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Greta Is Our MLK. That’s Not Necessarily a  Good Thing.

Greta Is Our MLK. That’s Not Necessarily a Good Thing.

Diversity of Tactics

January 21, 2020

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Above: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Greta Thunberg in Austria, May 2019

In September of last year, a young girl stood in a Washington DC congressional building to give a speech. Audaciously, she professed to follow in the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed address to the March on Washington in 1963. “I also have a dream,” she intoned, “that governments, political parties and corporations grasp the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis and come together despite their differences…I have a dream that the people in power, as well as the media, start treating this crisis like the existential emergency it is.”

Greta Thunberg may not be an orator on the level of Dr. King, but there is something undeniably compelling about her. She’s an appropriate celebrity for the era of Bernie Sanders, where a lack of traditional charisma connotes authenticity. More importantly, the content of her speech was both learned and thoughtful, touching on everything from the techno-optimism of both the left and right, to the looming 12 year deadline to cut emissions to pre-industrial levels, to nasty “non-linear effects” which could hit us even before that deadline, to a global “climate justice” paradigm that recognizes the greater obligation that wealthy Americans have to solve the problem.

Legitimate criticism of Thunberg seems as unthinkable as criticism of Martin Luther King. One group of prominent supporters recently called her “unimpeachable” on all levels. Attacks are expected from the far-right of course—Indeed, another reason that Greta and MLK both draw immediate solidarity from progressives is the sense of protectiveness which they inspire. Thunberg has had to contend with crude jibes about her autism and inexperience. Dr. King faced slander, blackmail, and repeated threats on his life.

And yet Greta, like MLK, has prompted that unthinkable: Criticism from the political left which questions the soundness her methods and effect on the movement. As with King, Thunberg acolytes have attributed these critiques to jealousy, bigotry, vested interests, and even proto-fascism. Yet many harsh critics of Dr. King—Ella Baker, Malcolm X, Gloria Richardson, James Forman and others—were just as dedicated to social justice as he was, and took similar risks in their activism. Further complicating the narrative is that movement historians have studied the criticisms leveled at MLK by his colleagues and found many if not most of them to be legitimate. With that in mind, leftward salvos at Thunberg need to be taken seriously as well.

One of the recurring claims about both King and Thunberg is that they were aligned from an early stage with elite interests who were working against the activists’ own cause. Veteran civil rights organizer Ella Baker criticized MLK for being a corporate media darling who distorted both the image and goals of the movement. When she left a position at Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (which she had helped found) to create a new group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), she warned fellow activists about the phenomenon of the “charismatic leader…It usually means the media made him, and the media may undo him…such a person gets to the point of believing that he is the movement.”

There is nothing in Ella Baker’s critique of King that’s particularly exaggerated. In January 1957, when King had only been an activist for a year and a half, he was contacted by Clare Booth Luce, conservative mogul of the Time magazine empire, and offered a cover story. According to King biographer Taylor Branch, Luce rescued King from a state of “helplessness”. In the aftermath of the famous bus boycott and its apparent victory, the City of Montgomery had shut down all bus lines after the Ku Klux Klan began shooting at black passengers, and commenced to enact a whole new wave of segregation laws—an early manifestation of the Dixiecrats’ “Massive Resistance” campaign which blocked King’s nonviolent movement throughout the late fifties. Luce, who was also US Ambassador to Italy, was explicit that she wanted to show off King, at the height of the Cold War, to a skeptical global public who doubted that there was hope for racial progress in America.

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Similarly, Greta Thunberg has been criticized for her comfortable relationship with the very decision-making class whom she pillories. Thunberg has repeatedly met with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the ardently green capitalist former governor of California. Arnold championed the state’s carbon cap-and-trade scheme, which ProPublica has exposed asallowing California’s biggest polluters to conduct business as usual and even increase their emissions.” Schwarzenegger’s entire record on the climate crisis has been one of empty promises—precisely the sort of empty promises Greta Thunberg claims she is here to confront. The young Swede’s carefully arranged meeting with Barack Obama isn’t any more reassuring. In several speeches Thunberg has rightly thrown shade at “economic growth” as a hinderance, not a help, to a climate stability. But not only is Obama a booster of capitalist growth, he is an unrepentant booster of fossil fuel extraction. “[US oil] production went up every year I was in office,” Obama boasted to a university audience less than a year before meeting Thunberg. “Suddenly America is the largest producer of oil! That was me, people.” The Environmental Integrity Project has reported that this oil and gas boom eliminates all of the net emission reductions which had been achieved through US coal plant closings. Greta declared she didn’t want any more pacifying doses of political “hope”, yet she’s embraced the most slippery merchant of hope in modern political history.

In his lifetime, Martin Luther King ‘s alliance with Nelson Rockefeller, one of his top funders, was often looked upon dimly. As Timothy Tyson demonstrated in his classic book Radio Free Dixie, Rockefeller and King worked in concert to suppress the radical but popular North Carolina leader Robert F. Williams, who advocated for armed self-defense against the KKK. King once claimed that Governor Rockefeller had ‘‘a real grasp and understanding of what the Negro revolution is all about, and a commitment to its goals.’’ The governor’s subsequent order of the worst state massacre of African-Americans in US history at Attica prison (“a beautiful operation” Rockefeller later boasted to Richard Nixon) and his authorship of some of the most racist drug laws in the country (a blueprint for the New Jim Crow) revealed a different agenda.

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During this time of year, the left often praises King for his anti-capitalism, but history shows that MLK’s turn to radicalism was hard won. “In some ways,” Michael Eric Dyson has written, “King’s change was even more startling and consequential than Malcolm X’s…what is little appreciated is how…an element of Malcolm’s thinking got its hooks into King.” Pre-1965, King was a public supporter of US foreign policy and capitalism who preferred to rely on traditional political maneuvers, even as he supposedly represented a movement built on direct action (MLK scholar Clayborne Carson notes that the reverend did not initiate the bus boycott, the sit-ins, or the Freedom Rides, and only participated in them reluctantly). This gradually changed due to relentless criticism and pressure put on King by militant activists associated with SNCC.  “His antiwar activity was motivated as much by moral and political pressure from key black colleagues as by conscience and commitment to nonviolence,” notes Dyson. King’s moderate tendencies had come from his association with Rockefeller and other One Percenters, who were supporters of the Vietnam War. One scholar does credit “King’s deft leveraging of power” in the relationship, but also notes that Rockefeller leveraged MLK expertly for political capital.

Leveraging political capital explains much about Greta Thunberg’s counterintuitive relationship with the World Economic Forum. Greta, of course, made a famous “impromptu” speech to the WEF meeting in Davos, Switzerland on January 24, 2019. She was credited by many commenters with making oligarchs feel “uncomfortable” by calling out people who are “making unimaginable amounts of money” from the destruction of the climate. Yet there’s substantial evidence that the Forum establishment wasn’t made uncomfortable at all, but welcomed the spectacle of dissent: A full day before Thunberg’s speech, the WEF was promoting a video of her speaking essentially the same words on their Twitter feed. In the months since, the WEF has not only not blacklisted the activist, but has praised her and welcomed her back.

Why would the World Economic Forum accept such a critique of itself? Because youthful, angry dissent against 21st century capitalism was not pioneered by Greta Thunberg. Indeed, in comparison with the riotous blockades that progressives and anarchists once launched against the WEF, being scolded by a lone 16 year old was a veritable picnic. “Swiss police have mounted their biggest security operation in decades to try to prevent protesters from disrupting the conference.” reported the Los Angeles Times in January 2001. “Four cars were set on fire during protests in Zurich by up to 1,000 demonstrators after many were prevented by police from traveling to Davos. Police responded by firing tear gas and rubber pellets.” The goal of these protests was abolition, not institutional reform: their slogan was “Wipe out the WEF!” European street militancy declined in the post-9-11 years, but has more recently surged again, including in relation to environmentalism. The 2015 Paris climate summit saw hundreds of green insurgents try to storm the conference area, even after a a state of emergency was imposed on the city. The upcoming generation of climate radicals will be diverted from taking such direct action however—Greta is already at the conferences to represent them. Within the overall context of the climate movement (which includes long-term blockades at Standing Rock and Unist’ot’en British Columbia, as well as insurrections against capital) even Thunberg’s “Friday for Future” strikes represent a clear de-escalation; a step forward only if you value quantity above quality.

Much as Nelson Rockefeller sought to “save capitalism by softening its sharpest edges”, the founder of the WEF, Klaus Schwab, is now in the process of rebranding the earth-devouring global economy as “Stakeholder Capitalism.” According WEF documents, Schwab has had this agenda in place since the first Davos meeting in 1971, but he explicitly attributes its recent advance to what he calls the “Greta Thunberg effect.”

While J. Edgar Hoover and the far-right wielded the stick of the Red Scare against the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the center-right of Rockefeller and other foundation oligarchs wielded the carrot of patronage for MLK. Yet the reform proffered by One Percent is not an alternative to revolution—It’s an antidote to it. As in Dr. King’s era, the establishment is now in full co-optation mode: One half of the elite is pushing against change, while the other half—again led by Rockefeller progeny, who fund Greta allies such as the group 350.org—is pushing for it. But despite the rhetoric, it’s only change on capitalist terms. It will take ruthless criticism of those charismatic leaders held up to represent us if we wish to correct the ship towards true revolt and true justice.

Bloodless Lies

The New Inquiry

November 2, 2016

By Lorenzo Raymond

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This is an Uprising, a widely celebrated new book about how social movements change history, distorts their histories to celebrate non-violence

The black revolt of 2014 was a turning point in how Americans discussed the use of force in social movements. In the pages of the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates acknowledged that “violence works.” Rolling Stone and the Huffington Post echoed much the same sentiment. Laci Green–a YouTube star and one of the “30 most influential people on the Internet,” according to Time–posted a popular video drawing favorable comparisons between the Ferguson riots and the revolution depicted in The Hunger Games. This sea change was led by the movement itself as African American youth in Ferguson rejected Al Sharpton and other older leaders, partly due to disagreement on strict nonviolence.

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Mark Engler and Paul Engler, This Is an Uprising. Nation Books. 2016. 368 pages.
The notable exceptions to this trend were those who spoke for the state. These parties advocated for nonviolent action in a most conspicuous way. On the eve on the announcement of the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson, the killer of Mike Brown, Attorney General Eric Holder solemnly intoned that “history has shown us that the most successful and enduring movements for change are those that adhere to non-aggression and nonviolence.” In an ABC interview on the same day, President Obama urged that the “first and foremost” responsibility for Americans reacting to the verdict was to “keep protests peaceful.”

It shouldn’t be necessary to remind people of major public discussions from two years ago, but America is a notoriously forgetful nation. And when it comes to matters of protest, politics, reform, and revolt, many people are invested in this kind of forgetting. The stated purpose of Mark and Paul Engler’s new book This Is an Uprising (2015) is to work against this historical amnesia. The Engler brothers profess to build “a healthy movement ecology [which] preserves the memory of how past transformations in society have been achieved.” This is a worthy goal, and the brothers appear well-placed to realize it: one is a professional community organizer while the other is a fixture of progressive publications including Dissent and Yes! Magazine. The book has been praised effusively by lefty celebrities, including Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, as the new authoritative text for mass civil disobedience. Yet rather than building on the nuanced understanding of street tactics that developed in the wake of Ferguson, the Englers selectively distort social movement history in a blind commitment to a particular kind of direct action.

The opening chapters are an introduction to the modern history of tactical pacifism as embodied in the practice of Martin Luther King’s Birmingham campaign and, later in the 1960s, by the theories of political scientist Gene Sharp. The authors contend that both these figures abandoned religious nonviolence to develop a rational, realist praxis known as “civil resistance,” not “pacifism.” The principle reason for this name change is that Gene Sharp rejected the P-word, arguing that the term only applied to private individuals operating from spiritual inspiration. The Englers affirm that Sharp’s “politics of nonviolent action” are distinct from pacifism because the latter is essentially apolitical.

What the Englers fail to acknowledge, however, is that virtually all the 20th century activists whom Sharp and his school hold up as role models did call themselves pacifists. A.J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, and even Daniel Berrigan (who for a time defied strict Gandhism by fleeing imprisonment after an act of property destruction) all called themselves pacifists. When scrutinized, the switch from “pacifism” to “nonviolent action” appears to be a case of re-branding in response to the poor reputation pacifism had among young people by the end of the 1960s. This was hardly the first time pacifism was renamed rather than critically challenged: Leo Tolstoy referred to the use of civil disobedience without violence as “non-resistance.” Gandhi rejected that name, but employed essentially the same strategy; Tolstoy and Gandhi exchanged correspondence and agreed on practically all points.

In the 21st century, the term du jour is “civil resistance” and sometimes “people power,” yet the method’s founding father is still considered to be Gandhi. It also seems significant that in spite of “breaking from the earlier traditions of moral pacifism,” as the Englers put it, many of the major proponents of civil resistance, from Gene Sharp to George Lakey to Bill Moyer to Chris Hedges, come from highly religious backgrounds.

In addition to a re-branding, “civil resistance” is also a misbranding. The term is adopted from Thoreau’s 1849 essay “On Resistance to Civil Government,” but his use of “civil” referred to the type of domestic government being resisted, not to the method of civility deployed. Thoreau himself later said that John Brown’s violent lack of civility was the best thing that ever happened to the abolitionist movement.

These contradictions aside, the Englers trace how “civil resistance” has become increasingly accepted in mainstream political science. To demonstrate this, they introduce us to Erica Chenoweth, now one of the most celebrated social movement theorists working in the field. Chenoweth got her start producing the widely cited study Why Civil Resistance Works (2011) in collaboration with Maria J. Stephan of the U.S. State Department. According to the Englers, the study proved that “nonviolent movements worldwide were twice as likely to succeed as violent ones.” But the sample size of the study is far too narrow to prove such a sweeping claim. There are no civil rights or labor struggles included in the Chenoweth data set, which is focused exclusively on regime change. And, as Peter Gelderloos pointed out in his book The Failure of Nonviolence (2013), the outcomes of the nonviolent revolutions cited by Chenoweth have little to do with social justice or liberation. At best they replace one oligarchy with another, with no radical change in social relations or even net gains in quality of life.

At one point, the Englers note that the same political science prize that Chenoweth won–the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award–was previously bestowed on Henry Kissinger. This, for them, is the height of irony: Chenoweth is, after all, the opposite of the Kissingers of the world. But while they may represent different sides of the aisle in terms of American political divisions, Chenoweth’s work is, in many ways, just as useful to the U.S. empire.

At the height of the Cold War, the government used Kissinger’s work to justify the “hard power” of the arms race and violent intervention against communist regimes. Today Chenoweth’s work helps to justify–and in this case, mystify–Obama’s “soft power” agenda of “democracy promotion” exercised through seemingly benign agencies like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP)–the former organization was recently caught covertly organizing against the Castro government in Cuba. And while direct U.S. government involvement with pacifist academics is a relatively new development–emerging in the mid-2000s, around the same time that Gelderloos first observed that “nonviolence protects the state”–their financial relationship goes back at least to Gene Sharp’s first doctoral work in the late 1960s, which was funded by the Department of Defense.

But if the American empire promotes strictly nonviolent movement-building to overthrow its enemies, wouldn’t that demonstrate that it’s as powerful a method as its proponents say it is? The short answer is no. When civil resistance works–and when the U.S. government deploys it abroad–it’s almost always in combination with more violent forms of pressure. To illustrate this, one need look no further than the Yugoslav movement to unseat President Slobodan Miloševi?, which figures prominently in Chenoweth’s famous study and takes up more than thirty pages in This Is an Uprising. In the Englers’ version, this regime change is primarily attributable to Otpor, a “leaderless” student group from Serbia. Otpor promoted nonviolence in the Sharpian model, with an official policy to submit to arrest and abjure any kind of self-defense, even when the police physically abused them. In this way, they won the sympathy of the public and even the Serbian establishment.

But Otpor didn’t operate in a vacuum. Not only did they overthrow Miloševi? in the period when he had just lost a war with NATO, but also, in the midst of Otpor’s campaign, Miloševi? was being challenged by the armed insurgency of the UÇPMB (successor group to the Kosovo Liberation Army). On top of this, militant groups in Montenegro threatened to secede if he was re-elected. The Englers quote Otpor veterans’ claims that the NATO raids undermined the opposition and strengthened the regime, but the record shows that Otpor prospered in the aftermath of the bombing. One prominent civil resistance study acknowledges that “a number of middle and higher-ranking police and army officers made secret pacts with the democratic opposition and helped the movement forward.” Furthermore, Otpor’s victory was not strictly nonviolent: Anti-Miloševi? protesters rioted in October 2000 when the president refused to concede the election. The Englers admit, in passing, that things “got a little out of hand,” but they fail to describe the full extent of the insurrection: not only was there arson and other property destruction in Belgrade, but also the fact that an Otpor supporter killed a civilian by driving over him with a bulldozer.

This cherry-picked example of civil resistance winning its demands occurred in a context where both NATO and an armed guerilla group simultaneously made the same demand. And yet, under today’s political science taxonomy, this is what’s considered a nonviolent victory. Such dubious classification is common in the civil resistance world: Peter Ackerman, the venture capitalist who has funded much of Gene Sharp’s work, once claimed that Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement should be considered nonviolent because only a minority of the protesters threw firebombs and brandished guns.

A good faith argument for pacifist success in such cases would credit the intervening factors as a diversity of tactics supporting a nonviolent core, or attribute it to what is known in social movement theory as the “radical flank effect,” which argues that the presence of radical militants in a social movement helps make the less militant actors seem reasonable and worthy of having their demands met. Yet not only do the Englers undervalue such phenomena, they actively denounce them.

In spite of primarily advocating for nonviolent direct action, the Englers express support for electioneering, stating that while it is a separate tactic, it can complement civil resistance. If they are genuinely non-ideological strategists, they should take the same position towards guerilla activity. But, while the Englers repeatedly speak of the need for movements to “escalate,” they jerk back from any overlap with property destruction. This flinching is excused with a fable of the radical environmental advocacy movement Earth First! in the 1990s. The Englers paint the picture of a movement with a macho fetish for violence that was set right by the influence of the more moderate feminist Judi Bari, who enforced nonviolence and built the populist Redwood Summer campaign of 1990, winning political victories against logging in the Pacific Northwest. This success, the Englers claim, was in marked contrast with the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), the monkeywrenching eco-saboteurs who left defected from Earth First! after the rise of Bari.

The ELF is portrayed as a gang of clowns who accomplished nothing besides getting themselves imprisoned. Yet the Englers also tell us that “in the end, Redwood Summer did not produce immediate legislative gains.” The best they can claim for the nonviolent campaign is “a 78 percent drop in logging in national forests.” The ELF began carrying out its arson and sabotage attacks on the logging and tourism industries in the Pacific Northwest in 1996; these years of victory were among ELF’s peak years of activity, when it was clearly functioning as the radical flank of Earth First! But the Englers’ attitude towards militants is eliminationist, not just separatist: the ELF shouldn’t have just left Earth First!, they should have ceased to exist at all. Such absolutism is completely contrary to Bari’s actual policy: “Earth First!, the public group, has a nonviolence code,” she wrote in 1994, “monkeywrenching is done by [the] Earth Liberation Front […] Civil disobedience and sabotage are both powerful tactics in our movement.”

The double standards that the authors apply between violent and nonviolent actors undermine their claims of unbiased pragmatism. When pacifist organizers provoke violent repression, the Englers regard it as a necessary cost of the campaign–“leading proponents of civil resistance emphasize that strategic nonviolent action […] may result in serious injuries and even casualties”–but when black blocs draw repression, it’s completely unacceptable. ACT UP are praised as “desperate, aggressive, and often exceptional young men,” who had the courage to risk “potentially alienating the very people that advocates want to win over.” The ELF, on the other hand, are pictured as fanatics with no strategy. When the civil rights movement employed “often unpopular” tactics, generating “overwhelmingly negative” reaction in public opinion polls, this was admirable; when the Weather Underground and other Vietnam-era militants defied public opinion, they were simply out-of-touch adventurists (even though the latter’s action led to massive troop withdrawals and a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age).

The Englers, it must be noted, have attempted to apply their precepts, not merely theorize them. In the wake of Occupy Wall Street, they helped organize the 99% Spring campaign, a coalition dominated by Moveon.org that aimed to put “hundreds of thousands” of people in the streets to change foreclosure policy. Coalition spokesman and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) executive Stephen Lerner promised to “engage the millions of people we need to do [sic] to build the kind of movement we need at this time in history.” According to him, this was a job that Occupy was not capable of doing without their guidance. In the end, the 99% Spring mobilized a few thousand people–far less than Occupy did nationwide–and had no impact on banking foreclosure policies, which remained abysmal. More recently, the brothers were involved with a nearly identical coalition–Democracy Spring/Democracy Awakening–based around campaign-finance reform. Initially, Democracy Spring seemed more tactically ambitious with a program of organizing mass civil disobedience at the Capitol Building. However, press coverage of the arrests turned out to be so meager that most of the campaign’s supporters were left distraught.

As historians and theorists of social movement, the Englers might have been able to see this failure coming, since they actually describe a precedent for their ineffectual campaigns in This Is an Uprising. In his 1962 project in Albany, Georgia, Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) left a yearlong campaign with no tangible civil rights advances achieved. King had been thwarted by Chief of Police Laurie Pritchett, who capitalized on SCLC’s nonviolent strategy by avoiding any appearance of brutality and de-escalating conflict between police and protesters, thereby pre-empting any dramatic scenes that could draw national attention. King’s reputation within the movement declined until the spectacular victory of the following year’s Birmingham campaign. The Englers spend over twenty pages on Birmingham, promising to demonstrate just why it succeeded while Albany failed, but they never do.

In truth, the Birmingham campaign benefitted from having both a police force and a protest movement that was markedly less peaceful than in Albany. King wasn’t able to get consistent media coverage until after protests became, as Taylor Branch put it, “a duel of rocks and fire hoses.” One of King’s aides, Vincent Harding, later acknowledged that the black youth who came to dominate the campaign’s street action were “the children of Malcom X” and that their escalation to “a burning, car-smashing, police-battling response” marked Birmingham as “the first of the period’s urban rebellions.” Historian Glenn Eskew wrote that “the aftermath of national protest, international pressure, and inner-city riot convinced a reluctant Kennedy administration to propose sweeping legislation that, once passed as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, marked a watershed in race relations.”

Yet these events of the Birmingham campaign are never mentioned in the Englers’ book in any form. It is here that the brothers step into outright dishonesty: they know very well that the scholarly consensus on Birmingham is that the violent protesters made an invaluable contribution (Eskew’s book is one of their sources). Yet in spite of spending a tenth of their book’s text on Birmingham, they refuse to even acknowledge the violent protesters’ existence.

Such historical censorship rationalizes the choreographed civil disobedience that the Englers help organize today, which quarantines “good protesters” from “bad protesters.” This, in turn, enables the same counter-strategy that Laurie Pritchett employed so effectively against King in Albany. What the Englers call “discipline” is actually de-escalation that facilitates police crowd control. Indeed, there is now a fully developed police doctrine known as “negotiated management” based on the avoidance of direct conflict with protesters. The National Lawyers’ Guild official, Traci Yoder, has written that negotiated management “is in many ways more effective […] in neutralizing social justice movements” than overt state repression.

But while the brothers focus on the SCLC at length, they fail to discuss the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who, the brothers passingly admit, pushed SCLC into its most productively confrontational actions. This is not only because the history of SNCC began with Gandhian practice, but also because it rapidly progressed beyond it. Although its militancy is sometimes attributed to Black Power-era missteps, SNCC’s commitment to a genuinely grassroots politics led it to work with openly armed African Americans as early as 1961 in Monroe, North Carolina, as well as with more discreetly armed black peoples all over the South. By spring 1964, SNCC associates in Cambridge, Maryland were having gunfights with the National Guard and one of the group’s advisers, Howard Zinn, noted that the movement had reached “the limits of nonviolence.” But it was crucial that those limits were reached, or there wouldn’t have been a Civil Rights Act.

In spite of its name, SNCC’s principles always had less to do with nonviolence than with organizing from the bottom-up. The group’s guiding light was Ella Baker, arguably the most important African American leader of the 20th century. As many have noted, Baker preached neither strategic nonviolence nor strategic violence. Drawing from her decades of experience, Baker counseled SNCC organizers to distance themselves from institutional power; they might maintain dialogue with the establishment left–trade unions and NGOs tied into what she called “the foundation complex”–but they should be wary of entering into partnerships with them. Instead they should follow the lead of working-class communities on the ground. This repeatedly led SNCC organizers away from nonviolence. Then as now, serious movements make serious enemies (think of the shootings last year in Charleston and Minneapolis) and self-defense quickly becomes paramount for frontline activists. Baker’s longtime friend and biographer Joanne Grant recounted that as pacifism faded away in SNCC, Baker “turned a blind eye to the prevalence of weapons. While she herself would rely on her fists […] she had no qualms about target practice.” At the same time, the failure of peaceful reform logically led oppressed communities towards insurrection.

It is often said that without the guidance of an anti-authoritarian and non-ideological figure like Ella Baker, the Black Power militants of SNCC began to lose perspective. Yet it can equally be said that the pacifists lost their way as well. The cause of social justice in America has been suffering from believing the former but not reckoning with the latter for the past forty years.

 

[Lorenzo Raymond is an independent historian and educator living in New York City. Lorenzo blogs at Diversityoftactics.org]

 

Ella Baker and the Limits of Charismatic Masculinity

In memory and admiration of Ella Baker who was born on 13th December 1903 and died on 13th December 1986.

“During these hectic times while we are fighting for human dignity, and many times for survival, one forgets the contribution made by women.” ~Ella Baker

 

“You didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.” ~Ella Baker

Black Agenda Report

Pascal Robert

February 19, 2013

 

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In perhaps one of the most important biographies of a civil rights leader published, Professor Barbara Ransby has conveyed the epic life and struggle of a woman whose sheer skill, leadership, and ability to mobilize the marginalized and dispossessed to full participation in their fight for human dignity is almost unprecedented in American history. In her book, Ella Baker & The Black Freedom Movement, Professor Ransby documents the life of Ella Baker, a black woman born to a middle-class family in North Carolina in 1903 who, after witnessing the staunch spiritually based dedication of her mother to serving the poor in the South, transforms into a sheer force of will that worked with all the major civil rights organizations of her time, and helped mobilize to create two of the most crucial to the Civil Rights Movement: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Before we continue to heap a single praise or Hosanna to men like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Wyatt T. Walker, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Du Bois, or any of these other gentlemen we idolize as embodiments of masculine heroism, we should know about one woman, of many, who had more wisdom, courage, and vision then almost all of them: Ms. Ella Baker.

What made Baker’s method of organizing both effective and revolutionary is that it completely dismissed the traditional paradigm of leadership that had plagued the black community from its earliest history in North America, stemming mostly from the black church: Charismatic masculine leadership based on oratory and exhibitionism. Baker believed in empowering the most common person, whether a sharecropper, teenager, or illiterate vagrant with skills to make demands on the political establishment. Baker believed that people did not need fancy leaders with degrees and pedigree to tell them what was best for them. She believed in giving people the power to choose their direction and make demands, and put pressure on institutions without depending on big shots with fancy suits. In her book, Professor Ransby notes:

“At every opportunity [Ella] Baker reiterated the radical idea that educated elites were not the natural leaders of Black people. Critically reflecting on her work with the NAACP, she observed, “The Leadership was all from the professional class, basically. I think these are the factors that have kept it [the NAACP] from moving to a more militant position.”

Moreover, Ella Baker was very critical of the hotshot black preachers who seemed to mesmerize their audiences with soaring oratory, then leave and expect others to implement an agenda. As Ransby further notes, at one point Ella Baker asked Dr. King directly “why he allowed such hero worship, and he responded simply, that it was what people wanted. This answer did not satisfy Baker in the least.”

Ella Baker did not mince words on her thoughts of Dr. King’s leadership style and vocally spoke out on its limitations:

“Baker described [Dr. King] as a pampered member of Atlanta’s black elite who had the mantle of leadership handed to him rather than having had to earn it, a member of a coddled “silver spoon brigade.” He wore silk suits and spoke with a silver tongue.

 

[…] In Baker’s eyes King did not identify enough with the people he sought to lead. He did not situate himself among them but remained above them.

 

[…]Baker felt the focus on King drained the masses of confidence in themselves. People often marveled at the things King could do that they could not; his eloquent speeches overwhelmed as well as inspired.”

The limitations of this charismatic masculinity noted by Ella Baker are profound, particularly in today’s political age when we have a president like Barack Obama who often tries to channel the traditions of charismatic leadership and oratory from the black tradition. Ironically, Obama has been as anemic in delivering real change and effective at stifling progress as Ella Baker worried Dr. King would have been. So perhaps in a strange twist, we have found a similarity between King and Obama after all.

Often in America, when discussing prominent black trailblazers who fought the injustices of segregation and racial oppression, we see the same images of a variety of men. I somewhat jokingly call them our superhero black male icons. This phenomenon mimics the more noxious western patriarchal fascination with viewing history as a series of events being shaped and guided by the hands of a strong capable man embodying all our fantasies about leadership, masculinity and sometimes fatherhood.

The danger of such imagery is that it often both obscures and denies the scope of nuanced factors, issues, and circumstances in shaping the events from which our societies were born. Furthermore, such narratives often exclude any consideration of female agency in effecting the great events that have transpired over time.

Barbara Ransby should be applauded for putting a halt to this tradition and setting the record straight with her towering biography Ella Baker & The Black Freedom Movement. As a man still troubled with patriarchal sexist notions, this book opened my eyes to ways in which the role of women are often neglected and intentionally obscured. Let us all read the story of Ella Baker and make sure such injustices do not continue.

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