When you’re looking through the rearview mirror, there’s always the temptation to see the turning points of the twentieth century as something like events in a Hollywood movie. With incredible heroes who stride forward at the decisive hour and action rising to a dramatic climax.
What this tends to overlook is how, so often, these moments are made possible by millions of people whose names are forgotten by history. All through countless smaller acts that may never inspire a movie but unsettled the foundations of the status quo. So that when the decisive hour comes, conditions are ripe for action that transforms how people live, breathe, and see the world around them, and what was impossible in the morning is inevitable in the evening. Thanks in part, to those millions.
With the UN talks in Paris beginning shortly and the prospect of a strong global climate agreement very much a reality, we’ve been thinking a lot about turning points. As Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change wrote in a recent Guardian commentary, “We will look back at this moment as a moment of remarkable transformation, as the indisputable turning point of the century.” There are a million ways to say how and why, but perhaps the simplest is that children born after December 11 will enter a world that’s decided to finally address climate change. Just think about what that means for a moment. And while a great deal of hard, hard work will still be ahead to make sure policymakers live up to their promises (and get even more ambitious about the promises they make), such an agreement opens up a whole new set of possibilities that could not exist without it.
In the meantime, those countless smaller acts continue and this weekend, millions will come together in cities around the world for the Global Climate March to speak as one planet and push for a turning point in Paris. So as we look forward to the march this weekend, we’re also looking back at three days that changed the world – and taking inspiration.
March 7, 1965
Former President Truman called it “silly” when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a group of some 600 protestors from Selma, Alabama with the plan of marching to the state’s capital in Montgomery to call attention to the violence and discrimination African Americans were facing in trying to register to vote. They didn’t get far, as – under the orders of notorious segregationist and Alabama Governor George Wallace – state troopers brutally assaulted the marchers with clubs and tear gas on the Edmund Pettis Bridge and forced them to turn back to Selma. Television cameras captured the violence on a day that became known as “Bloody Sunday,” shocking and awakening the nation’s conscience.
The result: when 2,000 marchers set out again for a five-day march to Montgomery on March 21, they were met by 50,000 supporters on the road and by the capitol when they arrived. As Dr. King proclaimed on the capitol steps, “No tide of racism can stop us,” while in DC, Congress was proving him right, getting ready to pass the Voting Rights Act that August guaranteeing the right to vote to all Americans.
November 9, 1989
Call it a bureaucratic misunderstanding. Call it a glorious mistake. But whatever you call it, the one event that has become synonymous with the fall of Communism in the popular imagination – the fall of the Berlin Wall – might never have happened – at least not so soon – if an East German state spokesman hadn’t flubbed his lines at a press conference.
Rewind to 1989. In the USSR, then General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had been introducing political and social reforms to both placate and ensure Communist Party control of the citizens demanding greater and greater freedoms across the Eastern Bloc. In East Germany, party leaders felt they too had to make some concessions and decided to announce some minor changes to the nation’s travel restrictions at a press conference.
Nothing truly was supposed to change. Except that the official announcing the news and responding to questions on television, Günter Schabowski, mentioned that travel abroad would be “possible for every citizen,” beginning “right away, immediately.” It was enough to give reporters the impression that the state had made sweeping changes. And when they reported what they thought was news, it was enough to inspire thousands of restless East Berliners who’d sought greater and greater freedoms to begin massing at the wall that night and ultimately force a crossing into West Berlin.
More circumstances had to go just right: state security forces had to disbelieve reports of the crowds swelling by the wall and a police officer, furious with his superiors, had to make the fateful decision to allow people to pass instead of opening fire. But it was the East Germans themselves who, hungry for a better life, seized the moment and once they’d pulled the first brick from the wall, there was no stopping them.
February 11, 1990
"Comrades and fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom," said Nelson Mandela to the thousands massed before Cape Town’s city hall, speaking on his first day of freedom.
"I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people. ... Today, the majority of South Africans, black and white, recognize that apartheid has no future. It has to be ended by our decisive mass action."
It would be. For decades, black South Africans had fought for the end of apartheid and after 27 years in prison, Mandela standing in public signaled that it was near. It would not be a smooth road to get there as violent clashes between white police and black South Africans as well as between Mandela’s African National Congress and other rival organizations followed in the near term. Thousands died in the next few years, but the sight of Mandela proved a turning point that inspired many to keep believing a more just and free South Africa was possible and working to make it happen. Their efforts led to the country’s first truly free election in 1994, which elected Mandela as the first black South African president.
Which takes us to this weekend
Most of us will never have the chance to join the talks where negotiators shape a global climate agreement. But together we can make it possible for those who do to make these talks a turning point to rank with Selma, Berlin, and Cape Town with a bold agreement to accelerate the planet-wide shift to clean energy and address climate change while we still have time.
To do so, we have to speak up louder and more forcefully than we’ve ever done before. Join the Global Climate March this weekend in cities around the world from London to São Paulo to Rome to Dhaka to Kyoto and join us in making Paris a historic turning point. For more details, visit the Global Climate March home page.
Before You Go
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