Michelle Alexander: I can no longer just stay in my lane

Michelle Alexander: I can no longer just stay in my lane

September 3, 2013

by Michelle Alexander

For the past several years, I have spent virtually all my working hours writing about or speaking about the immorality, cruelty, racism and insanity of our nation’s latest caste system: mass incarceration. On this Facebook page I have written and posted about little else. But as I pause today to reflect on the meaning and significance of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I realize that my focus has been too narrow.

Michelle Alexander graphic, webFive years after the March, Dr. King was speaking out against the Vietnam War, condemning America’s militarism and imperialism – famously stating that our nation was the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” He saw the connections between the wars we wage abroad and the utter indifference we have for poor people and people of color at home. He saw the necessity of openly critiquing an economic system that will fund war and will reward greed, hand over fist, but will not pay workers a living wage. Five years after the March on Washington, Dr. King was ignoring all those who told him to just stay in his lane, just stick to talking about civil rights.

Yet here I am decades later, staying in my lane. I have not been speaking publicly about the relationship between drones abroad and the War on Drugs at home. I have not been talking about the connections between the corrupt capitalism that bails out Wall Street bankers, moves jobs overseas and forecloses on homes with zeal, all while private prisons yield high returns and expand operations into a new market: caging immigrants. I have not been connecting the dots between the NSA spying on millions of Americans, the labeling of mosques as “terrorist organizations” and the spy programs of the 1960s and ‘70s – specifically the FBI and COINTELPRO programs that placed civil rights advocates under constant surveillance, infiltrated civil rights organizations and assassinated racial justice leaders.

I have been staying in my lane. But no more. In my view, the most important lesson we can learn from Dr. King is not what he said at the March on Washington, but what he said and did after. In the years that followed, he did not play politics to see what crumbs a fundamentally corrupt system might toss to the beggars of justice. Instead he connected the dots and committed himself to building a movement that would shake the foundations of our economic and social order, so that the dream he preached in 1963 might one day be a reality for all. He said that nothing less than “a radical restructuring of society” could possibly ensure justice and dignity for all. He was right.

I am still committed to building a movement to end mass incarceration, but I will not do it with blinders on. If all we do is end mass incarceration, this movement will not have gone nearly far enough. A new system of racial and social control will be born again, all because we did not do what King demanded we do: connect the dots between poverty, racism, militarism and materialism. I’m getting out of my lane. I hope you’re already out of yours.

This statement was posted by Michelle Alexander to her Facebook page on Aug. 28, 2013.

Ella Baker and the Limits of Charismatic Masculinity l Black Agenda Report

Ella Baker and the Limits of Charismatic Masculinity

 Pascal Robert

Tue, 02/19/2013

by Pascal Robert

Ella Baker, the consummate organizer, “was very critical of the hot shot Black preachers who would seem to mesmerize their audience with soaring oratory, then leave and expect others to implement an agenda.” She put forward a grassroots critique of overwhelmingly male Black leadership, and showed “more wisdom, courage, and vision then almost all of them.”

Ella Baker and the Limits of Charismatic Masculinity

by Pascal Robert

This article originally appeared on Mr. Robert’s website, Thought Merchant.

She believed in giving people the power to choose their direction and make demands.”

In perhaps one of the most important biographies of a civil rights leader published, Professor Barbara Ransby has conveyed the epic life and struggle of a woman whose sheer skill, leadership, and ability to mobilize the marginalized and dispossessed to full participation in their fight for human dignity is almost unprecedented in American history. In her book, Ella Baker & The Black Freedom Movement, Professor Ransby documents the life of Ella Baker, a Black woman born to a middle class family in North Carolina in 1903 who, after witnessing the staunch spiritually based dedication of her mother to serving the poor in the South, transforms into a sheer force of will that worked with all the major civil rights organizations of her time, and helped mobilize to create two of the most crucial to the Civil Rights Movement: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Before we continue to heap praise or Hosannas on men like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Wyatt T. Walker, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. DuBois, or any of these other gentlemen we idolize as embodiments of masculine heroism, we should know about one woman, of many, who had more wisdom, courage, and vision then almost all of them: Ms. Ella Baker.

Baker believed in empowering the most common person, whether a sharecropper, teenager, or illiterate vagrant with skills to make demands on the political establishment.”

What made Baker’s method of organizing both effective and revolutionary is that it completely dismissed the traditional paradigm of leadership that had plagued the Black community from its earliest history in North America, stemming mostly from the Black Church: charismatic masculine leadership based on oratory and exhibitionism. Baker believed in empowering the most common person, whether a sharecropper, teenager, or illiterate vagrant with skills to make demands on the political establishment. Baker believed that people did not need fancy leaders with degrees and pedigree to tell them what was best for them. She believed in giving people the power to choose their direction and make demands, and put pressure on institutions without depending on big shots with fancy suits. In her book Professor Ransby notes:

At every opportunity [Ella] Baker reiterated the radical idea that educated elites were not the natural leaders of Black people. Critically reflecting on her work with the NAACP, she observed, “The Leadership was all from the professional class, basically. I think these are the factors that have kept it [the NAACP] from moving to a more militant position.”

Moreover, Ella Baker was very critical of the hot shot Black preachers who would seem to mesmerize their audience with soaring oratory then leave and expect others to implement an agenda. As Ransby further notes at one point Ella Baker asked Dr. King directly “…why he allowed such hero worship, and he responded simply, that it was what people wanted. This answer did not satisfy Baker in the least.”

Ella Baker did not mince words on her thoughts of Dr. King’s leadership style and vocally spoke out on its limitations:

Baker described [Dr. King] as a pampered member of Atlanta’s black elite who had the mantle of leadership handed to him rather than having had to earn it, a member of a coddled ‘silver spoon brigade.’ He wore silk suits and spoke with a silver tongue.

…In Baker’s eyes King did not identify enough with the people he sought to lead. He did not situate himself among them but remained above them.

“…Baker felt the focus on King drained the masses of confidence in themselves. People often marveled at the things King could do that they could not; his eloquent speeches overwhelmed as well as inspired.”

Obama has been as anemic in delivering real change and effective at stifling progress as Ella Baker worried Dr. King would have been.”

The limitations of this charismatic masculinity noted by Ella Baker are profound, particularly in today’s political age when we have a president like Barack Obama who often tries to channel the traditions of charismatic leadership and oratory from the Black tradition. Ironically, Obama has been as anemic in delivering real change and effective at stifling progress as Ella Baker worried Dr. King would have been. So perhaps in a strange twist, we have found a similarity between King and Obama after all.

Often in America, when discussing prominent Black trailblazers who fought the injustices of segregation and racial oppression, we see the same images of a variety of men. I somewhat jokingly call them our superhero black male icons. This phenomenon mimics the more noxious western patriarchal fascination with viewing history as a series of events being shaped and guided by the hands of a strong capable man embodying all our fantasies about leadership, masculinity, and sometimes fatherhood.

The danger of such imagery is that it often both obscures and denies the scope of nuanced factors, issues, and circumstances in shaping the events from which our societies were born. Furthermore, such narratives often exclude any consideration of female agency in effecting the great events that have transpired over time.

Barbara Ransby should be applauded for putting a halt to this tradition and setting the record straight with her towering biography Ella Baker & The Black Freedom Movement. As a man still troubled with patriarchal sexist notions, this book opened my eyes to ways in which the roles of women are often neglected and intentionally obscured. Let us all read the story of Ella Baker and make sure such injustices do not continue.

Pascal Robert is an Iconoclastic Haitian American Lawyer, Blogger, and Online Activist for Haiti. For years his work appeared under the Blog Thought Merchant: http://thoughtmerchant.wordpress.com/ You can also find his work on the Huffington Post here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pascal-robert/ He can be reached via twitter at: https://twitter.com/probert06 @probert06 or thoughtmerchant@gmail.com

 

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