Movement Halfway Houses

22493I quite love the idea of Movement Halfway Houses, explored in Aldon D. Morris’s The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement. I thought I’d blog it separately from the stupidly long look at the main thrust of the book itself. I have read so much of Freire and Horton, worked in popular education for a long time and have thought a lot about what the hell we organizers do when there is no real rumbling of the masses and popular uprising in the wind. Apart from long for these days past when everything seemed possible.

It seems to me, we build these. Analytically, this is what Morris argues they are:

A movement halfway house is an established group or organization that is only partially integrated into the larger society because its participants are actively involved in efforts to being about a desired change in society. The American Friends Service Committee, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the War Resisters League, and the Highlander Folk Schools are examples… They don’t have a mass base, instead they ‘develop a battery of social change resources such as skilled activists, tactical knowledge, media contacts, workshops, knowledge of past movements, and a vision of a future society.’ (139-140)

Because mass uprising may have a level of spontaneity, but it can take different forms both good and really fucking virulent. Because democracy and collective action are learned, they are skills rather than some kind human nature that just comes out when called. Because strategy and tactics shouldn’t be continually reinvented (though always innovated). Because inspiration from our elders is so important — and young organizers always become elders in their turn and we don’t have good ways to manage that at all.

Morris focuses on the Highlander Folk School and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). Highlander was founded by Myles Horton in the Appalachian mountains. This is why he is a hero of mine, arguing ‘oppressed people know the answers to their own problems’ but ‘the answers to problems of the oppressed lie in the experiences and imagination of the group rather than individuals.’

To arrive at liberatory knowledge and praxis requires a group, a collective, it needs to work through dialogue. Morris argues it is based on the following assumptions:

  1. Education through experience was a potent social change force.
  2. The solutions to oppression were rooted in the experience and communities of the oppressed.
  3. People and their situations would inform Highlander’s educational programs.
  4. The task of changing society rested on the shoulders of the oppressed. (142-143)

They worked with unions through the Great Depression and demanded integration of all union workshops beginning in 1940. Horton did things like bring beauticians in for workshops from all over the South because saw that they were community leaders, and wanted them to work for integration. Highlander sponsored the amazing citizenship schools that were later passed on to the SCLC to grow:

Movement activists of various pursuasions stated repeatedly that the Citizenship Schools were one of the most effective organizing tools of the movement. The “less militant” aspects of the movement like the Citizenship Schools were a significant mobilizing factor throughout the movement, often serving as “quiet structures” behind what appeared to be spontaneous uprisings. (239)

Rosa Parks was a regular figure here, as was King and all the other figures we know and love from the movement. It was the one place in the South that was fully integrated, living this reality before many could even begin to imagine it. Student leaders met here to strategise and train for the sit-ins, even before they formed SNCC. Local authorities saw it as a threat, they faced multiple threats and violence. They were closed by court order. For a bit. But not for long. They were instrumental as a place for reflection, difficult discussion, collective learning and sharing. But in the words of Myles Horton:

Movements are not started by educational institutions, I don’t care how good they are. We might have been pretty good, at least the enemies thought so. But not that good, you know. (157)

The movement might have looked very different, however, without the existence of Highlander.

The same can be said of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, another example of a movement halfway house. Morris argues it was instrumental to the civil rights movement in 5 ways:

  1. in the organization and development of CORE
  2. a vehicle through which the method & history of nonviolent protest was introduced to Southern Black communities and the emerging leadership of the civil rights movement.
  3. provided MIA ‘with “an intelligence service,” which gathered information from white opposition groups
  4. made available well-trained staff members and continued to pay their salaries,
  5. … provided the emerging movement with important literature and films. (157)

Morris emphasises the fact that nonviolence was not part of a long tradition. He quotes organizer Hosea Williams as saying

Nonviolence as a way of life was just as foreign to blacks as flying a space capsule would be to a roach. (158)

In a nutshell this shows the remarkable feat it was to convert the Southern black community to nonviolence, through continuous workshops and appeals to ‘nonviolent tradition rooted in the black church and in the life of Jesus’. (158)

Still, it was for many just a tactic to reach a specific goal (there’s a wonderful discussion of this in That Nonviolent Stuff Will Get You Killed), but as a tactic it was widely embraced. After the Supreme Court decided Montgomery’s segregation of buses was unconstitutional, one of FOR’s nonviolence workshops held to prepare people for struggle to fully desegregate trained over 5,000 people.

5,000 people. God damn. I get organizer chills again.

They did research, collected intelligence, shared best practices both within the movement and learning from other struggles around the world. They also documented the movement — a thing organizers never have time to do. They published a comic book to reach all those folks who don’t like to read on the dynamics of the Montgomery bus boycott, titled it Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. They made a film as well, called Walk to Freedom. Priceless footage to us now.

Just an aside as a researcher as well — there’s is another brillianr note on the role of research from the United Christian Movement, Inc (Louisiana). They knew they had a problem with infiltrators, hey created their own intelligence department, so they found out all about those they were up against. They would often announce plans to integrate libraries or movies on a certain day and then not show. Their aim? To ‘devastate’ stool pigeons. They also passed messages through codes in sermons and songs.

Anyway, I’ll quote Myles again saying ‘Movements are not started by educational institutions, I don’t care how good they are.’ But they are shaped by them, supported by them, and documented by them for future generations. All of these things make these key institutions in building a better future. Maybe the same can be said of writers and academics as well, when they do their job well. One can hope.

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