I Owe a Debt of Gratitude to the Civil Rights Movement
 — Daphne Muse

"Mr. Say ain't nothin'. Mr. Do is the man."
 — Junebug Jabbo Jones, Civil Rights Movement Grassroots Philosopher

The Civil Rights Movement changed the racial, ethnic, political and cultural landscape of the United States in ways still unfathomable by many. And from April 15th-18th, 2010 more than eleven-hundred people gathered at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina to recognize and honor the role the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee played in creating access to voting rights, education and breaking what had been ironclad barriers of segregation.

From Julian Bond to Harry Belafonte and the SNCC Freedom Singers to the children of Civil Rights activists, people came from across the country to pay tribute to what was accomplished by people who defied the Ku Klux Kan, stood tall to overturn legislative mandates and left legacies that have made it possible for a known, black/mixed race man to be elected President. Missing that historical milestone still weighs heavily on my heart, for the Civil Rights Movement, especially the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) shaped and set the course for my adult life. But the 50th Anniversary book written and compiled by Larry Rubin and produced by the SNCC Legacy Project took me there.

As the place where my primary adult friendships were formed, intellectual horizons expanded, political passions blossomed and "my feminist womanhood" shaped, I owe a debt of tremendous moral gratitude to the Movement, especially (SNCC). For the past three decades, some of its highly visible players and leadership have recalled their journeys in books, compelling articles and sometimes provocative interviews. But there are thousands whose names may never be included in the history books, deeds portrayed on celluloid, or efforts to produce social change memorialized in stone.

Some of the most brilliantly informed and visionary people I ever met were in SNCC and it truly was in the vanguard. While they operated to strategize, at time in concert with and sometimes in bitter discord with SCLC, the Black Panther Party, the NAACP and the United States Government, there were those who stuffed envelopes, mimeographed flyers, prepared life sustaining meals, provided refuge for struggle weary leaders and foot soldiers — all the while caring deeply and passionately for the liberation of oppressed people. Though primarily made up of black and white people, SNCC also included some Asians, Latinos and others from disenfranchised communities. It also helped to lay the groundwork for many of the other organizations dedicated to struggling to make America a much more diverse and inclusive country.

Though I was never a member of SNCC, my affiliation began in Nashville in 1966, when I was a student at Fisk University and a fast talking "sista can you guy" named Willie Ricks had me rockin' the mimeograph machine in the English Department nonstop to get the word out about demonstrations related to desegregating downtown businesses and organizing students to turn it around. The mimeograph machine was one way we conducted early to mid-20th century "social networking" and activism. SNCC collaborated with the Nashville Student Movement and I spent many an evening listening to Diane Nash, James Lawson and James Bevel discuss, educate and organize against the War in Vietnam, a country I'd not even heard of until that war.

Working with the members of SNCC further fueled my passion for life, raised my consciousness and put me on notice that integrity, truth and compassion would take me the distance in struggle, in life. Through the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, the writings of post-colonial philosopher and revolutionary Franz Fanon, compelling novels of Richard Wright, stories of Langston Hughes, essays of John Henrike Clarke and the sayings of just folk like Grassroots Philosopher Junebug Jabbo Jones, the Movement guided me through complex cultural and political minefields. In the friendships with the staff of Drum and Spear Bookstore and Press and the members of its parent company African American Resources, I found the solidarity of enduring kindred intellectual spirits and freedom fighters: Charlie Cobb (founder of Drum & Spear in 1968), Joe Gross, Ralph Featherstone, Jennifer Lawson, Courtland Cox, Judy Richardson, Toni Gittens, Williard Taylor, Mimi Shaw Hayes, Freddie Green Biddles, Juadine Henderson, Don Brown, Ivanhoe Donaldson, Don Freeman, Ann Forrester Holloway, and Marvin Holloway. Brought on board as a manager, Gittens served as editor for the Hilltop and an organizer with Ujamaa at Howard University.

Through Drum & Spear, I also met scores of others in SNCC including Jean Wiley, Florence Tate and Ed Brown. While holding down Drum and Spear during an increasingly daunting time, Courtland and Charlie bestowed the moniker of Juness Junebunny Jones upon me. The Movement made it possible for women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Dorothy Height and Shirley Sherrod to meet and engage in protracted struggle with national and world leaders, while challenging and supporting the growth of black women's voices. In Hands on the Freedom Plow: The Personal Testimonials of Women in SNCC, (University of Illinois Press, 2010), a book which she edited with five other women, SNCC Veteran, documentary filmmaker and author Judy Richardson has been instrumental in delivering the voices of more than fifty women whose courageous civil rights activism from the southern freedom movement of the early 60s. Women in the movement bucked up against the violence of racism and sexism on a daily basis. SNCC also brought the challenges of class disparity to the table.

Black people with advanced degrees riffed eloquently on the ravages of racial injustice; teenagers put their lives on the line, defying segregation; and multilingual diplomats, attired in flowing traditional robes and nurtured on the grist of African liberation movements, challenged the existing world order. While many of the efforts to reshape and redefine power fell short and some were sabotaged, sometimes from within, new possibilities emerged. It was also the arena where I began to struggle with sexism, question homophobic attitudes and develop a more concrete vision of life beyond oppression.

While I too could do decent discourse on the dialects of materialism, cite Marx and quote "negroes of note," I was much more concerned about how this movement could put refrigerators in homes of people in Southeast Washington, D.C., indoor plumbing in Mississippi lean-to's, provide access to critically needed health services in Southwest Georgia, teach people to read in rural Alabama, impact the quality of education in Bedford Stuyvesant and deliver real democracy across the Plains to the coasts and up the mountaintops.

As a black woman now living across more than seven decades and in to the 21st century, I was born colored, became Negro, evolved into blackness and continue to stand tall in my power as an African American. I am forever clear that I owe a debt of gratitude to the Civil Rights Movement. But my deepest debt goes to SNCC. Many of the young men and women were still navigating the path from puberty into adolescents, while others brought a seasoned maturity into their formative years. In retrospect, the organizers and workers of SNCC should have won a Congressional Medal or Nobel Peace Prize for the role they played in turning this country around onto its axis of social justice. Not only did they stand up to the Klan, they also played a pivotal role in paving the way for black people to serve at the highest level of office in the land. According to the committee, "the Nobel Peace Prize may be awarded to persons or organizations that are in the process of resolving a conflict or creating peace." SNCC was right up there with Martin Luther King, Jr., Wangari Mathaii, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Al Gore) and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (Jody Williams). While I have neither the clout nor resources of Congress or the Nobel Committee, I honor what SNCC and its visionaries and activists gave me. The 50th anniversary celebration, at which more than 1000 people came to pay tribute, was a testimony to the power of what SNCC accomplished in some very tangible terms.

I was so moved by the tribute to SNCC in Albany, Georgia. It stands right in a park right across from the bus station. My mother and I had just put my brother on a bus back to Chicago in 2009, when she invited me to explore the "new Albany" with her. She'd lived there as a young woman. SNCC played a major role in strategically diffusing heady challenges and charting a course that has brought us this far. It was instrumental in changing the racial and to some degree class landscape of the country that has resulted in groups from disenfranchised Armenian grocers to Latino field workers to bring their voices to the table.

There certainly are those days when I feel the hair trigger of the NRA and Teabag Patriots are trying to teabag, corporatize and pray/prey us back into the brutality of unyielding oppression. Too many of us have toiled for the taste of freedom and some were instrumental in designing the tables were many of us sit and "feast." I remain committed to a social justice that I can see, hear, touch and smell. Those primary friendships, formed under the auspices of the Civil Rights Movement, especially SNCC, are helping me go the distance, as I navigate the treachery of these repressive and tumultuous times. Like millions of others around the world, through my role as Chief Visionary Officer for Grandmothers Going Global, I'm sowing seeds for future generations to mount new and earnestly sustainable movements. As you see the seedlings sprout, water them with this bold and daring non -violent activism that became the signature for SNCC, so other generations can righteously rise to their callings.

[Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and poet who got a Life-long Learning degree (LLL) in Social Justice from the University of Drum and Spear. She is the founder and Chief Visionary Officer for Grandmothers Going Global-Harnessing our social capital, leadership skills and creative vision worldwide.]

Daphne Muse
Founder & Chief Visionary Officer
Grandmothers Going Global.org
msmusewriter@gmail.com, (510) 436-4716, (510) 967-9463 cell

Copyright © 2010, Daphne Muse


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