On Being a Militant and Radical Organizer — And an Effective One
 — Hunter Gray/John R. Salter Jr.
November 24, 2012

See Jackson Sit-in & Protests, Medgar Evers Assassination, and Medgar's Funeral & End of Jackson Movement for background & more information.
See also Jackson, MS, Movement for web links.

If you're a militant and radical organizer — and an effective one who is strong on both tangible grassroots gains and a worthy long range vision of a better world over the mountains yonder — you do your thing and move on to the next social justice crucible. As you go along, you are remembered fondly and well for a good while by the people for and with whom you've earlier worked. The power structure, of course, will "never forgive and never forget". But, as time passes and those grassroots people and friends fade from the scene, and if — if — you continue as a militant and radical activist, you aren't going to be broadly welcome in your earlier battlefields by very many of the newly arrived contemporary people. This is certainly true if you're an independent rebel. And all of this is especially true if you're an "outside agitator" who came from afar.

Quite often, in contrast to the openly repressive and brutal and blatantly defamatory Old Guard of yore, contemporary enemies in the old combat fields tend to be covert and surreptitious, frequently hypocritical, and of notably limited courage.

If you morph, as time passes, into a kind of respectable and non-challenging brand of "liberal," well — you might be brought back to various old battlefields to talk superficially about the old days of struggle.

A conventional academic who writes about the old civil rights wars and, as many academics do, does so cautiously, may be welcome. And that person might even get an award of some kind.

What brings all of this to my mind is the fact that, in the 50th anniversary of the great Jackson, Mississippi Movement, no one has asked me to return to discuss the movement of which I was the basic and principal organizer, working with a growing number of young people in our NAACP Youth Council and Tougaloo College. I was their Adult Advisor. They were valiantly involved in developing that worthy struggle and, in doing so, running great risks. The State of Mississippi is helping fund and organize a number of celebrations — climaxing in June 2013 — focused mostly on NAACP Field Secretary Medgar W. Evers who was murdered in the course of the massive campaign. Planning for these has been underway for months and agendas are relatively fixed. I learned this belatedly. Somewhere in the mix of motives for these events, and there are certainly some strains of altruism, may be the wish to somehow assuage the collective guilt for a very long and sanguinary and hideously racist past — and the raw brutality of a garrison police state. OK — and redemption can occur in the context of honest admission and tangible and significant redress.

Medgar, a good friend and colleague who I knew well, would likely be the first person to disclaim sainthood. And many things — including the Jackson Airport and a college in Brooklyn, N.Y. as well as a U.S. Naval ship — have been named for him. I would be among the very last to deny honorable and courageous Medgar any honors of any kind. But it's very clear that any discussion of the Movement itself, and the depth of the cruel and repressive realities of Mississippi that really weren't that long ago, will very likely be handled gingerly and, if mentioned much at all, in very sanitized fashion.

Am I surprised, shattered by this omission of any meaningful invitation? Not at all. In the half century that has elapsed since the rise and climax of the Jackson Movement, I have not received one invitation to come there and speak at length. (I have given several impromptu talks when down there over the years.) In 1979, I was asked to come to Jackson, expenses paid, for a relatively small part on a panel at a large civil rights retrospective. I came, with about fifty copies of a 35 page (single spaced) paper on the Jackson Movement, and broadened my small space of time into a short but trenchant speech which, with reference to the National Office of the NAACP and the deepening shadow of the Kennedy administration back then, I concluded with a denunciation of "the subversion by the corporate liberals of New York and the self-styled "pragmatism" of those splendid scoundrels residing in Camelot on the Potomac." That drew a thundering and standing ovation from about one thousand people.

I know, personally and experientially, a great deal about what happened Movement-wise in those critical years of 1961-63 in Mississippi's capital. I'm one of the very, very few persons who does — and one of a now tiny number who know the innards. (I was chair of the Jackson Movement's Strategy Committee.) In fact, I wrote a book —  Jackson Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism — devoted mainly to an inside view of the Jackson Movement — the only detailed account of the massive struggle and likely the most detailed book about any local grassroots movement of the '60s. It pulls no punches. It was very well received when it appeared in 1979 — especially by those grassroots people in Jackson who actually participated in that crusade and/or who knew first hand what had happened. Outside of Mississippi, it was well received broadly — drawing a large number of most positive reviews. (It was reissued late in 2011 by the University of Nebraska Press in expanded form with a new and substantial introduction by myself. hunterbear.org/jackson.htm)

As Jim Loewen, a sociologist and professor and writer, very familiar indeed with Mississippi recently wrote:

"Classic account . . .Jackson, Mississippi presents a vivid insider's view of the Jackson boycott movement, the demonstrations that led to mass arrests, the actions of courageous young people, and the murder of Medgar Evers and the incredible tension of his funeral march. As you would expect, given that Salter was and is a sociologist and a radical, it also contains penetrating analyses of the role of each acting group, including the national office of the NAACP, black ministers, the city government and police force, White Citizens Council, etc. And it shows the important role played by Tougaloo, some of its students and faculty members (including Prof. Salter), and its president, A. D. Beittel."

Despite the extremely repressive odds, we all — and I emphasize all — accomplished a great deal in the sanguinary travail of the Jackson Movement of 1962-63. That stands forever as a shining mountain.

When you're done with your work in a particular setting, you can justifiably look back for awhile, garner lessons and secure appreciation. But it's dangerous to your life's organizing mission to look back too long and too much. Time-lock can be deadly to critically needed activism. There have been many campaigns for me after Jackson — some large, some smaller, all of them important to people of the fewest alternatives. A truly effective organizer rides over the mountains and crosses the rivers into new horizons of meaningful struggle. That's the true joy, the ultimate satisfaction, and the great and enduring lure.

In the Mountains of Eastern Idaho
Hunter Gray (Hunter Bear/John R. Salter Jr)
Mi'kmaq /St. Francis Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk
Member, National Writers Union AFL-CIO
(much social justice material)

Copyright © 2012, Hunter Gray


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