Reflections on the Council of Elders

 In The Beginning: Greensboro  N. C. 1960

Militant Youths Need Mentors  not Cheerleaders!

I just watched a splendidly produced video on The Council of Elders, a newly minted group composed of people who led the heroic struggle to rid the South of Apartheid in the 1960’s.  These icons of the Civil Rights Movement have come together to express their solidarity with the youths in the Occupy Wall street Movement.  Alas, I am profoundly disappointed with what I heard:  A gathering of old warriors reflecting on past battles and wishing the youths well.

It goes without saying that this magnanimous gesture of recognition and support is a good and positive development.  And I want to make it clear at the outset that I am with them in spirit. The problem I have with this video however is that the anti-Wall Street activists need something more than mere boosterism and inspirational anecdotes about past victories from their elders; what the militant youths desperately need is guidance and instruction!

Alas, I am beginning to feel like the curmudgeonly Harold Cruse, when he was writing his masterpiece “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.” I met Harold in 1964, when he was in the process of composing this great book – which is indispensable reading for anyone trying to build a radical movement today, especially the chapter “On the Intellectuals and Force and Violence” – and he seemed something of a brilliant misanthrope at the time.

Cocksure of our purpose and methods, the way most impassioned self-righteous youths are, Cruse seemed to be pissing on our parade with his brutally honest criticism of our strategy and objectives.  I was one of those who had rejected the methods and “reformist” objectives of the Civil Rights Movement and was on the road to revolution –or so I thought. Cruse dismissed the idea that we were making a revolution as dangerous folly, and told me that he was writing the “Crisis” because my generation needed to understand our historical antecedents so that we wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes.  And that is precisely why I am writing these commentaries: IT IS AN ANCESTRAL IMPERATIVE!!!!!!

What the young people who are spearheading the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations now need from elders who were active in the Sixties movement that succeeded in changing America, is clear cut analysis and instruction about how to build an effective movement today.  The most critical thing they need to understand is that from the outset the Civil Rights movement – which was the most effective of all the social movements of the second half of the 20th century, and gave rise to the others – was an organized phenomenon that had specific demands from the outset.  And these demands were negotiable.

It was not a random act inspired by outrage when North Carolina A&T students Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr. and David Richmond sat down at the Woolworths’ lunch counter in Greensboro North Carolina in 1960.  This was a well organized well thought out action that was part of a larger strategy for attacking the racial caste system in the former Confederate states.  Furthermore, from the outset the Civil rights movement’s demands were based in deeply held American ideals of freedom and equality, and by their dress, speech and orderly behavior the Civil Rights demonstrators were a portrait of respectability.

Hence when Civil rights workers were attacked by southern racists they won the support of millions of whites elsewhere in the nation.  This movement became so powerful that eventually their demands were enshrined into law!!  The brilliant essayists Albert Murray called the Passive Resistance strategy advocated by Dr. King “moral jujitsu,” because they turned the violent aggression of southern rednecks into moral victories.  That didn’t happen by accident: It was a systematic movement!!!

It is important to inderstand that  The STUDENT MOVEMENT COULD NOT HAVE SUCCEEDED WITHOUT THE INPUT AND GUIDANCE OF OLDER CIVIL RIGHTS ORGANIZATIONS AND MOVEMENT VETERANS!!!!!   The Occupy Wall Street movement is also based in deeply held American beliefs about equality, but in order to induce change in the economic priorities of the United States the movement must win the  majority of Americans over to their cause and PUT THEIR OBJECTIVES INTO REALIZABLE POLITICAL DEMANDS THAT CAN BE TURNED INTO LAWS.

It is also important to draw a distinction between the Civil rights Movement from the counter-cultural movement – i.e. hippies – which was a drug fueled apolitical cultural movement with vague ideals that promoted anarchy.  That’s why we cannot point to any concrete achievements from that movement which even begin to compare with the civil rights movement – or the Anti-War, Feminist or Farm Workers movements that transformed America in the twentieth century.

Echoes of the 60’s Counter-Culture 

Fodder for Right-Wing Bloviators 

The drugged out craziness of the Hippies had the opposite effect of the Civil rights Movement and turned millions of Americans off.  As did the televised images of urban rebellions with cities in flames and black Panthers running around brandishing guns on television shouting slogans like “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun!” – a slogan lifted directly from Mao Tse Tung’s Red Book that was irrelevant to our actual situation – and “Off the Pig!” a public exhortation to kill the police.

Oakland BPP founders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton 

Fashionable Pop Icons or Real Revolutionaries? 

These developments appalled the majority of Americans – including quite a few Black Americans – and resulted in the destruction of the Panthers by the police power of the State and the election of Richard Nixon.  By adopting a “southern Strategy” and opportunistically manipulating white anger and resentments over the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, Republicans, which had been a northern based Party with moderate views on the Civil Rights question and helped pass the 1964 Omnibus Civil Rights Bill even while southern Democrats opposed it, transformed the south from solidly democratic to solidly Republican and moved the control of the government from the liberal left to the right. (For a serious analysis of how this happened read “Haley Barbour is a Lying Fat Redneck” on this blog”

We are still living with the tragic consequences of this development.  At present, the encampment at Zucotti Park and many others around the country, bear a closer resemblance to the Counter-Cultural movement than the Civil Rights Movement. Whereas the Civil rights movement was aimed at prodding the government to act in behalf of the people – the non-white and the poor of all colors – the Occupy Wall Street movement is anarchistic.

However the Occupy Wall Street Movement is a class based movement against economic injustice, which is an issue that transcends race, gender and ethnicity.  This is a good thing; that’s why the most integrated multi-ethnic organization in New York is the Tenants League, because all tenants suffer equally at the hands of rapacious landlords.  By virtue of this fact the OWS has the power to transform American society in fundamental ways.  But if it is to succeed it must become POLITICAL!

This is what the elders should be talking about.  We must do for this generation of activists what people like Ms. Ella Baker, Queen Mother Moore, Byard Rustin, A Phillip Randolph, James farmer, Roy Wilkins, and legions of other highly skilled seasoned organizers from the old left and peace movements did for our generation. Although the popular belief is that Ms. Rosa Parks just sat down one day because she was tired of white folks mess and the Montgomery Boycott, a seminal event in the birth of the Civil Rights Movement that transformed the South during the 1060’s, appeared into the world as a fully formed phenomenon like the goddess Athena sprang from the forehead of Zeus in classical Greek mythology.  Not so!

The Montgomery Bus boycott was a planned event, organized by the Montgomery Improvement Association, which was the brain child of E. D. Nixon, an organizer with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Here was a master organizer who was part of a tradition that boasts one of the most successful stories in American labor history.

When the Pullman porters began to organize it was considered by almost everyone as an impossible dream.  After all, the Porters were hired when George Pullman introduced his new luxury car during the 1880’s to accommodate the rich, the  plutocrats, the American nouveau Riche of the “Gilded Age,” when the “Captains of Industry” amassed such great fortunes the were aptly named “The Robber Barons.”

Pullman’s idea was to create private cars so opulent it would be like a luxury liner on rails.  And to insure that the rich white folks he intended to cater to receive the best possible service, old George Pullman stipulated that all of his porters must be ex-slaves because they knew how to serve white people best!  This was his view of the men who would eventually confront him and demand that he recognize them as a collective bargaining unit.

The fact that the Pullman Car Company was the biggest corporation in the world at the time speaks to the heroism of the founders of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.   One of their best moves was to approach A. Phillip Randolph, Publisher of The Messenger, which he billed as “The only Scientific Socialist magazine in the world published by Negroes,” and ask him to be the President and spokesman for the Union.

With his regal bearing and rich baritone voice trained for the Shakespearian stage, buttressed by his unshakable courage and unassailable integrity, Randolph became the perfect choice.  They chose him not because he was a great organizer, but because they believed he would be a great spokesman and negotiator for the Union.  It was a lesson well learned by E.D. Nixon.

He in turn recruited a brilliant young black Baptist preacher from Atlanta, who had come to Montgomery to finish a Ph.D. thesis and pastor a church for a year in order to experience what it was like to pastor a flock before returning to a cloistered life as a scholar at Boston University, where he was to become the first Afro-American professor in the school of theology.  Nixon talked the young Martin Luther King Jr. into becoming the spokes man for the Montgomery Improvement Association, and King emerged as the face of what became known around the world and preserved in history as “The Montgomery Bus Boycott.”

While it was Martin King’s grand and deeply moving oratory that stirred the conscience of the nation and won the sympathy of people of conscience around the world – which is the role of CHARISMATIC REVIVALISTS – it was the on the ground organizing of skilled labor operatives like E.D. Nixon, and the brilliant Bayard Rustin, who directed it all from a secret command post, plus the vehicles supplied by the United Auto Workers that ferried the boycotters around town, which together made the Montgomery Boycott a success.

It is critical that those who are trying to organize an effective movement today understand that the Civil Rights movement was not just some spontaneous eruption where everybody showed up and did their own thing!  Such as we are now witnessing in Zucotti Park and elsewhere around the country, where you have Ron Paul supporters calling for an end the Federal Reserve Bank; anarchists that believe no government can be trusted; 9/11 conspiracy theorist; Christian clergyman bearing witness to the evils of avarice and trying to live out the biblical commandment to minister unto the least of us – a critical element in the civil rights struggle – Marxist revolutionaries; left adventurers and agent provocateurs out to pick a fight with the cops.  And nobody is in charge!

A Ron Paul Acolyte


The evidence of profound confusion 

This is a new phenomenon, where huge crowds of protestors can be mobilized through social media to demonstrate in record time. It is not the same thing as the great mass movements that transformed American society in the Sixties. The down side of this approach to mass mobilization is that you skip critical stages that are necessary to successfully building a mass movement capable of transforming a complex mass society like the US.  (For a through explanation of this see the essays under Occupy Wall Street on this blog.) We are beginning to witness the shortcomings of this approach in Egypt – where the Occupy Wall Street movement says they took their inspiration and model for action.

The events in Egypt are reminding us that there are certain steps that cannot be avoided in building a successful mass movement – for instance clarifying your objectives with an ideology that spells out the ultimate goals of the movement.  Failure to do this in Egypt has set the stage for the anti-democratic Islamic theocrats to hijack the movement, because they have an all encompassing philosophy that adresses every aspect of human existence.  It is the role of movement elders to point these things out.  Standing on the sidelines acting like cheer leaders is insufficient: not when the youths in the streets require something different and something more!

Get out and rap with the militant youths

“Revolutionaries must swim among the people like fish in the sea”

The Great Helmsman


Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

November 13, 2011

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