Dreaming of Worlds to Come: A Letter to Young Activists

From the National Council of Elders (NCOE), founded by iconic civil right leaders, Rev. James Lawson, Dr. Dolores Huerta, Dr. Vincent Harding, Rev. Phil Lawson and Dr. Grace Lee Boggs, to bring together leaders of the 20th century movements for peace, freedom and justice to share their experiences with young activists in the 21st century. A re-post from roarmag.org.

The escalation of all forms of violence in our country over the last four years, the rise of anti-democratic forces demonstrated at the US Congress building on January 6 and the occupation of Washington, D.C. for President Biden’s inauguration add up to what may be among the most dangerous times in US history.

We elders, members of the National Council of Elders, invite you to pause and contextualize these events within a culture of violence that shapes America.

We know the US began with violence against Indigenous and African peoples. Through the centuries, the triple evils of racism, materialism and militarism have marked our country. At the same time, people have resisted these forces, organizing for freedom and justice.

And at every stage in our history, progressive movements have been met with legalized violence, carried out by federal, state and local authorities as they attempt to protect power and privilege by destroying individuals and organizations who challenge them. This state directed violence against progressive efforts encourages and supports extra-legal actions by right-wing extremist individuals and organizations. Violence like this, necessary for white supremacy to maintain itself, shaped our daily lives.

We elders ask you to consider and understand the violence that preceded the events of January 6.

We are a generation that came to consciousness with the image of Emmett Till’s battered and broken body seared into our minds and hearts. We have witnessed assassinations, imprisonment and brutality, often sanctioned by legal authorities in the name of law and order.

The murder of Medgar Evers touched all of us in 1963. As the field secretary for the Mississippi NAACP, engaged in organizing for voter rights and desegregation, Evers was under surveillance by both the FBI and Jackson police. On a June evening, he was gunned down in his driveway in front of his wife and children. The man charged with his murder was a member of the White Citizens Council. The FBI and local police were complicit. They had mysteriously disappeared the night of the killing. The killer was acquitted, twice, by all-white juries.

In November of 1979 in Greensboro North Carolina five members of the Communist Workers Party were gunned down as they gathered in a neighborhood to begin a march to protest the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. The FBI and local police were complicit in these killings. Again, the killers, members of these white supremist groups, were acquitted, twice.

In the 15 years between the death of Medgar Evers and the Greensboro Massacre, we witnessed a series of assassinations of civil rights workers by white terrorists, frequently acting with the knowledge of local and federal law enforcement. Some are names well known, like, Martin Luther King Jr., shot in front of more than 150 police officers. Most were people working locally, doing the most ordinary tasks of daily movement organizing. In 1989 the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama commemorated 40 people killed during the course the movement, beginning in 1955, with the murder of Rev. George Lee, who led voter registration drives in Mississippi. It ends with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in April 1968.

Nevertheless, we have come to understand the commitment and resilience of our movements, determined to endure and grow, in spite of this violence.

We elders want you to know that as our movements gained power, expanded and challenged the US government and resisted the war in Vietnam, federal and state violence against organizers accelerated.

The most notorious effort was the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) of the FBI and CIA. This program surveilled, disrupted, persecuted and killed. The government imprisoned activists, spread lies and drove people out of the country. COINTELPRO especially targeted the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, the Republic of New Afrika, the American Indian Movement, the Brown Berets, Students for Democratic Society, the Weather Underground, Chicanos, Puerto Rican independence organizations, feminists, queers and environmentalists. Their victims included Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, Zayd Shakur, Geronimo Pratt, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, Leonard Peltier and Assata Shakur.

This program was a “secret,” until the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an office in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971 and found documents exposing it. The program was supposed to have ended in 1976, but state violence is ongoing. Public officials encourage and sanction right-wing individuals to intimidate and kill people they consider threats to their power. Even if violence at the federal level is curtailed, local and state authorities are willing to use any means necessary to protect power and property.

This is normal in the culture of violence that shapes America. Long before Donald Trump encouraged the Proud Boys, or talked of “good people on all sides,” maintaining injustice required force.

We elders invite you to remember in this moment — despite this long history — the transformative potential of young people expressing a new sense of agency and confidence in their capacities to change this world and how this threatens those defending white supremacy. The extraordinary leadership of people of color, especially Black women, joining openly with queer and trans people nationally and internationally, gives the current movement strategic force and moral weight. Under this leadership, large numbers of people of European descent have stepped forward to challenge racism and inequality. The more possibilities of real systemic changes are evident, the more we should expect increased repression.

As young activists, we saw organizations fall apart, personal animosities intensify and distrust spread because of government actions. Grief, trauma and anger impacted us. But, like generations before us, we found strength and support in our communities. We learned to see ourselves as part of a long struggle that began before us, and will continue after. Still, many of us are deeply scarred, carrying with us the loss of those we loved, the knowledge of betrayals, often by our most intimate friends.

We carry the sorrows of lives confined and destroyed. Yet we hold on to the importance of kindness, care and forgiveness, knowing these are essential for our survival. We embrace the spirit of care emerging in today’s movements as people consciously address the heart needs of organizing together and weaving community.

We also have learned that no matter how painful, acts of state violence should be exposed. Public accounting moves us as a society closer to safety and security. Over the years we organized viewings of killing grounds, developed commissions, held tribunals, collected public testimonies and countered official accounts. In Greensboro, we launched the first Truth and Reconciliation process in the US. Last month, after more than four decades, we secured the first public apology from those who officially knew of the massacre and did nothing to stop it. We have seen that out of confronting violence and pain we can come to understand the need for respect and compassion among us.

We are still learning the intentionality required to create a culture of peace. We understand the importance of embracing the philosophy of non- violence as the heart of a new culture. We learned that often a person who advocated violence toward those we opposed was an agent, or someone damaged by trauma. Such calls to violate other people would only serve to make us vulnerable, isolated and self-destructive.

Out of our commitment to non-violence we were able to understand the distinction between violence and self-defense, between acting out of hate, or out of love for one another and our communities. We know our commitment to create a culture of peace saved lives. Creating beloved communities means putting love in the center of our organizing, holding out the possibility for all of us to transform toward our best selves. We learned our basis for trust in each other was our commitment to agreed-upon missions and objectives.

We have seen some of the worst that America represents, and yet over the course of decades, our movements have raised profound questions about peace, justice, gender and our responsibilities to the earth. We also dream and continue to work for new worlds, joining with a new generation of leaders accepting global responsibility and taking us far beyond what we could have imagined. We walk with all those who believe we can yet become a place of peace, valuing life, justice, joy and love.

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