Saturday, July 25, 2015

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement - Session Two

Notes from Kathleen:

Are we in a historical “moment”?  What moment are we in?  Does it matter? 

The Ella Baker book group had a lively second discussion in Center City. We started with a paired discussion of the question, “What were early moments of your own politicization?” One group member came to realize the centrality of important relationships, especially with those who were different from her, in her coming to see injustices.  This idea of relationships is a central theme in Baker’s work. 

Mapping Baker’s Theory of Change

We “chalk talked” Baker’s Theory of Change, and kept our chart in the center of our circle for the remainder of the discussion.

Themes of our discussion included: 

What makes a leader?  What was Baker’s process for building local, grassroots leaders? One way was sending local leaders to national conferences and workshops to “boost their confidence as organizers and give them intellectual perspectives and tactical ammunition for the struggles they were engaged in” (Ransby, 2003). 

How can we work within, outside, and around institutions to make social change? Baker redefined her work in the NAACP by building grassroots movements, rather than simply collecting membership dues.  She also held other voluntary leadership positions in addition to her paid work with the NAACP.  

What makes a movement or action successful or not?  For example, was the Occupy Movement successful?  What came out of it?  What had happened in the years prior to the Montgomery Bus Boycott that led to its eventual success? 

In what ways are we building relationships and responding to community needs at the local level?  In what ways do these local actions connect to larger collective struggles? Our group described instances of ways that they connect with neighbors and communities around local concerns, such as fish fries to raise bail or community gardens projects initiated by block captains. 

Are organizers and activists today running on a hamster wheel?  Or are we engaging in the long hard work that happens during the decades before a major social movement gains force?  

Are we in “a moment”? What moment are we in?  Does it matter?           

As a group, we grappled with where we see ourselves historically in terms of a movement for racial justice.  There was general agreement that something important is happening, with mass uprisings in response to police violence gaining national media attention (albeit skewed), “Black Lives Matter” entering the national lexicon, and local organizers coming together in ways they haven’t before.  But, are we on the brink of a watershed moment that will lead to large scale political change? 

As our time came to a close, this is the question with which we grappled. 

One group member shared her memories of the response to the events surrounding Rodney King and the insight that it will be a good sign when the protests are in response to the violence and not in response to the non-indictments and acquittals.  Until there’s mass movement in response to the police violence, it shows that there is still a level of trust in the system. Right now, the movement is showing the Black deaths matter, she said, but there needs to be a shift towards truly valuing Black lives.  

As I left, I thought about the response to the killing of Freddie Gray and felt some degree of hope.

And in the days since our discussion, I’ve reflected on the work of the Caucus of Working Educators (WE) over the past year and become excited by the parallels that I’ve seen between Baker’s work and the work of WE:  Building relationships.  Growing local leaders.  Responding to the immediate needs of the people.  Problem solving around community problems, rather than collecting membership dues.  Building relationships by talking to each other. This is the stuff of a movement.  And this is the moment that we’re in.     
Links to resources that came up in our discussion: 

Showing Up for Racial Justice (organization):
Through community organizing, mobilizing and education, SURJ moves White people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for justice with passion and accountability.

I’ve Got the Light of Freedom (book):
Using wide-ranging archival work and extensive interviews with movement participants, Charles Payne uncovers a chapter of American social history forged locally, in places like Greenwood, Mississippi, where countless unsung African Americans risked their lives for the freedom struggle. (Zinn Education Project)

The Movement for Black Lives Convening:
Hundreds of Black freedom fighters from around the country will come together for the inaugural Movement for Black Lives Convening in Cleveland, OH, from Friday July 24 to Sunday July 26th, 2015.This historic event comes at a pivotal time for the growing movement for Black lives in the United States.

 #BlackLivesMatter: The birth of a new civil rights movement (article):
This recent article in The Guardian traces the #BlackLivesMatter movement and contends with questions about leadership and the current historical moment, which our group grappled with together.   

Links to Ella Baker’s Words:

Bigger Than a Hamburger (writing):
“Bigger Than a Hamburger” is one of the few public written documents by Baker, and one of the best known.  This short piece has has powerful insight on the importance of autonomous youth leadership.   

The Bronx Slave Market
Co-written in 1935 by Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke, this article, first published in the white-owned the Crisis, exposed the “humiliating experiences of black domestic workers who huddled together on designated street corners in the early morning hours, waiting for white middle-class women to look them over and choose a lucky one to hire for the day” (Ransby, 2003).   

Audio of Baker (still images and speech clips):
It’s not easy to get audio or video of Ella speaking, but this is a short video with some audio clips of her speaking. 


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