We who believe in Freedom cannot rest

By Grace Lee Boggs

Michigan Citizen, May 9-15, 2010

Last weekend I was honored with the Ella Baker/Septima Clark Human Rights Award at the American Educational Research Association convention in Denver.

Ella Baker is called "the godmother of SNCC" because she encouraged the youth volunteers of the 1960s to form their own organization. Septima Clark was a teacher who created Citizenship Schools to empower black communities. Rosa Parks was one of her students at the Highlander Folk School.

In accepting the award, I began by noting the extraordinary energy in the room. It suggested to me that educators can play a pivotal role at this very special time on the clock of the universe. The layoff of thousands of teachers all over the country, the closing of hundreds of schools, the attempts to reduce education to testing and competition by both Bush (No Child Left Behind/NCLB) and Obama (Race to the Top/RTTT) provide an unprecedented opportunity for everyone involved in education - teachers, students, parents, the entire community - to become the Freedom Fighters of the early 21st century by reframing education and in the process creating a new form of participatory democracy that reconnects generations.

This opportunity has emerged because the increasingly desperate but failing efforts by the power structure to resolve the schools crisis challenge all of us to leave behind the factory model schooling of the industrial epoch and begin creating a new post-industrial model that empowers young people to become agents for social change. This was the goal of the Freedom Schools of 1964. It is what we are aiming for in Detroit in response to the Bing/Bobb schemes to demolish neighborhood schools.

Speaking next was my old friend, Vincent Harding, the historian and civil rights activist who knew both Ella Baker and Septima Clark and who wrote the first draft of Dr. King's anti-Vietnam war speech. Vincent described the many ways in which these two women "seized their time" to drive the Freedom movement forward. He ended by leading all of us in a spirited singing of several verses of We who believe in freedom cannot rest. Sweet Honey in the Rock's Bernice Johnson Reagon called it "Ella Baker's Song."

While in Denver, Shea Howell and I stayed at Vincent's home where he has lived for nearly 30 years. So we were able to continue our reflective conversations on the Freedom movement which over the decades have contributed to my own living for change.

Since I had heard conflicting reports about the recent 50th SNCC reunion in Raleigh, N.C., I was looking forward to Vincent's assessment. He said he had been especially inspired by the many young people among the more than 1000 who came to Raleigh. Some were the children of SNCC veterans but most were a new generation of activists who, having been energized by the "YES WE CAN" Obama campaign, wanted to learn from SNCC veterans what it takes to build a movement.

" Don't just regale us with stories," the young people insisted. "Tell us what it was like to risk death." In response the SNCC veterans emphasized the importance of respecting ordinary people. They came, they said, to bring their stuff and were amazed at how much they had to learn from the grassroots.

Also staying at Vincent's was Aishah Shahidah Simmons, the award-winning feminist filmmaker whose film on Rape had been shown at the 2007 Allied Media Conference. It was great to talk with Aishah and to learn that she is the daughter of my old friends, SNCC veterans Zohariah and Michael Simmons.

Fanon said that "Each generation coming out of obscurity, must define its mission and then fulfill or betray it."

As the movement gains momentum, it is beginning to bring the generations together. So the {r}evolution is helping us overcome the age segregation which has been the cause of so much of our country's cultural decline in the late 20th century.

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