Tag Archives: civil rights

Danielle McGuire — Black Women, Rape and Resistance

Danielle McGuire - At the Dark End of the StreetI love how Danielle McGuire has put women’s struggle against sexual violence and rape front and center of the freedom struggle. Where it always was, though never enough acknowledged. She says it more eloquently than I could:

The real story–that the civil rights movement is also rooted in African-American women’s long  struggle against sexual violence–has never before been written. The stories of black women who fought for bodily integrity and personal dignity hold profound truths about the sexualized violence that marked racial politics and African American lives during the modern civil rights movement. If we understand the role rape and sexual violence played in African Americans’ daily lives and within the larger freedom struggle, we have to reinterpret, if not rewrite, the history of the civil rights movement. At the End of the Street does both. (xx)

I have been reading and reading and reading…so much reading. And yet Danielle McGuire has brought together so much I didn’t know. Through Septima Clark and Ella Baker I’ve come to know Rosa Parks a little better, but I never knew that as part of her work for the NAACP she was sent to investigate reports of rape. On a trip to Abbeville, her hometown, she helped document and fight with Recy Taylor — kidnapped at gunpoint as she walked home with her family, and raped by all four men before being left in the woods.

My heart, oh my heart broke to read so many stories of white men openly kidnapping black women to rape them, and even on the rare occasions it came to trial, no one was ever sentenced. Still. Rosa Parks helped set up the Committee for Equal Justice, a network of groups started up in support of Recy Taylor’s case. It built on some of the frameworks established to help the defense of the Scottsboro Boys. The National Negro Congress held a mass meeting in Harlem to discuss the case — and my own well-studied and well-loved California Eagle was there among multiple other black-owned papers. I’m sure it was Charlotta Bass herself, I need to look through her autobiography to see if she mentions it.

Of course, despite (actually, probably because) it was white men raping black women with impunity, it was the reverse scenario that invoked terror:

Unsubstantiated rumors of black men attacking innocent white women sparked almost 50 percent of all race riots in the United States between Reconstruction and World War II. In 1943 alone there were 242 violent interracial clashes in forty-seven cities. (26)

Then back we come to the importance of this in understanding the civil rights movement:

Only by understanding the long and relatively hidden history of sexualized violence in Montgomery, Alabama, and African Americans’ efforts to protect black womanhood, can we see that the Montgomery Bus Boycott was more than a movement for civil rights. It was also a women’s movement for dignity, respect and bodily integrity. (51)

Just as the more background to this, there’s the case of Willie McGee in Laurel, Mississippi, his white employer sleeping with him telling him if he didn’t — and if her ever broke it off — she would cry rape. There’s his wife’s resignation to the situation, because what power did they have in such a situation? He was executed by the state after his employer did in fact call rape — sentenced in 1945, all appeals lost by 1951.  There’s Maceo Snipes killed for being the only black man to vote in Georgia, on 17th July 1946. In Montgomery itself, in 1949 there was Gertrude Perkins picked up by two police officers at the bus stop, driven out of town, raped, returned to the bus stop.

But Montgomery was well organised. McGuire describes Rufus A. Lewis — WWII vet and football coach at Alabama State University, member of church and multiple association, owner of largest Black funeral home:

he was financially independent and not easily intimidated by white economic reprisals. Lewis parlayed his social and economic wealth into a spacious brick clubhouse, named the Citizens Club. It functioned as the headquarters for many of the city’s community organizations. Here Lewis taught veterans and others the ins and outs of voter registration and created a safe space where African Americans could “come and socialize” and, in the process, get politicized. (70)

In every book about movement, spaces like this seem to be so important.

Then there was the Women’s Political Council, founded by Mary Fair Burks, working with Rufus Lewis’s veterans group as well as E.D. Nixon’s Progressive Democrats, who registered voters and ran classes. Jo Ann Robinson became its head, began to focus on the buses.

They were connected to the group ‘Sojourners for Truth and Justice’, a short-lived but important organization formed by Louise Thomspon Patterson and Beulah Richardson issuing a call to women  to convene in D.C. in support of Du Bois in 1951. They highlighted Rosa Lee Ingram’s case, a single mother and sharecropper in Georgia. In 1947, a white man attempted to rape her while her two sons were present, and in the struggle the attacker was killed. All three were sentenced to death. They were paroled in 1959.

Because of the work the Women’s Political Council had already done on the buses, they were all ready to go when Rosa Parks made her stand. After hearing about her arrest they immediately called for a bus boycott for the following Monday, over the weekend they bundled, mimeographed and cut 52,500 flyers (holy jesus!) and distributed them. These women were awesome. The day-long boycott was a huge success, taking place the same day as Rosa appeared in court.

I love this phrase, called out during the court hearing and taken up as a chant: ‘they’ve messed with the wrong one now’. Almost immediately, however, the women were pushed out of leadership. Neither Rosa nor Jo Ann Robinson was allowed to be present at the meeting to form the Montgomery Improvement Association nor invited to be part of the leadership. At the 1st mass meeting Rosa Parks was seen but not heard, turned into a quiet respectable lady for the press, and removed from her activist past. McGuire writes:

As long as WPC members handled the day-to-day business of the boycott, Jo Ann Robinson did not challenge the MIA’s male leadership. “We felt it would be better,” Robinson said, “if the ministers held the most visible leadership positions.” (108)

But look at this picture

African-American women were the backbone of the Montgomery bus boycott. Here black women walk to work in February 1956. (p 109)
African-American women were the backbone of the Montgomery bus boycott. Here black women walk to work in February 1956. (p 109)

A large bulk of the funds were raised by Mrs. Georgia Gilmore, who formed a club called the Club from Nowhere to make food, sell it and donate the proceeds to the boycott, in Gilmore’s words:

When we’d raise as much as three hundred dollars for a Monday night rally, then we knowed we was on our way for five hundred on Thursday night. (118)

Whites directed violence at the walkers, most of the women — pelting them from their cars with water balloons, containers of urine, rotten eggs, potatoes, apples. Jo Ann Robinson had a brick thrown through her window, acid poured all over her car. Police did mass ticketing of anyone black driving over the period — Robinson alone received over 30 tickets. On January 30 whites bombed King’s house, two days later E.D. Nixon’s, everyone was provided with armed guards.

Arrests were used in a political attempt to stop the bus boycott. The Grand Jury indicted eight-nine people as being behind an illegal boycott — all of them came to court to turn themselves in. An amazing series of mug shots resulted — a hall of fame really. Look at these amazing women:


They all knew this boycott had changed things.

Watching the crowd mock the police, Jo Ann Robinson realized the world she had always known had somehow changed. The fear that had held black people down had began to evaporate. “If there was any nervousness or uneasiness,” she argued, “it was on the part of the whites.” (126)

Still, official tellings fell so very short. Danielle McGuire notes how FOR’s retelling of the story in their comic book showed Rosa Parks as just a tired woman. It shows ministers coming to her rescue and themselves calling for the boycott, describes an anguished Martin Luther King muttering ‘something ought to be done’, and then himself mimeographing 500 leaflets (131). It beggars belief really. And then there’s the fact that the court cases actually ending segregation on public transportation were Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, Mrs. Aurelia Browder, and Mrs Susie McDonald. (132) Why streamline a movement and a heroism that belongs to so many people? This post is a little too listy because all these things happened that I had either not read about or simply not registered — though I am not listing everything either.

There’s a mention of Daisy Bates, who with husband L.C. Bates owned the Arkansas State Press — another African-American press woman and newspaper owner! I thought Charlotta Bass the only one in these years. I hope to read more of her, but part of what drove her forward — her own mother was raped and murdered by three white men when Daisy Bates was seven.

1959 — Betty Jean Owens is kidnapped at gunpoint by four men, driven off and raped in Florida.

Fanny Lou Hamer went to hospital for removal of small cyst, and they removed her whole uterus without her consent. This was a common occurrence. This was before she ever started protesting.

In June 1963 Hamer and other SNCC volunteers were arrested in Winona, Mississippi for sitting at the lunch counter in the bus terminal. Women one by one were stripped, beaten, sexually humiliated. Prisoners regularly ‘herded into exam room with cattle prods’, stripped and searched, women underwent “rough, painful vaginal searches’, in Parchman penitentiary, all of this with gloves dipped in lysol. (196)

Such physical assaults connect, of course, to a huge amount of white anxiety about sex, about miscegenation (that they do not initiate and control), and the use of rumours and lies to stir up fear and hate. Freedom summer itself was portrayed as an attempt to miscegenate, with young students described as sex-crazed ‘beatniks’ and black rapists brought in to attack white women (206). McGuire quotes Karl Flemming of Newsweek:

That is what it was all about, all the time, everywhere. It was the great underpinning of the whole damn thing–just pure sexual fear. (207)

Sally Belfrage, in her book Freedom Summer, writes that they

knew that whites overblown orations about interracial sex masked an all-out effort to defend their position atop the political, economic, and social hierarchy. (208)

She also described the hypocrisy of what they called ‘nighttime integration’ as white men raped black women, but refused ever to acknowledge the consequences in the form of their light-skinned children.

On March 25, 1965, as marchers arrived in Montgomery from Selma, downtown was empty. Governor George Wallace had declared a “danger holiday for female state employees.” (212) An Alabama congressman stated that all the volunteers who had poured into Selma for the march had been hired, given free room and board and promised free sex (219). He hired Albert C. Persons to investigate, and he came up with Sex and Civil Rights: The True Selma Story, full of doctored photographs. Much of this was recycled in Jim Clark’s book I Saw Selma Raped: The Jim Clark Story.

Such vileness.

McGuire quotes Virginia Durr from her autobiography Outside the Magic Circle (1987, p 175)

All of the cesspool of sickness connected with sex guilt comes from the fact that white men of the South had had so many sexual affairs with black women. And they just turned it around. It’s the only thing I can figure out that made them so crazy on the subject. (222)

There’s the murder of Viola Liuzzo, white Detroit housewife, driving people home after the Montgomery march, shot dead by a car full of the KKK and an FBI agent along for the ride. Hoover immediately went into action to smear her character as race traitor, prostitute and bad mother and deflect attention onto anything but  the FBI’s role. (225)

Not until 1967’s Loving v Virginia were laws against interracial marriage finally struck down.

McGuire ends with the 1974 Joan Little case, “Power to the Ice Pick”, who used his own weapon against the white prison guard attempting to rape her before fleeing prison. The campaign to defend her from execution was an historic one, but not in the ways it is traditionally argued. The NAACP continued to make their distinctions between cases worth taking to push equality forward, as it

‘maintained its historic reluctance to embrace “sex cases” and did not get involved; however, local chapters helped raise money. (261)

And here McGuire challenges the other assumptions about this case:

The Free Joan Little campaign is often portrayed as the product of second-wave feminism, which finally enable women to break the code of silence surrounding sexual violence and “speak out” against rape. While this may be true for white, middle-class feminists who became active in the antirape movement in the early 1970s, African-American women had been speaking out and organizing politically against sexual violence and rape for more than a century. (277)

[McGuire, Danielle L. (2010) At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Vintage Books.]







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

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)




Ransby on Ella Baker — SCLC, SNCC, SCEF

200217Part 2 on Ella Baker’s biography by Barbara Ransby (part 1 is here) — and the more exciting part really, because in the SCLC and SNCC and SCEF Baker was able to do more of what she wanted to do. I’m reading J. Todd Moye’s biography of Ella Baker as well just now, and it cleared up one point of my confusion — the way that everyone respectfully called her Miss Baker even though she was married. That is what felt right to me earlier because I must have read it elsewhere, but I questioned myself and wrote something different. so I’m going to have to go back and take out the references to Mrs Baker.

Anyway,  in 1957, Ella Baker traveled south with Bayard Rustin as a representative of In Friendship to become part of the founding of the SCLC. There she saw the Women’s Political Council in action, who had helped launch the Montgomery bus boycott, and she applauded the formation of MIA, Montgomery Improvement Association to lead the struggle outside the structures of NAACP.

While Rustin and Levinson both became part of King’s inner circle, Miss Baker was left out. She later said:

After all, who was I? I was female, I was old. I didn’t have any PhD.” (173)

And she questioned everything, especially King.

She describes the boycott, and the hope and excitement it raised among movement folks, as:

unpredicted, where thousands of individuals, just black ordinary people, subjected themselves to inconveniences that were certainly beyond the thinking of most folk. . . . This meant you had a momentum that had not been seen, even in the work of the NAACP. And it was something that suggested the potential for widespread action throughout the South. (162)

SCLC was founded to provide an institutional framework to connect and strengthen struggle beyond Montgomery. It also made a strategic decision to stay away from a too-left politics — interesting that ‘Christian’ was at least partially included in the name to help distance it from any association with communism. It emphasized in these stages that it was only demanding the same rights as everyone else.

Once it was decided that the new coalition would be an extension of the church, a patriarchal ethos took over. (175) Women like Rosa Parks and Joanne Gibson Robinson were pushed out of leadership positions, Daisy Bates remained the only woman with a nominal seat on the board, but no power.  In 1958, Miss Baker was drafted as full time staff into SCLC — as with the NAACP she was not properly asked, more put into a position where her refusal would hurt the cause. Still, she accepted, and moved down to Atlanta. She knew what she was in for, though:

Baker was well aware that the SCLC ministers were not ready to welcome her into the organization on an equal footing. That would be to go too far afield from the gender relations they were used to in the church. Baker observed that “the role of women in the southern the church. . . was that of doing the things that the minister said he wanted to have done. It was not one in which they were credited with having creativity and initiative and capacity to carry out things.”

Ministers ‘most comfortable talking to women about “how well they cooked, and how beautiful they looked.”‘ (184)

She remained active in Parents in Action, NAACP, SCLC, In Friendship — for her it was always about building movement rather than organization. In this she was very similar to a number of local NAACP officers who were willing to work with anyone on the ground towards change. All of her work was concretely connected to people’s lives and needs. For example, Baker’s reconnaissance trip in Mississippi for In Friendship after the SCLC’s founding:

Baker soon realized that In Friendship would be hard pressed to make a real distinction between families who were victims of political reprisals and those who were victims of economic violence, pure and simple, since such violence saturated the social and political landscape of the rural South.  (176)

I wanted to hear more about her views on economic violence. She often disagreed with those she worked closely with, able to hold to her own beliefs while continuing to work with others. For example here is Miss Baker on nonviolence, contrasting herself with Rustin:

He had a history of dedication to the concept of nonviolence. I have no such history; I have no such commitment. Not historically or even now can I claim that because that’s not my way of functioning. (193)

This was clear in her rather famous 1959 speech in Pilgrim Chruch, Monroe calling for self-defense. Further in the biography, Ransby writes:

Ella Baker’s ability to sustain long-term friendships with other activists when particular circumstances put them in adversarial positions was one of her most important gifts. (284)

She also disagreed with many in the NAACP — for example, the kinds of attitudes expressed by Roy Wilkins:

“We must clean up and educate and organize our own people, not because they must be perfect in order to be accorded their rights, but they cannot be first-class citizens in truth until they appreciate the responsibilities of that station.” Baker’s view was quite different. Poor people would not have to be made deserving of their citizenship or their economic claims; such rights were fundamental. (226)

She could be quite critical of class judgments:

There’s always a problem in the minority group that’s escalating up the ladder in this culture . . . it’s a problem of their not understanding the possibility of being divorced from those who are not in their social classification.


I believe firmly in the right of the people who were under the heel to be the ones to decide what action they were going to take to get [out] from under their oppression. (195)

More from Miss Baker on exactly why the middle classes could not be depended upon to bring about real change:

those who are well-heeled don’t want to get un-well-heeled….If they are acceptable to the Establishment and they’re wielding power which serves their interest, they can assume too readily that that also serves the interest of everybody. (305-306)

Along these same lines, she was also fierce proponent of decentralization, local control over campaigns and power and responsibility in people’s own hands. Ransby writes:

Her main contribution to the civil rights movement during her years with SCLC was not the building of a solid regional coalition, which was what King had hired her to do, but rather the strengthening of several semi-independent local struggles, which were more connected to one another and to itinerant organizers like Baker than they were to the official SCLC leadership in Atlanta. (209)

On leadership, here is Ransby quoting Baker:

Instead of the leader as a person who was supposed to be a magic man, you could develop individuals who were bound together by a concept that benefited the larger number of individuals and provided an opportunity for them to grow into being responsible for carrying out a program.

to follow on from that, one of her most famous lines I think:

Strong people don’t need strong leaders. (188)

This, of course, put her into conflict with King and the men who dominated the movement at this time.

What I love most are the moments you get to see Ella Baker relaxing with the other women who formed the backbone of this movement, like on this visit to Azalea Johnson in Monroe (and always the reminder just how brave they all were):

The three women sat at Azalea Johnson’s kitchen table, Dorothy remembered, drinking Jim Beam bourbon, discussing the political situation in the South and remembering Raymond. Even more memorable than the conversation was the image of black men sitting in the front room and on the front porch with loaded pistols at their sides… (215)

Baker kept her maiden name after her marriage, kept her rpivate life private, and did all she did while also helping raise her niece, as well as taking over the guardianship of Brenda Travis, who had lied about her age to join SNCC sit-in. She was detained, sent to Colored Girls Industrial School after another protest, did not have support of strong family. Baker managed all of these roles in ways that I find rather jaw-dropping, but it was accomplished through the strong community that she created around herself.


Ella Baker’s legacy can perhaps best be seen through SNCC —  I appreciated this insight from Ransby:

Since Baker never wrote an organizing manual or an ideological treatise, her theory was literally inscribed in her daily work–her practice. Some of the most powerful political lessons that she taught were through example, which represented an articulation of her unwritten theory in a conscious set of actions and practices. (271)

Also as an organiser, it is clear that almost a lifetime of experience and huge amounts of work and thought lay behind that first conference at Shaw to support the founding of SNCC, the orchestration of talks and workshops, and the creation of plenty of time and space for private brainstorms, the meeting of small groups and etc. I feel like no one really gets how much creative work and hard grind lies in that until they part of something similar. Creating such spaces is hard, but she was instrumental to SNCC in other ways, ensuring that problems of justice were never narrowed to a simple issue of race and that the leading roles of women, and youth and the poor in the struggle be respected:

She was instrumental in SNCC’s rejection of bourgeois respectability as a defensive political strategy, a rejection that opened the organization up to historically marginalized sectors of the black community. When SNCC broke with the largely middle-class, male-centered leadership of existing  civil rights organizations, it stripped away the class-based and gender-biased notions of who should and could give leadership to the movement and the black community. (259)

She also insisted on movement as being about relationships, connections, not mobilisation and dues and top-down battles on the lines of the NAACP.

The shift from transitory, high-profile events like the sit-ins and freedom rides to protracted day-to-day grassroots organizing in local communities was a significant turning point. Baker insisted that a movement was a web of social relationships…In order to be effective organizers in a particular community, Baker argued, activists had to form relationships, build trust, and engage in a democratic process of decision making together with community members. The goal was to politicize the community and empower ordinary people. this was Baker’s model, and in 1961 it became SNCC’s model.

This is the community organising model in a nutshell. Bottom up. Respectful. I like the acknowledgement that such respect isn’t always easy to embody either, and how she pushed SNCC through dialogue:

She urged SNCC organizers to suppress their own egos and personal and organizational ambitions as much as possible and to approach local communities with deference and humility. She stressed the need to resist organizational chauvinism or any attempts to make proprietary claims on political campaigns that might emerge from their efforts. Finally, she rejected the notion that the black middle class had special claims on leadership of the black community. …. she urged SNCC organizers to look first to the bottom of the class hierarchy in the black community, not to the top, for their inspiration, insights, and constituency…. people who would demonstrate to the first-hand the willingness, ability, and determination of oppressed people to resist and overcome their oppression while speaking for themselves… (274)

Thus SNCC attempted to organise the whole community, not just the middle classes. When they first went into a community, they started by talking to clergy and any others who had claims on being  representatives of community, but they knocked on everyone’s doors.

Bob Moses said “We did for the people of Mississippi what Ella Baker did for us.” … he meant … absorb the wisdom of indigenous leaders, to build respectfully on the preexisting strength within the communities where they organized, and to provide whatever was lacking–funds, time, youthful energy, and certain skills. (303)

Ransby gives a wonderful quote from SNCC organiser Jane Stembridge:

The field staff saw itself as playing a very crucial but temporary role in this whole thing. Go into a community. As soon as local leadership begins to emerge, get out of the community, so that the leadership will take hold and people will not continue to turn to you for guidance. You work yourself out of a job rather than trying to maintain yourself in a position or your organization. It doesn’t matter if you go in and call yourself a SNCC worker or a CORE worker or just a person who is there. (280)

And of course Baker’s own motto:

I was never working for an organization. I always tried to work for a cause. And that cause was bigger than any organization. (281)

She remained pragmatic though, supporting the influx of white privileged students in order to highlight what was happening in the South, to expose the relentless violence, to get some coverage and maybe help the broader community to care. Ransby quotes her as saying:

If we can simply let the concept that the rest of the nation bears responsibility for what happens in Mississippi sink in, then we will have accomplished something. (322)

Ransby talks a little about the development of the Freedom Schools, education was always one of the methods closest to Baker’s heart. SNCC established over 50 alternative classrooms for political organizing and popular education, run by Charlie Cobb, Robert Moses, and Staughton Lynd among others.

This highlighted for me one of the strange absences here, as Ransby tries to differentiate them from SCLC’s Citizenship schools by highlighting that Freedom Schools went way beyond teaching literacy for voting tests. In Septima Clark’s vision coming out of Highlander, this was never to have been the only role of Citizenship schools,  but maybe it’s an indication of how routinized these had become under the SCLC?

Myles Horton and Highlander are interesting absences here — not that they don’t appear at all. As an aside, Ransby notes Baker as attending a conference there on one occasion, and later that she worked to defend Highlander from closure. In another brief mention Ransby connects SNCC to Horton,  and notes Baker starting up a new fundraising group called Operation Freedom in 1961 with Horton, the Bradens and others to again funnel money to activists for emergencies. I was disappointed, though, not to learn more about Baker’s friendship with Rosa Parks, Myles Horton or Septima Clark. So I found it interesting that Baker’s theories are compared to Paolo Freire’s, a worthy comparison but interesting in the absence of Myles Horton and others from Highlander.

There is a brief note on education and the connection to Tanzania — but that remained undeveloped as well. Rightly so as it was a bit of a tangent perhaps

Moses also shared Baker’s confidence and faith in young people. After leaving SNCC in the mid-1960s and living for several years in Tanzania, he became a radical teacher, in Ella Baker’s style and tradition, focused on creative methods of teaching and learning as a strategy for empowerment and social change. (252)

But I would like to know more about connections to Africa and Nyerere’s Ujamaa movement.

A last absence was more about the concerted attack on the NAACP in the south after Brown v Board, the number of people who lost their jobs by refusing to renounce NAACP membership — and the number of people who did renounce it. The number of branches that shut down all together, and all of them people that Ella knew, had visited, had encouraged to form branches and become members in the first place. That must have had a huge impact on her. Huge. But it isn’t really visible.

I wanted a little more on the Southern Conference Education Fund run by Anne and Carl Braden, and founded by Jim Dombrowski who had helped found Highlander with Myles Horton way back in 1932. In 1963 Baker began working for SCEF, doing much the same as she had always done — whatever she thought was most needed to support local organising. The difference seemed to be that SCEF supported that. But I tracked down what seems to be the solitary book written on SCEF, which I am looking forward to reading and finding more.

To end here (though I will write more on Moye’s take on Baker), a final quote from Ella Baker that emphasises the longevity of the freedom struggle, the ways that things just haven’t changed fast enough, and the work that all those she has inspired should be continuing in, particularly in support of Black Lives Matter:

Until the killing of black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white mothers’ sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest. (335)


Barbara Ransby — Ella Baker, the YNCL and NAACP

200217Ella Baker didn’t write her memoirs, and there is as yet no collection of her writings — I am hoping that there will be one at some point. I always prefer to start with people’s own words, though I love biographies like this one too. My only possible critique is perhaps that there weren’t enough of Baker’s own words in here since they are so hard to find elsewhere.

This is a good quote though.

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning–getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to you needs and devising means by which you change that system.
— Ella Baker, 1969 (1)

I like her use of the word radical. I like too her vision of how change to that system happened:

Ella Baker spent her entire adult life trying to “change that system.” Somewhere along the way she recognized that her goal was not a single “end” but rather an ongoing “means,” that is, a process. Radical change for Ella Baker was about a persistent and protracted process of discourse, debate, consensus, reflection, and struggle.  (1)

Not everyone agreed with her on this, and just like Septima Clark she faced down a lot of sexism in the movement, as well as having to overcome some of her own class prejudices. This post is a bit listy because Ella Baker did so much. Still, it’s a start for thinking about the meaning of her practice and all she achieved.

Ransby tells a story about Ella Baker, that she would ask those she met, ‘Who were your people?’ What I like most about Ell Baker is that she ended up choosing her people, but it’s still a good question.

A little younger than Clark, she was also raised on stories of slavery but from her grandmother — stories of struggle and triumphs, not degradation. Her maternal grandparents had bought land, and Ransby highlights the meaning of land in the close  community Baker was raised in, with its collective parenting and values of ‘Cooperation, the sharing of resources, and a strong community spirit…’ (37):

[They] never regarded the land they purchased in 1888 as private property in the strict sense of the term. They viewed it not only as a resource for the economic well-being of their immediate family but also as a source of stability for the entire community. Land could serve as a weapon in the struggle against the white planters’ attempts to dominate and control the African American population. (37)

They donated some of this land for a school.

A few facts on Norfolk, VA where she was raised, this kind of thing still never fails to shock me, this creep of Jim Crow (C. Vann Woodward describes all this, and yet I still sometimes forget how recent all this ‘old-time’ Jim Crow was):

1901 — 1,826 African Americans voted
1903 — Ella Baker was born
1904 — only 44 African Americans paid the tax required for them to vote
1910 — race riot in which whites randomly attacked blacks after Jack Johnson beat white boxer

Despite all of this, she was raised in one of the few districts left with a majority black electorate where almost all of the others had been gerrymandered out of power after reconstruction. Thus Blacks in her area wielded more political power and were safer than those in many counties. She was protected from most virulent racism. As Baker remembers, this was a close knit community:

We did not come in contact with whites too much….I was shielded from having contact with them at an early age …. This was a complete black community to a large extent. Even the store on the corner, it was Mr. Foreman’s store, he was black. Even the ice cream store was owned by Mr Evans….So, this is the kind of insulation that was provided by the black people themselves…you didn’t have to run afoul of a lot of insults. (39-40)

Seems like a lot of people were striving to achieve just that, and it resonates with lots of things were still talking about it terms of keeping money in the community and supporting local business. Ransby writes:

Most black children in the early twentieth century had to work for wages as field hands or domestics…. Ella Baker’s grandfather had insisted that that his children and grandchildren not work for white people. (40)

A lot of these threads go way back.

From Norfolk, Ransby describes the educational efforts that went into the forging of middle class-ness through Shaw College:

Shaw students were forbidden from socializing with the black community in Raleigh, except in the formal capacity of charity workers under the supervision of school authorities. (53)

This is all wrapped up in the philosophies of  the Southern Baptist and coloured Women’s clubs “lift as we climb” approach to community service.

‘As some members of the race excelled and progressed, it was their duty to help others along and to contribute to the welfare of those less able and fortunate than themselves. This responsibility to serve the community was derived as much from a sense of class distinction as from a sense of moral duty. Yet for African American women the relationship between class status and moral obligation was a reciprocal one; indeed, staunch  religious faith and selfless service to others was one way in which a woman and her family could attain a respectable, even elevated position within the community. (18)

Lucky all that Baker moved far away from much of that, in struggle as much as geography. Moved as far as Harlem, in fact, in 1927.

Damn, Harlem. What a time that was. Baker says

“I cam up out of the subway at 135th and Lenox into the beginnings of the Negro Renaissance. I headed for the Harlem YMCA down the block, where so many new, young dark…arrivals in Harlem have spent their early days. The next place I headed to that afternoon was the Harlem Branch Library just up the street.” (69)

She must have said more…but Baker would be active in Harlem for the rest of her life, always connected through her apartment even when she was based down in the South. I like that the YMCA and the library were ‘the dual pillars of Harlem’s intellectual and political life for over two decades.’ (69) Reflecting on her arrival there, Baker says:

I, perhaps at that stage, had the kind of ambition that others may have . . . the world was out there waiting for you to provide a certain kind of leadership and give you the opportunity. But with the Depression, I began to see that there were certain social forces over which the individual had very little control. It wasn’t an easy lesson. It was out of that context that I began to explore more in the areas of ideology and theory regarding social change. (104)


Going back to the idea of movement halfway houses, Baker spent a semester at Brookwood Labour College, ‘to learn about theories and models of social change, as well as the history of working people.’

Founded by socialists in 1921, Brookwood’s 1st chairman of the faculty was A.J. Muste — leader in the labour movement, then member (later head) of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) which shows up again and again (and then again) in radical histories of the century. There Baker met Pauli Murray, a longtime friend and comrade, someone else to read more about.

She became friends with the (famous/ later somewhat infamous) George Schuyler and his wife Josephine, became part of his circle. They helped found the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League, with Schuyler as president and Baker as national director. Some of its principles — and principles that Baker would carry with her through the whole of her life:

  • full inclusion and equal participation of women
  • full participation of its rank and file in decision making and leadership
  • young people should be in the forefront of the struggle for social change (83)

In 1930  they came up with a 5 year plan (inspired by Lenin), their goals were to train 5,000 co-op leaders by 1932, establish a wholesale cooperative outlet by 1993, finance an independent college by 1937. (86)

As a former organiser I confess, I like hearing other people’s goals– and these are damn impressive. They didn’t reach them, but it was still something: The YNCL grew from 30 members (they made these goals with 30 members?) in December to 400  in two years, local councils in 22 cities stretching between both coasts. 22 cities? I wish there was more on this. Again like Septima Clark’s work, and the cooperative grocery they formed in the front room of the first citizenship school, these stories and efforts to build more cooperative ways of working intertwine with so much of the struggle. Shit, we’re still trying to build cooperatives. Ransby writes:

Buying cooperatives would, they hoped, demonstrate on a small scale the efficiency of collective economic planning and simultaneously promote the values of interdependency, group decision making, and the sharing of resources. (86)

In 1936 she began working as a consumer education teacher for the Workers Education project (WEP) of the WPA — who didn’t work for the WPA? I would give almost anything to have been hanging around there…she did what she did and looked for jobs that would support her in that.

Then 1940, WWII, the double V movement for victory abroad and victory at home, and Baker joined staff of NAACP as assistant field secretary. Ransby notes that Baker was:

convinced that how one fought was as important as what one was fighting for; the key to change lay in the process of movement building. (106)

This meant the NAACP was somewhat frustrating, particularly as women were ‘indispensable but underappreciated’ in the NAACP. No woman had been elected as executive secretary and they were usually excluded from inner decision making circles despite being the backbone of many active branches and national staff. The NAACP provided an opportunity, though a flawed one. (106)

Already Ella Baker was fighting the class biases of black professionals, who:

had attitudes that were not particularly helpful in terms of change. For instance,…they would  be against the idea of going to battle for the town drunk who happened to have been brutalized when being arrested, because who was he? (120)

I love that Baker would fight for the town drunk. Through 1942 and 43 she increasingly became involved in the labour movement and CIO organizing efforts as part of her NAACP work, though not quite in the ways she hoped — she wrote to Lucille Baker after going to support CIO organizing shipyard workers in Newport News, VA:

The CIO is moving in, organizing everything . . . . I wish I could stay here several months. It is just the time to do a real piece of organizing for the NAACP, but as usual, I can only linger long enough to stir up sufficient interest to increase the membership by a few hundred and collect a few dollars. . . .  (133)

I love this quote too. Love how Baker wants to stay put, spend more time developing relationships, really organise rather than just get some members and raise some money. NAACP didn’t have much idea what was possible through that. Still, in 1943, her friends unexpectedly catapulted her into the position of the NAACP’s director of branches — White didn’t even ask her before putting out press release. She was pretty pissed, but she ended up saying yes. How could you say no? She traveled the country, still getting members, still raising money.

In the early 1950s (now over 20 years since she first started this kind of work mind, some long hard years and she’s still going) she became part of the struggle to improve public education. After Brown v Board she worked with Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark to fight for ‘community-based’ models of learning. They founded Parents in Action, trying to bring together African American and Puerto Rican parents in the same struggle for education. The group was able to act with autonomy from the more constricting NAACP  — feels like Baker had a very conflicted relationship with the NAACP.  She had an ambiguous relationship to the NAACP’s communist purging as well, part of the committee, but she worked with socialists before and after all of this. You’re doing good work in the community, she would work with you.

In 1955 she also joined Stanley Levison and Bayard Rustin to form In Friendship to funnel resources to Montgomery Bus Boycott … this would later be essentially taken over by E. Phillip Randolph, to be run by a committee handpicked by George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO.

The conflict between In Friendship and the union leaders also illustrates the reluctance of established leaders to relinquish any of their power to, or even make room for, upstart organizations. Baker encountered this problem repeatedly over the years. (166)

Still, it is through In Friendship that Ella Baker would be on hand to help form the SCLC. Then there’s SNCC, and the heart of her most exciting popular education and organising work, as well as lessons learned. To be saved for part 2, but first? A side note — I absolutely love that one of Ella Baker’s few indulgences were her fabulous hats.

ELLA BAKER (1903-1986). American civil rights activist. Photograph, c1970 Granger.
ELLA BAKER (1903-1986). American civil rights activist. Photograph, c1970 Granger.





Septima Clark: Ready From Within

Ready From Within - Septima ClarkSeptima Poinsette Clark… words cannot express how happy and humbling this tour of freedom fighters and popular educators has been making me. I only hope I have within me an ounce of their courage, and that my life could have a fraction of their meaning. I believed I could make a difference by writing, I am trying to continue a tiny piece of their legacy and remember their example when I face this academic article (and book) writing with fear and trembling, because I do not feel it is an audience of my people though I know some of my people are out there.

Anyway. This is short, wonderful, and everyone should read it. Cynthia Stokes Brown helped Septima Clark bring it together, and the introduction is her narration of how they met, how this book came about. In it she quotes part of a speech given by Rosa Parks at a dinner given by the East Bay Friends of Highlander where Mrs Clark was also present:

However, I was willing to face whatever came, not because I felt that I was going to be benefited or helped personally, because I felt that I had been destroyed too long ago. But I had the hope that the young people would be benefited by equal education…

I actually did not think in terms of non-violence and Christian love in connection with the Movement (we didn’t call it the Movement–we just called it survival) until Dr Martin Luther king came to Montgomery… (17)

These words shook me, regrounded me. Reminded me of the reality that all of this work was grounded in — survival.

I felt that I had been destroyed too long ago.

This is still where change has to start, where people are at. Septima Clark might have fought hard to do things the way she thought would be best, but it didn’t mean she closed herself down to change. Rather it meant opening up to a collective way of changing:

But I changed, too, as I traveled through the eleven deep south states. Working through those states, I found I could say nothing to those people, and no teacher as a rule could speak with them. We had to let them talk to us and say to us whatever they wanted to say. When we got through listening to them, we would let them know that we felt that they were right according to the kind of thing that they had in their mind, but according to living in this world there were other things they needed to know. We wanted to know if they were willing then to listen to us, and they decided that they wanted to listen to us.

…I found out that I needed to change my way of thinking, and in changing my way of thinking I had to let people understand that their way of thinking was not the only way. We had to work together to get the changes. (53-54)

She talks a lot about how she had to change her thinking about middle-class people, poor people, white people… but I’m getting ahead, because Mrs Clark fully came into her own with some help from Highlander, and this was a process the way getting rid of our prejudices is always a process.

Highlander Years

She was a teacher, and a colleague recommended Highlander to her. They offered free room and board for those attending the workshops (it’s clear this was important, it’s not at all clear how they funded it). Clark writes:

Myles used to open the workshops by asking the people what they wanted to know, and he would close it with, “What you going to do back home?” (30)

Clark, Thurgood Marshall, and others at the Highlander Folk School.
Clark, Thurgood Marshall, and others at the Highlander Folk School.

I liked that particular practice of questions, as much as the importance of music to the experience, and the singing that always went on there. When Clark lost her job as a teacher through the Southern push to destroy the NAACP and the mass firing of teachers who wouldn’t abjure their membership, she was hired on to Highlander’s staff.

An aside — Mrs Clark remembers Rosa Parks attending her first workshop while all the time fearing that someone would report her presence there back to the community and she would lose her job, even be in danger. No idle fear. Three months after that, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus.

While at Highlander, Clark was instrumental in helping set up the citizenship schools. She herself had been a teacher on Johns Island in South Carolina, so she knew a great deal about the situation there when Esau Jenkins came to talk to her and Myles Horton at Highlander about setting up a school to teach adults literacy there. He was a bus driver among other things, and had begun educating people about the constitution so they could qualify to vote while driving his route. But he couldn’t teach literacy while driving the bus.

Highlander provided the funds to buy a building. They set up a cooperative grocery in the front rooms to disguise what they were doing from the white people of the island — this also allowed them to make enough money to pay Highlander back for the cost of the building and created a loan-fund. They used this to rebuild a woman’s house after it ‘got burned out’ (no mention of how, why), to help people through sickness and etc.

This is floating around the internet with no credits I can find...
This is floating around the internet with no credits I can find…

Cooperative efforts and mutual aid within communities are a running thread throughout all of these stories of social change and struggle. So is respect. You’d think that would be easy, but everyone knows it can be pretty hard for some. Like Horton, she emphasises the importance of finding someone who could teach with respect for their students:

‘We wanted to find a person who was not a licensed teacher, one who would not be considered high falutin’, who would not act condescending to adults. (48)

They settled on the amazing Bernice Robinson, and the schools grew and grew with wildly success. A few more thoughts on her work at Highlander and the white supremacist actions to shut down it’s challenge to the establishment through charges of interracial gatherings, the illegal selling of alcohol, and communism. This hodgepodge contains the real reason, the fabricated reason, and the fear-mongering reason for Tennessee’s hate, highlighting the particularly long-standing tradition of red-baiting to shut down all attempts at social change. This deep-rooted hatred of socialism has been, and continues to be, an effective demonising label for anything that troubles privilege and promises change. Clark writes:

But anyone who was against segregation was considered a Communist. White southerners couldn’t believe that a southerner could have the idea of racial equality; they thought it had to come from somewhere else. (55)

Shit, imagine being so limited of vision and spirit. You’d think anyone could look around them and think shit, we must be able to do better than this. So how do we do it?

There are some light moments in here. For all her radical politics, she’s that fierce church/mother figure in her disapproval of alcohol (and by extension all that goes with it), though you love her just the same. I love it too, so much, every time she mentions Stokely Carmichael’s ‘black power boys’. That phrase will never leave me. You can love her for it, because she always stayed in conversation with those black power boys. Saw them sharing a struggle, even if she disagreed with everything they said.

Then there’s that memory of Harry Belafonte (swoon) coming to Highlander and teaching them ‘Michael Row Your Boat Ashore’, and a return to harsh reality when she talks about singing it to keep her spirits up after being arrested as part of that effort to destroy Highlander. One thing Myles Horton never quite got into was the racism Septima Clark faced every time she set foot in Sewanee, the nearest town to Highlander. She had to do without so much while she worked and lived there — like shopping at the store, or being welcome in church. Such ugliness. You realise this, and then it is followed by her arrest while Horton is away. She’s fierce all right, but I can’t imagine her not terrified when the cops took her the long way round to jail.

That must have made it easier when she, Horton and King decided to spin-off the citizenship schools to the SCLC to ensure they weren’t affected (and a few more reasons, they were already getting bigger than Highlander wanted to manage). Clark moved with them, though remained tightly connected to Highlander.

SCLC years

So she moved house (though never fully left the street she grew up on in Charleston — but more about that in the next post) and started a centre called the Dorchester Cooperative Community Center in McIntosh, Georgia. There they held five day trainings for people from local communities who wanted to go back and open up citizenship schools. They also increased recruitment of teachers. They had only three qualifications: teachers had to be respected in the community, had to be able to read aloud, and they had to be able to write their names in cursive writing.

Back then in the South, whites made sure your signature didn’t count unless it was your name in cursive. I don’t know why that detail alone makes me so angry.

Clark describes a back and forth and a flexibility, people wanting literacy teaching for various reasons beyond voting. They tailored programs to local needs — like teaching people to write checks. They got a grant so were able to compensate poor tenant farmers for their time studying and allow them to come.

Even then we didn’t have too many to come. There was so much pressure from the whites in the community that too many of them were afraid. Those who came had to feel that we could get away with it or that we didn’t mind if we had to die. (65)

More grounding.This was about power, and whites never did yield power easily.

‘But before we could send anyone to Congress, the white people tried some of everything.’ (71)

White supremacists killed thirty people engaged in the civil rights work of registering people for the vote from northern Virginia to Eastern Texas. You want more grounding? Clark remembers arguing with white volunteers, who would sneak out after work to see the town and run back home scared after threats or worse. She would tell them:

“Well, I tried to tell you not to go out at night. it’s bad enough to try to go out in the day, you know.” (72)

I don’t know how well I’d do myself in that kind of claustrophobic environment and under that kind of pressure. I guess you never know until you’re in it. Septima Clark understood as well as anyone that the people she worked with in these towns were facing this for life, not just the little while they were stepping outside their own reality to volunteer for a cause. But she didn’t much care for the high-falutin’ folk who refused risk, not when she saw so many others stepping forward… She talks a lot about class, about middle-class preachers and teachers too afraid to risk their standing, and in preacher’s cases their traditions of accepting gifts from white businesses in return for their mediations with Black community. It was mostly the other members of the community who pushed through, some giving their lives to do so. But together they managed to form 897 citizenship schools between 1957 and 1970. In 1964 alone there were 195, and Fannie Lou Hamer and Hosea Williams both entered the movement through their participation in them.

Even more than class, Clark talks about the sexism:

I was on the executive staff of SCLC, but the men on it didn’t listen to me too well. They liked to send me into many places, because I could always make a path in to get people to listen to what I have to say. But those men didn’t have any faith in women, none whatsoever. they just though that women were sex symbols…That’s why Rev. Abernathy would say continuously, “Why is Mrs. Clark on this staff?” (77)

I feel that tickle of rage here. Imagine anyone not respecting this woman. Imagine it. She went right ahead and spoke her mind anyway, and she didn’t hold back any punches.

I think there is something among the Kings that makes them feel that they are the kings, and so you don’t have a right to speak. You can work behind the scenes all you want. That’s all right. But don’t come forth and try to lead. That’s not the kind of thing they want. (78)

Of course, she didn’t see herself as a feminist at the time, but looking back she saw the intertwining of the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement, one did not come out of the other.

This is a slim volume, too slim for such a life! And curiously split in two parts, the second dealing more with her growing up and her family. So I’ll talk about that in a second post.

For more on education and struggle…





Myles Horton: Popular Education and Social Movement

200275Myles Horton lived and contributed to some of the most pivotal social movements in the US, making his thoughts on social movement as interesting as his experiences of education as liberatory and revolutionary. Both before and after the founding of Highlander, he studied with and learned from other movements and institutions working on projects of transformative change. As a young man he briefly attended the Union Theological Seminary in New York. He then took classes at the University of Chicago — argued and learned from Robert Park and Jane Addams at Hull House:

I learned a lot about social movements, the concepts of how organizations work, while I was at Chicago. I knew that people as individuals would remain powerless, but if they could get together in organizations, they could have power, provided they used their organizations instead of being used by them. I understood the need for organizations, but I was always afraid of what they did to people…they end up in structures and structures become permanent and most of them outlive their usefulness. (49)

This tension is a constant one. It is at the centre of so much argument over what the nature of social movement and just how we should go about both creating and consolidating change. Some, like Piven and Cloward, argue against all organisation that goes beyond a basic capacity for supporting mobilisation, others argue uncritically for organisation at all costs (especially those most invested in them). Myles Horton is naturally quite dialectical about it all.

There is a tradition of folk schools in Denmark, which Horton visited, then came back to his home country of the Appalachians and cofounded Highlander in 1932 with Don West and James Dombrowski. They raised money from subscribers through the Fellowship Of Reconciliation (FOR — another movement organisation to be further explored), which they had ties too, as well as socialist networks.

Highlander, Monteagle, Tennessee

During the Great Depression, it came to be central in the rising labour movement. I myself have never been lucky to be part of or witness anything like the power of the 1930s labour movement or 1950s-60s civil rights movement. Horton writes:

The best educational work at Highlander has always taken place when there is social movement. We’ve guessed right on two social movements–the labor movement in the 1930s and 40s, and the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. During movement times, the people involved have the same problems and can go from one community to the next, start a conversation in one place and finish it in another. (84)

Of course, most of the time you’re not this lucky.

Now we’re in what I call an organizational period, which has limited objectives, doesn’t spread very rapidly and has a lot of paid people and bureaucracy. It’s completely different from what takes place when there is a social movement. During organization times you try to anticipate a social movement, and if it turns out that you’ve guessed right, then you’ll be on the inside of a movement helping with the mobilization and strategies, instead of on the outside jumping on the bandwagon and never being an important part of it. You try to figure out what’s going to happen so that you can position yourself in such a way as to become part of it: you do things in advance to prepare the groundwork for a larger movement. That way, you’re built into it when the momentum begins. It’s like learning to ride freight trains. (84)

This ‘figuring out’ isn’t remote or terribly theoretical, it involves listening to people and remaining connected to struggle:

Years later we anticipated the civil rights movement, not because we did an analysis and concluded there was going to be one, but because we found that with everything we tried, we’d get only so far before we’d run up against the playing off of blacks against whites. It was a barrier that stopped us from moving toward our goal of economic democracy. (87)

Part of the reason they were so aware of this, is that Highlander was for decades the only place in the south where people both black and white could stay, eat and meet together. This alone was revolutionary as for decades, beginning with its educational work in the labour movement, Highlander fought segregation through its daily practice.

For more on the difference between long organizational periods and periods of social movement:

It’s only in a movement that an idea is often made simple enough and direct enough that it can spread rapidly. Then your leadership multiplies very rapidly, because there’s something explosive going on. People see that other people not so different from themselves do things they thought could never be done. They’re embold­ened and challenged by that to step into the water, and once they get in the water, it’s as if they’ve never not been there.

People who work to create a decent world long for situations like this, but most of the time we are working with organizations. We cannot create movements, so if we want to be part of a movement when it comes, we have to get ourselves into a position-by working with organizations that deal with structural change-to be on the inside of that movement when it comes, instead of on the outside trying to get accepted.

When you’re in an organizational period, which is most of the time, there can be many organizations without there being a move­ment… (114)

Citizenship Schools

Highlander was at a crossroads in the late 40s and early 50s, phasing out of union organizing as they had succeeded in helping the unions become ready to further organize and work on their own. They tried to start up conversations around building a liberal labour-farmer coalition, but that went nowhere. Quite naturally they also began to focus on racism. They had been confronting this for many years,  also they had more and more people from Africa and Asia arriving for conferences unable to feel comfortable anywhere else in the south. Education director Septima Clark (there will be more about her) made a proposal for schools to help people learn enough to pass Jim Crow literacy tests so that they could vote.

Bernice Robinson taught the first classes and helped craft the program. A niece of Septima Clarke, she also worked as a black beautician — her business a social centre, as well as a job of status and independence in the community with its economic independence of whites. Bernice and the first 14 students decided to call it a citizenship school. The first thing on the wall that they learned to read was the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. (In Septima Clark’s memory it was the constitution they learned from — there are some interesting minor differences in the ways she and Horton remember things, but more on that in another post).

Horton describes that decision:

Since we were operating from the basis that these were adults with dignity, it was important to challenge them with something worthy of the attention an concern of an adult. (103)

also the other aspect of the curriculum:

Along with becoming literate, they learned to organize, they learned to protest, they learned to demand their rights, because they also learned that you couldn’t just read and write yourself into freedom. You had to fight for that and you had to do it as part of a group, not as an individual. (104)

None of the teachers were formally trained — it was thought teachers would be unable to resist recreating traditional models of education which did not respect the knowledge and life experiences of their students or succeed in teaching adults differently from children. All of them came from the communities they taught in. I particularly liked how he described his advising role in the founding of the programme:

I made up a movie in my mind of what would happen during those three months, and when I’d see certain tings going wrong in my mind’s eye I’d re-edit the film or erase the movie and start over again. Then I replayed the film until I finally got most of the bugs out of it…I’d sit by the hour… (101)

The citizenship schools became wildly successful, an idea whose time had come.

The job of Highlander was to multiply leadership for radical social change. The Citizenship School during the  civil rights period is an example. It’s been estimated that more than one hundred thousand people were reached by the Citizenship Schools. In my opinion, the truth is that nobody knows how many people were involved. They could’ve just said, “a helluva lot of people” and it would have been about as accurate. (115)

Given the dialectic between organisation and structure and programming, and innovation and flexibility in a supportive role more to do with creating space for people to come together outside of the limitations of the structures they worked within, the citizenship schools were spun off to become part of SCLC programme. Horton writes:

We tried to find ways of working that did not duplicate what was already being done. To be true to our vision, it was necessary to stay small and not get involved in mass education or in activities which required large amounts of money… We solved the problem of staying small by spinning off programs that were already established and were willingly taken over by organizations less interested in creating new programs… These spin-offs enabled Highlander to concentrate on cutting-edge programs that no one else in the region was undertaking. (138-139)

The Larger Civil Rights Movement

Septima Clark, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King and  Ella Baker along with the whole host of organisers from SNCC held a number of important meetings here.

The ante went up and finally escalated into demands that they do away with all public segregation. (116)

This of course put Highlander at risk. In 1961, Tennessee District Attorney shut down Highlander — raiding it and arresting those who were there on charges of selling liquor without a license and for holding interracial classes. The trial resulted in the State’s confiscation of the property. Within two months of being locked up, someone had burned it down. Highlander temporarily moved to a big house in the black community of Knoxville. There they faced arson and firebombing attempts, the puncturing of their tires, and the shooting out of their windows. They survived there ten years, before moving back to another farm in rural Tennessee.

Horton again emphasises the conflict and violence involved in achieving meaningful change described more fully in the first post, and the ways that this is brought to the for during a period of social movement:

A large social movement forces people to take a stand for or against it, so that there are no longer any neutrals. You’ve got to be on one side or the other. It’s true that it forces some people to be worse than they would. be, more violent than they would be, but it also forces some people to get behind the cause and work for it and even die for it. People have to understand that you can’t make progress without pain, because you, can’t make progress with­out provoking violent opposition. If enough people want change and others stand in their way, they’re going to force them out of the way. A revolution is just the last step of a social movement after it has taken a pre-revolutionary form. (114)


Another aspect of social movement is its leadership — and most prominent is always leadership of a different kind than that provided by Highlander.

The only problem I have with movements has to do with  my reservations about charismatic leaders. There’s something about having one that can keep democracy from working effectively. But we don’t have movements without them. That’s why I had no intellectual problem supporting King as a charismatic leader. (120)

This issue of charisma is an important one, brought up by Aldon Morris, Piven and Cloward and others theorising social change. I like Horton’s very practical approach:

One thing I especially like about social movements is that even though they throw up charismatic leaders, most of the people who are part of them can learn to be educators and organizers. High­lander was able to play a role in developing educators because we were asked to do the educational work by both SCLC and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). We trained the people who ran the Citizenship Schools and the voter registra­tion drives, the noncharismatic people. That was when I learned, just as I had in the earlier industrial union period, that educational work during social movement periods provides the best opportunity for multiplying democratic leadership.

There is another important thing that social movements do: they radicalize people. That is, people learn from the movement to go beyond the movement. It may only affect a minority of the people, but there are so many people. involved that thousands of them get radicalized. (127)

A final point. For Horton the struggle was never just within the local area, the region or the nation — he emphasised that this approach must be international.  He traveled widely, part of building a network of people involved in this kind of liberatory praxis, and believed their approach connected Appalachia to other oppressed regions and areas, as well as other struggles and other people engaging in similar work such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and Paulo Freire… What is not to love?

This is the second of three posts on Myles Horton’s The Long Haul, the first is on popular education basics, and the next will be contrasting popular education with community organising.

For more posts on popular education and struggle…



Myles Horton: The Basics for the Long Haul

200275Things Myles Horton says often make you want to clap your hand against your forehead and say ‘of course!’ They are so simple, so true, so clear… They lack some of the complex theoretical framing of Paulo Freire’s work, which I am sure explains why they have not become as prevalent in academic discourses. Yet the two men worked along almost exactly the same lines developing critical praxis for changing the world. Horton speaks of decades of work and key support for two of the greatest social movements in the U.S., the 1930’s union movement and the civil rights movement of the 1950s-1960s. Through this retelling of his life and work, an incredible theory of education and social change emerges.

At bottom, the principle is so simple:

It’s the principle of trying to serve people and building a loving world. If you believe that people are of worth, you can’t treat anyone inhumanely, and that means you not only have to love and respect people, but you have to think in terms of building a society that people can profit from, and that kind of society has to work on the principle of equality. Otherwise, somebody’s going to be left out.

People always ask, “Can we wait till we have a society that’s perfect to have equality?” Well, of course, we’ll never  achieve it unless we start where we are, so you begin incorporating principles of equality into everything you do. That’s complicated, because it’s hard to avoid domination or inequality, or paternalism: but the principle itself isn’t complicated, it’s the application that’s complicated. (7)

All of the elaborations of both Freire and Horton among others are trying to figure out just how you incorporate equality, love and respect into everything you do, what that means. He has a vision similar to Freire’s on what the point of life really is:

I think that people aren’t fully free until they’re in a  struggle for justice. And that means for everyone. It’s a struggle of such importance that they are willing, if necessary, to die for it. I think that’s what you have to do before you’re really free. (184)

This shit makes me tear up just a bit, because it’s true. And me, I’ve been involved in struggle a long time but not quite achieved this full freedom yet. I’m not sure if it’s more distant now or not as I struggle to plug back in to meaningful work as a writer, an academic, a volunteer activist rather than an organizer. I think much of this will happen once I’m finally able to settle down again, put down roots, involve myself for the long term in a community. I am looking forward to that, and a job. But there are words of comfort here about that

I had to turn my anger into a slow burning fire, instead of a consuming fire. You don’t want the fire to go out — you never let it go out–and if it ever gets weak, you stoke it, but you don’t want it to burn you up. It keeps you going, but you subdue it, because you don’t want to be destroyed by it. (80)

Also in recognising the strength of what we are up against, and that this struggle is an ongoing one where we only play a part. Thus, the title:

I had to come to grips with this when I realized that the capitalist system was more viable than I had thought. It had more ways of lasting than I had understood from my experience in the Depression, when a lot of people, including me, thought that capitalism was on its last legs. When I finally found out it wasn’t even limping, that Roosevelt’s job was to make it work, and he did make it work, I realized that you had to slow down the fire, because you’d burn up the fuel and it would be over. That’s when I started trying to calm myself down, step by step, that it wasn’t going to come as a great explosion automatically. It had to be made, or it wouldn’t happen.

That’s when I started saying, “Horton, get yourself together, get ready for the long haul..” (81)

So…the basics of Horton’s teaching. First, that change must be collectively won through action upon the world:

I changed and became philosophically a socialist. I understood that you couldn’t act alone, and that you couldn’t withdraw into a utopian community. To deal with injustice you had to act in the world. you had to share what you knew. (30)

Popular education thus must be a collective enterprise:

It isn’t a matter of each one teach one. It’s a matter of having a concept of education that is yeasty, one that will multiply itself. You have to think in terms of which small groups have the potential to multiply themselves and fundamentally change society.

Therefore, you can’t have each individual go her or his own way and work separately. the people you deal with have to work with you in the name of a group, not for their own personal reasons. (57)

That this collective action is not just some idealistic pipe dream:

In the civil rights movement we saw people come out of the fields and get in the voter registration line and be beaten up and shot at and become leaders and run for office and get elected. Since we’ve seen that, we don’t think of ourselves as utopian.
My job is to provide opportunities for people to grow (not to make them grow, because no one can do that), to provide a climate which nurtures islands of decency, where people can learn in such a way that they continue to grow. (133)

A final recognition that through inaction you are as much a part of the dynamic as through action:

I do not  believe in neutrality. Neutrality is just another word for accepting the status quo as universal law. (139)

To work as an educator to achieve such a nurturing climate in our society requires a particular kind of framework and understanding that are very much based in standing with the poor and oppressed (even if you weren’t raised among them, it’s your choice). First, it is to understand the lived reality of the poor and people of colour and women  — in my own life this has been one of the biggest gaps in activist circles, and the lack of such understanding in others has been one of the most frustrating to overcome.

I didn’t have to work out theories about the violence of poverty, because I had been close to it all my life. The violence of poverty destroys families, twists minds, hurts in many ways beyond the pain of hunger.

There is another kind of violence that supports the violence of poverty, and that is institutionally sanctioned violence. We live in a violent society, a violent world; that is, a world in which force is a vital mechanism used to keep the economic and social system intact. We have laws that are backed up by a police force; and the state, when the police force can’t control defiance, is backed up by armies. The laws of the land are supported by the use of violence…If you oppose things in that system, then all those powers of violence can be used to force you into line. If you’re trying to change things, first you have to know that violence can be used against you, and second, you have to know what strategies to use in order to change the system, given that situation. (27 – 28)

Perhaps sharing this assessment and lived experience of such structural violence (while of course recognising the very real differences and my relative privilege compared to Horton and so many others) is why I completely agree with his assessment on violence as opposed to non-violence:

You have to fit violent revolutions into the whole context of thinking about violence. Violence is relative. Sometimes a revolution can be a lesser form of violence if people are suffering intolerably under their currently entrenched rulers. There are many kinds of violence: physical violence, mental violence, the kind of violence that causes babies to be born with brain damage because their mothers didn’t have the proper food, the violence that suppresses people’s expression of beliefs and ideas… (38)

For a time Horton was part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) where he engaged in many discussions about this. It would also be a key discussion point for members of SNCC, working in the murderous South. Charles Cobb describes remarkably similar conclusions to Horton’s below:

I believed that it was a matter of determining what was the lesser violence, not choosing between violence and nonviolence. Most of the poor people in the world don’t have that kind of choice. The people at this meeting were more privileged, and they could afford to take a theoretical stance. I was always needling about their unrealistic position. (39)

I wish I had been there. I wish too I had more of this uncompromising yet loving attitude that always speaks up…I would have probably sat angry but mostly silent in such meetings.

Key, of course, is that this is all about working with people to create a better world, to ‘incorporate the principles of equality into everything you do’, knowing that this means starting with where people are and moving upwards together.

Since I chose to work with poor, oppressed people, I had to take into consideration that they’d never been allowed to value their own experience; that they’d been told it was dirt and that only teachers and experts knew what was good for them.

I knew that it was necessary to do things in the opposite way…It also became clear that there had to be a place where people could learn how to make decisions by actually making real decisions. That’s how you learn anything–by doing it. (57)

Always a goal, its practice still emerged at Highlander through learning from mistakes:

We ended up doing what most people do when they come to a place like Appalachia: we saw problems that we thought we had the answers to, rather than seeing the problems and the answers that the people had themselves. That was our basic mistake. Once you understand that, you don’t have to have answers, and you can open up new ways of doing things.

Another idea we didn’t fully understand is that one of the best ways of educating people is to give them an experience that embodies what you are trying to teach. When you believe in a democratic society, you provide a setting for education that is democratic. (68)

People learn more through a process of dialogue and practice, rather than through a taught curriculum. Returning to the understanding of the violence inherent in the system, this praxis is never safe, nor conflict free.

It’s dangerous to do this kind of education, to push the boundaries to the place where people might be fired or get in some other kind of trouble… If people don’t take chances, they’ll never keep pushing. They must explore and push as far as they can. People get the exhilaration of liberating themselves, pushing that boundary… by the time they do, they are liberated enough that they are not going to spend the rest of their lives boxed in, and of course most of the time they land on their feet. (183)

To me this is as effective a message as Freire’s philosophy of humanization and dialogue, and it has to rest firm on a belief that we are here on this earth for more than just getting through each day. Risk is part of change, and it is part of becoming fully human.

I don’t think you help people by keeping them enslaved to something that is less than they are capable of doing and believing. … My position was that I believed in changing society by first changing individuals, so that they could then struggle to bring about social changes. There’s a lot of pain in it, and a lot of violence, and conflict, and that is just part of the price you pay. I realized that was part of growth–and growth is painful.

Trusting people — the role of the intellectual

You don’t have to know the answers. The answers come from the people, and when they don’t have any answers, then you have another role, and you find resources. (23)

This is key to it all, the belief that collectively, through critical dialogue, people will come up with the answers they need, and steadily refine and expand them over time.

People have a potential for growth; it’s inside, it’s in the seeds. This kind of potential cannot guarantee a particular outcome, but it’s what you build on. (133)

The role of the educator lies in creating a safe space and a process for the collective undoing of oppressions, bringing resources to bear when needed. This process is the only thing that can create the desired outcome.

If we are to have a democratic society, people must find or invent new channels through which decisions can be made. Given genuine decision-making powers, people will not only learn rapidly to make socially useful decisions, but they will also assume responsibility for carrying out decisions based on their collective judgment. The problem is not that people will make irresponsible or wrong decisions. It is, rather, to convince people who have been ignored or excluded in the past that their involvement will have meaning and that their ideas will be respected. The danger is not too much, but too little participation.

Popular education should give people experience in making decisions. Many take it for granted that people can make decisions, but actually, the majority of us are not allowed to make decisions about most of the things that are important. I have been put on the spot about the contradiction between my views on people making their own decisions and my action in making decisions that affect people’s experience at Highlander, such as my insisting there can be no discrimination or lack of freedom of speech. I think, however, if you’re going to help people make decisions, it’s important to show them that the decisions they make must be responsible. Whenever you take a position, you’ve made a decision. The decision at Highlander from its beginning in the 1930s to practice social equality was a big one – with legal, practical and moral implications. (134)

A little more on Myles Horton’s vision of democracy:

Democracy needs to be not only political but part of the fabric of society as a whole. When I use the word “democracy,” it is not limited to political decision making, to voting. It is a philosophical concept meaning that people are really free and empowered to make collectively the decisions that affect their lives. (169)

The practice of popular education

I like to think that I have two eyes that I don’t have to use the same way…I try to see with one eye where these people are as they perceive themselves to be…You have to start where people are, because their growth is going to be from there, not from some abstraction or where you are or somewhere else is.

Now my other eye is not such a problem, because I already have in mind a philosophy of where I’d like to see people moving. (131)

This movement happens, just as for Freire, as a natural outcome of critical and collective discussion in a circle:

I think of an educational workshop as a circle of learners. “circle” is not an accidental term, for there is no head of the table at Highlander workshops; everybody sits around in a circle. (150)

At Highlander there were two guiding principles:

nobody can be discriminated against, for any reason, and there is freedom to say anything or take any position on the topic of the workshop. (155)

It is, however, understood in advance, that students have to stay on topic. No rants on other things…we have all met those folks who enjoy that sort of thing. The working assumptions for each workshop (and I am paraphrasing here) are:

1. a workshop has to have a goal arising out a social problem that the students perceive
2. people have within themselves the potential, intelligence, courage and ability to solve their own problems
3. the Highlander experience can add to and enrich the educational experience
4. in addition to learning from their peers, Highlander staff members should have an opportunity to interact in the field with the students.
5. factual information and analysis presented has to be tailored to the expressed needs of the participants It is meant to be usable knowledge that can help when people return home.
6. follow-up receives special attention

Above all this is a process of praxis embedded in a community:

The most important part of a workshop come from what has happened in a community before the workshop itself, and what happens when people go home and act. (153)

A final reminder on why this kind of practice is so important, because any other simply reifies what the capitalist system currently imposes:

Any educational philosophy comes out of what you do and how you deal with people. When you believe in people and in the importance of trying to create a democracy, you must turn these beliefs into practice, and if you don’t believe in the free enterprise system and individual competitiveness, you practice group action and cooperation…(175)

This is one of three posts, the next looks at Highlander’s connection to social movement, and the third at the difference between popular education as Myles Horton practiced and envisioned it, and his understanding of community organizing as practised by Saul Alinsky and others.

[Horton, Myles with Judith and Herbert Kohl. (1998) the long haul: an autobiography. New York: Teachers College Press.]



Charles Cobb on nonviolence, unviolence & self-defense

Charles Cobb - This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You KilledCharles Cobb worked as a SNCC field secretary in the deep South in the 1960s freedom movement. Grounded in that experience, this book is a clear look at Southern black traditions of self-defense and self-respect, and how they came together with a when non-violent students came to organise the South.

The tradition of armed self-defense in Afro-American history cannot be disconnected form the successes of what today is called the nonviolent civil rights movement. Participants in that movement always saw themselves as part of a centuries-long history of black life and struggle. Guns in no way contradicted the lessons of that history. Indeed, the idea of nonviolent struggle was newer in the black community, and it was protected in many ways by gunfire and the threat of gunfire. Simply put: because nonviolence worked so well as a tactic for effecting change and was demonstrably improving their lives, some black people chose to use weapons to defend the nonviolent Freedom Movement. Although it is counterintuitive, any discussion of guns in the movement must also include substantial discussion of nonviolence, and vice versa. (2)

I loved lots of things about this book, above all that like Morris, Cobb looks at the 60s as only part of a continuum of struggle, a history passed down.

One of the crucial but mostly ignored aspects of the freedom struggle of the 1950s and ’60s is how near we were in time and collective historical memory to slavery and the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. each generation of black people carries a memory of the struggles taken on by generations that preceded it, and that memory settles in the collective soul and becomes the foundation for the struggles of one’s own generation. to borrow words from author and professor Jan Carew, we are haunted by “ghosts in our blood.” (xi)

So this is a look at SNCC and CORE’s work in the South within the context of the organizing tradition of the black community… ‘much older than nonviolent protest, and the one word that is essential for connecting the elements of this tradition is “resistance.” (xv)

I think he definitely makes his point that within this history, there is no real dichotomy between nonviolent struggles and armed self defense, there was instead a community coming together in different ways in resistance. There never was an either/or as the movement played out, especially across the south. Young organizers may have come into communities with set beliefs of what they wanted to achieve and how they were going to achieve it, but they confronted there the life-and-death consequences of even small acts of resistance, along with the long existing experiences and networks built over the past decades of other kinds of resistance. They met fierce, intelligent people who had their own ideas of how to do things. SNCC and CORE had to ‘earn’ the right to organize, and in the process, both their beliefs and those of the older adults they worked to organize would be transformed.

It is to their credit that they were able to ‘earn’ the right to organise in these places, through respecting the people they went there to work with.

…there is a core reality that strong movements are built by developing inclusive relationships capable of knitting together strategies formed as a result of listening to ordinary peoples’ experiences and ideas for change. (xviii)

This process of respect and mutual transformation through struggle is as important today. You know I loved this point too:

Even now, despite the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 that officially ended southern slavery, irrational dread of almost any kind of black assault against white supremacy has lingered. This dread is deeply embedded in U.S. culture… (xvi)

So I loved the distinction between the ‘civil rights movement’, the 1950s and 60s effort to secure equal rights under law, and the the ‘Freedom Movement…a larger idea whose goal is the achievement of civil rights, civil liberties, and the liberated consciousness of self and community.’ (2) This comes from Hasan Kwame Jeffries’ formulation — too look into.

To understand the role of self-defense the book addresses two important periods, the first the very beginnings of the country up through reconstruction. As Charles Cobb says, it all goes back to ‘the founding contradiction’, the founding fathers’ desire to continue in their ownership of slaves despite Declaration of Independence and the ‘Rights of Man’. And then the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s.

Of course, little is as ‘American’ as the right to bear arms to defend your home and property and above all your life. There’s a couple of interesting stories in here about the inner struggle in the bosoms of whites who believed that fully, and also hated the thought of Black people with guns. But to return to history, arms  formed part of slave uprisings, they liberated the slaves who fought in the Union army, and they remained part of the repertoire of resistance after Reconstruction. Important to remember:

Reconstruction did not fail; it was destroyed, crushed by more than a decade of savage campaigns of violence carried out both by the local governments that had largely remained intact and by vigilante terrorists. lynchings and other forms of mob violence were the instruments of Reconstruction’s brutal death. (43)

Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells among others wrote about the place of the gun in struggle as self-defense. W.E.B. Du Bois wasn’t all that impressed with non violence either. In 1957 he wrote

No normal human being of trained intelligence is going to fight the man who will not fight back…but suppose they are wild beasts or wild men? To yield to the rush of the tiger is death, nothing less. (3-4)

From reading this and reading Morris, it seems there were two kinds of activists within SNCC, CORE, SCLC (forgive the simplification around this issue for a moment). A few were fully committed to nonviolence — this was a deeply held belief key to their identities. Morris makes the point that for many members of CORE, for example, the practice of nonviolence for liberation was more important than the cause it was applied to — I am annoyed by that somehow, I confess. But then I am also reading the letters of Bayard Rustin and the intensity of his search for moral integrity through non-violence is both humbling and awe-inspiring. Not something I myself would want to or could live up to. Charles Cobb makes a similar point, that ‘pure’ nonviolence required a moral courage many did not claim to possess. But there was much to recommend it, both as a way of life and as a strategy. Nonviolence was never ‘not fighting back’,  rather it was both dynamic and militant. In the words of activist Vincent Harding (and later movement writer, academic and historian who would hang out with Walter Rodney don’t you know):

Our struggle was not just against something, but was trying to bring something into being. Always at the heart of nonviolent struggle was, and still is, a vision of a new society. Nonviolence enabled people to see something in themselves and others of what could be… (4)

What is not to love in that? We need more of that.

Many of these students were along the spectrum of such belief — they were still deciding, had been to a few workshops, had committed to some extent. In the words of Ivanhoe Donaldson, another SNCC field secretary:

The civil rights movement was about civil rights, not about nonviolence. Nonviolence was a tool the movement used to create confrontation without hate, without force, without brutality. Yes, all the blood that was shed was ours, [but] we accepted that for the greater good–the mission–and that was not about nonviolence but about change. I didn’t go to Mississippi to celebrate nonviolence; I went down there to fight for the right to vote. (162)

So it became complex when they moved into rural towns, and the residents of those rural towns organized to protect them. With guns.

self-defense was a crucial part of life for many black Americans, especially in the South. The prevailing system of white supremacy in the South was enforced by violence, and black people sometimes used the threat of an armed response to survive. (5)

This book is full of stories of farmers sitting up all night to protect SNCC activists, escorting them to meetings, placing watches on their houses. They undoubtedly saved lives, though the number of murders should still shock the world. Black veterans led much of this (not to say that women didn’t who had returned from WWII, staked their claim to live in their communities and to whom self-defense was intrinsic. Charles Cobb himself writes

And we organizers knew, as surely as we new the sun would rise, that it was our presence that triggered white violence. (117)

The wife of murdered Herbert Lee came up to SNCC’s Bob Moses at the funeral, and told him he had killed her husband after he was assasinated by local whites for organizing. SNCC could not control — nor perhaps wanted to– how the community as a whole would react.

communities, unlike national organizations, did not subscribe to particular schools of philosophy or tactics when they chose how to respond to danger. (159)

…the reality was that black men and women in the Deep South had developed their own ways of coping with the threat of white violence, and engaging with these local community organizers found themselves being transformed at the same time that they were effecting transformation. (116)

Those working for the right to vote were challenging all of white Southern society. The voting campaign (so derided by Piven & Cloward) was characterized by SNCC’s Bob Moses

as one of “constitutional personhood”: who gets to be a full citizen of the United States? As the twentieth century progressed, it became clear that this question not only remained unresolved but also applied to more than black people. (65)

This question of citizenship and community was the challenge. The murderous reaction to it was not just to protect white privilege, though that would be enough. So much of the terrorism comes out of terror, I think. Charles Cobb writes:

Whites, in other words, feared and perhaps expected that the same sort of terrorism they had used against the South’s black community would someday be turned against them. (126)

The reasons behind previous restraint of the black communities — too often seen as apathy when it was anything but:

  • ‘the terrorism that local blacks knew could be brought to bear against them at the slightest hint of a challenge to the prevailing white supremacist order (117)
  • people couldn’t leave these communities, had to stay there, live there, held by debt, family, love
  • finally, fear

In Munroe, a black vet returned home with a steel plate in his head, snapped and killed his boss in a fight after being insulted in 1946. He was tried and executed, but Klan demanded his body for further humiliation when it was returned to town.To be dragged through the streets, lynched, mutilated, those klan things they do.

A little extreme.

3 dozen armed men, all of them also veterans, gathered to guard the body and ensure proper burial.

This is the same town the sit-ins started as early as 1957. Out of this town came well known activists Robert Williams and Dr Perry…a small town version of movement center.

It was in Munroe…that the principled practice of armed self-defense first converged with the modern civil rights movement’s emergent tactics and strategies of nonviolence. (111)

SNCC’s field secretary Worth Long used the term ‘unviolent’:

a way to transcend the fundamentally false distinction between violence and nonviolence…Most people do not see themselves as being “nonviolent”…and most people would not consider themselves “violent”…they would treat bother choices as potentially viable, and at any given time, which they would choose would depend on what they had concluded about their immediate circumstances. (148)

So you have King who came to fully believe in the prectice of nonviolence, in a house full of guns with community members armed and guarding his doors and his gates. You have Fannie Lou Hamer on the guns in her house:

I keep a shotgun in every corner of my bedroom and the first cracker even looks like he wants to throw some dynamite on my porch won’t write his mama again. (124)

Story after inspirational story of small communities is to be found here — I am more inspired by the communities found by SNCC and CORE organisers than the organisers in a way, for these were people standing up for what they believed in and for their own self respect without the backing of an organisation or an ideology or the feeling that they part of something larger or that anyone had their back. People in Jonesboro, Bogalusa, Tuscaloosa. I love the Deacons, facing down bullies with sheets and guns. One of the founders quoted here saying:

It takes violent blacks to combat these violent whites…It takes nonviolent whites and nonviolent Negroes to sit down and bargain whenever the thing is over–and iron it out. I ain’t going to.’ (212)

Their effectiveness explained makes sense to me:

Fear…Few if any white terrorists were prepared to die for the cause of white supremacy…a few rounds fired into the air were enough to cause the terrorists to flee. (241)

That and the fact you get the feeling that the Deacons and all the others standing guard over the ‘nonviolents’ were pretty badass veterans who inspired their foes with the belief they were prepared to kill them if it came right down to it.

Above all, what the movement brought to those who participated in it, whether committed to nonviolence or with a rifle for self-defense, was self-respect and dignity. And I love how these communities embraced as their own the kids coming to press for social change through nonviolence.

A few other tidbits — The amazing rumour of the ‘Eleanorites’ organizing ‘Eleanor Clubs’ of maids who planned to ‘disrupt the existing social order refusing to wear servants’ uniforms, work unlimited hours, or respond when addressed by their first names.’ The FBI opened a file. (66)

There is also a hint of how people saw this as a larger struggle, how it connected to international feeling, anti-colonial uprisings and striving for freedom.

Medgar and Charles Evers following with intense interest the Mau Mau Rebellion and Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya. They decided armed rebellion wouldn’t work, but  Medgar named his first son born in 1953 Darrell Kenyatta Evers.

There is more here, but I shall stop now. I enjoyed Charles Cobb’s book immensely.


Aldon D. Morris: The Indigenous Perspective on Social Movement

22493Aldon D. Morris’s book analysing the Civil Rights Movement using the indigenous perspective is one of the best things I’ve read in some time on this kind of subject… clearly a limited amount of time was spent revising this from a thesis, but it didn’t matter.

As with all the books I like best, it is firmly founded in people’s concrete experience and full of rich detail. He writes:

Organized protest against white domination has always been one of the cornerstones of the black experience (x).

He cites the slave revolts, Marcus Garvey’s UNIA , the March on Washington, the Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP…all in the same tradition.

The tradition of protest is transmitted across generations by older relatives, black educational institutions, churches and protest organizations. Blacks interested in social change inevitably gravitate to this “protest community,” where they hope to find solutions to a complex problem… The modern civil rights movement fits solidly into this rich tradition of protest. (x)

Movement and struggle don’t just happen, they are part of a long history. So what marked the modern civil rights movement as different within this longer tradition (one often ignored)? It:

… broke from the protest tradition of the past in at least two crucial ways. one, it was the first time that large masses of blacks directly confronted and effectively disrupted the normal functioning of groups and institutions thought to be responsible for their oppression. The hallmark of the modern civil rights movement is that these mass confrontations were widespread and sustained over a long period of time in the face of heavy repression. Two, this was the first time in American history that blacks adopted nonviolent tactics as a mass technique for bringing about social change. (xi)

This engages with academic literature on movements, so it has to choose an approach and contrast it with others — I have to say, I haven’t bothered too much in exploring the others as he demolishes them fairly soundly. Aldon Morris himself is writing from the ‘indigenous perspective’:

the assumption is that mass protest in a product of the organizing efforts of activists functioning through a well-developed indigenous base. A well-developed indigenous base includes the institutions, organizations, leaders, communication networks, money, and organized masses within a dominated group. Such a base also encompasses cultural elements — music, oratory, and so on–of a dominated group that play a direct role in the organization and mobilization of protest…. a central concern of the indigenous perspective is to examine the ways in which organizers transform indigenous resources into power resources and marshals them in conflict situations to accomplish political ends. (xii)

I’ll skip to the conclusion now, because this is the real point of all of this literature on social movement, or should be:

The task of the indigenous perspective is to examine how dominated groups take advantage of and create the social conditions that allow them to engage in overt power struggles with dominant groups. (282)

I also love that Morris combines the economic, political and personal in this tripartite structure of oppression — quite similar to what Stuart Hall does though ideology was absent here.

The tripartite system of racial domination–economic, political, and personal oppression — was backed by legislation and the iron fist of Southern governments. In the short run all members of the white group had a stake in racial domination, because they derived privileges from it. poor and middle-class whites benefited because the segregated labor force prevented blacks from competing with them for better-paying jobs. The Southern white ruling class benefited because blacks supplied them with cheap labor and a weapon against the labor movement, the threat to use unemployed blacks as strikebreakers in labor disputes. Finally, most Southern whites benefited psychologically from the system’s implicit assurance that no matter how poor or uneducated, they were always better than niggers. (3)

So how did the civil rights movement arise? First, geography, the benefits of a segregated spatiality,  ‘the concentration of institutions and creation of close-knit communities where all lived together regardless of class or education. (3)

But in the beginning there was the church.

The black church functioned as the institutional center of the modern civil rights movement. Churches provided the movement with an organized mass base; a leadership of clergymen largely economically independent of the larger white society and skilled in the art of managing people and resources; an institutionalized financial base through which protest was financed; and meeting places where the masses planned tactics and strategies and collectively committed themselves to struggle. (4)

Bases of the United Defense League, MIA, ICC, ACMHR …

their ability to unite community leaders by bringing them directly into leadership positions while simultaneously organizing the black masses. They were able to organize the black masses because they themselves were mass-based organizations that had grown directly out of a mass based institution, the black church. It is almost inconceivable to picture an alternative route to mass mobilization in these complex black communities, with their deep social divisions and under a tripartite system of domination that controlled blacks and kept them powerless. (46)

A little more on what the church offered:

In the case of the civil rights struggle, the preexisting black church provided the early movement with the social resources that made it a dynamic force, in particular leadership, institutionalized charisma, finances, and organized following, and an ideological framework through which passive attitudes were transformed into a collective consciousness supportive of collective action. (77)

The Church and the NAACP.

The NAACP evolved as a bureaucratic organization. It did not emerge within the black community, nor were the black masses involved in shaping the organization at the outset. The NAACP began as a small group of black and white intellectuals who intended to organize the black masses to struggle for their rights. (13)

Out of necessity, the NAACP in the South was closely tied to the black church. The church, being independent of the white power structure, was often the only place where the NAACP could meet. (15)

They didn’t just meet there of course, ‘…in many cases the church ran the local Southern units, but within the constraints of the National office of the NAACP.’ (37) Many thought that it’s methods were the only proper way to effect change, dampening effect across the South, and many within it feared the rise of the SCLC and CORE, and their critique of NAACP methods. King writes:

when legal contests were the sole form of activity…the ordinary Negro was involved as a passive spectator. His interests were stirred, but his energies were unemployed. (123)

The opening salvo showing a new way of struggle was the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott. in 1953. Damn. I confess, I had not heard of it. Reverend Jemison led the movement here, a relative newcomer to the city but still very active — a common characteristic of the movements leading figures as they had no embattled history to divide people but were also connected to church networks, local community groups and the NAACP, which allowed others to unite behind them. The black community formed an umbrella organisation, the United Defense League to direct the boycott, and churches mobilised their congregations  — ‘this procedure … became the fundamental organizing principle of many later movements’, joining many leaders together into one organization with a common cause.

Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy knew the history of this boycott, they consulted closely with Jemison when the Montgomery bus boycott launched in 1955.

Another thing I vaguely knew, but this really brought home was the ferocity of the attack against the NAACP after the 1954 Brown v Board, when the NAACP were the only ones trying to implement it. The attack included legal and political efforts to force NAACP to share membership lists, putting all of its members at risk of direct violence and professional discrimination, firings, and boycotts. The Attorneys General of Louisiana, Alabama and Texas obtained injunctions against the NAACP operating in their states. Virginia passed 7 laws equally designed to stop the NAACP from functioning there. Florida approved $50,000 to investigate communist involvement in the NAACP. South Carolina banned teachers from belonging to it. This alongside threats and violence. The efforts continued through 1958 and 1959. When Arkansas made  it illegal for any state agency to employ members of the NAACP, 7 school principals and 37 teachers fired.

Morris notes this was a ‘brilliant strategy’ as NAACP committed to fighting legal battles, and wouldn’t itself break the law… (31) Between 1955 and 1958, the NAACP lost 246 branches in the South, intensified campaign to expand branches in North. I also greatly appreciate the point that ‘the attack destroyed not only a great deal of what the NAACP was but also what it might have become.’

Like Walter Rodney’s work, this makes me realise how little we take that aspect of loss into account — the damage of the moment is always so great that there seems little reason to think of the loss of all of what could have been, but isn’t that where much of the tragedy lies?

Equally interesting, however, is what filled the hole left by the NAACP in these communities, as Black resistance continued. Morris notes that the NAACP actually often served as a damper to resistance:

Ironically, the Southern white power structure’s attack on the NAACP played an important role in the rise of the modern civil rights movement…bureaucratic protest organizations of poor and dominated groups are not likely to initiate or direct a mass movement…. It is precisely the problem of developing appropriate tactics that an established bureaucratic protest organization claims to have solved… Alternative tactics therefore come to be viewed not as supplementary but as opposing, threatening, and incorrect… The established protest organization has much to lose if a significant segment of the dominated group supports alternative tactics, especially if that segment includes those who traditionally supported the bureaucratic organization. (35)

Anyone who has worked through an official organization to effect change, especially given their dependence on donations or grants, is familiar with this:

…as with all bureaucratic organizations, business is conducted in terms of very specific goals (e.g. registering a stated number of voters, winning certain court decisions) achievable within specific time frames (year, fiscal period). It is as if the “freedom goal” can be parceled into manageable units of inputs and outputs that can be convincingly displayed in charts and graphs upon request. (36)

The bus boycotts provoked debate about tactics and strategies, but even more powerfully, it showed that results could be obtained through direct action rather than courts and NAACP bureaucratic action. Given the shutdown of the NAACP, ministers began organising far outside the NAACP’s comfort zone, and looking to direct action.

So back to the indigenous perspective, and how it begins to look at this moment:

‘The indigenous perspective on social movements stresses the important role of local protest groups on a major social movement. Instead of one homogeneous civil rights movements, there were dozens of local movements with their own organizations, activists, interorganizational relationships, boundaries, and famous activists, organizations, and abstract concepts.  (40)

It’s funny just how heartening it is to read that in Montgomery, Birmingham and Baton Rouge, there was intense factionalism that divided the community before everyone came together to support the boycotts in a campaign that we look back on now with wonder. Because of the people, the knowledge and connection to history, there are continuities of leadership with the NAACP, but very new methods of protest. Morris names the principle three:

  1. decision-making apparatus and procedures

  2. reliance on charisma, mass emotionalism

  3. disruptive tactics by the masses (46)

This book is full of inspiritions, both in stories and quotes — this is one my favourite moments from Martin Luther King:

The opening hymn was the old familiar “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and when that mammoth audience stood to sing, the voices outside (the church building could not accommodate the large gatherings) swelling the chorus in the church, there was a mighty ring like the glad echo of heaven itself…The enthusiasm of these thousands of people swept everything along like an onrushing tidal wave. (47)

There is is the stupidly necessary reminder that it didn’t all kick off the way conventional history tells it and Rosa Parks was not just a tired woman. I love this quote from her too:

My resistance to being mistreated on the buses and anywhere else was just a regular thing with me and not just that day. (51)

So what were the principle contributions of the Montgomery Bus Boycott? ‘…the MIA, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the nonviolent method, and success.’ (51)

Before the Montgomery Movement blacks had no mass-based movement organizations. The UDL of Baton Rouge had been successful, but that mass-movement lasted only seven days and was practically invisible to the larger black community. The importance of the UDL lies in what it taught to a small but significant number of community leaders… A protest of the magnitude of Montgomery was required to provide the larger community with a blueprint. (56)

Morris looks at Montgomery, then at Tallahassee. The mass meetings rotated from church to church, the funding coming from Black congregations themselves, the protests and victories and ongoing protest until promises of desegregated buses became real.

Birmingham showed these tactics could desegregate more than buses. There they demanded hiring of black police officers to patrol black communities, desegregate buses, railroad stations, disenfranchisement at the polls, discrimination in hiring, segregation of schools and at swimming pools, libraries and retail stores. Another amazing quote from Reverend Shuttlesworth:

I was trying to tear the system down. Out to kill segregation before it killed us. (70-71)

An interesting observation this one, about how things start…

Because Shuttlesworth was organizing a movement without the benefit of a precipitating outrage, such as the arrest of Rosa Parks, he was forced to make direct action popular by his personal acts and courage. (71)

Clearly the context is at work here too, the momentum building across the South — and Morris also notes the change after two world wars fought for freedom and democracy. I also like the concept of movement centres, cities where a number of factors came together to create the foundation for mass movement. He argues such movement centres had  7 characteristics:

  1. A cadre of social change-oriented ministers & congregations.
  2. Direct action organizations of varied complexity. Some churches, NAACP Youth Councils, CORE affiliates
  3. Indigenous financing coordinated through the church
  4. Weekly mass meetings, which served as forums where local residents were informed of relevant information and strategies regarding the movement. these meetings also build solidarity among the participants.
  5. Dissemination of nonviolent tactics and strategies. the leaders articulated to the black community the message that social change would occur only through nonviolent direct action carried out by masses.
  6. Adaptation of a rich church culture to political purposes. The black spirituals, sermons and prayers were used to deepen the participants’ commitment to the struggle.
  7. A mass-based orientation, rooted in the black community through the church. (194)

Movement Centres, Movement halfway houses and the key personalities in them heavily impact movement as it arises. For example, the large role that activists from Nashville played in the movement over all — college students filled disproportionate number of SNCC’s leadership positions and also held large roles in SCLC. Why? The presence of four black universities — Fisk, Tenessee State, American Baptist Teological Seminary and Meharry Medical School. The connections with Highlander and FOR, Reverend James Lawson a key leader on noviolence, and part of the Nashville Christian Leadership Council (NCLC).

Here he brings forward a critique of Piven & Cloward who saw movement as spontaneous, mass phenomena. Instead Morris argues that

Movement centers provided the organizational frameworks out of which the modern civil rights movement emerged, and it was organization-building that produced these centers.

Perhaps more interesting is his analysis of why movement organisation is so often dismissed.

  • the nature of movement centers themselves, how they operate in repressive circumstances, ebb and grow, focus often on what they face rather than their ‘wider significance, organizational strength, and capabilities.’ (75)
  • Organizers often themselves emphasize the spontaneous and unplanned nature of protest — shields the center and key activists from unwelcome attention, authorities can’t charge with conspiracy
  • assumptions by scholars (and cites P&C and Anthony Oberschall) ‘that subordinate groups ate usually without organizational resources and skills’ (76)

Yeah, a little accusation of academic racism in there. I think he’s right about that too. He continues his critique of P&C (I think because they are the most persuasive and ‘on-side’ theorists of this stuff, at least they are in my own opinion), ‘the civil rights movement was not simply a by-product of urbanization and economic modernization.’ Not simply on of the ‘spontaneous outbursts of mass defiance in response to rapid social change and community breakdown.’ It ‘grew out of the conscious and deliberate effort of organizers who understood the organizational nature and capacity of black society. Economic modernization and urbanization were necessary, but not sufficient, causes…’ (81)

All this, and we still haven’t gotten to the formation of the SCLC! It formed through conversations between Dr and Mrs King, Fred Shuttlesworth, C.K. Steele, Ella Baker, Ralph Abernathy, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin. Its first meeting was titled the ‘Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation’ — initially focused on organising around segregation on buses. I liked Morris’s note that they saw that this was both a ‘just grievance’ but also connected to ‘economic survival’ as outlined in their first working paper. (84)

I like that insight into what campaigns could motivate direct action in the face of violence. How this combined with a belief that people could win, which is what Baton Rouge and Montgomery proved.

They also realized the white community was not monolithic and began strategising around the different interests, ways to split them. Morris argues that despite the popular view that the SCLC was top down, in fact

The real power of the SCLC was in its affiliates, the many churches who had mass bases so that this base was built into the very structure of the SCLC (89)

Membership structures — always interesting when contemplating how these things actually work, fund themselves, make decisions, implement decisions…

‘Community organizations became affiliates of the SCLC by paying a twenty-five-dollar fee and signing a charter committing them to organize their communities and to engage in direct action protests.’ (90)

The churches and related organizations constituted the crucial internal organization enabling the SCLC to mobilize community resources. they were so central that SCLC leaders called them the “invisible hand of God.” (91)

Given the connection with the church and the culture of the Black South, the charisma of individuals clearly played a key role — and apparently much has been written on the subject.

King clearly understood the social power of oratory and used it as a tool for agitating, organizing, fundraising, and articulating the desires of the black masses. (59)

Many leaders interviewed for this study recalled that King could attract large segments of oppressed blacks from the poolrooms, city streets, and backwoods long enough for trained organizers to acquaint them with the workshops, demands and strategies of the movement. (61)

Many critiqued charismatic leadership, and King in particular, but all recognised its usefulness in bringing people together. There is a lovely section on Ella Baker, and her fight in a very male-dominated movement, her constant argument that ‘for people’s movements to be effective, participants must encourage and build leadership among the masses.’ (103) In her own words:

Instead of “the leader”–a person who was supposed to be a magic man–you would develop individuals who were bound together by a concept that benefited larger numbers of individuals and provided an opportunity for them to grow into being responsible for carrying on the program. (104)

I’ll come back to her.

There is also an interesting discussion of efforts to create the ‘New Negro’ as part of the Crusade for Citizenship — and just how important it was to organizers, how much a simple sound bite. Still,  John Tilley wrote in Dec 1958 that the SCLC

had created the machinery for “penetrating each community, reaching the man on the streets, bringing him a simple, practical way of life which will help him to break through the oppressive system of discrimination and oppression, change his surroundings, and his oppressors and make a new person.” (106)

In more concrete terms, the Crusade spread far and wide methods and philosophy:

The Crusade played an important role in acquainting the masses all over the South with the SCLC’s ‘direct action” approach, introduced earlier in Baton Rouge, Montgomery, and other cities. Whenever local churches or oganizations affiliated with the SCLC, members of the community were exposed to an organized group identified with the new approach. (111)

Morris looks at CORE as well, and makes the important point that ‘CORE’s primary goal was to show that social problems could be solved through non-violent direct action’ (129). They didn’t just see nonviolence as a tactic, but as a value in and of itself — and for many promoting that, more than vanquishing racism was the main goal.

They were also a whiter organization, whereas the SCLC where leadership was entirely black, from beginning CORE suffered from paternalism and ‘in-house racial bickering’. Farmer noted many blacks not willing to work in interacial organisations, and ‘White liberals must be willing to work in roles of secondary leadership and as technicians.’ (132) But again what I found fascinating was just how often there was overlapping membership in local leadership. Reverand Wyatt Walker, for example, was a board member of the SCLC, president of Petersberg NAACP, and state director of CORE in Virginia. He saw all of them as umbrella organisations to help bring together varying groups and factions. He used all of them.

The sit-ins as well, often described as completely spontaneous, and generally agreed that 1 Feb 1960 saw the first sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina. In actual fact sit-ins had already been used in at least 16 cities across the South between 1957 and 1960. They were often mentored by older activists involved in multiple other networks, and often most successful in cities that were Movement Centres. Morris write:

Nineteen sixty was the year when thousands of Southern black students at black colleges joined forces with “old movement warriors” and tremendously increased the power of the devloping civil rights movement. (195)

While students often operated independently, many were already involved through movement centres, especially those in Black educational institutions who had very close ties to the NAACP, CORE, SCLC. Students received support and help in planning that helped sustain and grow the sit-in movement. They were supported by the community as well, financed, boycotts supported, bail money raised, free services from doctors etc… People repeatedly mortgaged homes and handed over savings as bail.

That makes my heart happy.

Ella Baker was a key figure in this — she convened all of the different students involved in the sit-in movement through SCLC — in 1960 the call went out for the Southwide Student Leadership Conference on Nonviolent Resistance to Segregation, where SNCC was formed. Sit-in participants were also meeting at Highlander, a population education centre that served as what Morris calls a ‘movement halfway house’. To be discussed separately. But I like how Morris argues that this is the foundation of the whiter student movements to come:

We can begin to answer the question of why that discontented group of affluent white students became involved in the politics of protest. That group entered into the politics of protest because the sit-ins by dominated black students provided them with a visible protest model, which demonstrated how they could proceed tactically and organizationally. (222)

Again Ella Baker was a bridge, this time not between students and the SCLC and other established adult civil rights organizations, but between white and black students, SDS and SNCC.

I’ll end with Birmingham, a triumph really. As an organizer, it gives me a little chill of awe to know that the SCLC held 65 consecutive nightly meetings rotating from church to church. They also brought on two organizers from SNCC to work with the youth movement. And they came up with what they called Project “C”.

C for confrontation with Birmingham’s power structure: Business and industrial elites, political elites serving status quo and race relations, and white extremist organizations, White Citizens Councils and KKK.

They decided it should be a ‘drama’, built it as a narrative — started out slow, low key, and building to crisis. They designed phased actions. Phase 1, limited daily sit-ins and picketing. Followed by Phase II, daily marches to City Hall. The city filed an injunction, King broke it on Good Friday and was imprisoned. Here he wrote the wonderful Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  Phase III – 1000 children march to the jail, more and bigger marches to the jail. Confrontations, water cannon, dogs. Victory.

Another favourite quote, something to remember too:

‘Reverend Walker remarked: “There’s two kinds of people. People who are committed to the movement and people who get committed by the movement…” (264)

In the end, civil rights movement in this period unable to change one the tripartite system of domination — the economic was left intact. And so I will end where Morris’s book ends:

A critical question confronting the black community today is whether the organizations, leadership, tactics, and philosophies of the civil rights movement are appropriate for bringing about basic economic change, or whether a whole new set of structures and tactics is needed. (290)

Interesting question, particularly looking at today’s struggles.

Why We Can’t Wait — Martin Luther King

9831183Martin Luther King, Jr (1964) Signet

I can’t believe I hadn’t read this before, but how amazing to readjust what I think I know, my ideas of someone I think I know, writing in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, describing 1963 as the great year of revolution when:

The Negro also had to recognize that one hundred years after emancipation he lived on a lonely island of economic insecurity in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Negroes are still at the bottom of the economic ladder. They live within two concentric circles of segregation. One imprisons them on the bases of color, while the other confines them within a separate culture of poverty (23).

‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ remains so so powerful. What surprised me most–though it shouldn’t have, because what school will teach this about King?–is just how much time he spends not on white supremacy in its violent forms, but on white liberals and their hindrance of the cause. I feel in many ways this book was written for them, but it is much more scathing than I expected, and doesn’t fail to get to the meat of the matter. I have the impression of King as more conciliatory and more liberal at this point, but that isn’t what you take from the book.

There were two and one-half times as many jobless Negroes as whites in 1963, and their median income was half that of the white man. Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice, but tolerated or ignored economic injustice. But the Negro knows that these two evils have a malignant kinship (24).

There is also less on nonviolence than I expected, but it is good:

Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and enobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals. Both a practical and a moral answer to the Negro’s cry for justice, nonviolent direct action proved that it could win victories without losing wars, and so became the triumphant tactic of the Negro Revolution of 1963.

Yes he does call it a revolution. When he discusses violence as opposed to nonviolence, it is in such a way that you feel if he didn’t believe violence doomed to fail, he’d consider it much more carefully. He knows that struggle is itself a good in the face of so much oppression: ‘The Revolution of the Negro not only attacked the external cause of his misery, but revealed him to himself. He was somebody. He had a sense of somebodiness. He was impatient to be free’ (30). This was not an understanding that could be won through legal battles in the courts. Instead direct nonviolent action was more suited to the times and to what was possible (though carried out to supplement legal strategies, not to replace them). What I also loved is the insight that this transformation ‘had the marvelous effect of changing the face of the enemy. The enemy the Negro faced became not the individual who had oppressed him but the evil system which permitted that individual to do so’ (38). This is how people move and change and in doing so, change the world.

I loved the many details of the Birmingham campaign, I wish I had read this long ago. While recruiting people for trainings in tactics and nonviolence, Wyatt Walker was mapping out all of downtown Birmingham — each store and its eating facilities, its entrances and exits, number of tables and stools and chairs to determine the number of demonstrators per shop, primary and secondary targets so if one meeting place or route was blocked by the police they had a backup plan. That kind of planning, along with the long preparation of demonstrators to stay strong yet remain nonviolent in the face of violence through trainings and role-playing is what made these campaigns work. My admiration is immense, and it has grown for King who knew so well the nuts and bolts of the campaigns for which I have heard argued he was a figurehead. They started their campaign small–and late for reasons to do with the elections–and ramped it up with 65 nightly meetings. I have to write that again, 65 evening meetings. That’s a hell of a hard pace. Even when you do so much singing.

I also know the prominence of the church should not surprise me, but still, it did. All volunteers had to sign a Commitment Card as part of their training, and all respect to these precepts even as someone not entirely behind nonviolence:

1. MEDITATE daily on the tecahings and life of Jesus
2. REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation–not victory,
3. WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.
4. PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
5. SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
7. SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.
8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
9. STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
10. FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.

I love that King noted what a mistake it had been — and not entirely their fault given the circumstance — not to have brought on board the many different local organizations before they started, and his hard work to do so a little belatedly. King’s role as the principal fundraiser for the movement–always a huge concern in social justice worker–is also made clear. I am glad he chose prison over fundraising for bail money, glad that Harry Belafonte is so damn awesome. And glad that he saw that youth and the students were the key to victory.

I was a little confused at the care King takes to defend their actions in defying for the first time an injunction against protest–it would not occur to me to critique anyone for ignoring such a racist and unconstitutional order in Alabama, but clearly, there was much critique from white ‘allies’, prompting a public letter that King responded to in the extraordinary ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ included here. I imagine him sitting in prison finally allowing some of the rage to escape in his description of the suffering a father feels when his children come face to face with prejudice, his descriptions of the daily struggle must have brought the relgious figures censuring him to their knees. Other highlights:

I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth (79).

Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light…but groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed (80).

We have waited more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independance, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter (81).

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councils or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season’. Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will (84-85)

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people (86).

Amazing. I was also not expecting–and loved–this:

Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society…. It was upon this massive base of racism that the prejudice toward the nonwhite was readily built, and found rapid growth. This long-standing racist ideology has corrupted and diminished our democratic ideals. It is this tangled web of prejudice from which many Americans now seek to liberate themselves, without realizing how deeply it has been woven into their consciousness….Our history teaches us that wielding the sword against racial superiority is not effective…On the other hand, history also tecahes that submission produces no acceptable result. Nonresistance merely reinforces the myth that one race is inherently inferior to another (120).

A final note, though there is so much more here. It’s almost a throw-away line, but King notes that the African-American movement has become strong enough that it can now have allies, it can make its own commitments that it can deliver and have equality in that it will still be powerful if its allies walk away. This is core to some of the later theorizing, by Stokely and Carmichael and Julius Lester for example, of how to built movement. I like that King said it too. For all their differences, they had so much more in common in terms of hope and vision and audacity than most of them have with leading figures in these sad days.