The Freedom Movement Changed So Many Lives — Including Mine

Heather Tobis Booth 2024

The Freedom Movement changed so many lives. It certainly changed mine and helped set me on a course of dedicating my life to the struggle for democracy and justice and freedom.

More specifically, my work with SNCC in Mississippi and Friends of SNCC in the North, led me to deepen a commitment to organizing, to working with local people — trust their reality, see their courage when they take action, and feel the power of what can happen when we act together with clarity about our goals and a plan to achieve it.

SNCC also showed me that we need to understand context — what is the political and economic framework in which we are operating. Where are the political openings (like the "rotten borough" system that meant that so many African Americans lived in areas where they were so under-represented that a change in the voting laws was not only good for "democracy," but could change the relations of power). It helped teach me about the importance of analyzing what power the opposition had (and its sources) and what power we could build. So that actions were not just random tactics, but fit into a strategy to change the relations of power.

And it showed me the importance of elections — even though after Mississippi Summer's experience I was turned off to politics. But later I realized what we need to do is to organize with a strong base in between elections to build the power to influence those elections.

The civil rights movement showed me the power of people fighting for their dreams. It showed me that we can partner, if there is a mutual interest in that partnership (and when there is not a mutual interest, it is time to leave). When that time to leave came with SNCC/Friends of SNCC, the charge was for white people to organize in our own communities, and I proceeded to do that (though also consciously looking for ways to build multi-racial alliances or coalitions).

And this led (in part) to building a national network of locally based, state wide, nationally coordinated social change groups called Citizen Action (that at one point was active in 36 states with millions of members and multi-million dollar budget if all the state budgets were combined, winning many victories). These organizations are still part of the current progressive grassroots infrastructure in the country.

The Freedom Summer emphasis on training and freedom schools played a role in encouraging me to set up my own training center — Midwest Academy (started in 1972 and still going very strong). It teaches strategic planning for issue campaigns, social and economic context (including the history of building movements like the one for Civil Rights, Women, Labor, Students, etc.) as well as the skills and tactics that are needed.

And it reflects the teaching that people can learn whatever their level of formal education is. And the training also includes cultural change (music, film, art) that reflects some of the legacy of the Civil Rights movement. It also reflects the lesson that training needs to be tied to action — and we learn from doing. And part of that learning is to build people's confidence that we can win if we organize, even when so much of the society says we are not good enough/don't know enough. We are in fact more than good and know enough — if we organize.

And it taught about building on a vision of a Beloved Community. That we need to care for each other and keep Love at the Center of what we do, even as we may be filled with anger at the injustice around us.

In many ways, the greatest lessons of the Civil Rights movement was about the courage of every day people, and their generosity in sharing what they have and willing to take risks for a common cause — if there is a serious plan by which we can improve lives for ourselves and the next generation.

And so many of the struggles and victories that I have been part of — in the women's movement, financial reform, saving Social Security and Medicare, fighting for immigration reform, voting rights, marriage equality, climate and for democracy itself — all of these have been impacted by the lessons I learned in the Freedom and Civil Rights Movement. For this and more, I am forever grateful. And try to pass on those lessons as the struggle continues.


Copyright © Heather Booth


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