Extracting a legacy of Black, Southern organizing for Palestine

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In 1967 the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), arguably one of the most influential organizing groups in the South in the 1960s, published a two-page pamphlet titled “Third World Round-up: The Palestine Problem: Test Your Knowledge.” The short yet controversial pamphlet included 32 facts about Israel’s June 1967 war and described Israel as “a colonial state backed by U.S. imperialism, and Palestinians as victims of racial subjugation,” as writer Robin D.G. Kelley puts it in his 2014 essay “Another Freedom Summer.“

In the aforementioned essay, Kelley describes how the conditions of Mississippi’s 1964 Freedom Summer, a statewide and summer-long campaign aimed at registering as many disenfranchised Black people to vote as possible, played a monumental role in creating a paradigm shift among how Black organizers saw their position in world politics, including the Israel-Palestine conflict. “SNCC’s experiences in Mississippi would have a profound effect on the way many activists viewed the rest of the world,” Kelley states, referring to the violent, racist repression that was the response to the Freedom Summer campaigns that spread across the state and included dozens of church bombings, over 100 beatings and shootings, and many were left dead, fired, evicted, and thrown off their welfare rolls for attempting to register to vote.

A SNCC newsletter from 1967

What emerges three years after the June 1967 war, with that small two-page pamphlet setting the stage in many ways as Kelley suggests, is then SNCC Chairman Kwame Ture’s leading of the organizing into becoming a large hub of support to the anti-Zionist movement in the Southern U.S. What was once a longstanding tradition of Black intellectuals and activists identifying with Zionism as a movement for self-determination, most notably Marcus Garvey’s “Black Zionism” movement, “gave way to a radical critique of Zionism as a form of settler colonialism akin to American racism and South African apartheid.”

It is in this vein that SNCC then led door-to-door educational programs throughout the late 1960s to discuss U.S. imperialism, mainly the war in Vietnam and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Having taken a sharp internationalist turn, SNCC and its massive influence across the South, was quickly denounced by the Department of Defense in a memo which stated: “[SNCC] SNCC can no longer be considered a civil rights group. It has become a racist organization with black supremacy ideals and an expressed hatred for whites.” Of the many reasons listed for this disparaging, one of the first one’s is that SNCC “charged that Israel was guilty of atrocities during its war with the Arabs,” and “ called Israelites, “Zionist terrorists who deliberately slaughtered and mutilated Arab men, women and children.”

What we have in this often overlooked legacy of SNCC’s international solidarity organizing, an international solidarity which in many ways predated that of many other Southern Black groups that eventually came around to it, is the linkage to the Black South’s organizing for Palestine. While racism exists in every state, city, and county across the U.S., its scent carries a particular stench across the South, where the legacies of Jim Crow still linger barely decades away. This is why in historicizing and understanding Black-Palestinian solidarity, which can also be found in some form across every city in the U.S., one should also remain cognizant of the legacy of Southern and Black organizing that has taken place and, in many ways, is still leading the way.

The particularity of racism’s history in the South has not been overlooked, and has given way to an understanding of immense commonality between contemporary Palestine and the Jim Crow apartheid system in the U.S. It should come at no surprise, then, that some of Palestine’s most well-known voices of solidarity from the Black community have come from those with Southern backgrounds, using their lived experiences through Jim Crow to call for action. Both Alice Walker and Angela Davis lived through the violent apartheid system of the South in the 1950s and 1960s, and have many times written and spoke about this connection of what they have seen in Palestine and experienced during Jim Crow. In an interview with Democracy Now, Walker went as far as to say it is actually worse in Palestine than what her family experienced under Jim Crow. Writing in 2012 after visiting Palestine, Davis stated: “we here in the U.S. should be especially conscious of the similarities between historical Jim Crow practices and contemporary regimes of segregation in Occupied Palestine.”

What writer Keith P. Feldman calls “Black Power’s Palestine” becomes present in the ways people like Davis and Walker make connections to the Black freedom struggle and that of the Palestinians; a radical calling of trans-cultural unity in the face of U.S. imperialism and the fight for self-determination. And while I would agree that Black Power’s Palestine is certainly a lively concoction of liberation struggle, we have to take the analysis one step further to include the experiences which are particular to and historically special for the Southern iterations of Black-Palestinian solidarity organizing. We have to understand the South, which largely includes and is upheld by the Black South, as well, a focal point of organizing work that culminates the Black experience with Jim Crow and the Palestinian life under Israeli apartheid as a collective identity, a collective struggle.

Feldman is concerned with analyzing the ways in which Black Power’s Palestine became a cultural and epistemic endowment within domestic civil rights discourse through saturation to racial violence. Yet, we have to take particular note that for those touched by the Freedom Summer repression and later affected by SNCC’s Third World campaigns, or who share the experiences of those like Walker and Davis and are able to make that Jim Crow connection, there is what I would call the South’s Palestine, which is often Black as hell and exists both within and parallel to Feldman’s. And while for many years one had to refer to the times of the Civil Rights Movement to recall the South’s Palestine, we may now be experiencing a rebirth, or rather the full-actualization of its prominence.

One of the key examples of this, aside from the Jim Crow analogy itself, comes from the fact that Black churches have long held themselves as places of social justice and political dialog. Moreover, the South still maintains a Bible Legacy that positions Christianity’s strong reigns strong throughout the region. Thus, it is no small feat that in the past two years, coinciding with the National Black Presbyterian Caucus announcing their solidarity with Palestine in their newsletter, the Presbyterian Church USA, United Church of Christ and United Methodist Church all divested from Israel in various powerful ways. Along with this, these three church institutions issued statements of solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives, respectively, and have even supported delegations to Palestine.

This religious reckoning with Palestine should not be extracted from the influence rippling throughout the South and illustrates a continuum of the church’s influence in social justice. In cities like Atlanta where popular Black churches and racial justice-based churches have strongholds in the Black communities, this connection is almost automatic and connected to the legacy of groups like the SCLC and SNCC.

We can also look to the recent years of increasingly grassroots activity across the South for Palestine in several cities. In Atlanta for example, Palestinian, Black, and Jewish organizers have coalesced for several years now to protest GILEE (Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange), a program which sends Atlanta police officers to be trained in Israel. While voices against the GILEE program have certainly been present and protesting for many years, this tension took a newly prominent footing in 2016 when Black organizers in the city included an end to the GILEE program in their demands to the city.

And while teach-ins, educational workshops, documentary screenings, and other events dedicated to educating Atlanta’s citizens on the Zionist/Palestinian struggles are common, in the first months alone of 2018 we’ve already seen several actions that signal the city’s direction may be headed even more towards support for Palestine. A collective of Atlanta artists dropped large banners of solidarity all across the city in January, which was followed days later by a large protest at the Israeli consulate to demand the freeing of Palestinian political prisoner Ahed Tamimi and the Georgia Peace Coalition endorsed an online solidarity action for the African immigrants being deported in Israel.

In other Southern cities similar fights are taking place, and on varying levels. New Orleans recently, after years of protests and organizing initiatives, has seemingly led the way on Palestinian organizing in the South, becoming the first city in the south to pass a resolution in support of the BDS initiative. The resolution was drafted by the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee, which includes a broad coalition of organizations like the Congress of Day Laborers, Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, BreakOUT! and Jewish Voice for Peace New Orleans. Following what has been described as “bullying” by pro-Israel groups, the New Orleans city council rescinded the resolution. However, this rescinding is likely emblematic of a larger truth of organizing: that when the work of organizers is taken seriously and begins to create change, those on the side of the oppressor begin to feel the heat and retaliate boldly in response. This resolution has in many ways set the stage for the South, as it is one of the largest cities in the country to have such a resolution passed according to the Intercept.

Other battles have taken place over the years as well. In places like Durham, North Carolina, Houston, Texas, St. Louis, Missouri, and Florida, BDS-related battles and Palestinian solidarity has been increasing, as groups like the Dream Defenders continue to facilitate material solidarity actions between Black people and Palestinians. Just this week the Florida-based Dream Defenders issued a statement of solidarity with Ahed Tamimi and all other imprisoned Palestinian children, with nearly 30 notable individuals such as Michelle Alexander, Rosario Dawson, Cornel West, and Robin D.G. Kelley signing on. And while many southern states have signed explicit anti-BDS bills into law, it seems that with the new wave of rising activism, grassroots organizing, and education around the conflict and BDS in the South, we may be witnessing a revival or, as I mentioned earlier, of the South’s Palestine. That Freedom Summer experience that Kelley described as changing how many activists in the South saw the rest of the world may be circling back, wherein the protesting against ICE deportations, police violence, and mass incarceration is once more being placed beside the plight of Palestinians.

Further tapping into the South’s Palestine, we can observe Alice Walker’s reflection on a trip to Palestine in 2009, where she states:

“I remembered aloud, us being Southerners, my own anger at the humiliations, bombings, assassinations that made weeping an endless activity for black people, for centuries, and how when we finally got to a courtroom which was supposed to offer justice, the judge was likely to blame us for the crime done against us and to call us chimpanzees for making a fuss.

In here one can see that it is not just in the recalling of the physical violence or repression of forced racial segregation that makes the Black South’s connection to Palestine. It is also the shame of legality that stood behind the violence and undoubtedly upheld it; that inherently immoral, farce “legality” that takes place in the courtrooms and in the eyes of the international law that not only dehumanizes and mocks the racially subjugated subject but protects and authorizes their oppressor.

It is likely that during its time, many were unaware that the Jim Crow experience would later have a profound effect on their internationalist politics that it would birth within organizers, allowing many to make the connections from the U.S. South, to Palestine, to Apartheid South Africa, to the Vietnam. The peculiarities of Southern and Black activists we speak of today likely did not know that their now-iconic Freedom Rides would later inspire the Palestinian “Freedom Bus”, or that their experiences having to drink segregated and unclean water would later be a strong analogy for describing the ways in which Palestinians have to fight Israel for access to water. However, throughout all of this, they persisted, and fought, and as time continued these connections have been central focal points to solidarity, ones that have allowed Southern activism to be positioned through collective experiences in conversation with global imperialism and racial subjugation. No, solidarity organizing for Palestinians is not contained to the South. In fact, this organizing likely occurs across the country at varying rates probably higher in other places. However, the South has a legacy that cannot be ignored in this fight; one that is being reckoned with, actualized, and drawn upon as political and emotional spectacle to form its new movement for Palestine.

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Thanks very much for sharing this thoughtful article!

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“The particularity of racism’s history in the South has not been overlooked, and has given way to an understanding of immense commonality between contemporary Palestine and the Jim Crow apartheid system in the U.S.” Cork commemorates the solidarity of the Choctaw people during the Great Irish Famine, they sent money for famine relief while being exterminated it an irony that Middleton produces the finest Whiskey… “But because of one noble act of kindness, the… Read more »