Sunday, September 8, 2013

If You Want Peace, Fight for Justice

My earliest memories are based in a childhood world bordered by the two blocks along Giles Avenue from 37th Street to 35th Street in Chicago, IL. My mother and father lived in the rented second floor of a regal brownstone mid-block north from 37th Street. But the true hub of this world was the home of my great-grandmother and great-aunts on the corner.

My great-grandfather had purchased the building in 1919. In the basement there was a “shop” down a short stairway and under a green awning. This was Melon King. Family myth holds that the watermelons sold, iced and by the slice, on enameled trays at tables surrounded by “ice cream parlor” chairs, were the result of cross-breeding on the melons that Samuel and his friend had developed on a farm outside Charleston, S.C. Each year, the crop was trucked to Chicago and people flocked from all over the city to savor the deep red flesh that was as sweet as cotton candy.

As a Winningham, I was the “rich kid” on the block. There are lots of stories about that, especially during the first twelve years of my life when my great-grandmother was alive. But it is only recently, that I have come to fully realize how rich was the life of this community.

At the opposite end of my world from Melon King was the “Armory.” As a child, I was always fascinated by this what seemed a truly huge building. Having no idea what an armory was, I always thought it was just the name of someplace big. I did not know that it was the Eighth Regiment Armory, built in 1914-1915, the first armory built in the United States for an African-American military regiment.

The Eighth Regiment evolved from a volunteer militia formed in 1871, the Hannibal Guard. During WWI, the Hannibal Guard, which had undergone a number of name changes to accommodate racist objections, became a division of the Illinois National Guard as part of the 370th U.S. Infantry, the “Fighting 8th.” In 1927, a victory monument was erected to honor the achievements of the Eighth Regiment. The impressive monument remains at 35th Street and King Drive.

 A fascinating history with so many untold layers, but what drew me to thoughts of the armory was a little historical tidbit, also with many, many untold layers.

On February 14, 1936, more than 800 delegates, representing 500 different organizations from across the nation, gathered in the Eighth Regiment Armory for 3 days of an event which inaugurated the National Negro Congress and was designed to build a national constituency to pressure the Roosevelt Administration for labor and civil rights.

I am so familiar with the street that I can see the crowd of people who gathered outside of the armory to listen to loudspeaker broadcasts of the sessions inside. The discussions concerned sharecroppers, interracial organizing, women and labor, the arts, business, and the war in Ethiopia.

The next year, several young leaders who had attended the Chicago event formed the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) in Richmond, Virginia (later moving their headquarters to Birmingham, Alabama). Over the next twelve years the organization membership grew to 11,000 at its peak. The SNYC worked to make southern blacks aware of their rights, especially regarding the vote, and of strategies for protest, including anti-lynching campaigns. They worked for the establishment of unions and fair employment practices. Notably, the SNYC was associated with two other organizations working on these issues, the Communist Party USA and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Southern Negro Youth Congress members meet with Idaho Senator Glen Taylor, 1947.
Sallye Bell Davis has been characterized as “the most active lay member” of the SNYC. I’m learning (surprise!) that the role of female activists is definitely underrepresented in the predominant histories of the political and labor movements of this period and through the 1950s.

So, if your mother was Sallye Bell Davis and you had developed in a household that included an independent and entrepreneurial father, Frank Davis, and the goings and comings of intellectuals and activists, and, communists, what kind of adult would you become? One answer is that you would have become an adult like Angela Davis.

On this past Saturday, the Crossroads Fund presented Bending the Arc: The Robert Howard Annual Symposium. Cheryl Corley moderated a panel representing the YMCA Youth Safety and Violence Prevention Initiative; Project Nia; Violence Interrupter; the Marquette University Peace Works Program; and, with special guest and commentator, Toni Preckwinkle and, Keynote Speaker, Angela Davis.

Angela Davis. I remember that she was added to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List in 1970. I remember thinking upon reading Soledad Brother that George Jackson had little of substance to say about her (but, maybe that was my own gender bias at the time). I remember that Nixon called her “a dangerous terrorist.” I remember she was acquitted of the legal charges against her. In retrospect, I think that Angela Davis became so publicized because she is a woman. She became the female face of the Black Panthers, and possibly, it was that she became the warning to black women that gender would not protect them. Black women knew that. Perhaps it was actually a warning to white feminists.

There were lots of warnings in those days, punctuated with object lessons like the events at Kent State, Jackson State, Grant Park, and the apartment of Fred Hampton. Okay, I won’t go there - back to the present:

I think that this symposium was extremely important, and extremely boring. It was important because the panel represented people and organizations extending their resources to find solutions and work to their effect. It was boring not because of what was said or how it was said, but because it is impossible to say everything that must be said in 2 hours. It was boring because I was antsy for the call to action.

The contemporary situation is well-defined. Violence has overrun urban communities. Education is plummeting to mediocracy at best and total ineffectiveness at worst. Anger poisons the young, and, the police. These things we know. But, what is to be done? Where is today’s National Congress? (Commemorating the March on Washington ain’t it.)

It feels to me that established leadership at the national level in every segment and sector of the society has carved out who will lead. Rather than be incorporated and supported, youth groups like the Dream Defenders are shunted to the side. Community activists are engaged as Democrats or Republicans, but not for the cause(s), but for partisan politics.

The Crossroads Fund symposium was in some ways a counter to these attitudes. There are young people stepping forward to enable a better world. Right here in Chicago, as the panelists showed, and across the nation. These are the voices I want, I need to hear. These are the voices I want to join.

So, what will it take? I’m feeling like there are at least 500 organizations around the nation today that if gathered in such a place as was the Eighth Regiment Armory, might just generate the ideas and the energy that would spark true change for the better.

Stay tuned.

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