"For me, the most important lesson
[of the Freedom Movement] is that by respecting the fact that fellow activists could passionately disagree over strategy and tactics—yet remain allies—they strengthened SNCC and the Movement as a whole."
From Bruce Hartford's article in the current issue of Urban Habitat.
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Friday, March 9, 2007

Charismatic Leaders

Sylvia and I went to hear Bernice Johnson Reagon speak at Stanford on Tuesday. She was fabulous. She gave a history of the civil rights movement from the point of view of song. One of the important things I learned from her talk/singing was that not all the civil rights songs were built upon hymms but some on the top 40. the youth in particular used top 40 songs, especially ray charles, substituting freedom lyrics but keeping the tune. there was a folk revival going on as well at the time. this really solved a dilemma I have been having about where is the music going to come from today? Music and Arts are so crucial to movement building -- its transformative, assuages fear, builds community. and I thought that the reason that the music worked in the sixties is because everyone went to church and knew the tunes. but the youth today don't go to church. how are freedom songs going to come out of hip hop today? Reagon's history made it clear that freedom songs could easily come out of hip hop today. the do-wop songs were never sung at mass meetings but on buses and picket lines that sncc workers filled.

She also pointed out with examples from her own history in the movemnt that those of us who are fighters will always be in the minority -- but we can bring the majority with us at certain moments. One person asked her about why she never signed with a major recording label. she said that she wanted to but wouldn't because there were too many strings attached to doing so -- they wanted to mess with their style. one company bemoaned the fact that sweet honey did fit into a category -- world music-- but that they were from the US so they couldn't market them as such -- reagon wondered tuesday night why the US doesn't consider itself part of the world!?

the next day, I met a woman who works with Bay Area Women in Black and I told her about seeing Reagon the night before. she agreed that reagon was awesome but that she was still a bit too much about herself -- "do you know the names of the other sweet honey singers?" She contrasted bernice's leadership style with that of Suzanne Phar who always brings everyone else along with her as she moves through organizing. This reminded me of Myles Horton's critique of King in chapter 10 "Charisma" of the Long Haul.

I quote from page 120: "While some of the goals of the civil rights movement were not realized, many were. But the civil rights movement as it was then cannot and should not be imitated. It was creative, and we must be creative. We must start where Martin Luther King Jr. was stopped, and move on to a more holistic world conception of the struggle for freedom and justice. 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."

from page 126: "King....wasn't just a charismatic leader; he was many other things . . . one of the criticisms I made to him was "you are so much the powerful leader that it's hard for people who work with you to have a role they can grow into . . . from my perspective, it looked as if he and never developed anybody who could take his place after he was killed. . . . People would say, "well, what would martin have done?" and try to do the same thing. To me, this was a great weakness in the movement. . . he never did get around to really dong what he knew was needed. I think that's a very difficult thing for a charismatic leader to do. One of the things 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 . . . there is another important thing that social movements do: they radicalize people. That is, people learn from the movement to go beyond the movement."

I love myles horton -- the long haul is an amazing book.

bernice reagon made the point last tuesday night that historians are mistaken when they don't attribute a particular policy or cultural change to a mass movement that took place many years before. movements transform people, then those people go on to make fundamental changes, the cause/effect relationship is not explicit enough for historians to pick up on.

anyway . . those are some of my thoughts


Mr Wake said...

I happened to pass through this site as I was looking up info on the Broad Foundation and ran across the comment about Bernice Johnson Reagon. I really would hate for someone with her history to be misrepresented or misunderstood. First, she retired from Sweet Honey several years ago, so of course she would not have the group with her. Second, she has long had the exact same criticisms of the "single charismatic leader" model of Dr. King that many other analysts now have. She often expressed this view in artistic way with her ode to Fannie Lou Hamer, who was one of the first to articulate and implement an alternative model. Third, she organized an orderly succession within Sweet Honey, which continues to exist without her (she was able to walk the talk). Fourth, yes she is charismatic. Some people just are that way, and that was recognized since she was a child singing "This little light of mine..." on the freedom marches. We should be glad that she has used her charisma in such positive ways and for so many years. Were you not inspired?

Kathy Emery said...

thanks for the clarification