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The Lost Lesson of the Civil Rights Movement


The commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. day has led Palestine solidarity activists and journalists alike to compare the current non-violent struggle in the Palestinian Territories with the American Civil Rights Movement. With the recent arrests of several prominent Palestinian leaders of the Anti-Apartheid Wall campaign, people around the world are answering the question “where is the Palestinian Martin Luther King?” with “in prison”. These comparisons are largely accurate. Abdullah Abu Rahme, Jamal Juma’a, Mohammed Othman, and others from the villages of Bil’in and Ni’lin who have been arrested in the last few months in Israel’s blatant attempt to suppress the Anti-wall campaign all invoke images of Martin Luther King. But while these individuals, along with others, have had significant success in internationalizing the Anti-Apartheid Wall campaign, and have continued non-violent civil disobedience in their communities and inspired others to do the same for the last few years, the groundswell of mass-mobilization that characterized the American Civil Rights Movement and other successful popular movements against oppression around the world is still conspicuously absent in most of Occupied Palestine.

The question we should be asking, then, is not “where is the Palestinian Martin Luther King?” but rather, “where is the Palestinian Ella Baker?”

Don’t know who Ella Baker is, or at least, what she did exactly? That was her intention.

Ella Baker, born in North Carolina in 1903, was widely known within the organizing circles of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1940’s to the 1960’s as a quiet, mobilizing force behind the development of the movement. Baker was the first paid organizer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (whose figurehead was Martin Luther King). When students in Greensboro, North Carolina sat-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960, she went to North Carolina and helped students found the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, which was responsible for organizing and coordinating the sit-in movement, the Freedom Rides, and later voter registrations in the Deep South. Most importantly, Ella Baker brought with her an ideology and practice of mass-mobilization movement building. With a strong distaste for charismatic leaders and centralized organizations, Baker worked tirelessly to spread the concept of local empowerment; instilling in the minds of Bob Moses, Julian Bond, and the like that real organizing must include a willingness to engage in “spadework”, the slow, unglamorous work of meeting people one on one and encouraging them to become involved in the movement. She lived the concept of ‘participatory democracy’, believing that true liberation can only come when the oppressed are shaping their own struggle for freedom.

Baker felt strongly that Southern Blacks would only succeed in their struggle for civil and political rights when they were empowered themselves to address these issues. She said,

“My basic sense of it has always been to get people to understand that in the long run they themselves are the only protection they have against violence or injustice …. People have to be made to understand that they cannot look for salvation anywhere but to themselves.”

Beyond her general distrust of organizations that emphasized leadership from the outside (she wrote the above as part of a critique of the organizing structure of the NAACP of the 1940’s, which was based in New York), she also always emphasized the need for the participatory democracy and the inclusion of everyone in shaping the struggle.

“I have always felt it was a handicap for oppressed people to depend so largely on a leader, because unfortunately in our culture, the charismatic leader usually becomes a leader because he has found a spot in the public limelight. It usually means that the media made him, and the media may undo him. There is also the danger in our culture that, because a person is called upon to give public statements and is acclaimed by the establishment, such a person gets to the point of believing that he is the movement. Such people get so involved with playing the game of being important that they exhaust themselves and their time and they don’t do the work of actually organizing people.”

Baker articulated perhaps the most important lesson from the American Civil Rights Movement, and one Palestinians interested in developing a mass, popular movement against the occupation are heeding.

Like King, the leaders of the current campaign against The Apartheid Wall and settlements have undeniably played an important role in galvanizing international awareness and support for their work. Their recent detentions highlight the threat they pose to the Israeli establishment, in large part due to their roles as charismatic leaders, providing inspiration and giving voice to average Palestinians, as well as their tireless work in attracting media attention: focusing an international spotlight on the plight of rural Palestinians facing land confiscation. But Ella Baker’s warning resonates strongly now; while international solidarity activists wax passionately about these leaders of the “popular struggle”, naming Bil’in as the “center of Palestinian popular resistance” they risk putting the cart before the horse: declaring a popular struggle doesn’t make one a reality.

As Baker warned, what has been pushed to the sidelines as we have all over-emphasized the importance of international attention and pressure, spectacular individual acts, and individual personalities, is “actually organizing people.” There has been little, if any “spadework”; encouraging participation in shaping the popular struggle by people from all social classes and walks of Palestinian life does not seem to be a priority at this time. While there are numerous organizations, government-aligned “national committees” and a self-selected “coordinating committee”, all committed to “popular” and “grassroots” organizing, the reality on the ground in Occupied Palestine does not yet bear this out.

Yes, weekly demonstrations have been added in one or two new locations, but the underlying organizing needed to expand beyond weekly, symbolic demonstrations to collective political action on a sustained level (like the sit-ins and voter registrations in the American South 50 years ago) is largely absent not only amongst rural Palestinians who are most affected by settlements and the Apartheid Wall, but also certainly among the residents of refugee camps and city centers who are even further removed from these campaigns. A year and a half after 4 students sat at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in North Carolina, an estimated 70,000 people had participated in similar sit-ins around the country. Likewise, tens of thousands of blacks in the South participated in marches to county courthouses and the like to try to register to vote. This is what a true popular movement looked like. It was certainly seen in Occupied Palestine in the 1980’s, but it is certainly not yet a reality on the ground in Occupied Palestine today.

So as we reflect on the American Civil Rights Movement and its lessons for the potential non-violent popular movement in Occupied Palestine, we should be cautious about the emphasis we put on the leaders of this “movement”. While playing an important role in providing inspiration and aiming the international spotlight on the ongoing oppression by the Israeli government, particularly in the form of land confiscation for the Apartheid Wall and settlement expansion, it takes a mass movement, not just charismatic leaders, to bring real political change.

The successes of the American Civil Rights Movement were not gained by one speech in Washington, one Freedom Summer, or even one bus boycott campaign. They were achieved after decades of organizing work, of developing local organizers and a movement centered on the belief that oppressed people could directly participate in changing the systems that governed their lives. As we look for ways to support Palestinian self-determination and liberation, in addition to continuing to find international venues for Palestinian voices we should also be seeking out those small projects, organizations, and unsung Palestinian heroes who have been organizing for a mass-movement for years. They may be avoiding the media limelight, but they are out there, and they are the ones who, like Ella Baker, will be remembered by the elderly, illiterate farmers, the women, and the other most marginalized groups in Occupied Palestine as the organizing force behind the popular movement that is coming. They will be responsible for creating the groundswell that will lift the leaders to fame and lead to Palestinian liberation. As Ella Baker said of Martin Luther King, “The movement made Martin, not Martin the movement”.

Mousa Abu Maria and Bekah Wolf are co-founders of the Palestine Solidarity Project. The all-Palestinian PSP committee is currently designing its program for an organizing and educational center in the village of Beit Ommar (where Mousa is from and PSP is based) dedicated to building a mass-movement for Palestinian freedom and justice in the Betlehem and Hebron Districts, which can hopefully be used as a model of organizing throughout Occupied Palestine.

For more information on Ella Baker and the organizing principles of the Civil Rights Movement, see I’ve Got the Light of Freedom by Charles Payne.

Mousa Abu Maria and Bekah Wolf

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