiences of the movement, to a sense of the deep reason for inner life and religious groundings. The question she carries with her, “Where does it hurt?”, models new ways for us to understand one another.

Community organizers Rami Nashashibi and Lucas Johnson have much to teach us about using love — the most reliable muscle of human transformation — as a practical public good. Nashashibi is the founder of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, a force for social healing on Chicago’s South Side. Johnson is the newly-named executive director of The On Being Project’s Civil Conversations Project. In a world of division, they say despair is not an option — and that the work of social healing requires us to get “proximate to pain.”

A civil rights elder and speechwriter for Martin Luther King, Jr., the late Vincent Harding brought the wisdom of the movement to young people in hurting places. He offers the image of a “live human signpost” as a guiding light toward the kind of support and mentorship we can offer one another in the path toward a beloved community. “When it comes to creating a multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious, democratic society, we are still a developing nation,” he says. “But my own deep, deep conviction is that the knowledge, like all knowledge, is available to us if we seek it.”

A prolific writer on sociology, history, economics, and politics, W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the most extraordinary minds of American and global history. His life traced an incredible arc; he was born three years after the end of the Civil War and died on the eve of the March on Washington. In 1903, he penned the famous line that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” Du Bois was a formative voice for many of the people who gave us the civil rights movement and for all of us navigating the still-unfolding, unfinished business of racial justice now. We bring his life and ideas into relief through three conversations with people who were inspired by him.

The change we work to affect is an intergenerational pursuit — one that calls us to courage, commitment, and community with one another, as well as those who came before us. Lucas Johnson honors the radical hope of the leaders of the black freedom struggle.
Editor’s note: This essay was written and originally published in 2007. It is reprinted here with permission. Some years ago, I came across one of the most intriguing book titles that I have ever seen. It was set forth in the form of a question: Is America Possible?…

Chinese-American philosopher and civil rights legend Grace Lee Boggs turned 100 this summer. She has been at the heart and soul of a largely hidden story inside Detroit’s evolution from economic collapse to rebirth. We traveled in 2011 to meet her and her community of joyful, passionate people reimagining work, food, and the very meaning of humanity. They have lessons for us all.