Movement elders launch national council — and keep on taking action

Sitting at the table (left to right) are Joyce Johnson, Vincent Harding and Dolores Huerta, as civil rights leaders made the announcement for the founding of the National Council of Elders at the Greensboro Four statue. Photo by Joseph Rodriguez, News & Record.

One of the breathtaking features of the last 50 years has been the vast outpouring of nonviolent people power. While there is no denying the endless parade of horrors over the intervening decades, powerful movements have invariably sprung up to challenge them one by one. Struggles for equality, freedom, democracy, peace and sustainability in innumerable contexts — unleashing dizzying displays of creativity and relentless persistence — have not allowed this violence to go unchecked. Many of these efforts have changed the political or social landscape by putting a dent in the long-entrenched architecture of oppression and vowing to come back for more.

How did this unique tidal wave of social change get rolling? What sustained it? How did one movement inspire another? Why did they appear when they did? Were they part of a trans-historical shift? When a historian sits down to write the definitive history of the 20th century in a hundred years or so, she will likely grapple with these questions more clearly than we can. From that trans-generational vantage point, she may be better equipped — by distance, hindsight and algorithms we can’t yet imagine — to discern the significance of the immense web of connections between innumerable struggles for emancipation across the globe that took off beginning in the middle of the last century.

For us, though, we mostly look through a glass darkly. We get suggestive clues from books like Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest, where he tracks a sprawling though still largely unnoticed mega-movement for change percolating across the planet, and the Global Nonviolent Action Database. Nevertheless, since we’re still firmly in the midst of the hurtling fluorescence of the Big Bang unleashed by Rosa Parks all those years ago, it’s still hard to truly appreciate just how world-historical this political, economic and cultural turn has been.

Every so often, though, we manage to get a clear glimpse.

The most recent example was the official launch of the National Council of Elders at the end of July in Greensboro, North Carolina. The brainchild of James Lawson, Philip Lawson and Vincent Harding — who all played powerful roles in the U.S. Civil Rights movement — the council includes “leaders from many of the defining American social justice movements of the 20th century, committed to educating and mentoring future leaders who will join and lead democratizing movements in the 21st century.” As the Madison Times reported about the July 29 t0 31 gathering:

They come from all walks of the civil and human rights struggle, each a distinguished leader with a long record of advocacy, molded in courage and sacrifice. But last week, these leaders — some in their 60s, 70s, and even a few at age 80 and beyond — came together from across the nation in what they called “an historic gathering” at North Carolina A&T University, to be reborn in a collective purpose, amid the legacy of the 1960 lunch counter sit-in movement that inspired the world.

At one point the council assembled under a statue depicting the Greensboro Four, the group whose historic sit-in at the local Woolworth’s touched off powerful desegregation actions throughout the South and beyond. The photograph is riveting. Beside the iconic founders are Dolores Huerta, who cofounded the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez; Mel White, who founded Soulforce, which works for LGBT equality; Dorothy Cotton, a key organizer with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, an activist in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and later an American Friends Service Committee staffer; Bernice Johnson Reagon, a member of the Freedom Singers and a founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock; Joyce Johnson and Nelson Johnson, founders of the Beloved Community in Greensboro; Arthur Waskow, founder of the Shalom Center and peacemaker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; John Fife, who cofounded the Sanctuary movement as part of the Central America peace movement; and Louie Vitale, a founder of the Nevada Desert Experience, which organizes nonviolent resistance to nuclear testing. (Other members include Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund; Grace Lee Boggs, lifelong social activist in Detroit; George Tinker, prominent American Indian activist; and theologian Sr. Joan Chittister, O.S.B., a long-time peace and human rights advocate.) The group calculated that those assembled represented over 1,250 years of social activism.

While there is much focus in the Council of Elders on the past and sharing its members’ legacy — in the last year, for example, members of the council have visibly supported the Occupy movement — the Council of Elders is not simply handing on the baton to the next generation. In preparation for the gathering, members were asked to name both what they are doing now as well as what they did in the 20th century. Most of them are as actively involved as ever in the ongoing project of making the world a better place. As Nelson Johnson said at the group’s press conference, “The past is a way of equipping us for the future and we ain’t in no way tired yet.”

Here’s a case in point. After leaving Greensboro, Louie Vitale flew to Las Vegas where he and CodePink founder Medea Benjamin planned to attend the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s North America trade show, which amounted to a “drones convention” attended by thousands of people. Their aim was to talk with people, especially those staffing the 500 exhibits, to get more of an insider’s perspective. Vitale has spent countless hours vigiling outside Creech Air Force Base north of Las Vegas, always with the hope of talking with the drone operators and their commanders. Even as he has been arrested a number of times at Creech for nonviolent civil disobedience, he’s managed to engage in a dialogue occasionally with the personnel there. Now he wanted to hear from those who are promoting what seems to be a drones growth industry.

He didn’t get the chance. He and Medea (who has a new book out about drones) were singled out while in line and told that they were not allowed to attend, even though their $200 registration fee had been accepted beforehand. “We know what you’re up to,” the security guard said, ushering them out of the building after they were threatened with arrest. They later joined a die-in outside the convention. A local newspaper columnist published a glowing piece on Vitale and Benjamin being pitched from the convention, while Benjamin in her own account asks:

When are we, as a nation, going to have a frank discussion about drones and remote-controlled killing? One might think that such a dialogue could take place when thousands of people come together, once a year, at the gathering of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). Wrong.

As Vitale was taking part in the die-in, lying on the ground symbolizing the consequences of a drone attack as drone business was being transacted inside, he was overcome, he later said, with the emotional power of it all. It is this kind of experience that keeps him at the difficult but important work of making change. At 80, he has no plans to slow down.

This is true of most of the elders — both those who are officially on the council and many others who also have pursued a life of justice and peace. Vitale’s Nevada Desert Experience colleague Megan Rice who, at 82, recently entered the top-secret Oak Ridge nuclear facility to call for a nuclear-free future, is a prime example.

The elders of nonviolent transformation are not only sharing a legacy, they are building a new one, here and now.

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