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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.

Devyn Springer

Devyn Springer is an Atlanta writer, activist and artist who recently published his debut book "Grayish-Black" which is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter at @HalfAtlanta.

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7 Responses

  1. JosephA on February 16, 2018, 11:06 pm

    Thanks very much for sharing this thoughtful article!

  2. on February 18, 2018, 1:50 pm

    Perhaps the most exciting development in the struggle for human rights is the current coming together of like-minded people, groups and movements for humanity’s sake (perhaps we can call them the “Neo New Left” or “Progressives” – a newer perhaps more broad based version from the New Left movement of the 60s and 70s –

    There are many opinions on how the Neo New Left should organize themselves as a collective and I’m sure this will forever be evolving to suit the needs of the participants and society at large. Civil activism seems to be in a state of flux with new shapes of activism forming – But one thing is for sure, people are feeling the need to come together more and more in the US and elsewhere – Lots of reasons for this but the underlying catalyst is the blatant theft of people’s basic human rights because of who they are and not what they have done. Non-whites, non-Christians, non-heterosexuals, non-binaries, non-fascists, non-wealthy, women, and many other oppressed and marginalized people(s) and their supporters are awakening in large numbers and reaching out to each other. They see similarities in their respective struggles/conflicts and how to resolve same.

    The plight of the Palestinians is now firmly entrenched in this Neo New Left. Palestinians and their supporters are at the marches, becoming members in progressive movements and supporting and advocating for justice all over the world.

    The Zionists have had little options. They know that they must maintain partisan support in the US to ensure Israel continues to push through their agenda. Consequently, the Zionists have had to reach out and make in-roads to both the “left” and right political camps.

    Regarding the left, Zionists have been shunned at large progressive marches like the Dyke, SlutWalk and women’s marches. To combat this they have started forming their own pseudo progressive groups like the laughable Zioness Movement ( Every opportunity they get, these Zionists try and infiltrate progressive movements screaming racism if they are shunned. Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature professor at Columbia University, Hamid Dabashi, put it this way “Zionists are master thieves, they steal Palestinian land and culture, they steal Jewish history and heritage, and they steal every progressive movement to twist it to their advantage—beware!” –

    Aside from trying to form their own pseudo progressive groups, Zionists have used their MSM clout to place more pro Zionist commentators/journalists in what were traditionally considered left leaning media outlets/programs like the New York Times (NYT) and Real Time with Bill Maher (a self-proclaimed Zionist and Islamophobe). Both the NYT and Real Time have given the likes of Bari Weiss a platform to spew her vile form of hatred. Glen Greenwald did a piece on Bari Weiss and the NYT in the Intercept which was very informative – Support for Zionism has had the effect of moving leftist organizations and people to the right leaving a growing number of people looking for alternative political parties and media outlets. The Green Party, Justice Democrats, Jimmy Dore Show, Young Turks or Secular Talk have all popped up to fill this growing void and further the agenda of this Neo New Left who are all proponents for equal rights for the Palestinians.

    Regarding the right, Zionists have had to reach out to their white Zionist compatriots like Richard Spencer for comfort and support dragging along, by implication/association, the PEP crowd who, consequently, are beginning to question their commitment to Zionism. The Justice Minister of Israel, the vile Ayelet Shaked, has come right out and endorsed apartheid in Israel – which I am sure the white Zionists will latch onto to further their cause. It’s anyone guess as to whether this PEP crowd (the worst of the Zionist movement in my opinion) will eventually see the light. Disentangling Zionism from Judaism is apparently no small feat notwithstanding the unabashed racism committed by Zionists and Israel. The further right Israel moves the further right the left in the US will move (thanks to AIPAC and MSM) putting a real strain on the current relationship the left has with the Neo New Left. We can only hope for the straw that breaks the camel’s back when it comes to the Democrats and the Neo New Left.

    The more and more connections made between the marginalized and oppressed, the more and more change will come. The Palestinians I know are incredibly delighted that others are now seeing the similarities in their struggle(s) for equality. They feel invigorated and empowered knowing friends are close by and working towards similar ends.

    Great article about what I believe is the most exciting part of the Palestinian movement – banding together with like-minded and similarly situated people, groups and movements to further humanity and equal rights for all. Thank you for sharing an informative well researched read.

    • annie on February 18, 2018, 2:17 pm

      LHunter, re your link to Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. did you know Robert Kagan is a senior associate? did you know hafsa halawa, who wrote the segment on the middle east at your link, is a fellow of the atlantic council? and Carnegie Endowment routinely work with the state department. the “Neo New Left” sounds like old hat to me.

      also, just curious, did you coin that phrase? because i can’t find any reference to “Neo New Left” on google. and why not just call it the New New left or the Neo Neo Left? or the New Neo Left? who coined the phrase? if not you, do you know who?

      • on February 19, 2018, 12:49 pm

        Annie – Re: the Carnegie article – my apologies if i have been less than studious in vetting the organization and their contributors and their associations. I read the summary, intro, Egyptian part and the conclusion out of interest and didn’t get the impression it was written to push an agenda (but I could be wrong and often am). I cited the article to support the preceding claim and the claim that activism is on the rise. Given the association between Carnegie and the State Department i wouldn’t doubt that the cited report may be used for deplorable purposes.

        I’m now becoming aware of what Robert Kagan stands for (he wouldn’t be invited to my home) and what the Atlantic Council is all about (right-wing think tank (propaganda machine) full of former CIA types) – thank you for that.

        The “Neo New Left” I coined as an attempt to be clever – did a short research paper on the New Left for a University course on social contagion way back and thought I would add the Neo to it. I’ve accused others of muddying the water and may have just done so here.

  3. gamal on February 19, 2018, 8:34 am

    “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 Native American Choctaws will be forever etched in Irish minds.

    When these gentle folk were at their most downtrodden, they raised $710 and sent it across the Atlantic to Ireland, to ease our famine woes.

    It’s one Corkman’s job to make sure the Irish people never forget this extraordinary gift.

    Sculptor Alex Pentek is finishing ‘Kindred Spirits’, a giant, stainless steel sculpture in praise of the Choctaw people.

    “I wanted to show the courage, fragility and humanity that they displayed in my work,” Pentek says.

    When the nine eagle feathers are installed in Bailic Park, in Midleton, in Co Cork, they will command people’s attention.”

    • on February 19, 2018, 12:53 pm

      gamal – wonderful story – the power of compassion/humanity – thanks for sharing

    • Marnie on February 25, 2018, 12:26 am

      Lovely story of brotherhood. And the sculpture – divine.

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