[As told to the Celebration of Unsung Heroes on the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Movement events of 1963 at the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, California.]
I'm gonna come at this a different way, just slightly different than some of the other speakers. I'm very thankful and very grateful for all of the experiences that I had working in the South, in Mississippi, and being on SNCC staff, etc. But the problem is, I was born in the South, so the community that people are talking about is basically my community in East Texas and Western Louisiana. So my experiences with the local communities weren't much different in terms of the dynamics. It wasn't a cultural shock to me to be in Jones County, Laurel, Mississippi, because I basically grew up under apartheid, and the difference, I guess, if there was a difference, was that where I grew up in Dallas, Texas and Marshall, Texas and in the bayous of Louisiana, the day to day contact with young whites just didn't take place. That's the fundamental difference.
What I want to do is shift to a short statement the value of my own experiences. I believe that the entire struggle took a tremendous amount of courage on various levels. People had righteous indignation, and they expressed it in different ways. I did do the sit-ins in '60 and Freedom Rides and did prison time and all the other stuff, which I am not minimizing at all. We used to say, "Tell the story and talk about the terror." But for me, the best experience in Mississippi was the training to become an organizer. It was a preparation, although I didn't know it then, for what I was going to do for the remainder of my life — It wasn't a phase of my life, like a rite of passage, on the quest to a "mature life." No this was and is my life.
The old Cannonball Adderley said a thing about being "hip" in Jazz, "Hipness is not a state of mind. It's a fact of life." You can't just say you're hip, and then you become hip. Hipness is something that you replicate every day, or you try to, with your positives and negatives. Mississippi was a prep school for those of us who desperately wanted to be the "hipster" of those times...the Organizer.
Because although sometimes we were heroes, sometimes we were real screw-ups too. I went South along with Marcia, and we were in Jones County. Our project director was Lester McKinney. And a few days after we arrived, he went to jail, and he spent the entire summer in jail. And it was out of that context that Gwen Robinson and I were elevated — I'm not sure why we were elevated — but we were elevated to co-project directors, and that's how I spent the summer. It is not too much to say that we did not have a clue. But Lester taught us as we visited him through the window of his jail cell. Bob came through to tech us or we rode to Jackson. And Mrs. Ruffin and the local people taught us. We learned how to organize, how to manage people most of who manifested (consciously or unconsciously) their birthright of superiority, and by trial and error we began the shift from accepting the importation of inferiority to a recognition that whatever the situation, we could do.
But what I wanted to talk about were lessons, some of the lessons that were learned. I was being trained to spend the rest of my life involved in struggle. And the lessons were the most important thing for me. The first was that every time I'd go to a SNCC meeting, somebody would get up and talk about the history of a particular county or a particular city or town that they had visited or lived in before we were allowed to go into those communities. So that models of study of the local conditions. Like Mao's "Investigation into the Peasant Movement in Hunan" — you need to understand the history of place. So you learn the importance of having someone whose job it is to do the forward observation, to go into the community and study that history, assess the situation, and make those conditions that allowed for young volunteers to go and stay at somebody's house...and over time be treated as family.
And what they try and instill in you is that the people already have a history. You're not bringing history to them. You're participating in the history they already have. And the important thing for you to do is to discover that history, the sweetmeats of that history, and work with that history. The second is, as several people have talked about, that group that goes in and really studies that history, and those are some heroes, those are heroes that weren't in demonstrations. They would leave one place and go to another place, a whole group that went into Lowndes County had left Selma to go to Lowndes County, right?
These people were community travelers, or campus travelers who would bring information back to COFO of SNCC and the volunteers. The information gathered was then distilled by people like Bob Moses. He's the best distiller I've ever met. He could take little bits and pieces of stuff and talk bout it in such a way that it helped you to visualize your work, your goals.
For example, Bob is a guy who 50 years later says about Movement organizers, "What we did was to..." I have the exact quote here. "Earn our insurgency." The difference between us and those who had an ideological piece to put on us, was that you have to go out and make the example. That's how you earned your insurgency, not by saying, "You go and make the revolution, and I'm going to direct you, because I have the correct understanding."
It meant that we have to go; we have to take lead. So, it wasn't simply about getting kicked in the head by some white boy as some sort of martyr. It was about that was what we had to do to earn the respect of the people. We had to make the witness, take the blows in order to show people on both sides that we're gonna get up the next day and go and do it again. And if we took one person to register to vote, right? And we got in trouble or we got put in jail. The next time they see us, then we're gonna take three. We aren't going to stop. That's earning your insurgency.
Learn the names and faces of everyone. Everyone you meet, try to remember their names and their faces, and you look people in the eye, and you listen. Snapping snap beans in Laurel is not — I'm from the South. I'm from Dallas. I grew up in Dallas and East Texas. My grandmother used to make me snap snap beans. I hated snapping snap beans. But that's the way — that was the social circle of a number of the women in our community. They set around snapping snap beans. So I'm sitting on the porch while they're snapping snap beans, but they're talking about the social circle that exists. And they talked about who is who is not with the movement. And they were impressed that I know how to snap snap beans. That was also earing the insurgency.
I learned to recognize the various roles played out in the community. For example very few Black adult men participated in the community protests — But there'd be a group of men sitting across from — we lived in a, most of us, in one small area, and there was a group of men, Black men, every day who sat on chairs or on the ground or on the corners every day. I didn't know until at the end of the summer that they were guarding us. [Laughter]
Last couple of things. Fight the tendency to do two things, one is to put yourself as the reason for everything taking place. That is, fight that ego piece. The object was to work with people, make your example, because if you build strong people, they will build their own Movement. That meant that your job was to aid people in putting their thing together by earning your insurgency and then working yourself out of a job. Don't build a fiefdom. Run away from building a fiefdom. The point is to help people work through technical skills that they might not have. But understand they have the cultural skills; they have the cultural understanding that you don't have. They teach you A; you teach them B.
So there's a shared — there's a transactional relationship. Okay, that's just some of the things, lessons that were learned. And what I did was try to take those lessons and apply them in a concrete place. We've seen a lot of discussions about local people and the logic of the local people. What happens many times is that we atomize local people — local people were only in the Deep South; they were only rural or small urban towns; they're only this; they're only that. In some fixed, unchanging, romantic way.
Well, the local people at my next level of organizing were Black students on the campus at San Francisco State College. Those were the local people. The thing was to learn every name, take the time to understand their priorities, earn the insurgency, work through the problems, build a movement, and finally to work yourself out of a job. Well, these local people Built a powerful student movement based on campus and the local community and staged the longest student strike in the history of this country. They created and sustained in the western academy Black/Ethnic studies, the most dynamic field of study to invade since WEB DuBois introduced the field of academic social work with "The Philadelphia Negro."
Many of those lessons that were learned in the prep school for organizers in Mississippi have kept me going. So the important thing for me, the story that I'm telling is not so much a personal story; it is a story of the critical element of preparation — I mean, this thing — I heard Ron Bridgeforth say that this thing gave him purpose. It also gave me the preparation, training, the building of higher levels of skills, so that I could apply them in whatever I was doing, wherever I was doing it, for the rest of my life.
So now, some of you are around my age; most of you are probably much younger. But you may remember the Vietnam War. What I do now is I work in Vietnam. Right now, I'm working in the Highlands near Pleiku. I work with groups and agencies in a number of small communities. We have worked with the local people there for three years. First, we built clinics or health outposts. Now we're working to build two hospitals for Agent Orange survivors, for people who have been victimized by Agent Orange. Each one of the skills that I just listed are in use, along with a number of others. The object is to go in, work, go out and seek financial resources, build, (which is what I learned when I was running the L.A. SNCC office and fundraising in Hollywood) etc., and earn the insurgency.
All of these skills are beneficial for the work that I will to do for the next what? 30, 40 years...I hope so. So I'm thankful for that, that it not only gave me purpose, but it gave me skills and a way of looking at the world. I came out of street gangs in L.A. I came out of Baby Businessmen. The Movement provided me with the opportunity to exhibit restorative, redemptive justice. I went from being aggressively violent to being nonviolent, to looking at whatever was necessary to build that movement, whatever kind of activity it took. So for me, I think that I'm elevated by that history. I am what I am because of that history. And I'm very thankful for it.
Thank you very much.
Copyright © James Garrett, 2013
Copyright © 2013
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