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I recently attended a memorial service for my dear friend and former Children’s Defense Fund Board Chair Ambassador James Joseph. Ambassador Joseph was a civil rights, corporate and philanthropic leader, including his transformative service as president and chief executive officer of the Council on Foundations and a co-founder and chair of the Association of Black Foundation Executives, and a lifelong public servant. He was an adviser to four U.S. presidents beginning with President Carter, and in 1995 was appointed as the U.S. ambassador to South Africa by President Clinton.
It was a crucial moment following Nelson Mandela’s 1994 election as South Africa’s first Black president, and Ambassador Joseph became the only American ambassador to present his credentials to President Mandela as he worked closely with his new administration. He witnessed firsthand South Africa’s early post-apartheid struggles as it sought to move away from its legacy of white supremacy, legal segregation and racial violence towards a new future striving for truth and reconciliation, and could see the parallels between South Africa’s history and our own. He also held out hope for what both nations could become.
His own early experiences of America’s history came from his childhood in Opelousas, Louisiana, a state KKK headquarters where he remembered lynchings and racial violence as common facts of life. Later, after graduating from Southern University and earning a master’s degree in divinity from Yale University, he returned South to serve on the faculty of Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, another KKK stronghold, where he became a leading figure in the local civil rights movement. He participated in protests where he was attacked and beaten and received death threats. But these were the years that shaped his hope for the future. As he put it decades later, “I have been able to remain hopeful in the midst of great adversity because I learned early in life to make a distinction between hope and optimism. It is not just hope-theologians but hope-psychologists as well who remind us that optimism adopts the role of the spectator who surveys the evidence in order to infer that things are going to get better. Hope, on the other hand, enacts the stance of the participant who is able to look beyond the evidence and see alternative possibilities. … The truth is that hope is not so much an act of memory as it is an act of imagination and courage.”
“There is reason for hope because moments of crisis are often moments of great possibility. These are the moments when we need to remind ourselves that we did it before and we can do it again. … That was one of the reasons why the mass meeting was a staple of our movement. Before every street march or public demonstration, we assembled in a church or auditorium, usually a church, to inspire and persuade each other not simply to face the hostile bystanders, the police dogs, and those behind them with clubs and cattle prods. We had to keep those who stood with us focused on the potential of the human spirit as well. It was that same potential that enabled us to keep hope alive in what appeared to others to be almost hopeless situations. As [Dr. King] put in one of our mass meetings, ‘Basic to our philosophy is a deep faith in the future. Ours is a movement based on hope because when hope fades the movement dies.'”
Ambassador Joseph also loved to quote Czech leader and writer Vaclav Havel: “I am not an optimist because I do not believe that everything ends well. Nor am I a pessimist because I do not believe that everything ends badly. But I could not accomplish anything if I did not have hope within me, for the gift of hope is as big as the gift of life itself.” It was fitting that South Africa awarded Ambassador Joseph the Order of Good Hope, its highest honor bestowed on a citizen of another country, because he sustained the gift of good hope his entire life.
During a 2020 interview, Ambassador Joseph had the chance to look back over his lifetime of experiences and connect them to the growing movements for racial justice following George Floyd’s murder, and was asked what he would say to the next generation of social activists. He answered: “This is your moment. A lot of attention is given to our movement in the ’60s, but those were different times. We accomplished a lot, and we left a lot undone. This is your opportunity to complete the American Revolution.” This is a reason for hope.
Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.