Greensboro sit-in anniversary, 2019

It’s 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. (repost)

 

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 (59!) 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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Representative Lucy McBath starts as an activist

The House of Representatives now includes Democrat Lucy McBath, elected to represent Georgia’s 6th Congressional district. Over the past few days, Representative McBath tweeted that she takes inspiration and encouragement from Emma Gonzalez and the March for Our Lives. Emma responded,”You said I inspired you – it’s your kindness and struggle that inspires me and all those around you. Jordan lives on through all of us.”

Jordan Davis, McBath’s son, was 17 when he was shot and killed at a gas station in 2012, apparently because someone was annoyed that Davis was playing his music too loud. The shooter used a handgun he legally kept in his glove compartment for protection (from loud music?), firing ten shots at the noisy car and four unarmed young men; he is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

McBath gradually turned from her career as a flight attendant to political activism, first through Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, and then in a tough Congressional run. Some version of the mostly white, well-educated, and suburban district, had been represented by Republicans since New GingrichImage result for lucy mcbath won the House seat in the 1970s. McBath campaigned on a full range of issues, but gun violence and the loss of her son were the most prominent.

Of course, there’s a long history of activists turning to government service to advance their goals. Representative McBath’s presence in the Democratic caucus means that there will be an experienced and passionate advocate for attention to gun violence, someone who will draw institutional attention to the next horrifying shooting, and who won’t trade the issue away for something else. Maybe this changes everything.

Maybe not.

Image result for carolyn mccarthyCarolyn McCarthy was elected to represent a mostly suburban Republican district in New York in 1996, three years after a crazed gunman shot and killed her husband and critically wounded her son on a commuter train.  A nurse, McCarthy herself was a Republican until she ran for office. Representative McCarthy, reelected 8 times, was an informed and passionate advocate in every debate on gun policy in the House. Of  course, her success reflected engagement on a variety of other issues, and a strong constituency service profile. Diagnosed with lung cancer, she announced her retirement in 2013, leaving office when the United States had weaker national laws on guns than the day she took office.

It’s no easy matter to take the obvious path from activism to running for office and, maybe, legislative influence. It means taking the identity and credibility that comes from a strong position and using it to build a broader profile, raise money, and forge connections with a political party, and hundreds of other people elected with other causes and concerns.

And, once in office, it means navigating a career within a political system that is designed to provide access far more readily than influence.

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Blame

Federal workers ARE protesting the month-plus shutdown of part of the government. Furloughed government workers affected by the shutdown hold a silent protest against the ongoing partial government shutdown on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)The image at right is of hundreds assembling for 33 minutes of silent protest in the Senate office building. The protesters held paper plates, calling for the end to the shutdown, complaining about not being paid, and demanding to get back to work–or to be paid for the work they’re continuing to do. (I haven’t seen any plates marked, “build the wall.”)

After the silent protest, a smaller number led by unions staged a sit-in at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office; a dozen or so were arrested.

The grievances and harms are abundantly clear: some of the furloughed workers desperately want to do their jobs; all of them want to be paid.

Beyond the individual harms to 800,000 workers, the shutdown is hurting Americans who want to visit museums, file taxes, navigate security lines, and eat safe food. Beyond tomorrow’s inconveniences, stalled government does longterm damage to America. Five former Secretaries of the Department of Homeland Security, including recently “retired” John Kelly, submitted an open letter emphasizing the damages, asking Congress and the President to open the government immediately. Representatives from the FBI and the Coast Guard also emphasized the short and longterm costs of the shutdown, making similar demands. No visible impact so far.

At The New York Times, David Leonhardt says the shutdown reflects the weakness of the Trump Resistance. He may be right. Thus far, the protests against the shutdown have mostly been separate from the larger campaign against the president. The vast majority of the visible protests avoid taking sides in the political battle. On the surface, in government the fight is about funding a border wall: Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats press for opening the government and commencing negotiations on border security; Donald Trump demands that the wall be funded before the government can open again.

Protests that denounce the failure to cooperate give neither side the incentive to adopt new approaches. Indeed, when the rest of the alert public is quick to take partisan sides on the issue, failing to assert blame is a critical weakness. The shutdown will end when one side recognizes that its position is politically costly.

I can understand why organizers seeking a quick resolution are reluctant to risk making an end to the shutdown a partisan issue, but politics, movement and otherwise, is about assigning blame and responsibility. Failing to do so is…..irresponsible.Federal air traffic controller union members protest the partial U.S. federal government shutdown in a rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. January 10, 2019.

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Martin Luther King Day, 2019

Yesterday Vice President Mike Pence compared his boss, Donald Trump, to Martin Luther King.

Really.

I don’t know whether the comparison is a true reflection of Pence’s ignorance, or just his subservience. 

But minimally, the day of commemoration should be a chance to remember who Martin Luther King really was, and what he really did. Below, I repost last year’s entry on Martin Luther King Day.

 

On the eve of the Martin Luther King Day holiday, the president of the United States announces, emphatically, that you can’t find anyone less racist than he is. If you’re suspicious of such proclamations, perhaps it’s just that you’ve learned to distrust people who laud their own honesty, their color-blindness, their respect for women, or concern for the poor. Like the salesman who claims the nickname, “Honest,” Donald Trump has never succeeded in fooling most people, just enough to sell the next condo or secure the next loan. Then some large number of elected officials and voters who knew better chose to look the other way, and Trump won the 2016 election.

The office of the presidency, however, starts with obligations to all Americans, and it doesn’t end there. Trump is hardly the first US president to harbor racist thoughts or sentiments, but he’s displayed less worry about revealing them to large audiences, often through words, and consistently through deeds.

One of the hard-won achievements of the civil rights movement was the establishment of King holiday. This means that Americans expect any president to pay respects to the man, and even more, to the movement. Tradition really is powerful, and activists are wise to attend to establishing new ones.

If Trump displayed less appreciation or enthusiasm for the King holiday than, say, pardoning Thanksgiving turkeys, that’s no mystery or surprise. Image result for Trump pardons turkey

Each holiday event is a moment, unlikely to capture much attention in the White House during the rest of the year.

For the rest of us, however, the King Day reminder is an alert. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many many others, put work behind their words on social justice, often facing great risks and paying serious penalties. Their heirs continue today.

(Below is a repost of a MLKing Day holiday note.)

Martin Luther King died young enough and dramatically enough to be turned into an American hero, but it was neither his youth nor his death that made him heroic.

In his rather brief public life, beginning in Montgomery at 26, and ending with his assassination at 39, King consistently displayed rhetorical brilliance (on the podium and the page), strategic acumen, and moral and physical courage.

The effort to honor Martin Luther King with a holiday commemorating his birthday started at the King Center, in Atlanta, in the year after his assassination.  States began to follow suit, and by 1983, more than half celebrated King’s life with a day.  In that year, Ronald Reagan signed a bill making Martin Luther King day a national holiday expressing ambivalence, acknowledging that it was costly, and that King may have been a Communist.

The King holiday was about Martin Luther King, to be sure, but it was meant to represent far more than the man.  King stands in for the civil rights movement and for African-American history more generally.  I often wonder if the eloquence of the 1963 “I have a dream” speech winds up obscuring not only a man with broader goals, but a much more contested–and ambitious–movement.

The man and the movement are ossified into an iconic image, like a statue, which locks King and the movement into the politics of 1963-1965.  We accept King’s dream, that little children will play together, and that people will be judged by “the content of their character” (a favorite phrase on the right).

The image, like a statue, is available for appropriation to advocates of all political stripes, and the establishment of the holiday itself represents an achievement of the civil rights movement, winning the holiday if not broader economic and social equality.

Before the transformation of the man into an icon, King transformed himself from a pastor into an activist, a peripatetic crusader for justice.

But the pastor didn’t disappear; rather this role grew into something larger, as King himself transformed himself from a minister into a an Old Testament prophet, one whose primary concern was always the people on the margins, the widows and orphans, the poor and hungry.  In standing with those on the margins, King courageously used–and risked–the advantages of his privilege, pedigree, and education.  He also knew that he risked his safety and his life.

In his writing, King used his education and his vocation to support his political goals.  In the critically important “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he cited both the Constitution and the Bible in support of Federal intervention in local politics to support desegregation and human rights.  (We know that other activists now use the same sources to justify pushing the Federal government out of local politics.)

King explained that he was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, because he had nonviolently defied local authorities in the service of higher laws, the Constitution and the Gospel.  This was not like making a provocative statement on one’s own [profitable] radio or television show.  There were real costs and severe risks.

King was never less than controversial during his life, under FBI surveillance during his political career, and vigorously criticized by opponents (for demanding too much and too strongly) and allies (for not demanding more, more vigorously).

When he was assassinated outside a Memphis motel in 1968, he was standing with sanitation workers on strike, straying from a simpler civil rights agenda.  He had also alienated some civil rights supporters by coming out, strongly, against the war in Vietnam.  And Black Power activists saw their own efforts as overtaking King’s politics and rhetoric.  By the time he was killed, Martin Luther King’s popular support had been waning for some time.

Posterity has rescued an image of Martin Luther King, at the expense of the man’s own broader political vision.

Ironically, in elevating an insurgent to a position in America’s pantheon of historic heroes, we risk editing out the insurgency.

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The young people ARE winning

“The young people will win,” is Parkland activist David Hogg’s tagline.Image result for parkland, the young people will win He tweets it, starts speeches with it, and clearly believes it.

Audiences don’t always catch on right away, but Hogg is, above all else, persistent.

They’ll get it.

The emergent Resistance remaking American politics and life is, to an extraordinary degree, led by America’s youth. Donald Trump’s call for a return to an imagined past holds absolutely no resonance for them, perhaps because they know a little bit of history. But it’s not just the kids at the front of the protests; young people have taken leadership positions in every aspect of American politics.

Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin, former Congressional staffers in their early thirties, founded Image result for leah greenberg ezra levinIndivisible, a call that launched hundreds of local groups across America that were fully engaged–and critical–in last week’s election. The groups share a commitment to political engagement, but each develops a distinct focus based on local issues and leaders.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, twenty-nine years old, won a seat Image result for alexandria ocasio-cortezin the House of Representatives, representing parts of Queens and the Bronx. She will be the youngest woman to take a seat in the House. She defeated a seemingly secure incumbent of her own party, advancing a vision of democratic socialism and promising to better represent a very diverse district.

Abby Finkenauer, Image result for Abby Finkenauerjust a few months older, will take her seat in Congress just after turning 30. She’ll represent Iowa’s first Congressional district, working intensively in Iowa politics for a decade. She proudly identifies as a first generation college student, listing the student loans she’s still paying off.

Just a little younger, journalist Lauren Duca really owns Twitter; she’s snarky, Image result for lauren ducapointed, and funny. In the astonishingly smart and political Teen Vogue, she’s been an astute critic of the Trump era, offering insight and encouragement to his challengers. When Washington became obsessed with civility, Duca was quick and to the point:

Let’s not waste one more drop of energy on the verbal Napalm that is the civility debate. If you’re more concerned about powerful adults getting yelled at than children being put in cages, you’re on the wrong side of history.

Duca is a star on cable tv, aggressive and good-humored, rattling smarmy and condescending Tucker Carlson in a segment that went viral almost immediately.

Since 2015, twenty-one young people, now ages 13-22, have been fighting a legal battle to force the government to act on climate change. In Juliana v. US, they claim that the government’s negligence is threatening their fundamental Constitutional rights. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled against the Justice Department’s call to dismiss the case, sending it back to the Ninth Circuit for further argument.

And, of course, there are the Parkland kids, who responded to the horrific mass shooting at their high school by organizing a campaign that started with gun control. They quickly expanded Image result for march for our livestheir vision to include police violence, and are now prepared to talk about college access and climate change, and, more generally, the reasonable concerns of America’s youth.

They’ve been demonstrating and lobbying, and organizing others to do the same. The kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have been quick to share their platform with a more diverse collection of young people, listening to other issues, and embracing a broad democratic politics.

All of these young people–and many many more–emphasize that they are in this struggle for the long haul. They are irreverent, but not cynical, consistently demonstrating a strong faith in America’s people and its future.

 

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The Parkland kids visit UCI

OK, it’s not strictly accurate to call them all kids anymore; some are in college now, and most are old enough to vote. More than that, in spite of the tragedy they’ve lived through–or maybe partly because of it–they’ve developed a strategy to promote social change effectively.

Since the large #MarchforOurLives demonstration in Washington last March, the Parkland activists have been on the road, connecting with local groups across the country and focusing intently on registering and mobilizing voters for the midterm election, now just days away.

This second trip to Irvine, right on campus at UCI–where I teach about social movements–was at least partly a response to a report on NBC that suggested students were uniformed and apathetic. [By the way, I showed the video to my students, who suggested the campus was bigger and more diverse than the odd report, and that “you can’t generalize from a convenience sample.” I now know that students are learning something in their social science courses.]

Organized on a tight timeline, the rally in the campus center was poorly publicized, but a few hundred people attended–not all college students. I spotted a few of the graduate students I work with; they turned up early. I don’t know if any of the undergrads in my social movements course showed up. I’m sure some of those attending finished with college long ago, and that others were still scratching away at high school.

The Parkland kids have done scores of these events, displaying a comfort with the crowd and a routine extremely well designed to engage and inspire. They brought snack food, tee-shirts, and buttons to share, and announced that buses would be available to take local voters to City Hall to post their ballots early.

The most familiar speakers, Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, were visible, but they shared the stage with local activists and candidates for office, as well as a wonderful acapella group from UCI. (Forgotten names and crappy photos are my work!) Sage and Chika sang, and then showed their video, Safe.

Celebrities Chelsea Handler and Natalie Morales, who have both been working for Democratic candidates in Orange County, spoke, and came off as earnest, well-informed, and completely committed. 

It was a little interesting that Handler, who makes her living as a comedian, didn’t tell any jokes as she stressed the importance of voting, and flipping the House of Representatives.

Morales got a pretty good laugh, however, when she urged young people not to be intimidated by lack of knowledge, announcing that, “Everyone in this room is smarter than Donald Trump.”

Modest gun control measures were at the core of the political agenda, even as the Parkland kids were ready to connect with other issues about their futures–and the futures of other young people–including climate change, mass incarceration, immigration, and college costs. Policy details are on websites, but the main message from the podium was about engagement, repeated with urgency and optimism.

They talked a little about the horrible day early this year when a disturbed young man armed with an assault rifle killed 17 people at their school. They spent more time explaining how they responded by organizing a movement. Delaney Tarr described their effort as a way to turn anger into hope.

Good message.

They talked about facing people who made fun of them and threatened them, traveling non-stop and getting little sleep, and they talked about meeting and talking with all kinds of people across the United States.

Very short speeches and brief appearances by a few candidates for Congress and local office, including three teens running for city councils, were woven in with a little music and one brief chant. The overall tone was one of joyful and purposeful engagement, focused on Tuesday’s election, but oriented to promoting sustained engagement in the political process. We have to vote in EVERY election, Emma Gonzales said.  As in Washington, DC, all of the young activists appeared on the podium at the end.

They left the stage to rousing applause, but didn’t leave the room, waiting to talk with anyone who wanted to chat. Even after local organizers led young people to the buses, the Parkland kids stayed, talking policy or strategy, and posing for photos with anyone who wanted one. They understood that they’ve become celebrities themselves, and were ready to use their notoriety to build a movement and create new activists.

I was impressed with how interested they seemed in everyone who wanted to spend time with them.

If you want to build and sustain a powerful democratic movement, you have to learn to listen to people. Whether or not this was part of the curriculum at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, it’s something these activists learned well.

These young people are wonderful: smart, pragmatic, committed, and kind.

And all across the country, there are lots and lots of other young people just like them.

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The Takeaway takes on protest politics

I enjoyed talking with The Takeaway and Amy Walter about contemporary protest politics. Of course, they’ve offered a broader approach.

You can listen here:

https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/podcast-politics-protest-hitting-streets-trump-era

 

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