Sojourner's Blog

April 4, 2015

The Historical Context of Voting Rights

Filed under: Subversive Screeds — brucehartford @ 8:41 am
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[Presentation given as part of a “Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Voices of the 1965 Voting Rights Struggle” panel at the San Francisco Museum of the African Diaspora, March 21st, 2015. The other panelists were SNCC field secretary Wazir Peacock, Selma student leader Charles Bonner, and voter registration worker Maria Gitin.]

The Alabama voting rights campaign of 1965 that all four of us were part of was not an isolated event. It did not spontaneously spring into existence. Rather it grew out of a long historical context, and it can only be understood within that context. We used to talk about “1st and 2nd class citizens.” But today, Bob Moses of SNCC analyzes the voting rights campaigns in the framework of “We the People.”

The very first words of the American Constitution are: “We the people … do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

It does not say: “We the states”
It does not say: “We the politicians”
It does not say: “We the 1%”
It says: “We the People.”

But who are “We the People?”

Abstract political debates aside, as a matter of practical politics those who are eligible to vote — and who actually DO vote — are members of “We the People.” They are what we used to refer to as “full-citizens.” They are the recognized stakeholders of our society. As a matter of practical politics, those who are barred from voting are not part of “We the People.”

When we were founded as a nation, a fierce political battle erupted over who would have the vote. In essence, it was a fight over who was included in “We the People.” We have been fighting that political war ever since, and we continue to fight it to this day. The issue of who has the vote continues to be a fight because those who are well-served by the status-quo want to limit the voting power of those who they fear have good reason to be dissatisfied with the way things are. And, of course, the dissatisfied and disenfranchised want to have their voices heard and counted.

In the Presidential Election of 1800, it’s been estimated that no more than 10% of the adult population were eligible to vote. The other 90% were barred from voting. They were excluded from “We the People.”

Well, who were these 90%?

Women — half the population — could not vote. In 1776, Abigail Adams asked the Continental Congress to support voting rights for women. Her husband John Adams told her, “Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. … [We will not be subject to] the despotism of the petticoat…” For 151 years, women fought for the vote. They fought to become part of “We the People.” For their temerity, they were beaten, jailed, brutalized, and demeaned. But they carried their battle to every city, town, and rural hamlet in the nation. The Woman Suffrage movement was one of the longest, and most powerful, social movements in American history.

In the election of 1800, Native Americans could not vote. Indians did not win legal voting rights until 1927 — 140 years after the Constitution was adopted. And in many areas after 1927, white terrorism, legal tricks, and official fraud continued to deny them the vote long thereafter. Which is why the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) that we fought for in Alabama specifically included and covered areas of California, South Dakota, New Hampshire and all of Alaska, areas with a long and sordid history of denying the vote to Native Americans.

In most states in 1800, only white men who owned property could vote. Renters, apprentices, farm tenants, sailors, factory, and mine laborers could not vote. In New York City, for example, 75% of white men were denied the vote because they did not own property. The struggle to end explicit property qualifications was fierce and often violent. It lasted 80 years. North Carolina was the last state to end property requirements in 1856 — North Carolina, last in so many respects.

But implicit income restrictions were not ended until poll taxes were finally outlawed in 1964. And many of us believe that today’s new Voter ID laws are, in fact, a covert method of again limiting voting rights of the poor and elderly who don’t drive, and don’t have passports or concealed-carry gun permits.

In 1848, the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the War Against Mexico. It promised that Mexicans living in the conquered lands would be free American citizens with full voting rights. That did not happen. In Texas & California, legal voting rights were granted — in theory. But Anglo terrorism, legal tricks, & official fraud prevented all but a few from actually casting ballots. In Arizona & New Mexico, however, Mexican-Americans were legally denied the vote until 1912. During those 64 years, their lands and water rights were confiscated by judges & legislators elected only by Anglo voters. Across the Southwest for more than 100 years, Latinos fought and struggled for the vote — to be full and equal members of “We the People.” That’s a little-known struggle they don’t make movies about. A struggle that in many respects continues to this day. And, in fact, one of the best-kept secrets about the VRA is that it also won voting rights for Latino citizens.

Today, we see a Republican Party adamantly opposed to immigration reform. I believe their opposition stems from a combination of out-and-out racism and the fact that newly enfranchised immigrants tend to vote for Democratic candidates. In other words, immigration reform is also — in some respects — a voting rights issue because it impacts and defines who is included in “We the People.”

And not just Latinos. After the Immigration Act of 1870, and then the Chinese Exclusion Acts, Asian immigrants were denied the vote. Asian immigrants did not finally win full citizenship and voting rights until 1952 under the Eisenhower administration. One of the reasons that Japanese-Americans could so easily be rounded up and sent to concentration camps during WWII was that many of them had no vote, and were therefore not part of “We the People.”

As originally adopted, the Constitution defined slaves as property, not people. And in most states, free men of color were denied the vote through legal barriers or intimidation. Despite what the passionate defenders of “Southern Heritage” now claim, we all know that the Civil War was a war against slavery. But in a broader sense, it was part of a long, and still ongoing, fight to include citizens of African descent as full and equal members of “We the People.”

The Civil War did end slavery, but it did not end the fight over “We the People.” That struggle continued through Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, the Square Deal, World War I, the New Deal, World War II, and the modern Civil Rights Movement that we four were part of. And as #BlackLivesMatter reminds us, in many respects the struggle continues to this day.

When I arrived in Selma Alabama in early 1965, I had only an abstract, intellectual understanding of the importance of voting rights. I knew it in my head — but not in my gut. That changed early one morning when an errand took me down to the basement of 1st Baptist Church, a block from Brown Chapel.

In Selma in 1965, the public, taxpayer-financed hospital would only see Black patients one day a week. They refused to treat civil rights activists at all. Which is why Rev. Reeb had to be driven 90 miles to a hospital in Birmingham before a doctor would see him — a distance that probably cost him his life. After Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus bridge, volunteer doctors & nurses with the Medical Committee for Human Rights set up an emergency aid station for injured demonstrators in the basement of 1st Baptist. Soon they were treating everyone who was excluded from the public health care that was routinely available to whites.

On the morning I’m talking about, a young woman came down the steps into the church basement. She was carrying a newborn infant just a few days old. Sick. Bad sick, even I could see that. And she was terrified. Absolutely terrified. For her baby — and for herself.

She lived on a plantation 10 miles out of town. The master had refused to let her take her dying child into town to see a doctor. He forbade it. Either because he didn’t want to pay the doctors fee, or he didn’t want her exposed to dangerous Freedom Movement ideas. Or both.

Somehow, through the grapevine, she heard about doctors who would treat Black patients in Selma. In the dead of night, like an escaped slave, she snuck off the plantation, trudged on foot, carrying her baby through the bogs and fields and rural ravines of Dallas County to the basement of First Baptist Church. She knew she could never return to the plantation. She had defied the Master’s edict. She would face his wrath if he ever saw her again. She knew that no matter what he did to her, he would face no sanction or consequences from any elected official or court. He could brutalize her, rape her, even kill her with no fear of punishment.

She had no vote, she was not part of “We the People.” She knew with dead certainty that not only would white officialdom fail to protect her, they would turn her over to the plantation master. So she had to give up her family, her home, and her few possessions, to save her child’s life. To go in fear of being forced back into a form of semi-slavery. She did not know these white doctors and nurses with the Medical Committee for Human Rights. She was terrified they would send her back to the plantation. I heard her beg them, over and over, not to send her back. Of course, they would never do that.

I don’t know what happened to her or her baby, my work was elsewhere. I never even knew her name. But I never forgot her because she taught me the human price of not being part of “We the People.” The human cost of not having a vote to hold politicians, sheriffs, and judges accountable.


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

February 14, 2013

The Roots of Poverty

Fifty years ago, Black and white college students active with the Civil Rights Movement undertook freedom sojourns in rural communities of the deep South. For many of us, our starkest and most enduring memories of that intense time are not of KKK violence, mass protests or filthy jail cells but rather images of devastating, intractable, systemic poverty. In 2005, TV images of Katrina’s aftermath forcefully reminded us once again that beneath America’s celebrated affluence lie rural and urban wastelands of abysmal poverty and human suffering.

The mass media presents us with two opposing views of poverty’s root causes:

To oversimplify, and in a sense caricaturize, the view of the political right is that there are two kinds of poor folk. The “deserving poor” (orphans, accident victims, those with debilitating illness, etc.) for whom we should provide some ameliorative charity. And a much greater number of “undeserving poor” who live in poverty because they are lazy, shiftless, alcoholic, drug addicted, or are sexually promiscuous women who engage in serial pregnancies. Providing assistance to the undeserving poor just enables their life-style choices and encourages them to remain permanent social parasites feeding off the hard work and taxes of “productive” citizens.

Again to oversimplify, the liberal view is that in most cases the root cause of long-term poverty is lack of opportunity. Inadequate education, lack of job training, no child care, inadequate public transportation, no jobs available, or jobs denied because of race, gender, or some other form of discrimination. And therefore the corresponding solution is to supply opportunity by ending discrimination, providing education, training, child care, transportation and investing public and private funds to create new jobs.

I and many other civil rights workers initially held the liberal view. But once involved in the Freedom Movement we quickly learned that while discrimination and lack of opportunity are certainly important factors, lack of political power (broadly defined) is a deeper, and more fundamental root cause of systemic poverty. In this context, “political power” refers to the ability to change (or maintain) some economic aspect of society. This kind of political power can be expressed via elections, lobbying, economic action (boycotts, strikes and mutual aid), and all the varied tactics of nonviolent direct action.

Year after year, anti-union laws and rulings cripple the ability of workers 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 and 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 disinvestment in education, public works, transportation, and public health disproportionately impact the poor to their detriment. Despite rhetoric about “family farms,” federal agriculture policies and subsidies enrich corporate agribusiness and impoverish small and medium farmers. And business and consumer laws are written to favor corporate profits at the expense of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

The result is that most poor people have productive jobs — often multiple jobs — and they are working longer and longer hours, but they remain mired in permanent poverty. This is not caused by lack of opportunity alone, it’s also caused by lack of power to change the systems, policies, and practices that create and continually recreate poverty.

In essence, the liberal “lack-of-opportunity” view was the intellectual foundation that underlay the federal “War on Poverty” programs of the 1960s. Despite LBJ’s rhetoric, empowering poor people was not included in those programs and when people in the field made efforts in that direction they were immediately reined in by both local and national power brokers.

Such was the case with the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), one of the earliest and most successful Headstart programs. Among its organizers were a number of Freedom Movement veterans who favored training and hiring actual poor people to staff the centers (as opposed to professional educators with college degrees). They organized poor parents to take active decision-making roles in both the education of their children and broader community affairs.

The CDGM came under immediate and intense political attack from the Mississippi power-structure led by Senator Stennis who accused it of being “Communist” — not because the alphabet blocks the children played with could be used to spell “red,” but because it was empowering poor people to exert some influence and control over their own lives. Bowing to political pressure, Washington soon defunded CDGM, replacing it with a program where middle-class professionals provided services to the poor who were expected to consume and accept what was given to them as passive clients.

Dr. King understood this relationship between poverty and political power. In a lecture shortly before his assassination 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. — The Trumpet of Conscience, Beacon Press.

 That was the underlying vision of his Poor Peoples Campaign, to build a national, multi-racial alliance of poor people to fight on their own behalf. Not to plead for more charity or welfare, but to demand and win economic justice.

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 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 2, 2010

Audacity & Humor — Tactics of Nonviolence

Audacity and humor are more effective tactics for achieving social change than are rage and fury.

According to Gandhi: “The role of a civil protester is to provoke a response, and to keep protesting until there is a response.” In the context of tactical nonviolence, neither the protester’s actions, nor the responses they provoke, are ends in and of themselves. Rather they are a means of building a popular political movement capable of forcing (or resisting) some change.

In the winter of 1963-64, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chapters in the SF Bay Area campaigned against racist hiring practices by the Lucky Market chain (now Albertsons). When negotiations with Lucky failed to produce an agreement, CORE began leafletting and then picketing some of the stores to educate customers about job discrimination in general, and Lucky’s policy of hiring only whites for all positions above janitor. Shoppers confronted with a picket line came face-to-face with the issue as activists urged them to boycott Lucky and buy their groceries elsewhere.

CORE Shop-In. Copyright © Howard Harawitz

CORE Shop-In at Lucky Markets, 1963

When there was no response from the Lucky management, CORE mounted “shop-ins” at a few of the stores — a tactic that broke the sacred taboos of private property, but without violence against people. After picketing and leafleting the store for long enough to ensure that everyone inside knew and understood the issue, CORE members entered the market, filled shopping carts with groceries of all kinds, and proceeded to the check-out counter where the merchandise was rung up and bagged by the (all white) clerks and bag boys. When presented with the bill, the CORE activists replied, “We won’t spend our money with a company that practices racism.” Then they walked out leaving the bagged goods behind. Soon the shelves were practically empty and everything was piled up around the check-out stands. Business was halted for hours while the groceries were laboriously unsorted and the shelves restocked.

Consternation ensued. Business had been disrupted, property had been mishandled, ice cream had melted, some cakes had been crushed. The social order of custom and courtesy had been violated. “Innocent shoppers” had been inconvenienced. Pundits and editorials denounced CORE’s “coercive” tactics. But supporters of racial justice countered by raising the long-term economic and social devastation of systemic discrimination, and Lucky’s role in perpetuating a system that was inherently unjust and socially destructive. Lucky had many stores across the Bay Area, only a few were picketed and fewer still had shop-ins, but word-of-mouth and media coverage spread the issue far and wide. And it was impossible to talk about the shop-in without also talking about Lucky’s racist hiring practices. All of which built mass support for the boycott.

CORE had a few hundred activists, and only a portion of them participated in the shop-ins, but those actions caused tens of thousands to view Lucky as a racist company they did not want to do business with. Shortly after the shop-ins, Lucky signed an agreement with CORE to integrate its work force. Other grocery chains followed without requiring direct-action.

In the American South of the 1960s, simply asking for a cup of coffee, carrying a freedom sign, or attempting to register to vote, was enough to provoke a response — in many cases a violent response — from those determined to maintain the Jim Crow system of racial apartheid. But in the North, and in later decades and other struggles, more sophisticated and powerful adversaries learned to ignore small protests. When actions produce no response they appear futile (though, in fact, they may not be). Protesters feel impotent and become discouraged. It becomes harder to build a movement that can affect social change.

When protesters are ignored, they often react with rage. That might be an effective tactic in a family or social situation where expressed anger commands attention and disrupts a valued harmony. But against entrenched power defending its privileged interests, shouting fury is simply a louder form of futility. It may feel good for a moment, and it may energize that fraction of the population who are thrilled by acting out anger in public. But power-elites are impervious to militant slogans, and if rage erupts into violence, the police are ready, willing, able, and eager to quickly suppress it long before it poses any inconvenince to distant rulers safe and secure in their bastions of wealth and privilege.

An unprovoked, aggressive police attack on nonviolent demonstrators builds public sympathy for both the activists and their cause; but when protestors initiate or commit violence (or it can be made to appear as if they have done so), public reaction is quite different. Those already firmly committed to the cause may cheer and applaud, but few potential adherents are won, and many current supporters are alienated. Even violence by just a small fraction of the participants taints everyone, and the cause itself, in the eyes of the public.

Despite our mass culture’s glorification of violence, the overwhelming majority of people — even young people — are frightened and repelled by actual violence. And that which people fear, they come to hate. And what they hate, they oppose. Over the past decades it’s been proven time and again that ultra-militant sects who deliberately use violence to provoke a police response remain small, isolated, ineffective, and ultimately impotent — filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Instead of using rage and violence to provoke a response from adversaries who ignore traditional protests, creative nonviolent resistors use audacity to generate a, “They did what!?” response. In this context, “audacity” means breaking the paradigm of business-as-usual social behavior. Audacity is doing the unexpected. Audacity is violating cultural taboos in ways calculated to provoke a reaction without alienating potential supporters. The Lucky shop-ins were an example of creative audacity.

Like audacity, satire and humor are also techniques of nonviolent direction action. Laughter and ridicule undermine authority and diminish its ability to compell obedience. You can weaken, unbalance, and ultimately overthrow the king quicker by laughing at him than by futilely screaming fury at him.

And as a matter of practical politics, humor of any kind — not just satire — is far more effective than rage:

  • Humor appeals to observers and potential supporters. Fury frightens and alienates them.
  • Humor disarms and confuses adversaries. Rage triggers engrained patterns of defense and counter-rage, stokes resistance, and mobilizes fiercer opposition.
  • Humor is more sustainable than fury. Anger is exhausting. Most people cannot sustain intense rage over long periods of time. But humor is energizing, both in the short-run of a single protest, and in the long-run of an extended campaign.
  • Humor and audacity work hand-in-hand, reinforcing each other. Humor reduces and difuses hostile reaction to broken taboos, and nothing spreads faster by word-of-mouth (or twitter tweets) than tales of audacious humor.

In 1964, after careful investigation and lengthy negotiations, CORE in California launched a state-wide job discrimination campaign against Bank of America (BofA). Cashier, clerk, teller, and desk jobs were for whites only — Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans need not apply. Bank jobs were desirable back then, they were among the few decently-paid, white-collar jobs a person could get without a college degree.

This was before ATMs, a time when few people had credit cards and there was no “cash back” at stores. Friday afternoons were the busy time because everyone had to stand in line to deposit their pay checks and withdraw spending money for the weekend. So every Friday afternoon, leaflets were distributed and picket lines established at BofA branches in locales where CORE had chapters. BofA customers were asked to shift their accounts to other banks (of which there were many).

After a few weeks, we started doing “coin-ins.” We’d set up a picket line and leafleters at a branch, then we’d send in a team of coiners, one for each teller. When it was our turn at the window, we’d hand in a dollar and ask for change. They’d give it to us. “Oh, sorry, no. We want pennies.” We’d get a couple rolls of pennies which we would unwrap and slowly start to count: One…   Two…   Three… Wait! There’s only 99. Here, you count them. The object was to hold up the line as long as possible. The customers waiting behind us had crossed

through the pickets outside, so we felt they needed additional encouragement to take their business elsewhere. A good coiner could hold up a line for 10, 15, 20 minutes. When the managers opened up new windows, we’d send in more coiners.

Some of the tellers and most of those fuming in line behind us were outraged — we were breaking the taboos of courtesy, the taboos of lines, the taboos of efficient business. We were breaking the sacred taboo of reverent worship in the temple of money. But some of the customers and clerks grasped the inherent comedy in the situation, and others were influenced by our deliberately maintained demeanor of good humor. This helped some of them see beyond the immediacy of the moment and understand that the root cause of their inconvenience was BofA’s racist hiring practices.

Then we learned that as a matter of law it was not necessary to use the pre-printed checks supplied by the bank. So long as all the information was there, we could write a check on anything. So we started “cash-ins.” We opened a small checking account, and used magic marker to write $1.00 checks on the back of our “Bank of America Discriminates” and “Stop Racism” picket signs. When we entered with our signs on their long sticks the managers rushed up, “You can’t picket in here! This is private property!Oh, we’re not picketing,” we responded with good cheer, “we’re here to cash a check. See, it’s written out right there.” Again, many were shocked, but even a few of the managers had to laugh. A week or so later we got a call from one, he told us they couldn’t send our cancelled picket signs (checks) back through the mail, did we want to pick them up at the branch? We did.

Although BofA refused to sign a formal agreement with CORE the way Lucky Markets had, they did end race-based job discrimination. Within a year people of all colors were hired into white-collar positions. Other banks followed suit.

That was long ago, but the passage of time has shown that stories of audacity and humor are told, and retold, and remembered, in ways that more conventional protests are not. In 47 years of political activism I’ve been on marches and picket lines uncounted, almost all of which have blurred and disappeared into the musty attic of what’s left of my memory. But I still recall in detail those coin-ins and cash-ins. And what’s true of my feeble memory is true for history as well. To this day, most every child and adult in America can tell you the basic story of the Boston Tea Party — an audacious nonviolent protest back in 1773. Yet the same grade-school teacher and textbook that taught us the Tea Party also taught us the Battle of Saratoga — a crucial (but conventional) military turning point in the Revolutionary War — yet once the classroom test was over, no one but history buffs and professors recall Saratoga at all.

— Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2009

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

    Two Kinds of Nonviolent Resistance

    Judging by what they show on TV and teach in the schools today, we mythical heroes of the Civil Rights Movement were self-sacrificing saints who loved our enemies and eagerly faced martyrdom with love in our hearts and a song on our lips. Nope. Wrong. ‘Taint so.

    There were two different kinds of Nonviolent Resistance practiced by the Freedom Movement of the 1960s:

    • Philosophical Nonviolence. Those who were philosophically nonviolent did try to love their enemies and did try to refrain from any form of violence in all aspects of their lives. Politically they were pacifists and deeply studied in Gandhian creed. Dr. King, John Lewis, James Lawson, Bernard LaFayette, and others belonged to this group. The heart of philosophical nonviolence was taking action to oppose injustice and winning over one’s enemies through love and redemptive suffering. Yet, despite the media myths, philosophical nonviolents were always a small minority of the Civil Rights Movement.
    • Tactical Nonviolence. Those who were tactically nonviolent used Nonviolent Resistance as a tool for building political power — in demonstrations, as an organizing technique & style, and as a political strategy to achieve specific goals. But it was a tactic, not a philosophy of life; and in other situations, — both personal and political, — other strategies and tactics might be used. We who were tactically nonviolent used Nonviolent Resistance because we wanted to win. We saw nonviolence as the most effective way to accomplish our goals through political means. By 1963 the great majority of Freedom Movement activists in CORE, SNCC, NAACP, and even SCLC, were tactically nonviolent rather than philosophically nonviolent.Those of us who were tactically nonviolent did not love our enemies, nor did we believe that our redemptive suffering would convert racists and segregationists to a new outlook of interracial brotherly love. Rather than changing hearts, our focus was changing behavior — through persuasion if possible, but if that was not possible then by coercion. On the broad scale that meant building political movements to win legislation, sway court decisions, and alter social values that would then force racist businesses, institutions, government agencies, and individuals of power to change their behavior regardless of their personal opinions. On a narrower local scale — a particular business that discriminated against people based on their race, for example — we would try persuasion, but if that failed we would try to coerce a change their behavior through disruptive nonviolent tactics such as a sit-in or boycott or shop-in.

    But these two views were not hostile to each other — they were just different. Both groups worked well together, simply agreeing to respectfully disagree on it. Dr. King made it quite clear that he was not demanding that others adopt his personal philosophy of nonviolence, and we who were tactically nonviolent respected the courage and commitment of the philosophicals. The two views were not antagonistic because both encompassed the fundamental premis that nonviolence is about active resistance — not passivity. In the words of SNCC organizer and Freedom Singer Bernice Johnson Reagon:

    Many times when people talk about nonviolence, they think of a sort of passivity, a peacefulness. If you are talking about the Civil Rights Movement and our practice of nonviolence, you have to think of aggressive, confrontational activity, edgy activity; action designed to paralyze things as they are, nonviolent actions to force change.” [Music in the Civil Rights Movement]

    Most people are unable (or unwilling) to love their enemies or practice philosophical nonvilence in all aspects of their life — Mahatma Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings are few and far between — which is why it’s important to understand that you don’t have to be a Gandhi or a King in order to use Nonviolent Resistance as a strategy and technique of social change and struggle.

    — Copyright © 2004, Bruce Hartford

    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:

    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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