Sometime last fall, I was making my rounds of the blogosphere (something I've been embarrassingly remiss in doing over the past year), and I came across a post that raised some questions I haven't been able to shake. It was written by Nezua, the Unapologetic Mexican, and while it's taken me a bit of time to get back to it for a response I fully intended to write months ago, I am here and stirred and, after this weekend, more convinced than ever that I must do so.
What caused me to drag out my notes (yes, I do, on occasion, make notes as I read something I know I'm going to have to respond to) and then re-read the post because the notes no longer made sense even to me, was a statement made by a local minister of some renown and great influence as he briefly addressed a group of Black leaders and assorted others at a meeting this weekend. What he said -- quite strongly and more than once in a short span -- was: "We are not activists!"
The "we" he was referring to was a newly formed Interdenominational African-American Ministerial Alliance that has elected him President (a major honor and, from what I can gather, the by far and away most appropriate choice by the organization). The group was formed to address a couple of things. First, the long-standing strangle-hold on all the power and the money in this parish by an elite of White families and individuals since reconstruction or before. And second, the accepted practice by a few Black ministers of knowing which side their bread was buttered on. Business as usual in this parish has long-since come to be represented by a stand-off involving the White power-structure on one side of the tracks and the mostly poverty-stricken African-American community on the other.
But four years ago, a woman named Pat Morris accepted the presidency of the local branch of the NAACP and more or less simultaneously kick-started a renewed commitment to see a court decision from 1979 that was supposed to de-segregate the schools actually de-segregate the schools. Understand, this is about considerably more than de-segregating the schools. In actuality, it's about leveling the playing field by giving children of color in this parish the same education and therefore ultimate access to the same opportunities as White kids. And it's about identifying and redirecting multiple millions of dollars that have either been routed disproportionately to "White" schools or somewhere else entirely. This is a slap in the face to every red-blooded redneck in the region. You're offended by the word "redneck"? Well, I'm offended by the fact that this court order has never been implemented and tens of thousands of U.S. citizens raised in these parts have been hung out to dry for an additional thirty years as if at the end of figurative nooses so that they not only cannot compete with their White counterparts, but worse, believe it's their fault and they don't deserve better.
Anyway, when Morris jacked up the local school board and announced that it was a new day hereabouts, nobody initially took much notice. School administrators didn't feel threatened. Local elected officials didn't look up from their paperwork. The newspapers ignored her. And even the Black community leaders barely shrugged. But eventually, she virtually single-handedly raised enough money to get the lawyer who won the case in the first place to petition successfully for the re-opening of the case (something that has not to date been accomplished anywhere else in the country).
An uneasy ripple made its way across the parish. Hush money was proffered and accepted by some. Not by Pat Morris, though the amount reached $50,000 at one point. Her captains were offered dreams come true, but they also refused. And she put out the word: "I am not for sale, nor are those at my hand."
Even a college degree and some grad school couldn't get her a job flipping burgers anywhere in the parish -- not that she has time to work for pay anyway with all the work she does literally daily keeping tabs on ever unfolding injustices in one school or another, up-dating the website she maintains (that's up to half a million hits a month now), and staying on top of the on-going court proceedings in New Orleans. Her basic needs from month to month either go unmet or get met by friends who manage to keep her head barely above water and not all the time. Why she doesn't give up is a mystery to most. But she hasn't.
And so the threats began. Clandestine and bitter phone calls threatening her life in various ways backed up by occasional attempts. Loosened lug nuts on all her tires at the same time, for example, only discovered because of a flat tire in her driveway one morning. And now sugar in her gas tank, not once, but twice. The threats and harrassment have escalated over time and the pressure of it all takes a toll on Morris' health. She has started quoting Martin Luther King's mountaintop speech about having seen the Promised Land and after two years of following her around, doing what I can to help, I've decided she couldn't stop if she wanted to. And I understand this personally. Which is why I follow her around. And why she lets me.
Morris and a handful of die-hard supporters -- including a legal team with serious flaws, but smart minds, thick skins, and strong backbones -- have, thus far prevailed somehow. Part of it is that we are on the side of right. And part of it is that the time has come. But the opposition is monied and powerful, entrenched, unapologetic and pretty desperate to keep the shadows where they are for a variety of reasons.
More recently though, the aforementioned Ministerial Alliance formed, elected their President and released the news that they were going to work together to implement change across the board, that they were committed to justice and fairness for all in the parish and would seek to see the African-American community organize in its own best interests -- finally. When I watched the news video of the announcement, I was thrilled. For them. For the community, both White and Black. For the children, particularly the children of color. For all of us.
And then, Saturday, the Alliance President made his statements about not being "activists."
I knew where it was coming from and, though surprised to hear it, was not critical of his attempt to clarify their intent. I'm sure phone calls and visits and offers have been made. I'm sure sweet deals appeared in forms that were -- on some level, at least -- acceptable (not that they were necessarily accepted). And I'm sure there were some threats implied wherever a weakness might most easily receive one.
One of those threats is usually the threat to be seen as a "troublemaker." As less than reasonable, less than stable, less than worthy of respect and, worst of all, less than acceptable to the greater community. In other words, as an "activist" rather than a "minister."
Ministers have always been the power figures in the Black community. It's why Martin Luther King, Jr., let himself be talked into studying for the ministry instead of following his first inclination to be a lawyer. And certainly there are those who criticized King resoundingly for speaking out against the war in Vietnam and for getting himself arrested. But, if you look into the Bible (since we're talking here about Christian ministers), almost everybody whose story appears there was way, way out on front street in the era in which he, or even she, lived. And what does activism mean other than taking action, doing something rather than just talking about it?
Which brings me back to the Unapologetic Mexican's post. In it, Nezua asks, "Do you ever feel we are not even having the right conversations?" And I thought when I read it, "Yes!" And he goes on at some length to articulate in grand fashion many of the ideas with which so many of those of us who work for justice struggle.
He talks about the "tiny revolts" inside ourselves so necessary to moving forward, what Bob Marley called "emancipating our minds from mental slavery" because "only we can free ourselves."
"What behaviors do I maintain in thought and action that keep me rooted in one place? Or moving too slow or in the wrong direction? What tiny revolt is needed in my own life?" asked Nezua last fall. It is so easy to see what's wrong -- out there -- and so hard to decide what to do about it and how to get it done without first beginning to do what some of my friends call "the inside job." There is often such a sense of hopelessness when speaking truth to Power or putting my personal fears aside (including the fear that I'll be ridiculed or lose the opportunity to do something else I think is important).
Nezua writes how thankless and ineffectual voting, writing letters to editors or even blogging often seem to be. "Visualizing peace" hasn't brought it, he notes. "Taking shorter showers" won't solve global warming, he suggests. So what combination of actions (because it is only action -- of some kind -- that will accomplish anything) should we try? Even when I speak (and I do so as often as I can), I am urging to action, trying to inspire action. But what action?
Nezua suggests that we need to unleash a virus, a virulent positive undermining correctional therapy that will eat the ugliness and the injustice and the selfishness and the brutality and replace it all with...well...their opposites. But what would this virus look like and how in the world (literally, since it's becoming increasingly apparent when we connect the dots that the survival of the whole human race is at stake here) could it be developed and by whom?
And here's where I throw in my two cents, I guess (or maybe one cent, because it's not a very thoroughly crafted thought yet). I think one crucially needed action (or activism, if you will) is to demonstrate to the young how to walk with integrity, which requires standing (an action) for what one believes to be true. The youth are angry and frustrated and heartsick over the shape things are in. And not just poor youth either. So many of them have watched their elders accept the status quo even when the status quo is desperately damaging to our communities, our society, our environment, and our future well-being as a human race. And they don't respect that. And they don't know what to do about it. Because so much damage has already been done, they're not sure there's any possibility to move in a more positive direction. And they need people to follow.
I have a twenty-eight-year-old daughter. She makes three times what I do in a field she loves. She lives a good life and she tries, I truly believe, to be a good person. She's kind and she's intelligent and she works hard and she cares about pretty much all the right stuff. But she's not sure, she tells me, that the human race has a future because of the decisions and the actions of those who have gone before her.
What am I supposed to tell her? That as long as her life is okay, nothing else matters? That if she just keeps doing the next right thing herself, nobody else is important? That the choices and the decision-making of the Powers-That-Be are unaddressable by the 98% of us who are not making those choices and decisions even when they determine the state of our own lives and the lives of our children?
I cannot sprinkle pixie dust on her world. I cannot wave a magic wand and turn this place we live into a utopia. But I can live in such a credible way that she will have some hope to cling to in the darkness of our present age. I can model for her a kind of humanity I would hope she would want to espouse for herself, one that would reassure her deepest sense of rightness in a world gone wrong. I can demonstrate for her -- and all the children everywhere -- how to invest in a future that would bring to fruition what I believe we are capable of as individuals and as a collective whole.
And all of those are actions. It is this "activism," in fact, that is my legacy to her and to every manifestation of life on this planet we call Earth. It is this activism I dedicate to all who live now and all who came before us and died that we might serve our purpose here more fully. And it is this beautiful activism I offer in partial payment of the debt I owe for the gift of another day of life.
A favorite quotation often repeated by those who press for change dates back to a member of the British Parliament in the 1700's, Sir Edmond Burke: "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." What most of us don't realize is that Burke -- whose most famous published treatis was written against the French Revolution -- has been called "the father of conservatism." In other words, those who champion the entrenchment of Power over People know perfectly well the undeniable importance of "activism." When are enough of the rest of us going to grasp to our bosoms this critical -- nay, crucial -- truth?