published Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Dalton Roberts: Protests require moral energy

by Dalton Roberts

One of the protesters camped out on the courthouse lawn called me and asked what I thought of their protest. I asked, "What is it you are protesting?" and after fumbling a little with his answer, he finally said, "I am not sure."

I said, "The most important thing in a protest movement is to have a clear message about what you are protesting. You can't rally the troops without it and, more importantly, you cannot sway public opinion."

The first point (rallying the troops) is essential to success. The reason the civil-rights movement prevailed was that there was a hard-core group of supporters who were convinced they were right, and many of them were willing to die for it. Indeed, many did.

The PBS documentary on that movement was a stirring account of a large number of people who would not be denied.

It was that kind of moral certainty that finally turned the tide and gained enough support among the people and their elected representatives to create positive change.

In the '60s, when the movement was in full swing, Russia sent up Sputnik, and it scared America to think we might lose the race in space. We felt we had to be the first on the moon. Always a knee-jerk group, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act to channel more students into math and science and to train counselors to identify such scientific talent.

I was one of those counselors. The government sent me to UT-Knoxville for 14 weeks to sharpen my testing and diagnostic skills.

Knowing I would be there for 14 weeks, I went to a downtown drugstore and bought supplies. As I got ready to check out, I decided I wanted a Coke and was told that the lunch counter was closed. I saw a dozen young blacks sitting there and asked why the counter was closed. The manager said, "Those blacks from Knoxville College are doing a sit-in."

I was actually shocked that no one would serve them and said so. I said, "I don't want to shop here again if there are people you won't serve."

That is exactly my point. If you know you are right, if you feel certain you stand on the moral high ground, you can convince the unconvinced to join you and prevail in the never-ending fight for positive change. If you waver in uncertainty, you cannot and will not prevail.

It seems like such a waste of good protest energy to throw up tents and despoil the beautiful courthouse lawn when you are uncertain about your cause and cannot activate and organize the moral energy to send a clear message.

It is a symptom of the times. We are unhappy but unable to pinpoint what our real problems are. Gas prices are killing us. Congress has been purchased by big contributors and is unresponsive to anyone but the richest among us.

The quality of life for the masses has been sinking for a long time and will continue to plummet until we can activate the moral indignation of the people and channel it into something more substantial than tents on courthouse lawns.

Those kind of "occupy" protests will do nothing but lose the support of the people we must have to make changes for the better.

For starters, get indignant that your government has been bought.

Email Dalton Roberts at

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