"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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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Reflections on the Nashville Sit Ins (movie)

Last Saturday, we watched "When We Were Warriors" - a 30 minute documentary on the Nashville Sit Ins. Below are some of the reflections participants wrote on large post-its after watching the movie. (for a "chalk talk")

Satyagraha: I had only been involved in nonviolence as "do not defend yourself," which I was not impressed by. But several years ago I heard Vandana Shiva speak and define it as "the social duty to disobey unjust laws." That totally resonated for me, and I could see it as a wave/a swarm of small acts all moving together towards change.

If "nonviolence profoundly changed the 20th century all over the world," what will be the change factor in the 21st century?

As cuts to education and social services continue in CA, the lessons detailed in the documentary reveal the short sightedness of activists and "direct actionists," today, as they aim to occupy buildings without creating more extensive networks of activists beforehand. So as activists in the South arranged dramatizing events, recruited more students, trained each other and strategized further, their philosophy of nonviolence guided their practice and strengthened their morale as they continued organizing. They were able to seize key moments because of their savvy and sophisticated organizing.

Primarily it is important to remember one thing: the only way the movement in Nashville was able to obtain its goals was with a strategy grounded in clear course of action (discipline, organization, rules of engagement) and emphasis on gaining community support. Revolutionary phrase-mongering and impatience had no place. While some would point to the relative speed with which their demands were realized, one must remember that the success of the movement was due in large part to the fact that organizers met people where they were, not where they wanted them to be. In my own role in the student anti-cuts movement, it is of the utmost importance that we remember those lessons, lest we be marginalized in any future action.

In the 1960s, the Nashville students' objective was to desegregate Nashville. By using nonviolence they managed to unify the black community and gain support for a boycott of the stores that were segregated. The boycott pressured the store-owners and the white community to engage with their concerns. The fact that they were nonviolent, innocent, well-dressed students gained them the sympathy of the media. American and the world were now watching. With all the issues we are confronted with today, what could be our objective that would unify the most people? Could it be economic equality? Environmental justice? Using nonviolent means, what could be our strategy and tactics? What action could we plan with a common purpose that would give us the momentum to perhaps carry-out a form of economic boycott to draw attention to our issue?

It saddens me that these lessons of organization and foresight are often left out of the teaching of the civil rights movement. Students today see these momentous acts but cannot conceive as to how to replicate them in order to address their own struggles. They want to make changes but only see the curriculum of single great leaders and huge actions. but do not see the smaller actions carried out by a myriad of everyday people who are the body, the life force of such movements. On another note, I am impressed at the depth of the nonviolent training and unification in action and purpose that took place. Acting out the hate of the detractors and preparing their actions against it engendered their unity of actions and wisdom necessary for success.

I was deeply impressed by the personal determination, and community solidarity of the participants who with their tactics and leadership could overcome the fear and the threat of backlash and violence against them. Obviously, it took great leadership but I bet that leadership entered all of the activists hearts as they felt they were on a shared mission withe the "rights" of our nation, however ill applied in the past, supporting the foundation for their movement. Responsibility for rectification could finally be shifted to the white side because of the moral and economic weight had finally shifted to the oppressed as opposed to the blind defense of the tradition and status that maintained the white stance.

What made it possible for hundreds of thousands to participate?
How is our current movement different from the movement of the lunch counter sit-ins?
What issue today could unify and mobilize as many people as segregation did? And what if our issues are more complicated or controversial or less universal?
Surprise was an important element in the lunch counter movement. They surprised the police by not fighting back when they were beaten. They surprised the police when they had hundreds of replacements waiting to take lunch counter seats as students were taken to jail. How do we surprise our adversaries today in the tactics that we use?

It was powerful to see the many people marching in the beginning of the film--India and other places--these images foreshadowed the students march to the city mayor's building in Nashville at the end of this film. I want to learn more about the long term planning, strategies etc used. This is almost completely left out of K-12 history textbooks.

Nonviolence is both a challenge and a power.
Importance of patience and planning, dramatizing wrongs
importance of building a community
Hold sacred the Beloved Community
How do we break through the attitude of acceptance that violence is the norm?
Keep on keepin' on to create a culture of peace.

Interesting how outside influences (Lawson bringing ideas from India/Gandhi) could make possible changes in how they fight was "fought" -- what if he hadn't been there?
I'm taken with the concept of internal discipline--especially the way people were prepared AND, for example, the way they negotiated with stores after stores agreed to integrate.
Rhythm to confrontation and knowing valued of changing tactics when needed.
How can we think about the 'whole community' concept---Lawson says it's crucial. How many people in Bay Area see themselves as part of a community intent on achieving equity?

The film led me to wonder about the extent to which nonviolence as a tactic may still be useful. It also led me to wonder whether people like myself have it in us to summon the courage and strenth to continue the Civil Rights movement in new ways. For example could we use nonviolence to protest unemployment or foreclosure or homelessness?

Anticipation, training, and preparation of nonviolence in response to attacks from enemies was brilliant. The best arguments are those that anticipate and counter their opponents best point and to see that tactic in action and dramatized is very interesting. Some goals of these demonstrations was to change attitudes and laws toward segregation. Today that we have laws "protecting" some oppressed classes (women, queer folks, low income) I wonder how some of these tactics can be used in the present to change attitudes.

The movie was very clear in portraying the sequence of the movement. (though I would also like to see the training manual used by Lawson, is it available?) Something very obvious now is how cell phones and technology would/do make some differences. (both for better and worse -- TV has become a sophisticated propaganda machine. Surveillance cameras, wiretaps. Plus the social "progress" in our country to unashamed torture, etc.

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