Tag Archives: SNCC

What Ella Baker really thought about Baptist Ministers

Ella BakerThis is from an interview Ella Baker did with Eugene Walker in 1974 (the transcript is here, audio is here), who was most interested in the formation of SCLC and the key influences on it, so there isn’t follow up on many of Baker’s responses — but that’s always the way it is with other people’s interviews. Even so, it is a great complement to the various biographies. She was 71 years old, and very focused on the two widely different approaches to the work at play here — the bottom up current which she fought for, and the very very top down…

Well, the thinking about the nature of the organization would vary with the people who were doing the thinking. Those of us who preferred an organization that was democratic and where the decision making was left with the people would think in one vein and the organizing of active, let’s call it, chapters or units of people. But when you reckon with the fact that a majority of the people who were called together were ministers and the decision as to who was called together emanated no doubt both from the background out of which (let’s call it) Martin came and maybe lack of understanding (I’m willing to say) of the virtue of utilizing the mass surge that had developed there in Montgomery. Just look at Montgomery. What has happened since Montgomery? (12-13)

When Baker started work for the SCLC she was already an old hand at organising and movement building, but the ministers certainly weren’t — I can’t really imagine what it was like for her.

When you haven’t been accustomed to mass action, and they weren’t… You see basically your ministers are not people who go in for decisions on the part of people. I don’t know whether you realize it or not. And they had been looked upon as saviors. So what happened is, here they are faced with a suggestion that goes against the grain and with which they are not prepared to deal. So they come together. (14)

She knew it would be hard, didn’t really choose her role — so for her initially (once she had been bludgeoned into it) she planned to set up citizen committees, and then get out of the SCLC:

I had anticipated being there for about six weeks. Gave myself four weeks to get the thing going and two weeks to clean it up. But they had no one. How did they get Rev. Tilly? They wanted a minister. I knew that. They couldn’t have tolerated a woman.

The personality that had to be played up was Dr. King. The other organizations (if you know this), the executive director was the spokesman. But they couldn’t tolerate having an old lady, even a lady, and an old lady at that. It was too much for the masculine and ministerial ego to have permitted that. [Laughter] There you are. (19)

Asked about her early strategic input on SCLC to bring in more women and youth, Baker replies

I guess my own experience but basically in terms of the church. All of the churches depended in terms of things taking place on women, not men. Men didn’t do the things that had to be done and you had a large number of women who were involved in the bus boycott. They were the people who kept the spirit going and the young people. I knew that the young people were the hope of any movement. It was just a normal thing to me. The average Baptist minister didn’t really know organization.

She is able to talk a little more about the distrust between the NAACP, the Urban League and CORE, and to a lesser extent SCLC — primarily around strategy.:

You see, they couldn’t trust C.O.R.E. [Laughter] in their minds. What you have there is the division between those who have some respect for mass action and pressure and those who believe that your best results came from negotiations from the knowledgeable people. The negotiations from the knowledgeable and the legal action were the N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League. (29)

Baker underlines the autocratic way she was ordered into the SCLC by Levinson and Rustin, as part of the In Friendship group they had formed to support the formation of a group after Montgomery.

They came back and told me that I had been drafted to go to Atlanta to set up the program for the Crusade for Citizenship for these twenty-odd meetings. Prior to that it had been assumed that Bayard would go down, but he was not available, let’s say. I was very provoked because I had never in my life.

EUGENE WALKER: Well, let me ask you this. This is the first major civil rights undertaking in the history of this country whereby a woman has been granted a seemingly, ostensibly significant policy-making kind of position. Now, were you taken by that? Was that gratifying to you?

ELLA BAKER: [Laughter] Oh no, no, no, no. Because I knew I didn’t have any significant role in the minds of those who constituted the organization. I’m sure that basically the assumption is, or was, and perhaps the assumption still prevails in the minds of those who remember my being there, that I was just there to carry out the orders of Dr. King and somebody else, but incidental since there was no designation of authority. I wasn’t a person of authority.

More about the significant obstacles Baker had to climb over as a woman:

The average attitude toward the southern Baptist ministers at that stage, and maybe still, was as far as their own women were concerned were that they were nice to talk to about such things as how well they cooked, how beautiful they looked, and how well they carried out a program that the minister had delegated them to carry out but not a person with independence and creative ideas of his own, but on whom they had to rely. They could not tolerate, and I can understand that they couldn’t, and especially from a person like me because I was not the kind of person that made special effort to be ingratiating. I didn’t try to insult but I did not hesitate to be positive about the things with which I agreed or disagreed. I might be quiet but if there was discussion and I was suppose to be able to participate, I participated at the level of my thinking. (53)

You like her more and more…The point of the SCLC for Baker:

The whole concept was we needed in the South a mass based organization that might further the involvement of masses of people similar to what had taken place in Montgomery. It didn’t have to be a bus boycott, but whatever. I think this is it. (63)

But she also emphasis the lack of deeper thought behind the movement —  because of their inexperience, because of the speed with which things happened. And of course, unstated, because of their inability to listen to those who did have experience, primarily Baker herself.:

the personnel who provided the leadership for S.C.L.C. had never come to grips with a philosophical concept other than the general concept of nonviolent mass action. I don’t think there was much—I’ll be gracious and say—either time or other bases for in-depth thinking about how far non-violent mass action can go and to what extent can you really involve people. You see, you may talk about it but when you respond—as the organization did—to situations—their major efforts were in response to situations—and when you exhaust yourself in situations (65)

The problem of always responding — who amongst us who has worked in movement-building organisation doesn’t know all about that? Baker’s real strength was in being able to create space to think bigger — and the SCLC did little to appreciate or utilise that skill.

She used that to the hilt in SNCC’s formation, however, and emphasises how important it was that SNCC be free of the others to escape their very real constraints and limits of their political thought — and how this is precisely what was most resisted by other groups:

I think the basic reason for the reactions of N.A.A.C.P. and S.C.L.C. to S.N.C.C. is the fact that they elected to be independent and they exercised the independence that only young people or unattached people, those who are not caught in a framework of thought, can exercise.

They were open to ideas that would not have been certainly cherished, or in some instances certainly, tolerated by either the N.A.A.C.P. or S.C.L.C. As a chief example, the moving into Mississippi. When they decided, they called it “Move On Mississippi” and they called it “MOM”. I think a delegation went to talk to Thurgood Marshall, who was then the chief counsel of the N.A.A.C.P. regarding this and to seek legal help. And Thurgood was not responsive. In the first place because the young people had expressed the opinion and the determination that they were going to accept help from wherever they could get it. Which meant that people like Crocket in Troy and other members of what is called the National Lawyers [unclear] —many white lawyers—which is leftist oriented, would be objectionable to the N.A.A.C.P. because they didn’t want to introduce this conflict of ideologies, of pro-communist ideology, and leave themselves open to the charge on the part of the authorities that the communists were taking over. (71-72)

There are some nice small commentaries on Black historians — so I love the moment when she says ‘Yes, I love Vincent (Harding).’ Then there’s an aside on Harold Cruse (who has been transcribed as Cruz)

I can look back probably at a book by Harold Cruse —I don’t remember seeing his name mentioned in Cruse’s book.
ELLA BAKER: Cruse is an embittered soul too, isn’t he?
EUGENE WALKER: It’s so evident when you look into his book. Oh, he’s embittered; he’s exceptionally candid in saying whatever he wants to say about anybody. He attacks everybody…
ELLA BAKER: …but himself.

She is very critical of the Baptist ministerial tradition — this was so good for me to read because these comments brought it home to me in a way nothing else has done. She’s critical of King in how fearful he remained of open dialogue — though I know he was better than others of that tradition.

ELLA BAKER: No. I don’t care how much reading you do, if you haven’t had the interchange of dialogue and confrontation with others you can be frightened by someone who comes and is in a position to confront you.
EUGENE WALKER: Especially if they confront you with an air of security and independence.
ELLA BAKER: Yes, and if they come with their own credentials. There was an insecurity, I think. I don’t know whether he was ever aware of it. It was a natural insecurity coming out of that Baptist tradition. Baptist ministers have never been strong on dialogue; it was dictum. (77)

I just  I love how she is well aware of how insecurity is not driven away by degrees, position or book-learning. Just as she is aware that being open to others is real strength. That so much was accomplished despite the weaknesses highlighted here… there is so much we owe the women of the South, and especially Ella Baker.

 

Interview with Ella Baker, September 4, 1974.
Interview G-0007. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Baker, Ella, interviewee
http://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/G-0007/G-0007.html

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Ella Baker — a biography from J. Todd Moye

17846757It was good to carve out the time to read two books on Ella Baker, I don’t think I do this enough really. Moye focused much on her role as an organizer than Barbara Ransby did, and quoted her directly a little more often, which I really liked.

[Y]ou didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put pieces together out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders. (2)

It’s nice to see the whole of that quote, not just the last line. I loved this one as well:

The problem in the South is not radical thought. The problem is not even conservative thought. The problem in the South is not enough thought. (5)

Ella Baker was born in 1903, the year that W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk. I like how Moye connects those two things. There are more stories of her family here, her grandmother conceived out of rape, the politics of the plantation and her battle to marry the man she wanted. Baker told these stories as:

a certain kind of commitment or resentment. It is not the kind of thing we would advocate at this point, but it shows that the drive for full dignity as human beings goes very deep in the struggle. (12)

Moye in many ways emphasises what Ransby also emphasised — Baker’s closeness to women’s organising as she grew up, being able to see just how well women could run meetings, set policy, manage finances. (20)

There is more on Harlem, too, from Baker herself once more:

the hotbed of–let’s call it radical thinking. You had every spectrum of radical thinking. . . . the ignorant ones, like me, we had lots of opportunity to hear and to evaluate whether or not this was the kind of thing you wanted to get into. Boy, it was good, stimulating! (31)

Moye emphasises she was reading Marx, discussing it in these radical circles, but that she could separate these ideas on social and economic organisation from the party itself, to which she never was committed. She worked very closely, of course, with George Schuyler on cooperatives (the YNCL goal – ‘to gain economic power through consumer cooperation’ (34)), and this book made me want to map out all of these connections because I keep finding new ones the more I read. I didn’t know that Schuyler had spent 1920s working for The Messenger, socialist magazine run by A. Philip Randolph, moved on to Pittsburgh Courier and the Negro National News.

Baker also formed the 135th St Library’s first Negro History Club with librarian Ernestine Rose. In 1933 she joined the branch’s Adult Education Committee, where she sponsored speakers and programs. In 1934 she was hired part time to coordinate community outreach programs. I hadn’t realised how connected she was to the library, quite how pivotal they were.

She was friends with Lester Granger, and he is the one who helped her get on the WPA’s Worker Education Project. She was always looking for work. That was brought home harder here I think, or perhaps I just noticed more the very precarious position she seemed to live through most of her life, looking for ways to work in the movement. On the WPA, Baker describes their connections they made:

We’d go around to settlement houses and conduct classes. For instance, those who were very knowledgeable about the history of working class organizations all the way back to the guild… (40)

They did union halls as well.

Moving to the NAACP years — there is more here on the many conflicts with director Walter White, his clashes with former director of branches William Pickens — the only other NAACP person from national office who had visited branches in South. Baker had a bruising schedule:

In 1942, between February and early July addressed 178 different groups, visited 38 branches in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia (51)

She encouraged branches to organise around problems they had identified, helped them develop campaigns as bottom up not top down. Saw her role when forced into accepting the position as Director of Branches:

To increase the extent to which the present membership participates in national and local activities…. To extend the membership base so as to have local branches include a larger proportion fo people in any given community….To transform the local branches from being centers of sporadic activity to becoming centers of sustained and dynamic community leadership. (59-60)

She held a leadership conference in NY December of 1944, then others in Cleveland, Indianapolis and Atlanta in first half of 1945. Look at this amazing picture:

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The 1946 conference in Atlanta called ‘Give Light and the People Will find a Way’, was attended by representatives for Montgomery branch (a branch which Ella had ‘nurtured’ as field secretary), E.D. Nixon and Rosa Parks (62). More connections.

In 1946 she worked with CORE and FOR to plan the Journey of Reconciliation — the integrated ride through the South that she and Pauli Murray were prevented from going on as they were women. This became the blueprint for the later Freedom Rides. (67) More connections.

At the same time (how she had time, I do not know) Baker was also doing a lot of work with the NY branch of NAACP, particularly with the branch’s education committee, and serving as an advisor to youth council.

There is a little more information on ‘In Friendship’, the organisation she helped found and run to support the movement in the South, which in addition to fundraising:

also provided technical assistance to southern civil rights campaigns, organized conferences that brought together activists from throughout the region, and embarked on public relations campaigns that publicized conditions in the South to the rest of the country. (80)

Moye explores a little further the relationships between Ella Baker and both Septima Clark and Myles Horton, notes that she had participated in dozens of workshops at Highlander — I thought it must be so. She also worked with the Bradens from SCEF from early on:

IMG_5592

In Friendship raised $2,000 for the Montgomery Improvement Association, and another $4,000 to send ML King to Africa and India to study Ghana’s independence movement and Gandhi’s philosophy. I find this quite extraordinary, partly in that I hadn’t heard it before, partly in the importance placed on education and building international solidarity.

The In Friendship trio (Baker, Rustin, Levinson) were continuing to look for what came next after the Montgomery movement — this is Baker on the SCLC:

We began to talk about the need for developing in the South a mass force that would . . . become a counterbalance, let’s call it, to the NAACP. (89)

There is more on how frustrated she was at the lack of momentum after Montgomery. Looking back it doesn’t feel that way until you take more note of the time between the boycott and those first sit-ins. There was a tentative step, though, towards the voter registration campaigns that would follow in the Crusade for Citizenship — only meant to be a one day action (!). SCLC had done none of the planning when they brought Baker on, yet she still pulled off some success. She continued to organise in support of mass movement and building a strong grassroots base, with a focus on MIA and the United Christian Movement (UCM) in Shreveport.

Moye writes that Baker pushed SCLC to partner with Highlander, stating that:

Bringing Clark from Highlander to SCLC may have been Baker’s greatest contribution to the organization. (102)

While I don’t know if this is true, amazing as Clark was, this becomes an even more curious omission for me in Ransby’s work.

There are more connections made here between Baker and some of the key figures and events — things that give me hope. The 4 students who lead the Greensboro sit in were part of NAACP youth group started by Randolph Bakewell — at the suggestion of field secretary Ella Baker. Bob Moses? His family had been members of one of the Harlem cooperatives that Baker organized in the 1930s, he and his brothers had delivered their milk (119). These are such wonderful examples of the effects that ripple outwards from positive action and that only come to fruition over a long period of time.

A few more quotes on Ella Baker’s leadership style, the kind of leadership that created so many leaders. This is from an (unnamed)  SNCC member:

Usually she preferred to answer [a question] with another question and then another, forcing us to refine our thinking and to struggle toward  an answer for ourselves. (123)

From Mary King:

At a very important period in my life, Miss Baker tempered my natural tenacity and determination with flexibility and made me suspicious of dogmatism… She taught me one of the most important lessons I have learned in life: There are many legitimate and effective avenues for social change and there is no single right way. She helped me see that the profound changes we were seeking in the social order could not be won without multiple strategies. She encouraged me to avoid being doctrinaire. “Ask questions, Mary,” she would say. (124)

Baker’s philosophy and SNCC’s slogan? Now so widely used I never knew where it came from: ‘Let the People Decide’ (126)

IMG_5591

Always she worked to support the capacity of groups to make their own strategic decisions. When CORE called off the freedom rides and SNCC decided to continue them under the leadership of Diane Nash, Baker wrote them a three-page analysis of what she believed had been done wrong so far and needed to be improved on — media strategy for example (128).

A final aside on the importance of women to this movement despite the ways they were often sidelined as Baker’s biography and Danielle McGuire’s work make clear among others. Womanpower Unlimited — a group formed by local women in Jackson to collect money, clothing etc for the freedom riders, then further developed into conducting voter registration, education and peace activism (133). More ripples, more connections.

Baker became openly socialist at the end of her life, I’ll end on this 1969 address to Spelman College, which I love.

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become 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 your needs and devising means by which you change that system. That is easier said than done. But one of the things that has to be faced is in the process of wanting to change that system, how much have we got to do to find out who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. (166)

[Moye, J. Todd (2013) Ella Baker: Community Organizer of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.]

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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.

Thus

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.

SNCC

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)

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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.