Saturday, February 23, 2013

Vincent Harding and Philadelphia, Mississippi


In 2011, Vincent Harding did an interview with Krista Tippett for her program On Being that was replayed on NPR last Saturday. Listen here.

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Vincent emphasizes stories, hearing the narratives of unsung heroes who have done much (they exist, he says, like Grace Boggs or Dorothy Cotton or Gil Caldwell or John Lewis or Vincent himself, in every city) in the civil rights movement.

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I have taken to writing history and Black Patriots and Loyalists is, among other matters, the stories of people like John Woolman, Colonel Tye, John Laurens and Thomas Peters who, through solitary individual and sometimes collective effort, at last moved the mountain of slavery...

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Vincent tells the story of Freedom Summer where he knew Michael Schwerner and James Cheney. He knew of, but not directly my friend Andy Goodman who had just arrived from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee training camp in how to remain nonviolent when jeered and attacked in Ohio. After Andy had been one day in Mississippi, visiting a burned out church with Cheney and Schwerner (the minister dared to register people to vote and the KKK had burned the church), their car broke down, they were arrested, taken to the local jail, released at midnight to a mob under the leadership of Baptist minister Edgar Ray Killens, a Klansmen - see here and here - murdered, mutilated, and buried in a dam.

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Everyone knew, when they were missing, that they were not coming back. Bob Moses spoke to all the volunteers, saying that each person should take some time, call home, talk it over with others, and that noone in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee would blame them if they went home. I had heard part of the story, but not about Moses, who taught math at freedom schools and whom I once heard speak. He articulated the vision of radical democracy, of each person being there, speaking from the heart...

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They sang spirituals, Vincent said - see "Song is hope" here for our singing of spirituals in Palestine last fall - and this enabled them to gather the courage, through song and word, to stay.

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Not a single volunteer went home.

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This experience is why Vincent says he has little sympathy for those who sneer at Kumbaya. Movements like these from below are always against the odds. To protest nonviolently, seeking to stop the wrong of segregation but not to murder the murderers, is always met, as today with Israel in the Occupied Territories - see here, here, here and here - with extreme violence.

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Nonviolence is willingness to take the suffering on oneself and on other innocents. It is effective because murderous bullies reveal themselves before the world as in Birmingham - Bull Connor's police dogs sicced on teenagers and high power hoses, shooting water at a pressure that can take the bark off trees, revealed the evils of segregated America internationally - and at best because mass noncooperation makes this happen swiftly. It often leads to major change with far fewer casualties than violent struggles (see Barbara Deming, "Revolution and Equilibrium," here).

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In a violent uprising against massive violence, the oppressors can more easily demonize the oppressed and inflict great casualties on or stamp out the movements as the British the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. Sometimes, of course, as in the Chinese revolution, a violent uprising can overthrow them. But the costs in lives are, comparatively, immense and even successful revolutionary violence has an enormous, often negative impact on what comes afterwards. Change that respects different groups and opinions and heals, given revolution, and change that deals with "enemies" violently is separated by an abyss.

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Large social and political changes, i.e. in the civil rights movements and in Arab Spring, often occur nonviolently, and are better, when the nonviolence is organized.

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Nonviolence seeks to stop the oppressors. But it also recognizes that oppressors have souls and can, when halted and under some compulsion, change.

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But it is still the innocent who take the violence in a nonviolent movement. And it takes enormous courage to stand up to the violence (to face what may be martyrdom) and not strike back.

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The song "Kumbaya" - come by here, lord - is beautiful. I wove some of its words into a poem here:

Poem: kumbaya


Come by here, lord

Michael Schwerner

come by here

James Cheney

comebyhere lord

Viola Liuzzo

come by here

Andrew Goodman

blood ied

come by herelord

Miss iss ippi

lying together

notinonegraveyard

notinoneriver


come by


soil


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It is often hard to comment on a poem except, perhaps, poetically. My friend Richard Marshall of 3:AM magazine in London wrote a dazzling response to the last lines:

"I really like the first one for Andrew Goodman - the last lines like a land of morning calm and both permissable and beautiful like a sprig of white heather that brings luck."

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I also put up an older poem also here which has more anger, fear and bitterness at Andy's murder.

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Vincent speaks of the coming into political life of many movements and the messiness of our great experiment in democracy in the United States. Democracy is from below, that is its life and decency (and one has but to observe politicians and others kept by the elite whose silence is literally bought about climate change or assault weapons or for fear of "softness" on national "security," about drones or torture - to realize the distance between what we have achieved and what we might become.

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Some weeks ago, after we returned from Palestine, Vincent spoke with me about the importance of rituals to begin recognizing the harms, the founding myths or amnesias, of America. See here, here, here, here and here. For the US government enslaved, tortured and murdered blacks and committed ethnic cleansing from coast to coast against indigenous people. That conversation with Vincent is one reason why I have gotten more actively into Sand Creek and the wider genocide.

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The murders of children at Sandy Hook, contra Chris Matthews, are not unique. See here. It is what militiamen from Denver and California, carrying the reeking spirit of settler racism, did - smashing the bodies of children against rocks, as Silas Soule, who refused to allow his troops to fire, noted with horror in a letter to his mother. See here. It is what drones do in villages in Pakistan or Yemen. See here.

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One might think that the devaluing of life can be separated, and that white children will not join their indigenous or Arab brothers and sisters. It is not so.

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As Pastor Niemoller once suggested, we are one humanity. See here. And we will salvage a place for all the brothers and sisters - and as native americans say, all our relatives, the squirrels and heather, see here - with this recognition, or as is also a possibility in American history, we will cause it, and us, to die.

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It is the hope of a future which Vincent speaks for in telling stories to young activists and artists. I once read some of my poems to a multiracial group of teenage artists from around the country who were working with Vincent's Veterans of Hope project. There are some stories of my grandfather, a Jewish anarchist from Russia and in Stelton, New Jersey, and of course Marx embedded in them, and he said to me, laughing, it may be the first time that many of the people who were there, had heard of such things.

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We all have and need to share our stories. It is part, for each of us, of finding and having a voice...

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An inclusive regime, one which honors the stories of and protects the humanity of each, is what a democracy might be.

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