"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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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Education, History and Organizing for Social Justice

In attempting to convince people of the importance and relevance of studying the detailed history of Southern Freedom Movement (aka Civil Rights Movement), I have often been rebuffed with the argument, "nothing fundamentally changed as a result of that movement."  In other words, it failed so it is not worth studying, never mind studying in depth.

But it did not fail.  It succeeded brilliantly is so many ways.  One of many important and relevant ways was in training a generation of activists who went on to be leaders of a larger social movement encompassing women's rights, gay rights, free speech, the environment, tenants rights, anti-war and so much more.

Bruce Hartford cites Bernice Johnson Reagon in calling the Freedom Movement the "Borning Movement"
The Freedom Movement — the "borning movement" — inspired a generation of participatory activism. A particular kind of activism. An activism rooted in community organizing, an activism focused on building popular support through effective education.
So what did change as a result of such a "particular kind of activism?"

Many many things!  but let me focus just on one -- Lynching. In 1955, with the lynching of Emmett Till, the black population with white allies fundamentally changed the nature of American culture.  If you can stand it (it is extraordinarily painful), take a look at the gallery of POSTCARDS made of lynchings.  Think about it, postcards -- people made a living making postcards of lynchings. People posed for them, bought them, mailed them to friends and family with notes scrawled on the back such as: "This is a picture of the BBQ we had last night.  I am the one on the right. Your son, Joe." Today, however, such generaly accepted and casually psychotic attitudes are the nail in the coffin of Rick Perry's candidacy --- i.e., his membership/ownership of a hunting camp (surreptitiously?) called "Niggerhead." Not a fundamental change?  Really?

Allow me to quote Bruce again:

  • According to official reports, at least 76 people — most of them Black — are lynched in 1910 (that's more than six a month). But many lynchings are never reported, so the actual number is unknown.
  • The number of Latinos, Asians, and Indians lynched in California average more than 4 per year between 1850 and 1935. No figures are available for the other Western states, but many lynchings are known to have occurred.

  • The national press pays little attention to lynchings because they're such a common event in American society. A significant segment of public opinion supports lynching as an effective and necessary means of keeping racial minorities, immigrants, and dangerous radicals in their place.
Today, while Congress has still not passed any anti-lynching legislation, lynchings are rare events widely covered by the mass media, overwhelmingly condemned by the public, and usually prosecuted. These changes in both public attitude and government response are the result of nonviolent political action.

So what about official lynching today aka DEATH ROW (the New Jim Crow)?  The lesson to be drawn from the continued ways in which people manage to maintain social injustice is that we must relearn how to create situations that give birth to "a particular kind of activism."  How to turn around what happened and continues to plague leftist activism today.  Bruce has observed:
Unfortunately, in the years after the [1968] S.F. State strike, I regret to say that [the] lessons from the Freedom Movement ... I and many others forgot or ignored as the '60s turned into the '70s. Some of us began thinking of ourselves as "revolutionaries." Real revolutionaries — real activists — learn and adapt and grow and change. But some of us became too arrogant to do that.
We acted as if our theories and ideologies were a revealed and immutable truth that only we held. We spent most of our time arguing with each other.
We published flyers and newpapers read only by ourselves.
We became harangers rather than organizers.
We engaged in tiny provocative actions that provoked only fear and anger rather than building support.
And some of us treated everyone who disagreed with us — even if only in slight degree — as enemies to be defeated rather than as allies to be welcomed. As a result, we ended up with many enemies and few friends. That's not political activism — it's political masturbation. It might feel good while you're doing it, but it produces nothing, changes nothing, and challenges no one.
But for all of our errors — and there were many — we activists of the 1960s did get at least one thing right. We understood that if we didn't like the history we were watching on TV and being taught in school it was our duty to go out and make some history of our own.
 My plea is to understand that effective organizing involves education (as well as patience, humility and discipline)....but a particular kind of education that is time tested and has an honorable if currently ignored place in U.S. history.

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