These powerful words were spoken by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during his 1963 speech at the Scottish Rite in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

“We’re through with gradualism, tokenism, see-how-far-you’ve-come-ism. We’re through with we’ve-done-more-for-your-people-than-anyone-elseism. Gradualism has proved to be merely escapism. We can’t wait any longer. Now is the time. Now is the time to get rid of segregation. Now is the time to make the American dream a reality… Susan Mendenhall

“I’m still convinced that if the Negro succumbs to the temptation to use violence in the struggle for freedom, generations yet unborn will suffer the consequences. [Non-violence] should not be dismissed as a weak method. It works on the conscience. It enables us to stand before our most bitter opponents and meet their physical force with soul force…

“We have learned to stand up against the evil system and still not hate in the process. We have discovered that love works miracles. We can say to our opponents we will match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer and one day we will win our freedom and win you in the process and our victory will be a doubled victory…
“We will develop a divine discontent about discrimination in all its forms, even the subtle form in Indiana… way down South in Fort Wayne…

“We Shall Overcome! In the successful conclusion of our non-violent revolution…We will speed the day when all men will join hands and sing, free at last.”[1]

Although the speech cannot be found in its entirety, Todd Maxwell Pelfrey, Executive Director of the History Center, compiled these excerpts from local news sources at the request of the Fort Wayne Public Art Commission when the Fort Wayne Common Council charged the Commission to create an artwork to commemorate the speech. This charge came in February 2020 — just weeks before the winds of change would blow over America once again during a turbulent year marked by a global pandemic, a polarizing presidential election, the Black Lives Matter movement on the heels of the Me Too movement, and the continued rise of white supremacist militias and wild conspiracy groups. 

Over the summer of 2020, the nation lost two of its most revered crusaders for the full participation of people of color and women in economic and civic life. Representative John Lewis (1940-2020) encouraged “necessary trouble” through peaceful protest during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and later became known as the “Conscious of the Congress” during his 33-year service. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (1933– 2020) spent much of her legal career as an advocate for gender equality. When appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993, she became known for her dissents in numerous cases that reflected a liberal view of the law as well as for her close friendship with the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. One of Ginsberg’s famous musings was, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.”

The lives and legacies of Dr. King, Congressman Lewis, and Justice Ginsberg are notable because of their ability to advance major changes to our nation’s power structure while adhering to a code of civility. Although they understood that there are moral absolutes, they also knew that they could not influence complex policy decisions and ingrained cultural attitudes with binary thinking or an uncivil approach.

Merriam-Webster defines civility as a) civilized conduct, especially courtesy, politeness; b) a polite act or expression; or c) training in the humanities.[2]  According to the Institute for Civility in Government,

“Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs, and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. Civility is about more than just politeness, although politeness is a necessary first step. It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. Civility is the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. It is political in the sense that it is a necessary prerequisite for civic action. But it is political, too, in the sense that it is about negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody is ignored.”[3] 

As the culture wars simmered throughout the summer of 2020, we were reminded that Fort Wayne is not comfortably situated in flyover country and therefore untouched by conflicts found in bigger coastal cities. There is deep-rooted conflict present here, just like anywhere else. In 1963, Dr. King pointed out that the nation’s struggle against racial discrimination was as present in Fort Wayne as it was in the South. In June 2020, this fact became glaringly evident once again when an Allen County Councilman called local Black Lives Matter protesters “uneducated” voters who “unfortunately breed” during a council meeting — a comment that earned national media attention and his swift resignation.[4]  In his article published later that summer in Politico Magazine titled, “When the Culture Wars Hit Fort Wayne,” Charlie Savage described the factually incorrect and partisan resolution by City Council to annually celebrate “General ‘Mad’ Anthony Wayne Day,” spurring local discussions about how to both celebrate the heroes of American history and westward expansion while honoring Native Americans who fought against the conquest of their homelands and genocide of their peoples.[5] 

The assignment for FORTHCOMING is to envision effective placemaking and community development in the next 20 years. Given the divided world in which we live, civility will prove to be a prerequisite for fully engaging Fort Wayne’s residents in the development of our city and navigating difficult decisions about the prioritization of our resources and investment. Intolerance and incivility at all levels will derail our efforts for prosperity and growth.

In his seminal book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, social scientist Robert Putnam contrasts “bonding” and “bridging” forms of civil society and social capital.[6]  Bonding activities reinforce feelings of solidarity, resilience, and unity among like-minded people such as churches, political parties, labor unions, business networks, social clubs, and social media. During times of crisis and uncertainty, humans naturally seek out bonding activities. There is, after all, a feeling of safety in numbers. While bonding activities play an important and often healthy role in our community and nation, tipping the scale too far in this direction can lead to division and unrest.

In order to build a more durably ‘civil’ community in Fort Wayne, Indiana over the next 20 years, we will need to prioritize bridging activities that create trust, foster understanding, and strengthen social networks between and among different, diverse groups of people.

1. The Ballot Box — By 2040, Fort Wayne’s civic leadership should reflect the demographics of its citizens. 
Our community must continue to develop, elect, and appoint leaders who represent groups that have been underrepresented in the past. In 2020, AVOW (Advancing Voices of Women) led a nonpartisan Women’s Campaign Institute to encourage and train women to run for office and serve on boards and commissions, helping more than 20 women achieve primary election victories. Members of Fort Wayne City Council prepared a list of Black candidates who are willing and qualified to serve on boards and commissions. United Front was initiated to provide training in racial equity and inclusion for local businesses and nonprofits, and influential nonprofits like Greater Fort Wayne, Inc., embraced the need for qualified, representative leadership and began to confront the barriers that prevent some from service. Going forward, we must reinforce and sustain the important work of these and other efforts until such barriers no longer exist.

2. The Town Square — By 2040, Fort Wayne should have robust public and private financial systems in place to ensure the equitable design, maintenance, renovation, and programming of spaces and places that connect people to the public life of the community.
Well-designed public spaces encourage people to gather together in times of strife and protest as well as in times of leisure and celebration. Today, these places include (but are not limited to) the Allen County Courthouse Green, Promenade Park, Headwaters Park, Freimann Square and the cultural facilities in Arts Campus Fort Wayne, the Landing, the Embassy Theatre, Grand Wayne Center, Allen County Public Library, and Parkview Field. By 2040, the new Electric Works project will have joined this list of gathering places and aged by 19 years. Too often, we allow our treasured public spaces to get tired. The line item for maintaining public spaces is easily cut when funding is limited. Instead of reinvesting and revitalizing aging spaces, we dedicate dollars and energy toward new, exciting projects and places. Going forward we will need to refocus on keeping these places well-manicured, well-maintained, and fully programmed to optimize their service to the community. 

3. The Arts — By 2040, Fort Wayne should have solid public and private financial systems in place to ensure the long-term sustainability and growth of arts, culture, and humanities organizations.

Arts organizations — and the creatives that work for them and are supported by them — gather people together for shared experiences. They transport audiences to different eras, places, lifestyles, or perspectives. They stimulate dialogue about our most complex social challenges. In 2020, our community’s growing network of muralists proactively responded to the Black Lives Matter movement with visual messages of solidarity, peace, and hope. As a result, amid a national protest, Fort Wayne’s downtown storefronts stood vibrant and proud amid protests in stark contrast to the boarded-up windows in Indianapolis, Louisville, and other cities. Like parks and trails, arts and cultural programming is a public good and cannot exist for all residents simply by charging admission. During the pandemic, the superpower of arts and culture organizations to bring people together was met with the kryptonite of social distancing. Following the pandemic, these organizations will need support: targeted, intentional reinvestment, and reliable sources of revenue so they can rebuild their people, programs, facilities, and audiences and support the community’s recovery. 

4. The News Stand — By 2040, Fort Wayne residents will continue to need high quality local journalism. 

Thomas Jefferson said, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” The financial frailty of local media organizations, and perhaps more specifically, the continued reduction of competent, committed journalists who examine and report on local issues and decisions made by people in power, should be of great concern to all Fort Wayne residents. Local media organizations are adapting their traditional delivery models of print, radio, and television to a digital age in which more Fort Wayne residents are consuming news on-demand through their phones and tablets, alongside the 24-hour cycle of national news and entertainment options. Fort Wayne’s private citizens will need to support local media organizations while they innovate and expand delivery methods, so that we do not limit or lose access to high-quality local journalism.

5. The Classroom — By 2040, Fort Wayne’s schools will need to continue to prepare students for civic life. 

The majority of funding and curriculum decisions for public schools is largely determined by the State of Indiana, not by local decision makers. However, decisions by the state to reduce class time and resources devoted to bridging activities like field trips, art and music, civics, journalism, student government, and others reduce students’ opportunities to explore and understand the world around them on their own terms. Participation in extracurricular activities gives students an opportunity to build the soft skills of diplomacy, teamwork, and civility that prepare them to be engaged, effective citizens.  Although these soft skills are more difficult to quantitatively evaluate than standardized reading and math scores, they are equally important for a durably “civil” society and functioning democracy.

Founded at the confluence of three rivers, Fort Wayne — or Kekionga, as it was named by the Miami people — has long been a gathering place for diverse peoples. As such, our great city’s history is defined as much by its conflicts as it is by its triumphs. Without a doubt, Fort Wayne’s leaders and residents will experience conflicts large and small over the next 20 years. We will all be better equipped to face them if we nurture a culture of civility today.

This essay is part of a citizen-led book project in Fort Wayne called FORTHCOMING: Considering the Future State of Our City. To learn more and read additional essays, visit the Foreword and Preface.

Susan Mendenhall is an advocate for the vibrancy of Greater Fort Wayne and the role that philanthropy plays as a catalyst for community development. She brings fifteen years of experience in nonprofit leadership, strategic visioning and planning, fundraising, grant-making, and program development. Susan currently serves the community as President of Arts United. She is a member of the Greater Fort Wayne, Inc. Board of Directors, the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership’s Regional Opportunities Council, the Fort Wayne Public Art Commission, and Quest Club. In 2018, Susan was recognized as a Person of the Year by Fort Wayne Magazine. In 2015, she was honored with a Forty Under 40 award by Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly. Susan holds an M.A. in Philanthropic Studies from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and a B.S. in Public and Nonprofit Management from the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs. She lives in Fort Wayne with her husband, Derek, an engineer at Fort Wayne Metals, and daughters Claire and Heidi.
[1] King, Jr., Rev. Dr. Martin Luther. 1963 speech at the Scottish Rite in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Speech excerpts compiled by Todd Maxwell Pelfrey, Fort Wayne- Allen County Historical Society. 2020.
[4] Gong, Dave. The Journal Gazette. “Brown comments on voters bring rebuke.” June 19, 2020.
[5] Savage, Charlie. Politico. “When the Culture Wars Hit Fort Wayne.” July 31, 2020.
[6] Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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