Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What It Takes to Build a Movement



You may find this as interesting as I did.  However, Mark Rudd fails to note that most people react from a personal perspective.  We altruists are the exception.


More women than men were in the suffragist movement.  More blacks than whites were in the civil rights movement.  So one of the keys to organizing is to find out what might cause someone to join a movement for some perceived personal gain.  Also he fails to note that it is easier to organize desperate people, than those with the “goodies,” a term Phil Berrigan would use.





When Spontaneity Fails ...


What It Takes to Build a Movement




By MARK RUDD December 25-27, 2009


Since the summer of 2003, I've crisscrossed the country

speaking at colleges and theaters and bookstores, first

with The Weather Underground documentary and, starting

in March of this year, with my book, Underground:  My

Life with SDS and the Weathermen (William Morrow,

2009). In discussions with young people, they often

tell me, "Nothing anyone does can ever make a difference."


The words still sound strange: it's a phrase I never

once heard forty years ago, a sentiment obviously false

on its surface.  Growing up in the Fifties and Sixties,

I  and the rest of the country  knew about the civil

rights movement in the South, and what was most evident

was that individuals, joining with others, actually

were making a difference. The labor movement of the

Thirties to the Sixties had improved the lives of

millions; the anti-war movement had brought down a

sitting president  LBJ, March 1968  and was actively

engaged in stopping the Vietnam War. In the forty years

since, the women's movement, gay rights, disability

rights, animal rights, and environmental movements have

all registered enormous social and political gains. To

old new lefties, such as myself, this is all



So, why the defeatism? In the absence of knowledge of

how these historical movements were built, young people

assume that they arose spontaneously, or, perhaps,

charismatic leaders suddenly called them into

existence. On the third Monday of every January we

celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. having had a dream;

knowledge of the movement itself is lost.


The current anti-war movement's weakness, however, is

very much alive in young people's experience. They cite

the fact that millions turned out in the streets in the

early spring of 2003 to oppose the pending U.S. attack

on Iraq, but that these demonstrations had no effect.

"We demonstrated, and they didn't listen to us." Even

the activists among them became demoralized as numbers

at demonstrations dropped off very quickly, street

demonstrations becoming cliches, and, despite a big

shift in public opinion in 2006, the wars in Iraq and

Afghanistan droned on to today. The very success of the

spontaneous early mobilization seems to have

contributed to the anti-war movement's long-term weakness.


Something's missing. I first got an insight into

articulating what it is when I picked up Letters from

Young Activists: Today's Rebels Speak Out, edited by

Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin and Kenyon Farrow (Nation

Books, 2005). Andy Cornell, in a letter to the movement

that first radicalized him, "Dear Punk Rock Activism,"

criticizes the conflation of the terms "activism" and

"organizing." He writes, "activists are individuals who

dedicate their time and energy to various efforts they

hope will contribute to social, political, or economic

change. Organizers are activists who, in addition to

their own participation, work to move other people to

take action and help them develop skills, political

analysis and confidence within the context of

organizations. Organizing is a process  creating

long-term campaigns that mobilize a certain

constituency to press for specific demands from a

particular target, using a defined strategy and

escalating tactics." In other words, it's not enough

for punks to continually express their contempt for

mainstream values through their alternate identity;

they've got to move toward "organizing masses of people."


Aha!  Activism = self-expression; organizing =



Until recently, I'd rarely heard young people call

themselves "organizers." The common term for years has

been "activists." Organizing was reduced to the behind

the scenes nuts-and-bolts work needed to pull off a

specific event, such as a concert or demonstration. But

forty years ago, we only used the word "activist" to

mock our enemies' view of us, as when a university

administrator or newspaper editorial writer would call

us "mindless activists." We were organizers, our work

was building a mass movement, and that took constant

discussion of goals, strategy and tactics (and, later,

contributing to our downfall ideology).


Thinking back over my own experience, I realized that I

had inherited this organizer's identity from the red

diaper babies I fell in with at the Columbia chapter of

Students for a Democratic Society, SDS. Raised by

parents in the labor and civil rights and communist or

socialist movements, they had naturally learned the

organizing method as other kids learned how to throw

footballs or bake pineapple upside-down cakes. "Build

the base!" was the constant strategy of Columbia SDS for years.


Yet, young activists I met were surprised to learn that

major events, such as the Columbia rebellion of April

1968, did not happen spontaneously, that they took

years of prior education, relationship building,

reconsideration on the part of individuals of their

role in the institution. I.e., organizing. It seemed to

me that they believed that movements happen as a sort

of dramatic or spectator sport: after a small group of

people express themselves, large numbers of bystanders

see the truth in what they're saying and join in. The

mass anti-war mobilization of the Spring 2003, which

failed to stop the war, was the only model they knew.


I began looking for a literature that would show how

successful historical movements were built. Not the

outcomes or triumphs, such as the great civil rights

March on Washington in 1963, but the many streams that

eventually created the floods. I wanted to know who

said what to whom and how did they respond. One book

was recommended to me repeatedly by friends, I've Got

the Light of Freedom: the Organizing Tradition and the

Mississippi Freedom Struggle by Charles M. Payne

(University of California Press, 1995). Payne, an

African-American sociologist, now at the University of

Chicago, asked the question how young student

organizers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating

Committee, SNCC, had successfully organized voter

registration and related campaigns in one town,

Greenwood, Mississippi, in the years 1961-1964. The

Mississippi Delta region was one of the most benighted

areas of the South, with conditions for black cotton

sharecroppers and plantation workers not much above the

level of slavery. Despite the fact that illiteracy and

economic dependency were the norm among black people in

the Delta, and that they were the target of years of

violent terror tactics, including murder, SNCC

miraculously organized these same people to take the

steps toward their own freedom, through attaining

voting rights and education. How did they do it?


What Payne uncovers through his investigation into SNCC

in Greenwood is an organizing method that has no name

but is solidly rooted in the traditions of church women

of the rural South. Black churches usually had

charismatic male ministers, who, as a consequence of

their positions, led in an authoritarian manner. The

work of the congregations themselves, however, the

social events and education and mutual aid were

organized at the base level by women, who were

democratic and relational in style. Martin Luther

King's Southern Christian Leadership Council, SCLC,

used the ministerial model in their mobilizing for

events, while the young people of SNCC  informed by

the teaching and examples of freedom movement veterans

Ella Baker and Septima Clark  concentrated on building

relationships with local people and helping them

develop into leaders within democratic structures.

SNCC's central organizing principle," participatory

democracy," was a direct inheritance from Ella Baker.


Payne writes, "SNCC preached a gospel of individual

efficacy. What you do matters. In order to move

politically, people had to believe that. In Greenwood,

the movement was able to exploit communal and familial

traditions that encouraged people to believe in their own light."


The features of the method, sometimes called

"developmental" or "transformational organizing,"

involve long-term strategy, patient base-building,

personal engagement between people, full democratic

participation, education and the development of

people's leadership capabilities, and

coalition-building. The developmental method is often

juxtaposed to Alinsky-style organizing, which is

usually characterized as top-down and manipulative.


For a first-hand view of Alinsky organizing  though

it's never named as such  by a trained and seasoned

practitioner, see Barack Obama's book, Dreams from My

Father (Three Rivers Press, 1995 and 2004). In the

middle section of the book, "Chicago," Obama describes

his three years organizing on the streets and housing

projects of South Chicago. He beautifully invokes his

motives  improving young people's lives  but at the

same time draws a murky picture of organizing.

Questions abound: Who trained him? What was his

training? Who paid him? What is the guiding ideology?

What is his relationship to the people he calls "my

leaders?" Are they above him or are they manipulated by

him? Who are calling whose shots? What are the

long-term consequences? It's a great piece to start a

discussion with young organizers.


While reading I've Got the Light of Freedom, I realized

that much of what we had practiced in SDS was derived

from SNCC and this developmental organizing tradition,

up to and including the vision of "participatory

democracy," which was incorporated in the 1962 SDS

founding document, "The Port Huron Statement." Columbia

SDS's work was patient, strategic, base-building, using

both confrontation and education. I, myself, had been

nurtured and developed into a leadership position

through years of close friendship with older organizers.


However, my clique's downfall came post-1968, when,

under the spell of the illusion of revolution, we

abandoned organizing, first for militant confrontation

(Weatherman and the Days of Rage, Oct. 1969) and then

armed urban guerilla warfare (the Weather Underground,

1970-1976). We had, in effect, moved backward from

organizing to self-expression, believing, ridiculously,

that that would build the movement. At the moment when

more organizing was needed to build a permanent

anti-imperialist mass movement, we abandoned organizing.


This is the story I tell in my book, Underground.  It's

about good organizing (Columbia), leading to worse

(Weatherman), leading to horrible (the Weather

Underground). I hope it's useful to contemporary

organizers, as they contemplate how to build the coming

mass movement(s). --


Mark Rudd lives and teaches in Albuquerque, N.M. He can

be reached at www.markrudd.com.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this article. I found it very informative and thought-provoking and also very true. Developmental organizing and the role of women in the church is a key part of the civil rights movement, and other movements, that has been under-discussed,reported and documented. Consequently, we have continued to think that movements are lead by great leaders, not realizing that no matter how great the man or woman, if the people are not organized and working together toward a common purpose, no one will ever hear about the leader or the movement. There would be no Martin Luther King Jr. memorial or holiday without the Montgomery Bus Boycott and its key leaders and organizers --Rosa Parks, the Women's Political Action Committee which "organized" the boycott, and Coretta Scott King and others who put action to the words. The longterm "organizing" skills of Coretta Scott King should be documented as part of the essential history of the civil and human rights movements. Thanks for helping us to see the whole picture of what it takes to make change happen.

---Cynthia R. Milsap