Q and A on Ken's Personal Journey in Conflict
The following Q & A are excerpted from writings, informal conversations with friends, colleagues and mentees, as well as published interviews.
What were your crucible experiences in conflict?
My crucible experiences in conflict took shape both as a child in my family, and coming of age in the 1960s. I was a deeply committed participant in the civil rights movement, both in the North and the South, working with the Congress of Racial Equality in Berkeley and Los Angeles; with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Law Students Civil Rights Research Council principally in Selma, Montgomery and Greensboro County, Alabama, and in Albany, Americus and Baker County, Georgia; and with the Ad Hoc Committee Against Discrimination in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco, among others.
I was active in the student movement throughout the 1960s, and was chairman of SLATE, a campus political party at the University of California at Berkeley, and a SLATE representative on student government. I participated in a wide variety of campus political organizations, culminating in the Free Speech Movement, in which I was also active. I spoke and helped encourage student political activity as a full-time student organizer at campuses across the country and later at Columbia University during its strike, at Tokyo University through a similar strike, in Paris in May of 1968, and in dozens of other locations for Students for a Democratic Society.
I was an organizer for the National Lawyers Guild for several years, as its law student director, then executive director, and coordinated legal defense for the principal national mobilizations against the Vietnam War in New York City, the District of Columbia and Chicago. I helped countless young men avoid the draft and supported numerous civilian and GI efforts to end the war in Vietnam, among others, through Support Our Soldiers, the GI Coffeehouse Movement, Winter Soldier Investigation, the “FTA Show” and Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I represented anti-war soldiers who refused military service in courts martial, helped organize anti-war GIs in the U.S., England, the Philippines, Japan and Europe and wrote popular manuals and articles on draft and military law for those who were seeking to end the war.
In short, I was a committed activist working energetically for more than a decade and a half with countless individuals, social movements and political organizations internationally and at home in an effort to increase political conflicts rather than end them — albeit in the hope of bringing about a much deeper, more far-reaching resolution.
In reflection, I find these social justice, political organizing and peacemaking activities largely compatible with my current commitment to the core values and principles of conflict resolution, which is grounded in equality, free speech and democratic community.
At the same time, while I passionately agreed with many of the beliefs and aims of the organizations and movements I worked with, and was a leader and spokesperson in nearly all of them, I found myself unable to totally accept or completely agree with all their positions, actions and philosophical leanings, in part because these require higher order attitudes, understandings and skills that lie deeper than political gain.
All of us have experienced community on a small scale, but not all of us have experienced in on a large scale, as in communities of hundreds and thousands, or tens of thousands. Those are things that are exceptional.
This is an excerpt from a conversation about community with Molly Stranahan, Rachel Bagby, Susan Belchamber and Tesa Silvestre (December 2017)
Ken: Communities can be very small. Most of us have experienced it on a small scale. A larger sense of community that involves thousands of people, even tens of thousands of people, that is very rare. When you experience that, what you realize is that people can come together in a kind of miraculous way under the right conditions, and sometimes under the wrong conditions.
Susan B: Could you tell us more about your experience of community?
Ken: My first and most powerful sense of this larger kind of community took place when I went to the South in the Civil Rights movement in the early 60s and I worked in Selma, Alabama, and Albany in South Georgia. I learned in the space of a week more than I had learned in years. And the people I learned it from where itinerant share croppers, illiterate farmers, who in the face of unbelievable oppression found the courage to come together to improve their lives, the lives of their children, and their grand-children. This was really stunning and amazing. Several things happened. The first was a kind of reversal experience that some of you may not have experienced. The reversal was feeling that I was in danger if I saw someone who was white, and feeling that I was safe if I saw someone who was black, the exact opposite of what you might experience now. But this was the way it was then. The second part was that I experienced a community of courage, led mostly by women, who decided that their children needed to have books in school. The high school in Baker county had no books for children of color. Not every child had a book. but all the white kids had books. This was a tiny community in which there are still plantations, and where there are the black Millers and the white Millers, all families created through rape, and what people used to call "integration after dark." So part of the sense of community came from the danger. Part of it came from knowing that what we were doing was right, that sense of certainty, or moral clarity that was really deep and profound.
Susan: And what did you learn from that?
What I learned in the course of that is that community isn't just about people sharing beliefs about some future that they all believe in. We tend to think of communities as being organized around values or moral principles. Mostly what we did is that we met in black churches and we held up each other in ways that were very, very subtle but very powerful and it wasn't — as you would expect -- that the best prepared for this were the ones that needed the least holding up. Sometimes it was those of us who were the civil rights workers who needed to be held by people in the community. What you realize is that diversity is a condition for the creation of community, diverse strengths and diverse weaknesses. Being able to be frightened together, was a source of strength, something that could be shared. That is what I meant when I said that all of us have experienced community on a small scale, but not all of us have experienced in on a large scale, like communities of hundreds and thousands, or tens of thousands. Those are things that are exceptional. All oppressed groups have had that experience. Women experience something like that. This is one of the sources of strength of feminism, that sense of connection.
The second place I experienced community was after I returned to the North, and discovered that the same policies at work in the South were also in the North. The alliances that were created brought tens of thousands of us together, a realization that this matter and we needed each other's support in order to do this right. All of this really helped and the free speech movement, gave that sense of community, including being in Paris in May of 1968 and in Tokyo during the takeover of the University.
This is why many people who experienced the 60s are nostalgic about it. They are nostalgic for that sense of connection, for the feeling of community that comes from facing a difficulty together. It happens in families when people face troubles together. And when they don't, that sense of community begins to disappear.