Eyes on the Prize: a history of struggle

Eyes on the PrizeIt was quite amazing to sit and read through this tremendous book… a little a day, a little at a time. You know. Immense as it is, I think what surprised me most was just how much couldn’t be packed in here, so much that was missing despite over 700 pages, but that is no critique. I loved it for the broad sense it gave of movement, for giving a more settled sense of what happened when, how things developed. I can fit everything else I’ve been reading into that. Though it’s not the same as living through it, it’s as close as I can get. Its focus is mostly on the South, with a little from Chicago and Detroit and Oakland, so you can easily guess where it’s strengths lie. I still haven’t watched the 14 hours of documentary it serves as a companion to.

This is a whirlwind tour, a potpourri of insights and quotations. My favourite things at this moment in time. I’m still not quite sure why it seemed a good idea to read it cover to cover, but I’m glad I did.

I really loved the framing of it from Vincent Harding’s prologue: We the People. Here are some quotes from that, starting with Harding’s view on the importance of institutions (interesting thinking about social movement theory, so much of which frustrates me exceedingly for not quite thinking about things like this for the most part):

One of the most fascinating element of the post-Reconstruction black movement toward new freedom and extended equality was the continuing work of creating independent and semi-independent black institutions. Without them the black community would have been lost. In addition to the central institution of the family, they included schools at every level, churches and other religious institutions, newspapers and other journals, fraternal and sororal organizations, mutual aid societies, women’s clubs, banks, insurance companies, unions, farmers’ alliances, and emancipation societies.

These were only a portion of the internal, self-claiming self-defining work that was constantly re-creating the black community. (9)

This white privileged attitude hasn’t changed enough either, I am sorry to say:

Almost without exception, the critical issues–sometimes issues of life and death–centered on the willingness of white people to treat black women and men as allies and equals, rather than as wards, pawns, or tools… (9)

On the transformation of self as well as the transformation of society, so key to the work of Horton, Freire, Nyerere

Perhaps all of this was really the willingness of black and white justice-seekers to recognize their own need to become new people in order to create a new society. (10)

the central tasks of the twentieth century black freedom movement were defined at their best not only as the achievement of rights and justice, but also as transformation of the spirit, consciousness, and heart of a people who had been developed and nurtured on the poisons of white supremacist politics, social philosophy, theology and history.

I also like this formulation of what the struggle has been for — Fighting for the ‘Six Claims’, this is to think more about as well:

  1. Claiming the right to the land, to full unhindered participation in the life of the nation and in the reshaping of that life

  2. Claiming the right and responsibility to speak the truth from black perspectives and to insist that those truths become part of a new American reality

  3. Claiming the right to possess themselves, their heritage, their Africanness, their souls

  4. Claiming the necessity of building black institutions, as ends in themselves, and as bases for the creation of the women and men who would eventually join others to develop a more perfect union in America

  5. Claiming the right of self-defense against the intrusive and arrogantly destructive forces of white power

  6. Claiming the same right of principled emigration to Africa or elsewhere that brought the pilgrims and subsequent generations of immigrants to these shores

But one thing is clear. It happened with such momentum because a people had kept their eyes on the prize, had persisted in a vision of a more perfect union, had waded through rivers of blood to keep promises to their foreparents and to their children. Such unyielding commitment and action eventually builds its own momentum, creates new, surprising realities, beginning deep within individual lives, opening up to the re-creation of a society. (34)

It’s divided up into chapters, themed but also chronological — I can’t even imagine the difficulties of creating such divisions that are bound to be somewhat arbitrary. They work fairly well. Each is introduced, with solid text painting the broader picture. But from here I’ll just focus on these amazing source documents. One of the most devastating and powerful was from Anne Moody’s autobiography. At 14 she was already a servant in a white woman’s house:

For the first time out of all her trying, Mrs. Burke had made me feel like rotten garbage. Many times she had tried to instill fear within me and subdue me and had given up. But when she talked about Emmett Till there was something in her voice that sent chills and fear all over me.

Before Emmett Till’s murder, I had known the dear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me–the fear of being killed just because I was black. (43)

More connections in here I didn’t know — Martin Luther King, describing in Stride Towards Freedom how Rev. Glenn Smiley of FOR (the Fellowship of Reconciliation) worked with them through the Montgomery Bus Boycott to write Suggestions for Integrating Buses.

From the 1954 Opinion in Brown v Board:

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms. (71)

Ah, the ideals of education. My cynical self disbelieves it was ever quite like this or ever will be, but good to hear it from the Supreme Court. I looked more in depth at the violence of the white reaction/freak out here. And now we jump ahead a few years to the beginning of the sit-ins.

From Franklin McCain, who was part of sit-in in Greensboro, South Carolina on 1 February 1960, an excerpt from interview in My Soul is Rested by Howell Raines:

If it’s possible to know what it means to have your soul cleansed–I felt pretty clean at that time. I probably felt better on that day than I’ve ever felt in my life. Seems like a lot of feelings of guilt or what-have-you suddenly left me, and I felt as though I had gained my manhood, so to speak, and not only gained it, but had developed quite a lot of respect for it. Not Franklin McCain only as an individual, but I felt as though the manhood of a number of other black persons had been restored and had gotten some respect from just that one day. (115)

We are back to the ways that this struggle transformed people from the inside out.

From SNCC’s Statement of purpose, drafted by Rev James Lawson on May 14, 1960 after the founding conference in April at Shaw University (connecting this up to Ella Baker of course, who made that conference happen. One of her pieces is in here, ‘Bigger than a Hamburger’ but despite how that quote caught on, it isn’t my favourite piece from her):

We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the pre-supposition of our faith, and the manner of our action. Nonviolence as it grows from Judaic-Christian tradition seeks a social order of justice permeated by love. Integration of human endeavor represents the crucial first step towards such a society.

Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt. Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overthrows injustice. The redemptive community supersedes systems of gross social immorality.

Love is the central motif of nonviolence. Love is the force by which God binds man to himself and man to man. Such love goes to the extreme; it remains loving and forgiving even in the midst of hostility. It matches the capacity of evil to inflict suffering with an even more enduring capacity to absorb evil, all the while persisting in love.

By appealing to conscience and standing on the moral nature of human existence, nonviolence nurtures the atmosphere in which reconciliation and justice become actual possibilities. (119-120)

There’s the interview with Bernice Reagon that I loved immensely and quoted elsewhere.

Birmingham in MotionFrom Birmingham: People in Motion (the whole pamphlet can be found here, and it is pretty awesome):

In May, 1956 Alabama politicians “stood on the beach of history and tried to hold back the tide.” They outlawed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in a desperate attempt to halt the movement for Negro equality. But their action had precisely the opposite effect. For almost immediately the Negroes of Birmingham came together to form a movement which during the last ten years has transformed life in Birmingham — which has shaken America.

“They could outlaw an organization, but they couldn’t outlaw the movement of a people determined to be free,” said the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, president of the new group. And at a mass meeting called by a committee of Negro ministers, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) was born. Many Negroes in “the Johannesburg of North America “were afraid to join. But many others echoed the sentiments of Mrs. Rosa Walker, one of the first members: “I was frightened , but I figured we needed help to get us more jobs and better education. And we had the man here to help us.” (147)

In its first year, the movement also filed suit in federal court on behalf of a Milwaukee couple arrested because they sat in the “white” waiting room in the city’s railway station. Both these actions followed the pattern of court action established by the NAACP, and in deed, suits have always been one of the ACMHR’s most effective weapons. But in December 1956 the movement entered a new phase, and took on the character it was to retain– of a movement of people putting their bodies into a challenge to the system. (148)

There is Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail — such a powerful thing, one I have written about before here.

Here is Bob Moses on Freedom Schools — there is an hour long interview with him you can listen to here:

We finally decided to set make-shift classes for them. We opened up Nonviolent High in McComb.That was pretty funny. We had about fifty to seventy-five kids in a large room trying to break them down with the elements of algebra and geometry, a little English, and even a little French, a little history, I think Deon taught physics and chemistry, and [Charles] McDrew took charge of history, and I did something with math . . . (175)

Of course we have Fannie Lou Hamer — here is an excerpt from her 1967 autobiography. It was taped and edited by Julius Lester (dude who wrote about how Whitey, Black Power’s gonna get yo mamma) and Maria Varela of SNCC. That alone makes me happy.

I guess if I’d had any sense I’d a been a little scared, but what was the point of being scared? the only thing they could do to me was kill me and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember. (177)

There are quotes from SNCC trip to Guinea, following in Malcolm X’s footsteps, and being told Malcolm had a lot more resonance there — though they had to explain the multiple viewpoints between King and Malcolm. Quotes from local histories show earlier efforts toward full freedom that I had never heard of — 1920s saw formation of the Dallas County Voters’ League to win right of Blacks to vote. The 1920s. In Dallas. Shit.

A quote from Martin Luther King’s speech ‘Our God is Marching On!’, given 25th March, 1965 at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march, after bloody Sunday:

They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; they segregated southern churches from Christianity; they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; and they segregated the Negro from everything. (225-226)

A quote from Malcolm X’s speech ‘Message to the Grassroots’, from 10th November, 1963. The whole thing can be read here:

The only revolution based on loving your enemy is the Negro revolution. The only revolution in which the goal is a desegregated lunch counter, a desegregated theater, a desegregated park, and a desegregated public toilet; you can sit down next to white folks on the toilet. That’s no revolution. Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.

The white man knows what a revolution is. He knows that the black revolution is world-wide in scope and in nature. The black revolution is sweeping Asia, sweeping Africa, is rearing its head in Latin America. The Cuban Revolution — that’s a revolution. They overturned the system. Revolution is in Asia. Revolution is in Africa. And the white man is screaming because he sees revolution in Latin America. How do you think he’ll react to you when you learn what a real revolution is? You don’t know what a revolution is. If you did, you wouldn’t use that word. (253)

A lot from Lowndes Country, struggling with political process, role of patronage and taking care of their own.

From Stokely Carmichael — excerpts from ‘What We Want’ (full article here) and building power across class and race:

SNCC has tried several times to organize poor whites; we are trying again now, with an initial training program in Tennessee. It is purely academic today to talk about bringing poor blacks and whites together, but the job of creating a poor-white power bloc must be attempted.

Between 1965-1968, SCLC started moving away from single-issue campaigns, started to tie everything together. ‘A proposal by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for the Development of a Nonviolent Action Movement for the Greater Chicago Area’ from 5 January, 1966 is covered in its own post.

This is also the period of urban uprisings — there is this, from the Report of the National Advsiory Commission on Civil Disorders, or the Kerner Comission, on Detroit:

During five days in the city, 2,700 Army troops expended only 201 rounds of ammunition, almost all during teh first few hours, after which even stricter fire discipline was enforced. (In contrast, New Jersey National Guardsmen and State police expended 13,326 rounds of ammunition in three days in Newark.) . . . (321)

Another powerful account of uprising from Roger Wilkins, director of the U.S.Justice Department’s Community Relations Service. This is an excerpt from his autobiography:

“What is it that they want?”

I looked at her for a long time. This was the kind of middle-class Negro that I’d been running from all my life….

“Jobs and dignity, I guess,” I replied.

“Well, there’s not much dignity in burning and looting,” she replied haughtily. I closed my eyes. I had to go through this with white people all the time.

“No, I suppose not,” I said without opening my eyes, “but I guess there’s also not much dignity in sitting there quietly while the society chokes the life out of you and your children.” (332)

There was an equally powerful piece called ‘Death Watch’ by Marvin Dunn on the 1980 riots in Miami, a history of Liberty City and the changes in the city and the black community. There is a growing northern ‘urban’ focus — it is interesting to me that the struggle in Birmingham, in Montgomery and other places aren’t really thought of as ‘urban’. To be explored later. Here’s Bobby Seale, from Seize the Time on the writing of the executive mandate of the Black Panthers:

Eldridge and Huey and all of us sat down, and it didn’t take us long. We weren’t jiving. No time at all, not like some of the intellectuals and punks that have to take ten days before they can write an executive mandate to put things together. I don’t think it was fifteen minutes before we whipped that executive mandate out… (349-350)

As long as it takes me to write articles, I have surely joined the intellectuals and punks.

There are a whole slew of documents on the controversy over Ocean Hill-Brownsville demonstration school district, and the fight for community control over public education along with a new kind of teaching. This was all new to me, I learned much.

From “A Time to Break Silence”, Martin Luther King on 4 April 1967 in NY’s Riverside Church, his famous anti-war speech:

–what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its own problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that i could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today–my own government (389)

An awesome section written by Mohammed Ali on refusing to go fight in Vietnam. Students organizing at Howard — the umbrella organization for their student activist groups called Ujamaa. Women fighting old ideals of straight hair and beauty. More on Fred Hampton and the growth of the Black Panthers and their destruction, Cointelpro, Angela Davis’s autobiography, George Jackson’s letter, Attica. Increasing efforts in electoral politics.

Maynard JacksonSo a section on new Black mayors — like Mayor Maynard Jackson of Atlanta, inaugurated January 1974:

So, we must be a City of love and our definition of love must be a definition of action. Love must be strong economic growth and prosperity for
all.

Love must be giving the young a voice in City Government and restoring their faith in the electoral process. Love must be concern for the welfare of our senior citizens and a renewed commitment to make their years productive and rewarding for all of us. Love must be a balanced diet for all of our children. Love must be decent, safe and sanitary housing for all Atlantans. Love must be working to rid a community of the rats that attack babies while they sleep. Love must be a good education available to all who wish to learn. Love must be an open door to opportunity instead of a closed door of despair. Love must be good jobs, equal treatment and fair wages for all working people. Love must be safe streets and homes where our families can be secure from the threat of violence. Love must be a decision to care for the sick, the infirm and the handicapped. Love must be a city filled with people working together to improve the quality of all our lives. Love must be the absence of racism and sexism. Love must be a chance for everybody to be somebody.

To insure a clear reflection of this essential ethic, this administration must place priority upon serving the needs of the masses as well as the classes. The pending reorganization of our City Government will be designed to open wide the doors of City Hall to all Atlantans and make our City Government more responsive to “people needs” and “people problems.” (615)

One hell of an elected representative, right? That is a high, then off to the low of the battles against Affirmative Action and the Bakke case.

This really is a potpourri and probably won’t make much sense to anyone else, but what else do you do with such a book? I’m not quite sure why I tried, but it seemed worthwhile. I’ll end with Harold Washington’s inaugural speech on becoming mayor of Chicago, 12 April, 1983 (and what a poem on his death from Gwendolyn Brooks, but I won’t quote that here)

Most of our problems can be solved. Some of them will take brains and some of them will take patience, but all of them will have to be wrestled with like an alligator in the swamp. (701)

Save

Save

Save

One thought on “Eyes on the Prize: a history of struggle”

Leave a Reply