Sojourner's Blog

July 18, 2014

The Missing Word

Filed under: Subversive Screeds — brucehartford @ 9:42 am

As a writer by trade, I love the English language. I love its richness, its  breadth, its depth. Yet it’s missing a word. We know and hold an important  concept for which English provides no word that I can find.

Today, those few schools who make an effort to teach the Civil Rights  Movement generally do so in terms of the Supreme Court putting the cause  into motion with a bold ruling, one or two charismatic leaders, a handful of  famous protests in a few well-known places, some tragic martyrs, and the  gracious largess of magnanimous legislators. Or, as Julian Bond summed it up  so succinctly, “Rosa sat so Martin could march so Obama could run.” But we  veterans of the Southern Freedom Movement know that without the activity,  determination, and bravery of hundreds of thousands of men and women of all  ages in cities and towns and hamlets across the South (and the nation) there  would have been no court rulings, no movement, no famous leaders, no new  laws, and no change.

For us, the Movement we participated in was above all a mass peoples’  movement — people coming together to make history for themselves. What was  most fundamental and profound in that struggle was the central role played  by men and women, boys and girls, transforming their own lives for  themselves through extraordinary courage. For us, these non-famous folk who  are overlooked or undervalued by mainstream history were the heart & soul,  blood & bone of the Freedom Movement.

When speaking of these unsung warriors, we sometimes use terms like  “ordinary” and “regular” to distinguish them from the famous and well-known,  but that’s not right. There was nothing “ordinary” or “regular” about the  men & women who risked all to defy white-supremacy by lining up to register  at the courthouse, or those who sat on their porches with shotguns guarding  us from night-riding terrorists, or the young girls and boys who dared dogs  and firehoses and filthy jail cells to march for freedom. No, the “ordinary”  people took counsel of their fears and stayed away from “that mess.”  “Regular” people did not attend mass meetings, go on freedom rides, sit-in  at the five & dime, or defy Bull Connor and Sheriff Clark. So what do we  call those who did?

Selma Alabama had one of the largest local movements in the South. Because  of a court-ordered appearance-book system, we know that somewhere around 15%  of eligible Dallas County Blacks attempted to register when it was hard, and  humiliating, and dangerous to do so. Fifteen percent doesn’t sound like  much, but it was way more than most local movements achieved. Wherever it  was across the South, and whether it was 5% or 10% or 15%, those brave few  who risked life and livelihood by daring to defy the white-supremacy were  neither “regular” nor “ordinary.”  

Perhaps Bob Moses comes closest with the term “unexpected actors,” and from  the point of view of our cultural gatekeepers they certainly were unexpected  (by them). But for those of us familiar the Peoples History that Howard Zinn  wrote about they were not unexpected. Down through the generations there  have been many peoples’ mass movements that changed history — movements  carried in the hearts and on the backs of thousands, tens of thousands, and  hundreds of thousands. The labor struggles of the 1930s changed the economic  and social face of America, as did the Woman Suffrage movement, and the  Populists, and the Abolitionists, and the (well, you get the idea).

But as with the Freedom Movement, when that history is taught (if it’s  taught at all) it’s in terms of the famous few, not the unsung many — John  L. Lewis & Walter Reuther, Susan B. Anthony, William Jennings Bryan, William  Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Breecher Stowe, and (hopefully) Frederick Douglas &  Harriet Tubman. But not the labor rank and file, the courageous suffrage  protesters, the embattled sharecroppers, or those who risked their lives on  the underground railroad. They too were neither famous nor “ordinary.”

For some of us, social and political causes are the major focus of our  lives, and for us there are words. We’re called “activists” or “organizers”  (and, yes, even “shit-disturbers”). But we alone do not make history, we are  always too few. History is made and changed when the fives and tens and  fifteen percents of not-ordinary, not-famous people stand up for justice.  The thousands of children who marched into Birmingham jails, the thousands  of adults who lined up outside county courthouses, the thousands of men and  women who housed and guarded us at night.

The culture promulgated by our schools and mass media tell us that history  and change are made by individuals — kings and presidents, tycoons and  innovators, wealthy thieves and violent terrorists, but never by masses of  non-ordinary, non-famous people who show up and take a stand. We who  participated in the Freedom Movement know how wrong that is, but how do we  fight back against this false history? How do we wage this culture war?  Perhaps, as scripture tells us, “In the beginning was the word.” But what  word?

July 5, 2014

Meditation on July 4th

Filed under: Subversive Screeds — brucehartford @ 11:18 am

All over the country, we the people celebrate Hotdog and Fireworks Day. If we attend some official event organized by the powers that be, we are treated to an orgy of flag waving, patriotic bombast, and bloviations on “Liberty” (the details of which are unspecified). But almost never is there any reading of the Declaration of Independence that today we supposedly honor.

It’s no surprise that the ruling elite prefer to ignore the Declaration because at that document’s core are five fundamental assertions that they wish to conceal beneath piles of patriotic blather:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,”

This never meant — then or now — that every individual has the same talent, ability or character. It does mean that there is no class of people, no aristocracy, who are inherently superior by reason of their wealth or birth. And that those at the bottom of the economic pyramid are not lesser, or sub-human creatures who deserve lives of drudgery devoid of hope. That there are no “ten” whose lot in life is deserved toil so that “one” can repose in leisure and luxury. It also implies that criminals who use their power and position to rob pension funds and loot the economy should not be allowed to escape the consequences of their crimes because they are rich or politically-connected.

Yes, it’s true that most, if not all, the Declaration signers assumed that “men” meant that males are created equal and that women were not included in their concept. And yes, it’s also true that for many, possibly the majority, of the signers “men” were assumed to be white because Native Americans and Blacks were not in their eyes fully human. But it is a testimony to the living power of an idea that once articulated it grows and expands beyond the limitations of the original authors so that today most of us read this to mean “all humans are created equal.” And American history can (and should) be interpreted as an ongoing and unending struggle to broaden to concepts of equality to include women, nonwhites, immigrants, gays, non-Christians, laborers, and yes even people with odd ideas.

“That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,”

That God endowed everyone — not just the king, not just the aristocracy, not just the obscenely wealthy — with fundamental human rights that cannot be justifiably abridged or denied on the basis of birth, religion, money, or assertions of social superiority. That all humans have rights, not just those who possess economic wealth or political power. That “might” does not confer “rights,” but rather that rights are inherent in humanity.

“That among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

That all people, from all walks of life, yes even the peons, serfs, and slaves, have the right to live in safety, free of oppression. That the murder of a Black man is as much of a crime as the murder of a white, that all people, citizen and immigrant, white and nonwhite, man and woman, straight and gay, must be free to walk the street and pursue their dreams.

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”

That political power is not handed down by God to kings and nobles, that legitimate power comes neither from the barrel of a gun nor from bribes and contributions of money and favor. But rather legitimate government and political power comes from the informed consent of the people (which does not necessarily equal winning an election).

“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its   foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

That “We the People” have the right to determine how, and by whom, we are governed. That we have the right to choose, and remove, those who exercise political power. And that if necessary, we have the right to change the methods and forms of government, or completely overthrow an old government and replace it with a new one.

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