In his address, “Citizen In the Republic,” President Theodore Roosevelt reflects on civic virtue. He champions the courage it takes to fight for a cause instead of criticizing from the sidelines.
President Roosevelt said: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”
When I read his speech, I see a man projecting his words toward the future of activism.
At sixteen-years-old, Greta Thunberg has entered the arena that Roosevelt alluded to. She now fights a battle that many would much rather ignore. It’s a battle that could intimidate men and women twice her age. Greta is attempting to galvanize the world and its leaders into saving themselves.
Instead of being in school, Greta has decided to spend the prime of her youth standing on the frontlines. Her peers rest in homes undisturbed by the tumult of public scrutiny.
The world is willing to listen to what Greta has to say. She’s chosen. In a short period, Thunberg has built a career as a climate activist. America loves siphoning the energy of the youth to begin the process of change.
Greta Thunberg’s ascension began with her address at the United Nations Climate Action Summit. The passionate warrior shamed world leaders, utilizing a combination of her frank, soft tone and succinct knowledge of climate science to accomplish her mission.
Her goal was to compel dignitaries to act for future generations. Greta attacked the world with a near whisper, tears brimming and voice shaking. Emotions aside, or probably because of them, Thunberg managed to seem unfazed by the gravity of the moment, continuing to speak to a crowd of adults with gravitas.
Greta expressed herself with maturity and poise as the cameras fixed her in their gaze.
What resonated about that address, and what resonates today about Greta Thunberg, is her sincerity. Her passion is palpable, honest, and pure. She seems unadulterated by the bureaucracy that plagues the arena she’s entered.
Meditating further about what Greta represents, it is important to focus on traditions beyond her control. These traditions place her in the arena. There’s history at play when we see Greta. Her aura is accompanied by sociopolitical elements connecting her and the attention she’s gained.
From the moment I heard her words, I was moved.
As a result, it’s been difficult to get one line from her initial address out of my mind. I still hear that one line. Early on in her passionate address, Greta laments:
“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be in school, on the other side of the ocean.”
Easy and candid, her words stayed with me long after her speech went viral. It’s been seven months since her speech, and still, I write this. Her words spread across every corner of the Internet, hitting with a power that opened her up to the floodgates of online critique.
If Greta is in Roosevelt’s arena, who is in the gantries? They are observers of action who sit eager to critique her knowledge of climate science.
With every critique, we miss her historical significance, though. As many would much rather critique, we miss a teachable moment.
The reason that Greta isn’t in school has less to do with her passion for humanity. She is a pseudo-celebrity foisted into the arena because of our odd tradition of activism.
American culture has always celebrated symbols, leaders, and heroes. We prefer heroes to take center-stage in the arena. It is born from a hope that institutions will commit to a sliver of systemic change as a result of their influence. Climate activism has been awaiting a messiah — their own Martin Luther King or Malcolm X.
America and the world want symbols instead of systemic reform. It isn’t Greta’s fault that she’s in the arena alone. Our traditions rank love toward symbols higher than the eradication of problems.
At this moment, Greta’s Swedish star beginning to rise has more to do with the sensationalization of a young, white girl’s passion, and less to do with finding solutions to curb climate disaster.
We’ve seen idol worship in our society before. Movements can start from one individual’s courage. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but the kinetic energy will disappear if meaningful ideas don’t follow the attention. Our fascination with messiahs disrupt the proliferation of potent ideas.
An individual’s voice can’t fix the world’s problems; that is a troublesome tale as old as time. New ideas should be our messiahs, but our vision is poor. Human history’s fascination with heroes equates the marks they make on the world to change.
After waiting for the arrival of hope, a symbol’s presence feels like progress, but it’s the shadow of it. The marks made begin to fade as time passes. Regardless of how impactful the figure, a symbol’s mark begins to dissipate if a systemic revolution does not follow. We forgot what real change looks and feels like.
Climate activism has been waiting. It’s because of the reception to Greta that Climate Activism is going to enter into space similar to the Civil Rights Movement.
Like then, symbols can inspire a movement. All movements take mass action in one direction for change to abound.
By many accounts, The Civil Rights Movement was born on August 28th, 1955. On that day, a fourteen-year-old African American boy named Emmett Till was beaten and murdered by a pair of white men. Law enforcement recovered Till’s body from the Tallahatchie River in Money, Mississippi. He was only visiting his uncle for the summer.
Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam broke into Emmett’s uncle’s home, both men dragging Till from his bed, and beating him until his face looked unrecognizable. The men shot and killed him before tossing his body into the Tallahatchie River with a cotton-gin fan and barbed wire laced to his neck to weigh him down.
Both criminals maintained their innocence. An all-white male jury acquitted them of their crimes. Till’s murderers claimed that Emmett whistled at Roy Bryant’s wife, Carolyn. Carolyn Bryant even testified in court that Till had grabbed her hand. After she pulled away, she says Emmett followed her behind the counter at their store. She remembered he clasped her waist, and continued to use vulgar language. Allegedly, Till told Carolyn Bryant that he had been with white women before.
Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, decided to leave his casket open at the funeral, stating:
“I want the world to see what happened to Emmet Till.”
Mamie Till reached out to Black magazines intending to spread her son’s story. Along with the story, images of Emmett’s face made the rounds, haunting the black community. The trafficked image symbolized the loss of youthful innocence. White men stole Black youth and an unjust system empowered them. This is the spark that ignited the Civil Rights Movement.
Following Milam and Bryant’s acquittal, a boycott of the Bryant grocery store took place. The boycott caused its closure which forced them to move from Mississippi to Texas. Also, one hundred days after Till’s murder, the legendary Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. She violated Alabama’s bus segregation laws resulting in her arrest.
In 1988, Reverend Jesse Jackson told Vanity Fair that, “Rosa said she thought about going to the back of the bus. But then she thought about Emmett Till.”
Till’s death was on Martin Luther King’s mind as he entered the arena. Dr. King summoned the energy of Emmett Till’s murder to galvanize the nation against social and racial injustice.
In a Mother’s Day sermon, King said, “The crying voice of a little Emmett L. Till, screaming from the rushing waters in Mississippi.” In that same address, King continued, “The white men who lynch Negroes worship Christ. That jury in Mississippi, which a few days ago in the Emmett Till case, freed two white men from what might be considered one of the most brutal and inhuman crimes of the twentieth century, worship Christ.”
Eight years later, on the anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder, Dr. King delivered his iconic I Have a Dream speech. Viewing Emmett Till’s murder as the genesis of the Civil Rights Movement is important. It sets a benchmark for the first piece of legislation passed in favor of the oppressed. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act got passed. Its passage demonstrates the power of symbols and how they birth effective movements. After 9 years, the Civil Rights Movement impacted systemic change.
The loss of Emmett Till’s youth galvanized an entire group. His death gave life to tangible change beyond the symbolism and he was only a child. Till deserved to make it home that summer. Instead, he became a symbol stripped of his future, unable to marry and have kids to carry on his last name.
Emmett Till should’ve been in school that following September, but instead he became frozen in time, trapped in the pages of American history as a boy murdered by racial injustice.
Greta is going to be able to grow old and imagine her future in ways that Till is unable. The loss of youth has managed to work as a symbolic jumpstart to movements. Greta hasn’t similarly lost her youth to Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, or Tamir Rice. She’s still in the arena. What are her fellow climate activists going to do support her sacrifice?
You see, the arena that Greta has entered isn’t climate activism. With those words, she walks into the arena of tradition. I do believe that the world is in desperate need of heroes. To gain infrastructural and cultural change, this world needs altruism. Altruism needs to have a seat in everyone’s political consciousness, not just the one or the few; not only must the eternally ready who can keep their fire for change stoked — the subdued and pacified must be ready to take on immense challenges and throw themselves into the arena as well.
The symbols and martyrs that our tradition loves to create consist of lone figures. For change to come, it takes a collective symmetry aligning the passions of mankind.
I could’ve saved you the time spent reading by saying:
We all must enter the arena.
May God Be With You,