Leadership: Freedom Movement vs New Left  — Bruce Hartford

Some people say that the New Left was more politically sophisticated than the Southern Freedom Movement. When I left the South in early 1967 after 4 years with CORE and SCLC I went to New York and then San Francisco and became a rabid New Leftist. Looking back on it now, and speaking bitterness from my own experience, I have to say that I do not believe that the New Left was more politically sophisticated than the Freedom Movement. In fact, quite the contrary.

The first huge difference that whacked me in the head with a 2x4 when I left the South was that in the Freedom Movement status and leadership was for the most part based on what you did, what you endured, and your success (or lack thereof) organizing real people to do real things that affected their lives. And that the key litmus test was were you willing to put your body on the line. But in the New Left, status and leadership was based on what you said, what you wrote, what you thought, not what you did or accomplished — and that militant rhetoric, fiery speeches, and "revolutionary" posturing counted for far more than actually effecting some real change.

Standing on the stage at an SDS convention and declaring "I'm a revolutionary communist!" sounded terrifically sophisticated and militant at the time, but I no longer think so. As I look back on it now, the Southern Freedom Movement that grounded its strategies and tactics in the actual real conditions of the time and place, and grounded its appeals and rhetoric in the religious and political aspirations and cherished beliefs of large segments of the population (Black and white), was far more sophisticated — and effective — than the psuedo-sophistication of our New Left duels of Maoist quotations and Mickey-Marxist study groups.

And I now believe that the Southern Freedom Movement was also more sophisticated and effective than the machinations and political calculations of "mainstream" activists in student government, National Student Associations, and other career-enhancing springboards to higher office. I guess that for some of them their political maneuvers were more sophisticated in terms of building their personal wealth and power as individuals, but in terms of empowering people as a whole or improving the lives of those at the bottom of the ladder they were no where near as sophisticated as the Freedom Movement.

Copyright © 2007, Bruce Hartford

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