Sojourner's Blog

January 30, 2010

Activists and Activism

Activists and Activism

[Presentation by Bruce Hartford to high school and college students at the "Civil Rights Movement and Social Justice" panel of the 40th Anniversary of the Black Student Union/Third World Liberation Front student strike for Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State College in 1968. Originally posted to Civil Rights Movement Veterans website.]

Bernice Johnson Reagan of SNCC and Sweet Honey in the Rock called the Civil Rights Movement the “borning movement” of the 1960s because out of the Freedom Movement was born the many disparate movements of that era including:

The student rights and academic freedom movement
The Anti-Vietnam War Movement
The Womens’ Movement
The Chicano Movement
The many other ethnic & nationality movements
The Environmental Movement
The Farmworkers Movement
Tenants’ rights movements
Community movements
The Gay Rights Movement
And many other movements

One thing these movements had in common is that they were all built and led by people we call “activists.” Of course, not everyone uses that term. Some folk call us:

“Trouble-makers”
“Agitators”
“Shit-disturbers”
And if they really want to cut us low, they call us “Community Organizers.”

But whatever you call us, activists are the people who make things happen. Activists are people who:

Read about and study issues and politics
Organize and attend meetings
Discuss and plan strategy
Pass out leaflets
Knock on doors
Circulate petitions
Speak in public
Engage in protests
Build community organizations
Work on election campaigns
Run for office
and so on

Come Tuesday, many of us hope that Barack Obama is elected President. If that comes to pass, his election will be a major milestone — a huge milestone — on our long journey towards justice, freedom, equality, peace, real democracy, economic-fairness, and let’s not forget saving the planet from the ruthless greed of the polluters and exploiters. But activists understand that there’s a fundamental difference between a milestone and a finish line. When you cross a finish line the event is over, your work is done, it’s Miller-time. But when you pass a milestone, even a major milestone, there’s still another milestone a mile down the road. And another after that, and so on down the long years. For activists there are no finish lines — only milestones.

One of the characteristics that defines an activist is the drive — the passion — the committment — to do something. To take action. Activists don’t always act, but on perceiving a problem, learning of an injustice, becoming aware of an abuse, our first instinct is to ask, “What can I do? What should I do?” For any given activist at any given time the answer may well be “nothing.” Often there is no effective method of addressing the problem and no single individual has the time or energy to address all the world’s ills simultaneously, but when confronted with an issue, activists at least ask themselves if there is something they can and should do.

In a sense, to be an activist is to resist the debilitating disease of “permission-itis.” From childhood through school and into adulthood, Americans are conditioned against doing much of anything without first obtaining permission — permission from parents, teachers, pastors, managers, officials, and “leaders.” But activists understand that seeking permission from authority to challenge that authority is a contradiction in terms. So activists act — and worry about permission later (if at all).

The 1st Amendment guarantees free speech — but only to those with the audacity and courage to assert that right. The cops want us to think we need their permission for a nonviolent picket line, sidewalk rally, or other peaceful expression of free speech — but it ain’t true. Yes, to block a street with a mass march or use amplified sound a permit is usually required, but that is the exception, not the rule. Similarly, school principals and deans — even here at S.F. State — may believe they have the authority to control thought and speech on their campus — but that’s true only if you let them.

An even more pernicious form of permission-itis is our reluctance to act without explicit agreement from friends, co-workers, and communities. For many, it’s not the fear of jail or administrative sanction that freezes them into paralysis, but rather the dread of jeers, sneers, frowns, criticism, and disaproval. But confronting this form of permission-itis can be tricky because effective activists understand that solitary action is usually futile, and actions by small cliques that offend or alienate those they want to mobilize are counter-productive and frequently self-destructive. To be effective, an activist has to strike a balance between the impulse to do something and the necessity of acting in ways that build support and unity among those whose eventual participation is essential for victory.

Perhaps the most debilitating form of permission-itis is our own internal hall-monitor that relentlessly cautions us that we cannot, we should not, we must not. There is a well-known observation by Marianne Williamson (often incorrectly attributed to Nelson Mandela):

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant and talented? Actually who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightening about shrinking so other people won’t feel insecure around you. And as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

In February of 1960, a tiny handful of Black students in the South screwed their courage to the sticking place and resolved to take action against segregation. Their audacious lunch-counter sit-ins defied not just the white power-structure and the Black college administrators, but also their own sense of inadequacy and dread of dire consequences. They had neither the permission nor the agreement of parents, pastors, or established community leaders — and most of their peers were at best indifferent and at worst contemptuous of those few foolish idealists willing to risk everything in some futile hope of changing that which could never be changed. But the sit-ins were planned, organized, and carried out in such a way as to eventually win broad support among the student body and within the Black community, while weakening and limiting the power of those adversaries determined to maintain segregation.

Which brings us to the necessity self-discipline. Those who would effectively lead or organize others must first master themselves. Anyone can act out anger, but mounting effective protests requires careful planning and strategic thinking. Anyone can shout rage and obscenities, scrawl grafitti on walls, and break store windows, but effectively speaking truth to power requires crafting a message that resonates with peoples’ lives and then devising some method of delivering that message which wins adherents instead of alienating potential supporters. The student sit-ins did exactly that, they were strategically designed to win a victory, not to vent frustration or strike some heroic, self-satisfying pose.

Equally essential is the self-discipline that puts the struggle and the community first. Oh yes, you can be an activist without that kind of self-discipline — there has never been any shortage of self-agrandizing “leaders” who serve their own egos first and others only insofar as doing so advances their personal ambition. But while ego-driven activists may be able to build successful careers, they are rarely able to achieve significant and lasting improvements in the lives of those they claim to represent. Freedom is not something you can give to others, they have to seize it for themselves. Pride and dignity cannot be bestowed as a gift from your generous hand, but rather must grow from within each individual. In the real-world — as opposed to the imaginary universe of the legal system — rights may be established through lawsuits and legislation, but until they are asserted by individuals in their daily lives they have no actual force or meaning. That is why the job of an organizer — an activist — is to build organizations that empower not just the leader but the members and the community as a whole — organizations that empower people to win victories for themselves.

But activists of whatever kind are — and always have been — just a small fraction of the population. Sociologists and historians tell us that only rarely does a social movement involve more than 5% of the affected population in active participation. Fewer than 7% of the American colonists actively took part in the revolution against the British. In 70 years of struggle, the largest Woman Suffrage protest was 8000 marchers in Washington, DC in 1913. The Selma Voting Rights struggle was one of the largest Freedom Movement campaigns of the 1960s. But if you add up all those who marched, picketed, sat-in, tried to register to vote, or just attended a mass meeting, it would total less than 10% of Dallas County’s Black population.

What all these movements of the 1960s teach us is that you don’t have to have tens of thousands to start taking action and effecting political change. Most times, movements like those of the ’60s are begun by small groups without significant popular support. You don’t have to start out with mass support. But you DO have to end up that way. If you don’t end up with the support of a significant portion of the population you won’t accomplish much of significance.

Going back to the Selma Movement, while less than 10% of Blacks directly participated in the Voting Rights campaign, the overwhelming majority supported those that did take action.

The first Vietnam protest I ever participated in was 11 people picketing the old Federal building on McAllister Street in 1964. At that time, only a small minority of population opposed the war. But…

by 1965 hundreds were actively opposing the war
by 1966 thousands were voicing their opposition
by 1967 tens of thousands were in the streets
by 1968 hundreds of thousands were resisting the war in a variety of ways — civil disobediance, GI resistance, draft refusal, economic boycotts, mass marches, nationwide moratoriums, election campaigns. And millions were sending letters, signing petitions, and voting for anti-war candidates.

During the long student strike here at San Francisco State, my guess is that less than 1% of the student body attended planning meetings, passed out leaflets, organized picket lines, and did the other work necessary to call and maintain a strike. And no more than 1500 to 2000 — well under 10% — walked the line, attended the rallies, or marched on the Administration Building. But a clear majority of all the students honored the strike by not attending class.

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. Media images of the 1960’s are all dramatic protests, clenched fists, massive marches, and great oratory. But that’s just the visible portion of the iceberg. It misses the invisible 5/6ths underneath that made those dramatic moments possible. That invisible 5/6ths is the careful and thoughtful organizing and education performed by grassroots activists.

Stokely Carmichael of SNCC once observed that:

All real education is political. All politics is not necessarily educational, but good politics always is. You can have no serious organizing without serious education. And always, the people will teach you as much as you teach them.

But he wasn’t talking about the standard model of education with a teacher instructing docile students what to think, and they regurgitating pat answers on a test. Nor was he referring to making fiery speechs, shouting slogans to a crowd, peddling newspapers, handing out leaflets, or writing manifestos or position papers — though those activities have their place. He was referring to a kind of education which is mutual and interactive. A kind of education that occurs outside of classrooms and into the communities. A kind of education in which you learn as much — or more — from the people you’re working with than you teach them. A kind of education that is the antithesis of arrogance. A kind of education in which everyone is both teacher and student. A kind of education that understands that ideologic theories always have to be adjusted to the is-ness of real realities.

As intellectuals — particularly when we’re in an academic milieu — we have a tendency to give primacy to the detailed content and internal consistency of theories, ideas, and ideologies. And this sometimes leads us to devote great attention and far too many hours to:

Arguing over every word of a leaflet, resolution, and position paper
Insisting that everyone use only the approved jargon
Debating and refining the “correct” analysis and line

But back in the day, when we stepped off campus into the real world of communities grappling with real problems, we discovered what became a truism of the Freedom Movement — that effective activists and organizers move people not by the brilliance of their analysis or the elegance of their theoretical formulations, but rather by the content of their character — their courage and compassion, their honesty and integrity, the value of their given word, their willingness to learn as well as teach, and the respect they show to others — even those with whom they may have some disagreement.

Unfortunately, in the years after the S.F. State strike, I regret to say that those were lessons from the Freedom Movement that 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.

And we understood that positive social change comes not as a gift from those on high, but rather as something forced up from below by mass activity and “people power.” Which is why one our slogans used to be: “Where the Broom Don’t Sweep the Dirt Don’t Move.

A lot of dirt has built up over recent years. A lot filth has accumulated in the halls of power. I hope that at least some of you young ‘uns are ready to do some sweeping.

Copyright © 2008, Bruce Hartford

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2 Comments »

  1. Reblogged this on Pass the SAFE Act! and commented:
    One of the veterans from the Civil Rights fight giving out some great information for those of us still trying to change they status quo for people and our animals. Good lessons to be learned here for all of us.

    Comment by EponaSpirit — February 3, 2014 @ 5:34 am | Reply

  2. My god Bruce,

    You’ve peeked into my soul and found the whole germ that went into my activism–and that of all of our few peers. I’d just never put it together so well as you have. In fact, I’d been raised and educated sufficiently that the very skills you talk about were instinctive to me. I’d spent 3 years of college studying mass movements and mass communication, but did group social work at a Neighborhood House. After students in the South started sitting in, I knew we had to support them by picketing Woolworths, Kresgke’s and Greene’s up North. So I called all friends and asked them to meet me at a picket line Saturday at 10, and pretty soon a bunch of the darned student government types joined in too and we soon had a movement. When I hit New York City I soon stumbled on Brooklyn CORE when Major Owens, then its chair, asked me to photograph some rent strike houses. I soon felt so at home I thought I’d died and already gone to heaven. Actually, I formally retired from activism, if you can believe that’s possible, when I was watching The Inauguration with the Obama volunteer leaders who didn’t trek to DC to get lost out of sight of the event and heard old Rev Joe Lowery give us his blessing to come down from that mountaintop, you know the one. Well that’s what I heard him say, although some think it was the fault not of bad hearing but of my docs who’d been warning me not to keep thinking I would live forever. I drew up a list of 3 things I still had to get done while alive: 1. Organize 50 years of movement photographs and exhibit them. Checked off this month! 2. Do the memoir my family, sweet wife, and even Madison’s poet laureate have been at me to do for longer than I care to remember. Check. Started it anyway. 3. Catalog my collection of 100s of images of the Statue of Liberty where some artist has changed her image for propaganda purposes, then get foundation funds to exhibit and publish as much of them as possible. Check. At least got a list of corporate potential sponsors with “Liberty” in their company name. Lots more work to do. E.G. Ads are obvious inclusions for everything from Japanese watches to thread to Pompiedoux Gallery opening in Paris. At 9/11, dozens of editorial cartoonists used her to express their own horrors. What started me was a drawing by a fine leftwing artist of the old dame sitting on a curb suckling 2 children, one white one black. He’d done it for the 1948 May Day Parade brochure that I’d discovered while doing research into movements during my college days.

    Sorry it took so long to close that circuitous route!

    Comment by Franklynn Peterson — August 16, 2010 @ 6:39 pm | Reply


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