Opening Comments from the Southern Movement Assembly by Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons
Thank you, Steph, and all of the Southern Movement Assembly teams for your years of organizing across the South. As an SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) Veteran, the fact that your strategy for Community and Movement governance is inspired by the political commitment of my dear former comrade. Fannie Lou Hamer, who said, Nobody is Free until Everybody is Free, aligns your work and the work of the 1960s Freedom Movement. I am glad to be among you.
I know everyone on this call is well aware that we are living in unprecedented times. It is in some ways worse than what we faced during the years of struggle in what is commonly called the Civil Rights Movement. As I know that you know, in reality, the Civil Rights Movement was just one of the periods in the long African American Struggle against, White Supremacy, Racism, and Economic Exploitation.
In some ways, the crisis we face today is a repeat of the Civil Rights Period in terms of State and Police violence against Black People. Then there was unfettered visible racism upheld by the legal structures as well as a social practice. Then it was legal in many places in the South to prevent Black people from registering to vote, to restrict our access to public facilities like libraries, museums, zoos, parks and playgrounds, and the like. Schools and other publicly funded institutions were segregated by law and upheld by so-called “officers of the law.” This was the system under which I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee in the 1950s and 60s.
An army of Black People and our allies, who made up the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement, forced the Federal Government to declare these laws unconstitutional and to send in federal officials to enforce the new laws, including Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed school segregation, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In some ways, this was a Second Reconstruction. It took the judicial arm of the federal government to abolish these unjust laws. We the people made the federal government act by our organizing a mass movement that engaged in direct action, our feet in the streets, our filling the jails and in some cases, being killed. I urge you to look at the Eyes on the Prize series you can watch for free on YouTube to be reminded of what it took for us to wrench these concessions from the Federal government.
To accomplish this uprising of the people, SNCC & other Civil Rights groups and the local leaders did Citizen Education classes all across the South, in churches, beauty and barbershops, in Masonic lodges, in people’s living rooms, on front and back porches. We gathered anyplace we could in the name of freedom to educate and to ready our people for action.
One of the big differences between then and now was that we in the South were demanding that the Federal Government live up to its founding creeds spelled out in the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is remembered for his soaring eloquent calls upon this government to live up to its creeds, as he said, “do what you wrote in these documents!”
One main reason why this worked is that the U.S. was in the midst of the Cold War, battling with the Soviet Union to be seen as the leader of the “Free World.” The U.S. was vying against the Soviet Union for the loyalty and alliances of the 3/4s World made up of African and Asian People who had broken free of colonialism and started on the Road to Liberation and Self-Determination. The Black Struggle for Freedom was inspired by what was happening across the globe. And these newly independent countries were very interested in what was happening to Black and Brown people in the U.S. Seeing us being killed, beaten, and terrorized for trying to register to vote, to visit a library, or to get served a cup of coffee in a diner, made the U.S. look bad. These images being broadcast around the world were showing the hypocrisy of the U.S. and were undermining its efforts to win the Cold War conflict with the Soviets.
This forced the U.S. to reign in the South by ending the Jim Crow (legal segregation) legislation that began to be enacted at the end of the Reconstruction era. The Black Freedom Movement’s success in the South, paved the way for so many other marginalized groups, women, Gays & Lesbians, people with varying abilities to get many of the rights they had been denied.
Things are different now. The problems we are facing are no longer Southern. Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida are everywhere; their Capitals are in the White House and extend to the Justice Department, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and in many Governor’s Mansion and State Legislatures across this country. While we have been winning many of the battles we have waged, the reactionary Right Wing forces did not go away. They have not sat still. In many ways, they have out-organized us. They have stealthily and systematically been building Power at the State and Federal levels. The Election of Donald J. Trump to the Presidency has been their most visible and crowning achievement. While the Right Wing forces that animate the Republican Party are a minority, they have been able to seize the levers of Federal and in many States, Power. They have shown us that they are willing to do anything to hold onto this power. They are willing to destroy all vestiges or even any semblance of democracy that exists. For them, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights can be damned. All they care about is Power and the continuation of White Supremacy.
Make no mistake; we are up against powerful forces. Trump’s behavior on that train wreck of a debate last night (September 29, 2020) shows not only his personal ruthlessness to stay in Power, but also the cruelty of Mitch McConnell and all the Republicans who look the other way as he wrecks this country in pursuit of their common goals.
The re-election of Trump would solidify their Power and would be disastrous for the Progressive Movement in our Country. We can see what almost four years of the Trump/Republican-dominated Senate have done. They have rolled back so many of the gains we have made over these last fifty years. Four more years of their control would completely eviscerate the Voting Rights Act, Women’s Control of their bodies, Gay and Lesbian Rights, our efforts to slow down climate change, for Health Care expansion and affordability, Viability and Expansion of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and to finally achieve a federal minimum wage of $15.00+ an hour.
As you know, we are facing multiple life-threatening conditions, including a health pandemic, the looming threat of climate change, an economic collapse, the use of military and paramilitary forces against us when we protest as well as the threat of felony charges and long prison terms if arrested, and escalated violence to our persons, our homes and our communities from racists Right Wing White Supremacist citizens. We Just heard Trump during the so-called debate, debacle, call upon a White terrorist militia group, the Proud Boys, to “Stand By,” presumably until needed to put down our People’s Movement.
During the Civil Rights Movement, a people’s movement forced the Federal Government to do the Right Thing. Today, many arms of the Federal Government are the villains. We the people must save ourselves.
The Trump/McConnell planned Coup must be Stopped! In spite of all their plans to steal the election (and believe me, there are numerous scenarios that we will discuss in your breakout groups), we the people can and must Stop this Coup! We must prepare for massive direct action, just as we have done when millions of us around this country took to the Street after the murder of George Floyd. We will need millions in the Street, prepared to shut down key institutions and to refuse to accept the results of a stolen election.
We can learn from the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s, 60s, & 70s. We can learn from the current mass movement against police violence. We are seeing what having masses of people engaged in sustained protests in many cities across this country has done to change the narrative about police violence as well as change some of their most harmful policies.
Only we can save ourselves. The Southern Movement Assembly is poised to be in the forefront of the People’s Movement we will organize to save our democracy and our very lives.
A Luta Continua, The Struggle Continues!