Sojourner's Blog

October 16, 2013

The March on Washington 50 Years Later

On a sweltering August day in 1963, I listened to Dr. King speak his dream, articulating the highest aspirations of our Freedom Movement. My heart soared, and to this day I am still moved by those words no matter how often I hear them.

But now, 50 years later, as the media tributes and commemorations flood the airwaves I am struck by their thundering silence on the issues of economic justice, poverty, and income-inequality that formed half of the protest’s bedrock core.

The March on Washington was a march for Jobs and Freedom. Dr. King, A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis of SNCC, and James Farmer of CORE, all insisted that the march must be as much about economic justice as about social segregation. We marched that day to make 10 demands on American government and society (see ). Half of those demands addressed economic issues such as a living minimum wage, jobs and job training, fair labor standards, and an end to employment discrimination. The first portion of Dr. King’s speech — the part which the media and the politicians never quote — spoke to issues of wealth and poverty and income inequality.

Today, as we know full well, those issues are still with us, still unaddressed, still festering. Now, 50 years later, issues of economic justice, income inequality, and systemic poverty still remain the taboo topic of political discourse in America. Fifty years ago we assumed that the roots of poverty lay in discrimination and lack of opportunity. Today we understand that such issues are also inextricably bound to the realities of political power, the enormous disparity of influence between the wealthy few and working many.

Year after year, anti-union laws and court rulings cripple the ability of hard working people to earn a living-wage, while pro-business legislation and government policies encourage and subsidize the outsourcing and offshoring of jobs in a race to the bottom of lower labor costs. Housing and urban renewal policies result in the poor paying greater portions of their income for substandard housing than the affluent do for luxury accommodations. Political dis-investment in education, public works, transportation, and public health steadily widen the income gap and disproportionately impact the poor. Despite rhetoric about “family farms,” federal agriculture policies and subsidies are designed to enrich corporate agribusiness and impoverish small subsistence farmers. Business and consumer “protection” laws and international treaties are written to favor corporate profits at the expense of We the People.

One of the March demands was to raise the federal minimum from $1.15/hour to $2.00. When you adjust for inflation, $1.15 in 1963 is equal to $8.78 in 2013. Yet today, the federal minimum wage is only $7.25, significantly lower than what it was 50 years ago. After adjusting for inflation, the $2.00/hour minimum wage called for by the marchers would be equal to a minimum wage of $15.27 today, more than twice what it actually is. Congress sets the minimum wage. It is corporate political power that keeps it low, and the only way to raise it is by building popular people power.

Dr. King understood this relationship between economic justice and political power. In a lecture shortly before his assassination in 1968 he said, “The dispossessed of this nation — the poor, both white and Negro — live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty.”

August, 2013

October 14, 2013

Taxes and Liberty Poles

When I was a kid they taught me all about the American Revolution, “No Taxation Without Representation,” the Stamp Tax and the Boston Tea Party. Yay! Go Yankees!

But for some reason (an oversight, no doubt), they left out the context. Those taxes our ancestors were protesting were imposed to finance imperialist war. From the 1740s through 1760s, Britain fought the Dutch, French, and Spanish to conquer Canada, seize sugar islands in the Caribbean, take Senegal & Gambia in Africa, and grab Bengal & Pondicherry in India. That required a massive expansion of the British Army & Navy, first to take and then to hold those prizes against rival powers and local resistance.

But the riches and wealth from those colonies went only to the British 1%, the aristocrats and merchant princes who owned the East and West India companies, the plantations, and the mines. And, of course, the slaves, serfs, & indentured servants forced to work them. Since they controlled Parliament, they arranged a tax system where they paid very little and the 99% were bled dry for their benefit.

The resulting tax protests didn’t just occur in America, there were protests, riots, and uprisings in Ireland, Scotland, and England itself. The “Boston Massacre” we read about in school, for example, was called “massacre” in memory of the “St. George’s Fields Massacre” in London two years earlier when 15,000 people protesting taxes and denial of free speech were fired on by Redcoats.

One of the tactics of popular resistance used on both sides of the Atlantic back then was erecting “Liberty Poles” on public and private property as protest symbols and rallying points. Some of those poles were very tall, and all of them were hung with signs and symbols of protest. When the authorities tried to cut them down, sometimes they were defended, occasionally with violence, but more often with what we would today call nonviolent mass action. If a pole was taken down, a mass action was mobilized to put up a new one. The authorities discovered that it was much easier for the protesters to erect new poles than for the Redcoats to take them down against public opposition.

Ah well, just a curiosity of history I suppose. So glad all that sort of injustice and abuse is long in the past.

February 1, 2011

The 5-95 Split

The 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 of 1965 was one of the largest Freedom  Movement campaigns of the 1960s. But if you add up all those who  marched, picketed, sat-in, went to jail, tried to register to  vote, or just attended a mass meeting, it totaled less than 10%  of Dallas County’s Black population.

*BUT* these struggles by a small activist cores succeeded because  they won the political support of the great majority. Going back  to the Selma Movement, while less than 10% of Blacks directly and  actively participated in the Voting Rights campaign, the  overwhelming majority supported those that did take action and  they honored the economic boycott that was a significant element  in the eventual victory.

During the long student strike for Third World Studies at San  Francisco State in 1968, we never had more than 1% of the student  body attending planning meetings, passing out leaflets,  organizing actions, or doing the other work necessary to call and  maintain a strike. And no more than 2000 — well under 10% —  walked the picket lines, attended the rallies, or marched on the  Administration Building. But a clear majority of all the students  honored the strike by not attending class. That mass support was  not an accident, it was the product of years — repeat, YEARS  — of patient education, consistent organizing, and a long  series of escalating protests all designed to educate and build  mass support.

The key point is that the 5% who are activists achieve victories  by winning political support among the 95% who are not activists  (and never will be activists). We don’t have to start out with  majority popular support, but we DO have to end up that way. If  we don’t end up with the support of a majority of the population,  we won’t accomplish anything of significance. Which means that  our strategies and tactics must be shaped towards the goal of  winning support among the 95% who are NOT activists. That is the  criteria by which we have to evaluate our strategies and tactics.

Tactics that alienate, or frighten, the people whose support we  need to win are counter-productive. What people fear, they come  to hate, what they come to hate, they oppose. Tactics that treat  the people we need to educate as if they were enemies turns them  into enemies in fact.

Kwame Ture (Stokeley 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.”

January 14, 2011

The Gifford Shooting & the Freedom Rides

Filed under: Mass Movements — brucehartford @ 6:22 pm
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[On January 8, 2011 a gunman attempted to assassinate Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, AZ. Nineteen people, including the Congresswoman, were shot and six were killed, among them Federal Judge John Roll and 9-year old Christina Taylor Green.]

As I try to absorb and understand the killings and attempted assassination of a Congresswoman in Arizona, my mind flashes back 50 years to the violent attacks on the Freedom Riders in South Carolina and Alabama and their mass arrest in Mississippi, a state transformed into an armed camp of raging hostility against anyone who supported equal rights for Blacks. The interesting connection is that the Riders encountered no violence in Georgia which was just as thoroughly segregated as South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi. But in Georgia, unlike the other three states, on that occasion the reigning politicians chose not to publicly incite hatred and inflame passions against “race-mixers” and “reds.” Absent incendiary rhetoric from political leaders, there was no mob violence in Georgia.

The same pattern held true for school integration. The vicious mobs faced by the Little Rock Nine, little Ruby Bridges in New Orleans, and the children of Grenada Mississippi were fomented by racist demagogues creating fear and hysteria to advance their political careers. In other areas, where the politicians chose not to excite race-hatred, school integration occurred with little or no violence. We saw it back then, we see it now, when officials and candidates whip up fear and hatred, when they demonize opponents as enemies of America who must be destroyed, the inevitable end result is violence from mobs and “deranged lone gunmen.”

February 12, 2010

The Rubber Band Theory of History, and The Water Strategy of Social Change

Filed under: Mass Movements — brucehartford @ 8:48 pm
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The way that political change and social advancement is taught in school it often gives the impression that progress is achieved steadily — like going up a ramp — each year society improves, each year is better than the last. And those dead heroes of the distant past who worked and struggled for greater justice and democracy marched bravely forward to inevitable victory. It’s a warm and comforting illusion, but in the real world it’s rarely the case.

American abolitionists fought against slavery for decades, but slavery did not gradually decline year after year until it faded away — rather it was destroyed in the cataclysm of the Civil War. From its inception in 1909, The NAACP struggled decade after decade to win voting rights for Blacks, with little progress to show in the Deep South. SNCC and CORE began combining voter-registration and direct-action in 1961, and year after year — a time that to us “twenty-somethings” seemed interminable — nothing was gained, the number of Blacks registered in the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana barely changed. Then like a sudden bolt of lightening came Freedom Summer in 1964 and a few months later the Selma Voting Rights Campaign, the March to Montgomery, and passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But those flashes of sudden lightening did not occur in a vacuum, they were based on, and grew out of, the years and decades of struggle that preceded them.

The struggles to abolish slavery and win voting rights both illustrate the “Rubber Band Theory of History.” Imagine a block of wood sitting on a table. Attached to it is a long chain of rubber bands. You pull on the rubber bands hoping to move the block, but they just stretch and stretch and the block doesn’t move at all. You pull some more, and stretch the bands tighter, and nothing happens. You pull some more, and then suddenly the block moves so fast that it bangs you in the fingers. Sometimes.

Sometimes it works that way — but sometimes you pour your heart & soul into moving the block, you stretch and stretch the rubber bands, you march, you picket, you go to jail, but the block never moves. You achieve nothing. Which is why activists need to keep in mind Rabbi Tarfon, and the Tao of Social Struggle.

Which brings us to the “Water Strategy of Social Change.” Contrary to the deeply held beliefs of some, there is no instruction manual for achieving political reform (let alone, revolution). There is no easy how-to pamphlet, no simple 12-step program. Social struggle is like water flowing to the sea. If something dams the water, it goes around. If it can’t go around, it goes over, if it can’t go over, it goes under, if it can’t go around or over or under, it eats away at the blockage until it dissolves.

The Water Strategy recognizes that social change is an art, not a science. It’s a Darwinian process — you try something, if it works you reinforce it, if it fails, you try something else. That which succeeds survives and thrives, that which fails become stagnant political backwaters thinly inhabited by sterile dogmatists and irrelevant ideologues.

February 11, 2010

That Darned “Why did you…” Question

Why did you become involved in the Civil Rights Movement?

When I and other Freedom Movement veterans speak to schools, churches, and other groups, we are often asked the “Why did you…” question. It’s a fair and reasonable question, but it always makes me a bit uncomfortable. For one thing, it’s impossible to provide a clear, simple, 60-second answer to a very complex set of motivations. But beyond that, there are deeper problems.

To begin with, as a white activist, what I’m often being asked — either explicitly or implicitly — is why am I as a white person involved in fighting for racial justice? And I suspect that lurking behind that question are two equally invalid assumptions:

  • First, there is the assumption that racism and discrimination was (is) a Black problem that Blacks have to solve. It wasn’t and isn’t — it’s a white problem. Blacks did not deny themselves the right to vote or have a cup of coffee at a lunch counter, nor did they create separate and unequal school systems, or “white-only” jobs, or segregated housing. And they didn’t lynch themselves. Since whites were (are) the source of the problem, whites therefore have to be part of the solution.
  • The second incorrect assumption is that it’s self-evident why Blacks were involved in the Movement, and therefore only whites need to be asked, “Why did you…?” But the truth is that while most Blacks approved of and voiced support for the Movement (unlike most whites), only a small fraction attended a mass meeting, took active part in protests, attempted to register to vote when it was a dangerous act of courage, or even just signed a petition or contributed money to a civil rights organization. And this is not surprising, social scientists tell us that few reform movements ever involve more than 5% of the population in active participation. Yet if only a small portion of Blacks were personally involved, then it is not obvious why those who put their lives and livelihoods on the line did so — and we’re back to the “Why did you?” question.

So, okay, it’s fair and reasonable to ask both Black and white activists the “Why did you?” question, but for me it’s still the wrong question. For me, the more important, and certainly more interesting, question is to ask all those who were adults in the 1960s why they were NOT involved in the Freedom Movement. Some day, I’d like to be in the audience and ask a panel of the “silent majority” who did nothing: “What part of “With liberty and justice for all” did you not understand? Was there something in “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” that you disagreed with?

Overt racists will, of course, loudly defend their belief in white-supremacy — that’s old news.

But what about the millions of living-room liberals, some of whom wrote an occasional check in the privacy of their den, but few of whom spoke up publicly, and fewer still ever raised a picket sign — why didn’t they?

The great “moderate majority” avow their love of American freedoms, how then do they explain their silence of generations as those freedoms were denied to citizens of color? They were certainly not shy about voicing their disapproval of nonviolent protesters asking for those same freedoms — that was a big part of the famous “white backlash” — so how do they square their actions and inactions with their oft-stated principles?

And what about the flag-waving patriots who throw an hysterical fit if someone burns a flag, or dares criticize any action of the American government (the self-appointed leader of the “free world”). How do they justify their utter failure to defend the freedoms they proclaim so fervently (to say nothing of their vigorous hostility to those of us who were demanding justice and equality)?

When are those questions going to be asked?

And while we’re on the subject, the media closely questions political candidates of a certain age about their military service (or lack thereof) during the Vietnam era, but how come they’re never asked what they did to defend freedom during the Civil Rights era?

Copyright © 2008, Bruce Hartford

February 10, 2010

Nonviolence and the Tao of Social Struggle

Holding to nonviolence in the face of violent opposition is not the hardest part of engaging in Nonviolent Resistance. Once there is a will to take up nonviolent direct-action, training and group solidarity can solve the problem of remaining nonviolent when provoked or attacked. The hardest part of Nonviolent Resistance is overcoming apathy, discouragement, and despair. The hardest part of Nonviolent Resistance is committing yourself to take action and resist.

There’s nothing I can do.
I have no power or influence.
You can’t fight City Hall.
One person can’t do anything.
Nothing ever changes, the rich get richer and the poor get children.”

This isn’t a new problem. As recorded in the Talmud, a couple of thousand years ago Rabbi Tarfon (circa 70-135ce) taught:

You are not required to complete the task [of healing the world’s ills], but neither are you free to avoid it.

At that time, their world was in a world of hurt:

The Jewish revolt against Rome had failed.
Jerusalem had fallen, and the city put to the torch.
The Temple of Solomon was destroyed.
Thousands were slaughtered, the gutters ran red with blood.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews & Christians were enslaved.
Tens of thousands were tortured to death in Rome’s coliseum for the  amusement of the mob.

There was enormous despair. Tarfon’s response was:

You are not required to complete the task [of healing the world’s ills], but neither are you free to avoid it.”

Later Talmud commentaries expanded Tarfon’s dictum:

You don’t measure your individual contribution against the totality of the task. You measure your contribution against the totality of your life.

Measured against the pain and injustice that exist in the world, the contribution of any individual — even the greatest individual — is infinitesimally small. You don’t have control over the world, but you do have control over how you lead your life. Healing the world [in Hebrew “Tikkun Olam“] can form:

No part of your life,
or a small part,
or a great part,
or you can dedicate your life to fighting for justice and making the world a better place

That is the choice a Nonviolent Resister has to make.

February 1, 2010

In Memory of Dr. King — A Winter Soldier

[Address to an event honoring Martin Luther King organized by the Gray Panthers in Berkeley, California. January 15, 2005]

Today we are here to commemorate the birthday of Dr. King who was born on Jan 15, 1929. He would have been 77 today.

We should begin by remembering an earlier January — January of 1777 when an ink-stained wretch named Tom Paine huddled by a little fire amid the blood- stained snows of Valley Forge and wrote:

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

We, the men & women here in this room, Black and white, red and brown and yellow — We are the Winter Soldiers of the Unfulfilled American Dream.

Dr. King was a Winter Soldier. He was a Winter Soldier, and he was killed in action on April 4, 1968 while supporting a strike of Memphis garbage workers.

We used to joke that were part of a “Freedom Army.” In that context, Dr. King was the general and I was — at best — just a Sergeant. And as with most armies, generals and Sergeants don’t have much personal contact with each other. I was present at a few meetings he participated in, and I drove him a once or twice when his regular driver was not available.

If Dr. King saw me on the street in Selma, he would recognize that I worked for him and he might ask me to do something, but I doubt he recalled my name. So my view of Dr. King was from the rank and file, not from the inner circle. Yet even from a distance, the striking thing about that view is that Dr. King’s private behavior matched his public persona — though he did have a broad sense of humor that rarely came through in his speeches and sermons.

In both his private and public lives, what struck me most about Dr. King was his profoundly humanist vision that united people of all races and creeds. A vision founded in the unkept promise of America: “That we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”

What struck me about Dr. King was the depth of his compassion for the suffering of all people, of all races, of all nations. And what struck me about Dr. King was how much he cared for people, not just people in general as an abstract concept, but people as individuals.

What struck me about Dr. King was his humility. He was profoundly uncomfortable with the adulation that he received, but he he used it to move people into action. And he never made money for himself, even the Nobel prize money was put back into the Movement.

Dr. King was often criticized for not being “militant” enough. But what we often forgot, or failed to understand, was that he agonized: over every jailed demonstrator, over every beaten voter, over every martyr’s death. When we were wounded, he bled. Later in life I experienced leaders who casually sent others to the barricades without qualms or doubts, and I realized how lucky I had been to be a Sergeant in Dr. King’s Freedom Army.

It’s not often mentioned, but like all of us, Dr. King made mistakes and had failures. Yet one of the great things about him is that he learned from his mistakes & failures. From the errors he made during the Albany campaign of 1962, came the Birmingham victories of 1963 which played such a key role in eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Out of the defeat in the Chicago struggle to end slums in 1966 came the brilliant concept of the Poor Peoples Campaign in 1968 — an effort to unite people of all races to fight for economic justice. So often we encounter leaders and theoreticians who are so wedded to the correctness of their opinions that they endlessly repeat their failure rather than learn new ideas, new tactics, new strategies. King was not like that. He learned. He grew.

As veterans of the Freedom Movement, one of the issues we are constantly confronting is how the mass media and education system distorts that Movement. The very term “Civil Rights Movement” is a distortion. Most of us dislike that name, prefering instead to use “Freedom Movement” whenever we can. Successful social movements always focus on specific issues as points of attack for much broader goals. The Southern Freedom Movement focused on segregation and voting, but it was much broader than just the limited notion of achieving those two civil rights. The Southern Freedom Movement was really about the overthrow of an entire system of feudal oppression and exploitation that had replaced slavery after the Civil War. Our song and chant was “Freedom Now!” not “civil rights now!”

By defining the Freedom Movement as a “Civil Rights Movement,” the media limits its scope to that of a modest reform within a benevolent broader system. In reality, it was a fundamental attack on the existing political and economic power structure in the South.

Just as the media distorts the Movement as a whole, it distorts Dr. King by freezing him at the moment in time when he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. By freezing him at “Black & white together,” and “Judging people by the content of their character rather than color of skin.” Over this holiday, compare in your minds the number of times you see images of King on TV saying those words versus the number of times you see him:

  • Confronting Mayor Daley about urban poverty and racial discrimination in the north.
  • Telling students at Stanford: “It’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality. And so today we are struggling for something which says we demand genuine equality.
  • Speaking out against the War in Vietnam, and telling America: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
  • Supporting workers on strike for economic justice.
  • By freezing Dr. King in time, the media conceals one of the profound truths about him which that is that he evolved — that he rapidly evolved.

    I remember when he spoke from the steps of the Alabama state capitol at the end of the Selma to Montgomery March. He said “Though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends towards justice.” As I think back on it now, I’m astounded at how far his personal political arc traveled in just 13 years. On the day before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955, Dr. King was a socially-conservative, politically-moderate, Baptist preacher in Montgomery, Alabama. On the day he was assasinated in Memphis 13 years later he was a Drum Major of social, economic, and international justice who was shaking the powers of the world. And that’s why they killed him.

    Let’s be clear about one thing, I do not know of a single Movement activist who believes the “lone gunman” lie. We all believe that King’s assassination was engineered by the power elites for two reasons:

    First, because he was uniting poor people across race and ethnic lines around issues of economic justice. And that under his leadership the Poor People’s Campaign threatened to directly challenge the culture of greed and exploitation on which the wealthy elite base their power.

    And second, by opposing the War in Vietnam he was challenging a foreign policy driven by global corporate expansion and the ideology of neo-colonialism in guise of anti-communism.

    Malcom X was killed for the same reasons. When he returned from Hajj in 1964, Malcolm renounced separatism, and said he would work with people of all races. And his first effort was organizing a petition to the UN documenting that the treatment of Black Americans violated the UN Charter and Declaration of Human Rights and demanding that the U.S. be charged with human rights violations.

    When Medgar Evers was assassinated, his widow Myrlie said: “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.” And when Dr. King was killed, it was said that, “You can kill the dreamer, but you cannot kill the dream.” And that is true. But it is only true if there are Winter Soldiers with the courage and determination to carry on. So let me close by taking note of something we often forget when recalling history.

    Those Winter Soldiers huddled in the snow at Valley Forge did not know they were eventually going to win. At that time, the Redcoats occupied the major cities and dominated the colonies — only a handful villages and hamlets dared wear Liberty Blue. There was no easy promise of quick success. The summer soldiers gave up and went home. The Winter Soldiers held on. And that is the essential definition of a Winter Soldier, one who is continues fighting for justice even in the coldest winter.

    Dr. King called himself as a “Drum Major for Justice.” He was also a Winter Soldier.

    Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2005

    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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