[Editor's note: In 1970, the YWCA of the USA adopted as its "One Imperative" the elimination of racism "wherever it exists" and "by any means necessary." Community Change was present when the Imperative was adopted and later trained national staff and board members. Each local YWCA was charged with implementing the Imperative in its work. To some individuals, however, the phrase "by any means necessary" seemed to go too far. Did the YWCA leadership really mean that members should participate in any activity opposed to racism-including violence? The following essay is a response to those concerns.]
For several years I have heard discussion about the phrase in the YWCA One Imperative which states an intention to eliminate racism “by any means necessary.” That phrase often gets a reaction which seems to rise out of a fearful vision of YW members across the country plotting incendiary and revolutionary activity. “Any means necessary” seems to imply a “no holds barred” permit for illicit action which chills the blood of traditional “Y” people. As one who has been close to the YWCA at many levels as it has developed its Imperative, and yet as one who speaks from “outside,” I offer some comments on this storm-centered phrase, “by any means necessary.”
I like the phrase. I get a bit frightened that sometimes “any means necessary” becomes an excuse for people to talk about it rather than do something to implement the Imperative. Parlor discussions about meanings and definitions often become exercises which are substituted for more concrete action. In some cases the phrase may even become an excuse for people to “drop out” of the effort to eliminate racism, because they claim a disagreement with the intent of that phrase. Whenever we lose any of that collective power I am concerned.
What is the thrust of the phrase, “by any means necessary?” What is the practical importance of the phrase? Here is one person’s view.
First, I like the phrase “by any means necessary” because it has led me to look at the means of combating racism which the YWCA has used historically. In doing so I have found a wide range of possibilities which have characterized the YWCA efforts. Here are some of the means which the YWCA has used to combat racism in the past.
The YWCA has:
- Established orphanages and homes for black children.
- Organized branches in areas to serve black people.
- Integrated Associations and staffs.
- Organized interracial conferences.
- Provided recreational services to segregated troops.
- Demanded equal treatment of attendees at conferences.
- Taken stands on public policy issues.
- Provided programs to influence public opinions against lynchings and violence.
- Monitored court trials to assure justice.
- Conducted internal audits of interracial practices.
- Testified at legislative hearings.
- Published and distributed articles and pamphlets.
- Worked for outlawing fraternities and sororities with discriminatory clauses.
- Affirmed support for non-violent civil rights movements.
- Desegregated its own public dining facilities.
- Established study programs.
- Supported voter registration programs.
- Investigated the racial justice impact of its investments.
- Supported boycotts.
- Utilized its purchasing power to support minority firms.
- Adopted Affirmative Action plans.
- Worked toward curriculum changes.
Reading the “by any means necessary” phrase in the light of that YWCA history gives substance to a discussion about what “means” we can expect the YWCA to use today as it addresses racism. There is a firm tradition of a wide variety of “means,” all of which fall safely within the range of legal and democratic action. I like the sense of being rooted in history, and this particular bit of history ought to give some clues for what to do in the present.
Second, I like the phrase “by any means necessary” because it prods me to look for new ways to combat this systemic social cancer called racism. “By any means necessary” stretches my imagination and leads toward the possibility of greater creativity in response to racism. I look at what has been done in the past, I identify the function of racism in the present, and then with “any means necessary” in mind and heart, I begin to look for new answers. New approaches, new “means” are always important to discover, and, if the phrase “by any means necessary” sets me searching for them, that is a plus.
Third, I like the phrase “by any means necessary” because it agitates me. It makes me uncomfortable. It prods me to be discontent with whatever I am doing. It makes me dissatisfied with any amount of progress short of the complete elimination of racism. There is a temptation to “settle in” too quickly with small signs of progress. Small victories may be all that I will see in my lifetime, and I am convinced that fundamental social change comes from a long series of “small victories.” However, contentment with minor changes is dangerous if it becomes a stance toward the future. The post-reconstruction periods of both the 19th and our present century are reminders that gains can be quickly swept aside until all that remains is the illusion of progress. When I am tempted to contentment with minor changes, the Imperative reminds me that the goal is still out there ahead of us somewhere in time. “By any means necessary” agitates me and makes me uncomfortable, and if I am uncomfortable enough, I am more likely to change. “By any means necessary” moves me forward toward the final goal: the elimination of racism.
So to the YWCA a “thank you” for that phrase “by any means necessary.” Keep it there, and wave it at me often.