People speak truth to power with hopes of accomplishing goals ranging from personal advantages and extravagances to collective acknowledgements and political freedom. The occasion for such a conversation might be something as simple as a teenager negotiating use of the family car for a date. Or it could be as serious as the parents of children slain in a mass shooting demanding officials entrusted with their safety be held accountable in some way.
When members of the American Friends Service Committee published their 1955 “report” titled SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence, they were mostly concerned with addressing international conflicts. Contributing authors noted the title of the report was inspired by “a spiritual duty” assigned Quakers in the 18th Century. They considered themselves speaking truth to several embodiments of power:
Although his name does not appear among signers of the report, famed civil rights icon Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) has often been cited as one of its principal authors and originator of the phrase: Speak truth to power. Various researchers have pointed to archived correspondence and alternate versions of the report to verify Bayard’s now historic contribution to it.
Yesterday and Today
The concept and practice of speaking truth to power is no less relevant, or compelling, in 2022 than in the 1900s. If anything, it has likely become more so both within America’s borders and beyond them. People stunned to witness the skill with which President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy requested, via live video links, military assistance from international heads of state during the early days of his country’s current war with Russia know this for themselves.
Dialogues between truth and power may be engaged in a variety of forms. Young people like USA’s Mari Copeny and Kenya’s Lesein Mutunkei articulate concerns over environmental sustainability with a sense of urgency largely absent from discussions held by members of previous generations. Pro-democracy demonstrations in Sudan, Hong Kong, Myanmar and other locations draw international attention as protestors present their case for greater personal freedom and human rights. The ongoing push to end racism in America has spawned a generation of activists who identify as anti-racists and routinely address concerns over the issue as the country’s demographic profile continues to steadily evolve.
In most of these instances, people rarely present themselves as “heroes” but as human beings struggling to correct imbalances––be they environmental, political, or social––which pose direct threats to their continued existence.
Contemporary award-winning American author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.