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Dancing with History (review)

Shelley Tanenbaum
On Cooperation (September 2022)
Dancing with History
written by George Lakey
reviewed by Shelley Tanenbaum

The title of this book beautifully describes George Lakey’s preferred way to engage with the world: Dancing with History. I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir about Lakey’s roots and his path over eighty-four years.

Two questions are central to Lakey’s life: How shall we act so that we will be more likely to be effective? And how do our actions affect the working class? Lakey sees nonviolent direct action and accessible trainings as keys to effectiveness and to human advancement.

As a young man in the 1950s, Lakey was inspired by the nuclear test ban campaign and by the civil rights movement. He saw liberals and radicals working together successfully in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (instead of tearing each other apart), and he learned the value of nonviolent direct action from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a long campaign with ultimate success.

Another major influence on Lakey’s understanding of the world was the time he lived in Norway. When he was twenty-one, Lakey met and married Berit, and the couple moved to Norway to study there and spend time with her family. Lakey came to understand the difference between a society based on an “equity for all” and one that pits groups of people against each another for economic gain. It was during those years that Lakey began to call himself a “practical visionary.”

Dancing with History takes us from Lakey’s working-class background, to his years attending a predominantly black college (first in his family to attend college), to resisting the constraints of traditional academia, to organizing and training activists in the early 1960s civil rights movement, to resisting the Vietnam draft. His activism gave him a solid grounding in tools for social action, and all the while, he wrote training manuals and shared his skills with others.

Throughout his activism, organizing, and training, Lakey lived with a joyful appreciation of all that life has to offer. He sums up his philosophy in this way: “My personal calling to be willing even to sacrifice my life for the cause, if it came to that, is no contradiction to how much I say ‘yes’ to our ability to connect with others and laugh and sing and make love and be at peace with Creation.” He describes an example of both his bravery and his love of life in a story about leading a crew of activists aboard the Phoenix to sail into South Vietnam in 1967 to protest the U.S. war there.

Although this is primarily a story of Lakey’s evolution as a social activist, it also interweaves personal and family joys and challenges. Lakey realized he was bisexual early in life and describes the dangerous challenges he faced as someone recognized as gay, especially in his younger years. He describes his love for Berit and his three children, the struggles they had, especially as a biracial family and as a couple evolving from traditional to equal-gender roles. And he describes his life as a loving gay man, singing Broadway tunes along the way.

Almost from the beginning of his activism, Lakey relied on Quaker worship, fellowship, and support to ground his actions. In 1966, he helped found A Quaker Action Group, or AQAG, to take bolder actions against the war in Vietnam than other Quaker groups were willing to take. Working in and out of Quaker circles, Lakey developed a pattern of seeking out the cutting edge of activism, then forming a group to take the action to the next level.

Lakey helped launch many groups over the years, including: Movement for a New Society (two decades), Jobs with Peace, Training for Change, and Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT). Lakey is always looking for ways to learn from past experience and build on it. His work with EQAT illuminates this approach. EQAT was formed to organize Quaker direct action forcused on climate issues. Some of EQAT’s early actions pressured PNC Bank to divest from financing mountain-top-removal coal mining. The work attracted the participation of Swarthmore students who then went on to launch a divestment campaign on campus, which in turn, inspired the global campus divestment movement. A few years later, some of these students (and others) formed the Sunrise Movement, calling for a Green New Deal. Wow!

I’ve listed only a few highlights from this inspiring story of George Lakey’s life, a story of an old soul filled with wisdom and love of life, and filled with joy and energy to match the youngest amongst us. Read and enjoy!

Shelley Tanenbaum is the General Secretary of Quaker Earthcare Witness and a member of Strawberry Creek Meeting in Berkeley, CA (PacYM).

Nonviolent action Civil rights movement anti-war movement

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