On Tuesday, Jan. 31, George Lakey visited Swarthmore to speak about his new memoir “Dancing With History: A Life for Peace and Justice.” Before Lakey’s formal book presentation on Tuesday night, students were invited to gather for a more intimate conversation about his work in the Lib Lab at McCabe Library.
Lakey’s visit was organized through a collaboration of several departments from Swarthmore, the Haverford Peace Justice and Human Rights department, the Bryn Mawr Peace and Conflict Department, the Swarthmore Friends Meeting, and the Peace Collection in McCabe library.
As a professor, author, trainer, and prominent Quaker, Lakey has been a leader in peace and justice activism since the age of nineteen.
In 1964, he joined the training staff for the Mississippi Freedom Summer, founded “Training for Change” in Philadelphia, and helped design activist curriculum with civil rights leaders like Bayard Rustin.
Lakey also took part in demonstrations with the Congress of Racial Equity and wrote “A Manual for Direct Action” with Martin Oppenheimer in 1964, a book that Rev. Dr. Bernice A. King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, described as a “lifesaver.”
Lakey has been involved in many of the major grassroots struggles of the last half century, including the Anti-Vietnam War movement, the LGBTQ rights movement, the Movement for a New Society, Men Against Patriarchy, Jobs with Peace, and climate justice movements. Lakey has also trained thousands of people who in turn led their own movements for peace, justice, and non-violence.
Throughout his life, Lakey has taught at each of the Tri-Co colleges: Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore. At Swarthmore, he was Eugene M. Lang Visiting Professor for Issues in Social Change in 2006. While at the College he compiled the Global Nonviolent Action Database, a database of nonviolent campaigns that were taking place in nearly 200 countries.
A packed crowd of nearby community members and Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford students attended Lakey’s book talk in Cunniff Hall. The hall was so filled that attendees began sitting against the back wall of the room as they ran out of chairs.
Lee Smithey, professor and chair of Swarthmore’s peace and conflict department, introduced Lakey at the start of the talk.
“[Lakey] mentored and inspired students, and, I might add, faculty from Swarthmore, Haverford and Bryn Mawr year after year,” Smithey said.
Smithey concluded his introduction by playing a trailer for a new documentary about Lakey’s life and his pursuit of civil rights, environmental justice, and promotion of nonviolent practices.
After Smithey’s introduction, Lakey thanked the crowd for attending and read several excerpts from his memoir.
The first reading was about his time working for the Mississippi Freedom Summer. Lakey discussed how he trained hundreds of volunteers and grappled with the news that three volunteers went missing earlier on in the summer.
“We built an invisible container and invincible container strong enough to hold the shock and grief and fear that rocked our training. Under the old trees on the campus, stories and listening, freedom songs and prayers were shared. Very few students went home at the end of the training, and most got on the buses and took their turn,” Lakey read.
During his time training, Lakey was also able to speak with Bob Moses, the organizer of the Mississippi Freedom Summer, about how the members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCCs) were able to survive. This experience prompted Lakey to want more nonviolent strategizing from academics.
“Once more, I found myself wishing for more academics at Penn and elsewhere, to go beyond the violence paradigm to complicate their thinking, and to create more theory to support nonviolent strategizing in life and death situations,” he read.
Lakey then began reading from a passage about his time as a professor at Swarthmore College. While teaching about environmental justice, he took a group of Swarthmore students to Appalachia to see the impacts of coal mining. During this time, Lakey also started the Earth Quaker Action Team with Tri-Co students, a group fighting to build a just and sustainable economy through nonviolent protest. The focus of this group was PNC bank, which financed mountaintop removal in Appalachia. One of Lakey’s first campaigns with Earth Quaker Action Team was a sit-in at PNC bank which ended with the arrests of Lakey, a Swarthmore student, and an activist from Chicago.
Some students that trained under Lakey during this time went on to create the Sunrise Movement in 2017, a national youth movement that aims to stop climate change and create sustainable jobs while living in a rented house in West Philadelphia in Lakey’s neighborhood.
After his reading, Lakey shifted to a discussion of current events. Lakey spoke about his new understanding of polarization, an idea that came to him after writing his book “Viking Economics,” where he investigated how Nordic countries became progressive in the 1930s during an intense period of polarization. To drive his point home, Lakey compared polarization to a forge, an extremely hot furnace that blacksmiths use to heat up metal so they can shape it.
“Polarization is a forge that heats up society and melts norms,” he said. “There is an opportunity now that wasn’t there before.”
Lakey added, however, that forges do not care what happens after they heat up the metal inside of them.
“Since the forge doesn’t care, it was also heating up Germany in the same period in the 20s [as the Nordic countries]. And where did they go? They went unfortunately towards the Nazis.”
Lakey concluded his talk with his hope about the future.
“When those movements find out how to actually be strategic and make real gains, this will be amazing. And I’m so happy to be with you today because now we can do all this stuff together that we couldn’t do before,” he said.
After he finished speaking, Lakey asked the audience to turn to someone sitting near them and reflect on their own reactions to topics raised during the evening. He then fielded questions from students and community members.
The reading was followed by a reception for attendees and Lakey stayed behind to speak to audience members and sign copies of his memoir.
Zahara Martinez ’23, who attended Lakey’s book talk to learn more about his work and history as an organizer, said she found the discussion inspiring, particularly highlighting Lakey’s skills as a public speaker.
“George is a delight to listen to,” she reflected. “He truly lives and breathes his work.”