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In Post-Civil Rights America Do We Know How to Organize?

04/06/2015 05:15 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015
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In Selma Alabama, at the 50th year anniversary of Bloody Sunday, people from all over the world gathered at the Edmund Pettus Bridge for a symbolic march to the other side. But there were no leaders to lead, no plan to make it over and back. Where were the traditional leaders?

Many of them were in Brown Chapel, iconic center of the Selma Civil Rights Movement, speaking to an audience of maybe 200 or more; while on Broad Street, more than 20,000 people waited to go across the bridge. There was live video streaming of the speeches on a "Jumbotron," but the people stopped listening, and decided to cross on their own. As the crowd surged forward, they took up all lanes in both directions across the famous bridge, bringing movement almost to a halt. People who earlier reached the other side, had to squeeze their way back single file, precariously close the edge of the bridge, as the marchers on the Selma side inched their way forward to fulfill their journey. Some of us, including several "foot soldiers" that made the moment possible by their sacrifice 50 years ago, just couldn't make it.

"We cannot walk alone. And if we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back." -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

But that's only true if we are organized. And on that Sunday, there were plenty of committed people, but little or no organization.

How do we bottle all the enthusiasm and excitement of a Selma, and translate it into organization? How do we convert the anger of Ferguson into organizations that can withstand the test of time, and use them to propel an ongoing movement to impact other crises like unemployment, over-criminalization of youth and chronic miseducation of the masses of Americans?

Well, maybe some people are doing that kind of work.

Organizational Models

In Mississippi, there is an organization called Southern Echo, co-founded by Hollis Watkins, a veteran of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Southern Echo is a multi-generational, interracial leadership development organization, in rural Mississippi and the surrounding region. "Multigenerational" is an intentional strategy, along with "leadership development." One of the differences between 2015 and 1960 is the separation between the old and the young. How did this happen? When we entered the electoral phase of our movement in the 1970s through the '80s, our elected leaders forgot the bridge that brought them over which was confrontational politics, the burden of which was borne by ordinary working people and especially the young. They celebrate their electoral prowess, while young people see nothing but distant leaders who do not (cannot?) do what they promise. There is no collective study of Civil Rights, except on Martin Luther King Day, and no teaching of a leadership style that emphasizes grassroot organizing. Hence the young people and the not so young have to be taught how to organize, which Southern Echo does.

Organizations need to be multi-dimensional. In the '50s and '60s, Jim Crow was an easy target: White, racist segregation and violence against black people, brought everybody in the black community together across class lines, with help from our white friends. It's easier to organize when the enemy is so clear. But what happens when black people represent the power structure? Or liberal white Democrats? And the inherent injustice is tucked away using language like "school reform," through privatization of much of the school district, as in Newark, NJ?

People have to be taught to understand education policies and practices, the nature of class discrimination, and community organization. Lack of class consciousness has divided us in Newark (and elsewhere), where some poor and working people have been promised limited access to charter schools (only a few of which are any better than the regular public schools), at the expense of closing neighborhood schools, and making kids ride buses to schools that are absent permanent science and math teachers, social workers, music teachers, after school programs, even physical education teachers. The Abbott Leadership Institute (ALI) and its high school component, the Youth Media Symposium (YMS), teaches parents, students and progressive educators the value of crossing class boundaries. We teach leadership development, as done in Southern Echo. We teach organizational skills, like the use of video and still cameras, to tell stories to join black and Latino parents and charter and public school teenagers across class and generational divides, to demand better schools for everyone.

Then there is the interracial coalition formed by Rev. William Barber II, President of the North Carolina NAACP, with its epicenter called "Moral Mondays". Rev. Barber led a few ministers in April 2013 to protest Republican dominated state government denial of Medicaid expansion, the ending of unemployment benefits, and a harsh voter identification law, among other acts of injustice. They were arrested at the state house. On following Mondays, the Movement would grow to thousands, and spread all over the state. As early as 2007, the Forward Together Coalition (formerly HKonJ) brought thousands together for "teach ins"; projected a 14-point agenda and plan of action; and included clergy, Civil Rights and LGBT advocates, unions and youth leaders amongst its ranks. With his insistence on taking "the moral high ground," Rev. Barber and his team have been able to convert the energy of protest into an organized coalition that is growing.

Therefore, successful post Civil Rights organizations need to engage in:
(1) intentional organization across class and race boundaries;
(2) emphasis on intergenerational leadership, and leadership development to build community organizations;
(3) use of new media to communicate and tell stories;
(4) mechanisms to educate about many issues;
(5) strategic use of direct action in a way that builds organization.

There are other organizations that follow some or all of this formula, so find one and join. Or get with your friends of like mind, and grow one.

Junius Williams is the author of the book, Unfinished Agenda, Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power (www.randomhouse.com); and the Director of the Abbott Leadership Institute, Rutgers University Newark