Comfort, Congregation, Contagion,Contention, COVID-19 (3/x)

Public worship, especially when prohibited, is often political. The litany of martyrs who practiced their faith against the dictates of their governments Antigone vs. Creonstretches at least a couple of thousand years. Stories of individuals or groups standing up against authoritarian states to express devotion and fulfill duties–regardless of costs–make for powerful, sometimes inspiring, drama.

And picking the right (that is, wrong) place and time makes for politics even in countries that are broadly tolerant of religious practice. Religious people who pray trespassing on a nuclear weapons test site, civil rights or anti-abortion activists who pray while awaiting arrest, and Catholic human rights activists protesting cruel and inhumane policies on the border while practicing at least some of the sacraments, all deploy their faith in public as witness, and also as a political statement.

The First Amendment provides for rights to religious freedom and public assembly and, at least in principle, government bends over backwards to accommodate expressions of faith. Sometimes, the free exercise of religion entails tolerance of worship that seem risky or dangerous, including fasting, ingesting hallucinogens, or handling snakes.

But what are we to make of the arrests this week of pastors who led very large public services in defiance of public health bans on assemblies of even modest size?

Pastor Rodney Howard-Brown turned himself into authorities after acknowledging, proudly, that he had conducted two very large Sunday worship services at his church in Tampa, Florida, in violation of County orders. He was charged with unlawful assembly and violating public health emergency rules. Pastor Howard-Brown had announced that he would keep the doors of his church open until the Rapture. Besides, the church had kept family groups distanced and distributed hand santizer to the hundreds of worshippers. Given this context, it’s hardly surprising that he would describe the concern about the novel corona virus as “blown totally out of proportion.”

The next day, Pastor Tony Spell was arrested for holding Sunday services at his church in Baton Rouge, in violation of the governor’s orders prohibiting public gatherings of more than 10 people. Spell had promised to defy any public gathering bans in advance, suggesting that the governor was politically motivated. At his sermon, he defended the role of the church in meeting  the challenges of a public health crisis:

Our church is a hospital where the sick can come and get healing…Cancers are healed here, people are healed of HIV in these services, and we believe that tonight, we’re also going to pass out anointed handkerchiefs to people who may have a fear, who may have a sickness, and we believe that when those anointed handkerchiefs go, that healing virtue is going to go on them as well.

The pastors argue that churches provide a service every bit as essential as hospitals, groceries, and drug stores, and they’re not alone. Other ministers have held public services, tucking themselves into often ill-defined standards of essential services. The attraction is clear: in times of extreme stress, with uncertainty about not only health, but the economy, and the future more generally, many people can find comfort and direction in their personal faith, and in a community of faith. (Note that many churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples have responded to this need through online services or counseling, and even drive through communion.)

But the risks are also great, particularly in this case. The notorious “patient 31” was, apparently, a particularly prolific infector in her South Korean church, where people gather in dense crowds over long stretches of time before returning to the secular world. A close religious community provides a too-ideal setting for a virus to spread. Even more than that, Korean churches organized to oppose, mostly unsuccessfully, the strict public safety measures that seemed to have dampened the viral spread.

So, think: A faithful mishandler of snakes puts his life at risk, along with the well-being of his family, but does not put the larger community in jeopardy. In contrast, the person who decides that by exercising due care in sterile practices that he can minimize personal risk while attending a large service, also threatens the cashier at the grocery, and every person who passes through that check-out line–and their families. The careless vector sins against humanity.

The politics here are critical. The defiant churches are led by evangelical activists who support conservative causes and politicians. In their resistance, they call into question the real threats of viral contagion, and represent a real threat to public health. They are also, however, key constituencies for Republican politicians in some states, who put public health behind concern for commerce and Christ.

So, pastors have organized to demand that their services be classified as essential, nourishment of the soul being every bit as critical as for the body. Organized evangelicals have been extraordinarily faithful to the Trump presidency, and neither he nor his political acolytes have been eager to cross them. Trump has left it up to state officials to decide whether to issue restrictions on public gatherings, and more than a few Republican governors have followed his model. Texas governor Greg Abott, has relied on his evangelical faith to call for more God, rather than fewer guns, to prevent shootings in churches and schools; thus far, he’s left it up to local officials to decide whether to restrict public activity.

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has charted his political career along spring breakTrump’s sitelines, delayed state-wide regulations–even during a typically raucous and atypically dangerous Spring Break season–in deference to local governments. But yesterday, DeSantis announced a state-wide shut-down of all but essential services.

He allowed a massive carve-out: public worship is classed as “essential business.”

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Cesar Chavez Day, 2020

In the virtual lockdown we’re living through in California, where one day bleeds into another, I’d almost forgotten about Cesar Chavez Day.  Here’s a piece I wrote about the holiday in 2018, recycled, augmented, and reedited, with a few distressing updates.)

Less tImage result for edna chavez speech, stephon clarkhan a week after Edna Chavez, the charismatic seventeen year old high schooler from South Los Angeles, electrified a national crowd with a demand to end gun violence, Californians celebrate the legacy of another Chavez.

On my campus, we commemorated Cesar Chavez Day today, rather than March 31 (his birthday), by closing.  The state established the holiday in 2000, and six other states have followed suit.  In California, the legislature calls upon public schools to develop appropriate curricula to teach about the farm labor movement in the United States, and particularly Chavez’s role in it.

A campaign to establish a national holiday has stalled so far (The Cesar Chavez National holiday website seems to have last been updated in 2008), but last year President Obama issued a proclamation announcing a day of commemoration, and calling upon all Americans “to observe this day with appropriate service, community, and education programs to honor Cesar Chavez’s enduring legacy.”

Political figures have many reasons for creating holidays, including remembering the past; identifying heroic models for the future; recognizing and cultivating a political constituency; and providing an occasion to appreciate a set of values.  Regardless of the original meaning, the holidays take on new meanings over time.  Columbus Day, for example, is celebrated as an occasion for pride in Italian Americans (e.g.), and commemorated and mourned as a symbol of genocide  and empire (e.g.).

Cesar Chavez’s life and work is well worth remembering and considering, particularly now.  His career as a crusader was far longer than that of Martin Luther King discussed (here and here) and he was far more of an organizer than Fred Korematsu (discussed here). Chavez’s Medal of Freedom was awarded shortly after his death in 1993, by President Clinton, but many of his accomplishments were apparent well before then.

Dolores Huerta, 2009

As a young man, Chavez was an agricultural worker; by his mid-twenties, he became a civil rights organizer, working for the Community Service Organization in California.  With Dolores Huerta, in 1962 Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers.  Focusing on poor, mostly Mexican-American workers, Chavez’s vision for activism was right at the cornerstone of racial and economic justice.  Establishing an organization, however, is a long way from winning recognition and bargaining rights as a union.

Chavez was a tactician, a public figure, a charismatic, and something of a mystic.  Modeling his efforts after Gandhi’s successful campaigns, Chavez was an emphatic practitioner of active nonviolence.  He employed boycotts, strikes, long fasts, demonstrations, long marches, and religious rhetoric in the service of his cause.  He also registered voters, lobbied, and worked in political campaigns.  He was a tireless and very effective organizer for most of his life.

But holidays are best celebrated with an eye to the future, rather than the past.

On Cesar Chavez Day this year, we can think about the large and growing Latino community in the United States.  The 2010 Census reports that Latinos now comprise roughly 1/6 of the American population, and more than 1/3 of the population in California. This is the youngest and fastest-growing population in America today, and they are severely underrepresented in the top levels of politics, education, and the economy.   The civil rights map is at least as complicated as at any time in American history, but not less important or urgent.  (The struggle about the DREAM Act is reminiscent of the debate about Voting Rights 45 years ago.)  The future of American Latinos is very much the future of America.

[2020: Through ill-advised, provocative, and racist policies, Donald Trump has done a great deal to make it easier to mobilize Latinos, and to forge a broader unity among the whole range of minority groups (racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, etc.). This organizing IS happening.]

And Chavez saw the civil rights struggle as a labor issue.  When Chavez and Huerta started their campaign, nearly one third of Americans were represented by unions.  The percentage now is now just about 10 percent, and less in the private sector.

And public sector workers, even if represented by unions aren’t doing so well.  The ongoing conflict in Wisconsin is all about weakening unions that are already making very large concessions on wages and pensions.  The campaign in Wisconsin is part of a larger national effort, which is playing out in Indiana, Ohio, Florida, and elsewhere.  Even in states where anti-union forces are weaker, state employees face lay-offs, wage cuts, and increased health and pension costs.

[The previous Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, was largely effective at hobbling organized labor in his state. Aided by an extensive organizing effort and backlash to many Walker policies, Tony Evers eked out a narrow victory in 2018. Wisconsin may now be a highly contested true swing state, but one without many swing voters.]

This year, the Supreme Court will rule in Janus vs. AFSCME, and court watchers expect the Wisconsin model to be immediately exported across the country. [The wildcat teachers strikes in West Virginia, and now Kentucky, with credible threats in Oklahoma and Arizona, offer the hint of a new resurgent labor… more later.]

[Janus turned out exactly as union organizers fear, and continues to haunt the national landscape.]

But, we need to remember that you can’t attack teachers, nurses, police officers, and firefighters without hurting the people they serve: us.

Or should I say, US?

We commemorate the past to help guide the future. Edna Chavez, working in an urban setting far from Cesar Chavez’s organizing, carries the legacy forward, and adds more.

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Solidarity and social distance, COVID-19 2/x

If you can’t meet in person, how can you protest effectively, or build the communities that can support effective action in the future?

Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest by [Tufekci, Zeynep]Online connections and social media provide an exceptional set of resources for organizers to spread information about issues and actions, bypassing obstacles of mainstream media (neglect) and repression (e.g., police who chase away activists wheatpasting flyers on walls and electric polls), but much of the work of building social movements/networks/trust is face-to-face. Moreover, online networks can easily be more segregated and insular than their real-life expressions. (Zeynep Tufekci’s book, at left, describes the heft and limits of online action well.)

In ancient times, like the last century, large demonstrations reflected thousands of hours of organizing efforts played out over months or years, where local groups built activist communities, common understandings of problems and politics, and solidarity–a feeling of connection. Social media allow organizers to generate the numbers far more quickly, but can movements be effective without all the infrastructure? (Rhetorical question; I don’t think so.)

extinction rebellion buddhists

Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement (DANCE)

In real life, organizers build solidarity by bringing people together for common purposes. Around coffee or tea, activists learn about each others’ families and favorite foods. They share brownies or cookies, tell jokes and stories, argue about places to shop or eat, and share rides. Sometimes, they make plans to go for walks or meals, organizer play dates for kids, and build friendships.

A picketer is arrested behind Loveman's Department Store. Civil rights leaders believed that if they could break segregation in Birmingham, it would collapse throughout the South. ©1963 Bob Adelman, Courtesy CDEA.





At meetings and at actions, people sometimes pray or chant or sing. There is a feeling that can come from such collective action, of warmth and trust and connection, that provides support and sustenance and courage to take on actions that feel scary or risky.

Sometimes an issue or a political commitment can bring people together, but political commitments also develop through social connections, and the accumulation of common experiences over time.  
At demonstrations and actions, activists build bonds through proximity, like the two crusaders who confronted Sen. Jeff Flake at an elevator to urge him not to vote to confirm Justice Kavanaugh, or the young people in the Sunrise Movement who sat in at Speaker Pelosi’s office–and elsewhere in Congressional offices.

Canvassers meet neighbors and learn about issues that they aren’t organizing on at the moment, and learn to recognize people they might see at the grocery store later in the week.

Protesters linked arms in the street on Inauguration DayWhen academics write about the sense of connection, often expressed through physical ties, common language and slang, styles of dress, and familiar songs, they often use the term “collective identity.” It comes from personal and physical contact.

Can all of this be replicated online? I don’t know, but I’m doubtful. I had a good long Zoom meeting this morning with nearly a dozen others who shared a common purpose and similar values. But I muted my mic so that they didn’t have to hear me eat breakfast, and I made my own coffee. We tended our own obligations during a break; no small talk. Others were interrupted by calls or deliveries, and had to drop off at odd times to deal with children and normal household obligations. No stories, shared food, and not too many distractions. It was far more efficient than a meeting in-person, but far more instrumental and limited.

So, I’ve been interested in how local groups are working to build social contacts in these moments of social distance. My JCC has, surprisingly, been inspiring. In the phone and email messages that announced its closing, staff offered to check in with daily calls to people who wanted the connection. Fitness trainers offered free exercise classes online, and preschool teachers provided online story times, reading children’s books to children who must be climbing the walls.

Historian and activist Lara Putnam reports on Twitter of organizers cultivating mutual aid groups, trying to serve community needs even with the currently necessary distance. Neighbors are offering to pick up groceries or help with errands and information. This surely does something to build community and solidarity. Maybe this provides a core connection that can support political action later.


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Social distance and social movements, COVID-19, #1/x

How does good medical advice affect meaningful collective action?

Before the recognition of the highly contagious novel coronavirus, we were living in a time of intense political mobilization–all over the world. But now, advisories to maintain social distance undermine the most visible elements of social movements: public meetings, canvassing, civil disobedience actions, lobbying trips, and, of course, demonstrations. It’s ridiculous to think that activists can stage a large demonstration in a public space while maintaining 6-10 feet distances from each other.

Protesters wore protective masks as a preventive measure against the coronavirus.Globally, in a few places activists are marching together outdoors anyway, the cause so pressing that they are willing to take what they know of the risks: last week, thousands turned out in Kyiv to protest Ukraine’s concessions to Russia in talks to end the ongoing war;  thousands of yellow vest protesters marched in Paris, in defiance of a government prohibition on large gatherings.

Urgency matters, of course,  but these dramatic efforts can’t be sustainable. coronavirus france paris yellow vests protests macronEven faster transmission of a viral infection is a risk for those taking to the streets, and–even more–it’s also a danger to the larger society that the protesters want to protect. Committed organizers won’t want to increase the risks their supporters take–nor risk diminishing turnouts.

The health threat, in conjunction with harsher government surveillance and repression have, at least for now, shut down the months-long protests in Hong Kong, and it’s hard to see how such mass movements will reemerge until everything feels a little safer.

In the meantime, what can organizers do to promote the issues they care about and build the citizen power they need to change the world?

Physical proximity has been almost a precondition for building collective action. More than 150 years ago, Marx and Engels wrote that capitalism, by bringing workers together in factories and cities, was handing shovels to its gravediggers. The piece that matters now is that they thought that once people were close to each other, sharing and comparing their troubles, finding common ground, and building trust–they could cooperate to make effective politics.

The idea that cohesive communities built on face-to-face contact can organize collective action, unlike other claims in the Communist Manifesto, has stood up pretty well. Workers who came to know each other on the factory floor built unions, organizers going door to door built neighborhood groups, and college students living in dorms organized and animated student movements. Activists of all sorts build community and make strategy over long meetings in kitchens and living rooms, pubs, and church basements. Good organizers listen to the people they wanted to engage and build human relationships, not just political transactions.

COVID-19 threatens every classic element of social movement organizing, from initial strategizing to visible political expressions.

The Internet and social media can offer some responses:  Tea Party organizers used Meet-Up to find each other and set up in-person meetings. Occupy Wall Street streamed actions and meetings to get the word out when mainstream media neglected it. A stray Facebook post in the wake of the Trump election inspired organizers to put together the Women’s March.  Indivisible posted an online manual that reached millions of people across the American Resistancecountry, who built their own groups and planned independent actions, sometimes in coordination (see distributed organizing, described by Dana Fisher’s book–at right).

But all of those efforts were all directed to produce events in real life with people knocking up against each other, friends and foes and bystanders. The Tea Party staged national demonstrations and coordinated disruptions and Congressional townhall meetings. Occupy occupied—everywhere, with thousands of people living in encampments. The Women’s March appeared in hundreds of sites, mobilizing millions, and Indivisible groups organized in real life meetings and events across the country.

Social media provide a tremendous aid to organizers working to get attention to their issues and activities, and coordinating actions, but they don’t work around the need to present action beyond a computer screen or keyboard. The real life part of activism is blocked right now.

Beyond that, COVID-19 commands so much of our attention, both political and personal, that it’s hard to find space for action on other political and economic issues. People are worried about getting to or staying away from work, buying food and toilet paper, attending to children and parents, navigating social distance with friends and family, and trying to plan for a future that’s hard to envision. Organizers concerned with climate change, reproductive rights, health care, or economic inequality can’t ignore. Instead,  the challenge is to understand the daily struggles, maybe offer some help, and move to work for broader reforms.

The next question, in the shadow of the virus, is how.

(more to come).

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Young people lead

It felt good to see this new picture, posted on Twitter by both Malala Yousafzai and Greta ImageThunberg.

Malala,  now  23,  has  been  a crusader  for  human rights, particularly educating  girls  in  Pakistan.  She’s paid a severe price for her advocacy, shot in the head by a religious fundamentalist. Since recovery, she’s stepped up her efforts, writing, speaking, and appearing in virtually every public venue that might reach people. She won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, and she’s not done.

Greta, now 17, describes Malala as an inspiration and role model. For the past few years, Greta herself has been an inspiration and organizer of global student strikes for action on climate change. Greta, passionate in advocacy for the planet and for young people, has been a powerful and compelling presence in the movement for climate change action. She has been tireless, focused, and she and her family have been candid about Greta’s Aspergers’s diagnosis, and her struggle with an eating disorder.

View image on TwitterGreta’s focus and the support of her family and a larger movement, have helped her become a focal point for the movement. She’s been ridiculed by Donald Trump, and nominated for a Nobel Prize herself. At times, media portrayals use her to obscure the great many young people globally who are similarly engaged. At left, see the young Ugandan activist, Vanessa Nakate, who was conspicuously cut out of a portrait of young climate change activists so that only white girls remained.

Vanessa cites Greta as one of her inspirations, and Greta has worked to share her spotlight with the much larger movement–and other youth activists. She also cites the Parkland kids, who organized March for Our LivParkland studentses, as inspiration.



And, while a few  of  the  activist  survivors  of  the Florida  shooting  have  gotten  lots  of  attention,  they  really are  a part  of  a much  larger  group  of  young  activists  around  the  country.

Young people are often at the forefront of major social movements, bringing passionate focus, commitment, and an image of innocence and authenticity.

If youthful activists are a tremendous resource for social movements, it doesn’t mean that every movement has equal access to them. Seeing the power and possibility of teen crusaders for gun safety and climate change, conservative opponents have been willing to look very hard for their own young activists, aggressively promoting their own alternatives.

If you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em.

It doesn’t always go well. Jonathan Krohn, a 13 year-old star speaker at the Conservative Political Action Committee’s 2009, got speaking invitations and published a book endorsed by Newt Gingrich and William Bennett while still in high school. But Jonathan came to question his conservative stance, calling his teen politics “naive,” and suggesting that he was likely to vote for Barack Obama.

Kyle Kashuv, a conservative teen survivor of the Parkland shooting, gained a national profile–at least in conservative circles, for arguing against stricter regulation of guns on Fox News. When Harvard University accepted the honor student, classmates at Stoneman Douglas publicized particularly ugly racist and sexist comments Kyle had made about his classmates on social media; Harvard rescinded admission.

A movement’s poster children can fail in all sorts of ways, with ignorance, inconsistency, or insistence on linking offensive positions on other issues.

We’re not done yet:

Seeking its own Greta, the Heartland Institute, a right wing climate denial shop that does not disclose its funding, has hired its own young blonde European spokesperson, 19 year old Naomi Seibt. Seibt says that she came to politics a few years ago, frustrated that her teachers were defending Germany’s policies of welcoming immigrants, including refugees.

Naomi is also skeptical about feminism and the scientific consensus on climate change. She came to the American right’s attention after speaking at an event sponsored by the right wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Recognizing that an outspoken and articulate teen climate skeptic is more rare than another Greta or Vanessa, Heartland put her on the payroll, sponsoring Naomi’s appearances at conferences and publicizing her Youtube channel.

Listen to what they say and consider the source.

It’s worth noting that Naomi, on Heartland’s dime, urges her audience to take her scientific speculations seriously and question the conclusions of scientists, who are basically untrustworthy. She argues against taking dramatic action that might hurt the fossil fuel industry which, along with libertarian conservatives, funds the Heartland Institute.

View image on TwitterIn contrast, Greta, sponsored by her parents, says that she’s a kid, not a scientist. Her advice has been consistent: “I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists.”

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Donald Trump is trying to destroy Mitt Romney.

It starts with snarky side comments in front of reporters and on Twitter, continues through allies–and other Trumps–disparaging disloyalty and demanding that Romney be ousted from the Republican caucus, and will escalate to threats against the personal safety of Romney and his family.

Don’t let the insatiable passion for retribution from a thin-skinned narcissist distract you from the logic of harsh retaliationImage result for machiavelli: at some level, Trump understands Machiavelli’s dictum that it is better to be feared than loved.

Loyalty is affiliation that supersedes considered judgment or impulse. We root for a favored team, frequent a familiar restaurant, or forgive a familial trespass because of loyalty. Loyalty means that friends can count on us even when it might be inconvenient. And the further you’ve gone to demonstrate loyalty, the stronger that affiliation will be. (Agreeing to pick up a friend from the airport will increase your commitment to that friend!)

Loyalty can come from tradition, from experiences, and from affection. It can also come from fear.

In the impeachment proceedings, Trump demanded–and received–lockstep fealty from the Republican caucus in the House and (almost) the Senate. The legal arguments and factual assertions were extraordinarily weak, but this really didn’t matter. Trump was clear that he–and his supporters–would punish defectors. Indeed, if we’re to believe Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Senate Republicans know that their president is guilty and unstable, but they fear crossing him. After all, insufficient support for this president effectively ended the political careers of Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, episodically mild Republican critics in the Senate.

Run through the electoral logic: Senators who should know better, say Ben Sasse (Nebraska) or Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) are running for reelection in overwhelmingly Republican states where Trump remains popular. A pointed tweet can enable a primary opponent who will make life (and reelection) at least a little more difficult.

It’s worse for so-called moderates in swing states like Cory Gardner (Colorado) or Susan Collins (Maine): loss of enthusiastic support from even a small portion of the Republican base would be damning, and a little moderation won’t buy you any swing voters in the current political environment.

Of all the Republicans in the Senate, Romney was perhaps the very best situated to weather the upcoming onslaught. Extremely wealthy, well-respected in Utah, his presidential aspirations are also past. Romney isn’t up for reelection until 2024, when Trump might just be a remembered nightmare.

Mitt Romney also has a role model: his father, George Romney, a Republican governor George and Mitt Romneyfrom Michigan who opposed conservative Barry Goldwater’s nomination in 1964, and then came out against the Vietnam War in 1968. Romney the Elder never became president, and lost the support of his party.

For the first decades of his career, the lessons young Romney took were about the importance of political flexibility rather than moral rectitude. Romney’s flexibility on abortion, on health insurance, and even on Trump, are well-documented and dispiriting. And they didn’t bring him to the White House.

I believe that Mitt Romney’s explanation of his judgment and his commitment to his oath and the Constitution are genuine. But it’s important to realize that he was in a better position to act on them than many of his colleagues.

I think more than a few other Republican senators could have also withstood a Trumpian attack (obviously, they disagreed). It’s critically important for Trump to show that I’m wrong–and far more importantly, that Romney was wrong. Trumpians have to punish Romney so severely that other Republicans are scared to follow the Utah senator’s model.

It IS going to be ugly.

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Sixtieth anniversary of the Greensboro sit-in

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the start of the sit-in campaign in Greensboro, North Carolina. I’m always moved and encouraged by the audacity of those young men, and there’s a special reason to repost this year.

As the stilted impeachment trial of Donald Trump crumples to a halt, it’s far too easy to be discouraged about democracy, racial justice, and the Constitutional order in the United States. It is a rough time.

But it’s hard to imagine that there’s anyone glancing over these words who is not better positioned today to change the world than these four young men were in 1960. The audacity of their imagination gave them courage, and a lesson like this doesn’t get old or out of date. It’s inspiring to see the same audacity among the young people animating current movements for gun safety, for action on climate change, and for democracy more generally.

There was once a store called Woolworths.  It sold dry goods, mostly cheap stuff, including paper and pencils.  Many Woolworths also housed a cheap restaurant where you could get coffee and a grilled cheese sandwich, also cheap.  Fifty-three (60!) years ago today, a
Woolworth sit-inWoolworths in Greensboro, North Carolina, was the site of a new phase in the civil rights movement, the beginning of the sit-in campaign.

On Monday morning, February 1, 1960, Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond, wearing their best clothes, went shopping at the Woolworths, bought some school supplies, then sat down at the lunch counter and tried to order coffee.  The four young men, freshmen at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College,  knew the store wouldn’t serve food to black people, so they waited.  Woolworths shut the lunch counter down.

The next day, black and white students filled the lunch counter at Woolworths, and by the end of the week, every lunch counter in downtown Greensboro was filled with students protesting segregation–and organizing a boycott of the downtown businesses that practiced segregation.  Over the next weeks, sit-ins spread across the segregated South, led by student activists.

The four freshmen, no not the singing group, had all been active in the NAACP’s youth council, but none of them saw the large organization as a good foundation for a more activist and confrontational phase in the civil rights struggle. Pushed by the heroic Ella Baker, the NAACP launched an initiative to create a new student-based civil rights organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which staged dramatic education and direct action campaigns across the South for most of the rest of the decade.

Today is a great day to commemorate the sit-in movement, but anniversaries can be slippery.  When I tell the story to my classes, I usually start with the long Sunday night conversation when the brave young men talked themselves into action.  You could start the story much earlier, with the sit-ins organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized decades earlier, or with the sit-down strikes organized by the Industrial Workers of the World at the start of the 20th century, even before the founding of the NAACP.  You could also start the story with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Rosa Parks, or the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.  The Greensboro students knew all those stories.

Anniversaries help us remember important events and twists in history, but they invariably simplify longer and more complicated stories.  The drama of the Greensboro sit-in makes for a good entry into thinking about the civil rights movement, and into thinking about how regular people sometimes make history.  The names of Baker, Blair, McCain, McNeil, and Richmond are not particularly well-known today, not like those of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, John Lewis (who would lead SNCC), or Thurgood Marshall.  The names of the thousands of young people crusading against segregation with them are even lesser known.  But movements are only possible and potentially effective with people willing to take risks without counting on seeing their names in the history books.

Woolworth lunch counter


The lunch counter itself, or at least a portion of it, has been reassembled at the American Museum of National History (Smithsonian) in Washington, DC.  There are only four seats on display.  When we think about the civil rights movement, however, we need to extend the counter a long way.

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