In early 1960, Ella Baker had the presence of mind, social networks and credibility to bring together mostly young Black people from across the nation who had participated in the early movement for a “Youth Leadership Meeting.” This meeting would quickly lead to the formation of one of the most critical organizations in our nation’s history, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC.
The 1960s Freedom Movement would have been unrecognizably different without SNCC’s key role in the 1960 sit-ins, 1961 Freedom Rides, 1962 Albany, Georgia desegregation campaign, 1963 participation in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (including the young John Lewis’ speech on behalf of SNCC), 1964 Freedom Summer, and the 1965 Selma, Alabama right-to-vote campaign.
So, who is the modern-day Ella Baker who has the same kind of credibility and networks to be able to pull young folks of color (along with others) together today? What organizations today, like Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council back then, could or should sponsor a “Youth Leadership Meeting”? What organizations, like the AFL-CIO did in 1960, could or should provide funding for an effort like that? What issues should be focused upon to galvanize the nation at this vital moment? Given the COVID-19 pandemic, there could be many young people with time to focus on building a movement, as they miss out on their college education or attend classes online. Will we seize upon this critical time which will, one way or another, shape our nation’s future for years to come?
Ella Baker’s legacy
For years, I have studied SNCC and believed that we need a modern-day version of SNCC today. In studying SNCC, it does not take long to learn that even among SNCC veterans one person — Bob Moses — is greatly admired by all the others. Much loved and recently departed John Lewis mentions in his autobiography, “Walking with the Wind,” that Bob Moses was the only one who could have united SNCC at a critical movement in the mid-1960s because he was universally respected. This seems to be partly because Moses was and remains a community organizer devoted to Ella Baker’s teachings. Even Ella Baker’s niece, Jacqueline Baker Brockington (who considered Baker her mother), said that Baker considered Moses one of her children.
A crucial piece to building any movement is having a structure where people can devote their lives, full-time with no distractions, to the cause.
A youthful, pre-politician Barack Obama also dreamed of being a Bob Moses-like community organizer. Unlike Obama, Lewis, Bernie or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Moses was not focused on electoral politics, but was more oriented toward movements of engaged people taking collective action.
Moses seems to recognize that people in the United States could not vote our way out of the entrenched mess of contemporary society. True and lasting change will require an “earned insurgency” with sacrifice, strategy, training and nonviolent resistance. In short, if Moses called for a “Youth Leadership Meeting” today, I believe young people would come. It would also likely get support from key universities with which he was connected. Of course, we cannot rely on just one person to carry on Ella Baker’s legacy or to shape our collective destiny.
Organizational strength and support
In order for SNCC to meet and form a movement organization, it took resources and organizational strength. Again, the faith-based Southern Christian Leadership Council sponsored and organized the initial event, the national labor federation AFL-CIO provided funds, and Ella Baker’s alma matter Shaw University held the founding conference on its campus. For this to happen today, I think it would require a similar commitment from progressive labor organizations, faith groups and universities.
Would the Chicago Teachers Union, the United Teachers of Los Angeles, or the Oakland Education Association provide the funds for this kind of event? How can we engage in this effort the thousands of Red for Ed teachers across the country who have gone on strike over the last few years? They should be asked to fulfill this role, as they have proven in recent years that they are willing to take intense and radical action, which requires sacrifice, losing wages, and often defying the law with “illegal” strikes to fight for the schools our children deserve.
I would also ask the progressive churches, many of whom have already come together in the new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, to provide resources and facility space. Some, like the Episcopal Church, have embraced community organizing as a part of their seminary training and in the past have brought in SNCC veterans such as Ruby Sales and Marshall Ganz to train their clergy. Labor, faith and young people’s organizations were critical in the 1960s Freedom Movement and they will likely be critical today. But, like Ella Baker, we must be organized and focused on building a movement for justice.
A crucial piece to building any movement is having a structure where people can survive so they can devote their lives, full-time with no distractions, to the cause. SNCC workers were paid $10 a week while they worked full-time to dismantle legal segregation. Today, labor and faith organizations (because their funds come directly from working people not corporations) will need to fund a new independent SNCC built on the legacy of nonviolent resistance for young people.
The new SNCC’s demands could look very much like the “Vision for Black Lives” or Bernie Sanders’ platform.
Its structure could be drawn from a combination of SNCC and successful national service models, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s and more modern versions of the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, City Year, Episcopal Service Corps and Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Participants could get a basic living allowance and an education award at the end of their service to pay for college education in the future in exchange for working full-time for the movement now. Even SNCC chairs, such as John Lewis and Stokely Carmichael (aka Kwame Ture), lived on humble SNCC salaries that nevertheless allowed them to focus all of their energies on working for the people.
In a recent article for The Conversation, Jelani Favors pointed out that John Lewis “traded the typical college experience for activism, arrests, and jail cells.” Today’s young people would have to be willing to do so the same and — like Gandhi’s campaigns and the Nashville SNCC leaders, including Lewis — should sign a “pledge of nonviolence” before they join. This would be part of their “earned insurgency.”
“In dedicating his life to the movement as a young student, Lewis willingly gave up the comforts, experiences and accoutrements of a typical college student,” Favors writes. “Instead of gaining traditional work experience, Lewis got an insider’s look at numerous southern jails and prisons. His activism led to 40 arrests between 1960 and 1966. Late-night bull sessions with his fellow SNCC activists who debated the proper path towards freedom became his laboratory. Sit-ins and Freedom Rides served as his examinations. They often resulted in beatings and bloodshed.”
And, in an era when Trump seeks to provoke violence with federal agents, Diane Nash, Lewis’ fellow Nashville SNCC colleague, would importantly add that “Nashville [who had leaders educated and trained in nonviolent resistance] was the reason that the whole southern civil rights movement was nonviolent.”
Unfinished business of the 1960s freedom struggle
After a new SNCC is organized and funded, the question then becomes what issue(s) should young people focus on to galvanize the nation around a movement for justice? Where should they focus their work?
Bob Moses said that education was the “subtext” of the 1960s Freedom Struggle. “We got Jim Crow out of public accommodations; we got it out of the right to vote and the national Democratic Party,” he noted. “We didn’t get it out of education. So, I think of it as unfinished business.” The next fight, Moses explained, should be for free, quality public education as a constitutional right — a human right — and that the “clearest manifestation of our caste system is the education system.”
Sixty-six years after Brown v. Board, Black and Latinx students are still plagued by educational apartheid and misguided education “reform” efforts led by some of the wealthiest people on the planet. For example, California’s once proud, mostly white, public school system was the envy of the globe in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s. Now that it is mostly Latinx and Black — with only 22.4 percent white students — it is one of the worst funded and most poorly run in the country. Its lack of equitable resources is nothing short of criminal, with nearly 60 percent of its students on free or reduced lunch. This is despite California being the fifth largest economy in the world and having an overabundance of millionaires and billionaires.
In 1976, California’s Supreme Court affirmed that the right to education was fundamental and equally protected to all by California’s Constitution. Yet 44 years later, after much legislation, many public referendums, high profile lawsuits, and elections over many years resulting in a majority of Democrats in all three branches of state government, California’s students are still denied their state constitutional right to a free quality public education.
These stark contradictions are potential organizing opportunities. However, these organizing spaces around the right to education will remain only potential opportunities unless someone — like Ella Baker did previously — helps create a new SNCC to fight for the right to education.
The strategic beauty of organizing around the human right to education is that one cannot simply address it alone without addressing the other fundamental issues of our day, especially those concerning economic inequality. All the other issues that are deeply connected to education — the unjust tax structure; the criminal justice system; student loan debt; inadequate child care and preschool; child poverty; uneven health care; lack of dignified wages and affordable housing; the bloated military budget and racialized recruitment; and overall inequality — must be radically rebuilt in order to end educational apartheid. While strategically focusing on the right to education, the new SNCC’s overall demands could look very much like the “Vision for Black Lives” or Bernie Sanders’ platform.
The future is in our hands. Shall we learn from history and seize this moment?
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