The civil rights movement that shaped me as a young man was full of faith in the capacities of the common person — in this case, African Americans in the South, radically devalued by segregation. It was also full of leaders who illustrated the substance of this faith. For instance, Oliver Harvey, a janitor at Duke University where I went to college, organizer of a union of nonacademic employees for better pay and improved working conditions, was a great public intellectual and a mentor. He taught me about the black community, musical traditions, and decades-old struggles for civil rights.
I also worked for the Citizenship Education Program of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the group headed by Martin Luther King. Although the citizenship efforts of SCLC are relatively invisible in most public histories of the movement, the program was crucial — Andy Young once called it "the foundation of the whole movement." We organized citizenship schools, informal trainings in church basements, community centers, beauty parlors and elsewhere that conveyed some skills in community action. Our basic message was simple: people have capacities to take self-reliant, cooperative, bold action. It was expressed in a song, "We are the ones we've been waiting for," composed by Dorothy Cotton, director of citizenship education. It was inspired by a line from a poem by June Jordan, "To South African Women." In turn, it inspired untold numbers of people.
I learned how the civil rights struggle was connected to earlier movements when ordinary people were valued in the public culture and seen as the foundations of democracy. A dramatic experience came in St. Augustine, Florida.
One day I encountered a group of Klu Klux Klan members. I had gone out to the Old Jail because I was worried about a friend who had been arrested in a demonstration — the brutality that the jailors displayed toward civil rights demonstrators was a constant topic of conversation among SCLC staff members. Many people were held without water all day long, packed outside the building in a wire enclosure called "the pen." The hot Florida sun beat down relentlessly. Some passed out.
I talked to my friend, Cathy, through the bars. She was inside the jail and was fine. But when I came back to the car five men and a woman suddenly surrounded me. I realized that they must have followed me out from town. I was terrified. One said, "You're a goddamn Yankee communist. We're going to get you, boy."
I took a breath. Then my southern roots flooded back. I said, "I'm a Christian and the Bible says love your neighbor.' I love blacks, like I love whites. But I'm not a Yankee. My family has been in the South since before the Revolution. And I'm not a communist." Searching for a word to describe my confused identity — and remembering an occasional remark of my father — I tried on a different label. "I'm a populist," I said. "I believe that blacks and poor whites should get together and do something about the big shots who keep us divided and held down."
There was silence. The group looked at an older man, dressed in coveralls, wearing a straw hat, to see what he would say.
He scratched his head. "There may be something in that," he said. "I don't know whether I'm populist. But I read about it. And I ain't stupid. The big shots look down on us. The mayor will congratulate us for beating you up. But he'd never talk to me on the street." He continued, "I ain't a Christian myself. I'm a Hinduist. I believe in the caste system." For a few minutes, we talked about what an interracial populist movement might look like. Then I drove quickly back into town.
Several days later the Klu Klux Klan held a march in front of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference office in the African-American part of town. That summer was a battle of flags. Civil rights demonstrators marched under the American flag. The Klan countermarched under the Confederate flag.
I was standing with the crowd in front of the office, perhaps the only white in the group. Dr. King was nearby. The Klan philosopher, in the front row of their march, saw me and waved. I gave a tepid response, trying to be inconspicuous. But King saw my gesture. He asked me what that was all about. I told him the story.
King said, "I've always identified with populism. That was a time when Negroes and whites found common ground." I had only a vague sense of what he meant — the term, populist, had floated to my consciousness like a rescue raft. But I learned more.
The original movement to go by the name, "Populist," formed in the 1880s and 1890s among black and white farmers in the South and Midwest. It included interracial alliances that defied racial taboos. The black historian Manning Marable recounts his family's oral history about his great-grandfather:
During the 1880s, many black and white farmers in Alabama joined the Alliance, a radical agrarian movement against the conservative business and planter elite. Morris was attracted to the movement because of its racial egalitarianism. Throughout Georgia and Alabama, black and white Populist Party members held joint picnics, rallies, and speeches. Populist candidate Reuben F. Kalb actually won the state gubernatorial contest in 1894 [though electoral fraud prevented his taking office]. On the periphery of this activity, in his small rural town, Morris Marable became sheriff with the support of blacks and whites. He was intensely proud of his office, and completed his duties with special dispatch....
King obviously knew about populism's interracial history. He assigned me to organize poor whites. He also told me that he believed the next stage of the movement would need to address issues of economic injustice and poverty across racial lines.
Soon after, on a dusty road in the black community of St. Augustine, I decided that my life work would be helping to organize a democratic movement bringing together blacks and people like my grandparents and other relatives, of Scottish ancestry, whose talents were undervalued all their lives, in order to build a better society.
I believe we are on the threshold of such a movement in Minnesota, in the nation, and in fact around the world.
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