"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, July 19, 2013

Music (Art) for Freedom -- how to grow a movement

I have been trying to convince members of the SaveCCSF coalition to do more singing and less chanting....with a smidgen of success so far.  I think some of the obstacles have been the lack of song leaders as well as the lack of practice within a modern culture that doesn't sing much anymore.

During each of the campaigns of the Southern Freedom Movement (e.g., Montgomery, Nashville, Albany, Greenwood, Birmingham),  momentum was fostered, sustained and increased at regular "mass meetings" in the evenings.  These meetings were part fundraisers, part strategy sessions, part information dissemination,  part faith building and part dress rehearsal.   The dress rehearsal part was regular singing, before, during and after the agendized meeting.

The Southern Freedom Movement was a singing movement (and for good reason)

Song leaders and even singing groups would begin the songs but the congregation would immediately join in and often offer lyrics to additional verses.  This was crucial learning and practice for the picket line or march or sit in the next day.

From Voices of the Civil Rights Movement:

DOG, DOG, Los Angeles, CA, August 1963, SNCC Freedom Singers led by Cordell Reagon.This satirical song, written by Movement activists James Bevel and Bernard LaFayette, was spread throughout the South by Movement organizers-especially Reagon, who here leads the original SNCC Freedom Singers. The song became a mainstay in the repertoire of both the first and second groups of freedom singers. Using rhythm and blues motifs, the song tells a parable of two boys who lived next door to each other but could not play together because of the color of their skin. Their homes were separated by a fence, but the dogs could slip under the fence to play.  
NINETY-NINE AND A HALF (WON'T DO), Birmingham, AL , 1963 , Alabama Christian Movement Choir led by Carlton Reese "99½ Won't Do" is based on the gospel tune popularized by Mother Katie Bell Nubin, mother of Rosetta Tharpe, famed gospel singer of the 1940s and 1950s. Reese, who leads the singing, rearranged the song and inserted new Movement phrases.

THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE , Selma, AL , October 1963 , Led by Betty Mae Fikes This rendition is led by Betty Mae Fikes with the Selma Youth Freedom Choir and is accompanied by piano. The song maintains enough of its traditional structure to allow for full participation by the congregation. The gospel influence is evident in Fikes's statement of the initiating line. One of the strongest song leaders to come out of the Movement, Fikes uses her unique and signature call to initiate each new verse halfway through the last line of the old verse. The gospel change in melody is picked up and maintained by the full congregation. Song leaders often localized songs by adding lyrics peculiar to their immediate situation. Many of these songs from Selma, Alabama, used names of local personalities. For example, Fikes sings "Tell Jim Clark" (sheriff of Selma) and "Tell Al Lingo" (Head of the Alabama State Troopers), calling their names as symbols of what the Selma Movement was fighting. Movement leaders were also named in the new lyrics. Spontaneous cheers and clapping greet Fikes's lines, recognition of her skill as a songleader and on-the-spot chronicler of the mood of the congregation.
 Below are some more recent hopeful examples of the use of song to build community, hope, maintain sanity, and express a vision for the future.


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Wizard of Oz Will Save Us?

I watched Oz the Great and Powerful on the plane last weekend. After being appalled by Milas Kunis' horrible, nails-on-a-blackboard screeching after she turns into the green-hued Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton* must be turning over in her grave), my biggest complaint about the movie is the moral of the story -- only a charismatic showman can inspire a people to fight successfully against evil. (I don't want to even get into the grotesquely apparent sexism of an audience expected to be emotionally engaged in the process of three women's obsession with a doofus male.)

Anyone, like myself, who is trying to persuade others of the power of the people, the power of nonviolent direct action, must be constantly annoyed at a dominant culture that continues to promote the myth that only a leader (who, in James Franco's role, doesn't even have to be "great") can make history. And this movie rubs your face in that myth.

Just as Salmon Rushdie deconstructed the classic, 1939 Wizard of Oz, I wish someone would do the same with Oz the Great and Powerful. James Franco's (Oz's) motivation to avoid commitments of any kind makes as much sense in his movie as Judy Garland's desire to go home does in hers (As Rushdie points out, why would Dorothy want to go home to poverty and dysfunction when she had grown up into a independent, courageous woman with a loving community/family in Oz?)

While this latest remake of Baum's original stories will never be a classic (i.e. not well done) and is, therefore, probably not worthy of further attention, it is, nevertheless, part of the larger pattern of hero worship that leaves little room for the truth as chronicled in more prosaic works such as Why Civil Resistance Works and A Force More Powerful and in more entertaining works like Bruce Hartford's science fiction story, The Gandhi Ring.

The Truth? "History is a choice" (Bayard Rustin); good is more powerful than evil (Gandhi); and social movements take "intellectual rigor and collectivity" (Phil Hutchings).   Ordinary people like you and me, acting collectively, have been the engines of social justice throughout history, not great men like Oz, Iron Man, Obama, Winston Churchill, or even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
During the Freedom Movement of the 1960s, we did not protest simply to vent to our anger and alienation. We took action to change society. Our sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and mass marches were grounded in an analysis of political reality that led to the strategy and tactics of Nonviolent Resistance as a means of winning actual changes. As the Freedom Movement evolved, so too did our analysis of political power — an analysis that is relevant to this day. We understood that the injustices we opposed were deeper and more complex than just some bad people with racist ideas. Beneath the surface of segregation and denial of voting rights lay a "white power-structure" of wealthy individuals, powerful corporations, and influential politicians who derived significant economic and political benefits from systemic racism, and therefore they used their power to establish, extend, and maintain the Jim Crow system. Which meant that in order to change that system, we had to understand what political power is, where it comes from, how it is generated, and how it can be used to change society. (Bruce Hartford in Nonviolent Resistance and Political Power, 1968)

* fun fact from the Wiki article: "In 1939, Hamilton played the role of the Wicked Witch of the West . . . creating not only her most famous role, but one of the screen's most memorable villains. Hamilton was cast after Gale Sondergaard, who was first considered for the role, albeit as a more glamorous witch with a musical scene, declined the role when the decision was made that the witch should appear ugly." My view is that only really, really, really good actors can pull off evil well. Why am I not surprised Alan Rickman never worried about appearing ugly as Snape or the Sherriff of Nottingham?