Barbara Ransby: Linking to other struggles for justice

Barbara Ransby is a historian, author and activist -- a veteran of many civil rights and human rights struggles of the past 30 years. Her acclaimed recent book is Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. It's wonderful to be here and I feel like I sat through the earlier session, it's almost redundant -- there are wonderful speakers here. It's nice to be in a room of activists and organizers, because you always know you're going to get some inspiration, so I've gotten inspired as I've sat and listened to people speaking before me.

I'm also very proud and pleased that Ella Baker's spirit has permeated these gatherings. Listening to Phyllis [Prentice] sing "Ella's Song" earlier brings back some wonderful memories. For those of you who may not be familiar, Sweet Honey in the Rock is a group of Black women a cappella singers. They are based in Washington, D.C. Bernice Johnson Reagon, who was the founder of that group, was actually one of Ella's political daughters who came of age in Albany, Georgia, in the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s and took the lyrics of that song from a speech that Ella Baker back then. So I'm very happy that Ella's spirit has informed this gathering and just very inspired the Mathews family is here. I missed Kevin Cooper's remarks earlier, but I'm inspired that we have that spirit of determination and humanism in this room. I'm glad to see some of my friends from other struggles in this room. Two friends of mine that are Hyde Park activists, Don and Ann Marie Coleman -- it's a nice surprise to see them here as well.

The first speech I ever gave I was 14-years old. I was a high school student at Rosary High School for Girls, if you can believe it. I was on the debate team, and the issue I chose to speak about was the death penalty. I won a little trophy for that speech. Since then I've given hundreds of speeches, maybe more, in many places, and I still feel very close to that speech because it was straight forward and simple.

To me the issue was clear. I remember asking my teacher at the time -- is this a controversial issue? You know, they tell you, pick a controversial issue. Well, and I said, is this issue really controversial? I mean what is the other side? So at age 14 it was very clear to me that this was wrong, and it's still clear to me today. If a ninth-grader can understand it in simple terms, I don't know why our politicians, policy makers, and many supposed leaders can't seem to get it.

I've been asked to make some connections between what often is termed the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s and the struggles for social justice today, particularly the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. And I do want to make some of those linkages, but I want to start by dispelling some myths of what we term the civil rights movement.

The civil rights movement was never just about civil rights. It was never about a small, narrow set of issues for most people. It was not about the small set of issues that we get in the summaries and synopses of the civil rights movement in common textbooks. Black people did not risk their lives, get bitten by dogs, suffer water hoses, or go to jail simply to sit next to white people in a movie theater or at a lunch counter, simply to be able to go to the same bathroom and use the same water fountain. It was not simply about integration or desegregation, although certainly that was a part of it. What it was about was this larger, somewhat dangerous and often contagious notion of justice. It was about a notion of justice and a hunger for justice, and it was that hunger for justice that fueled the struggle against Jim Crow segregation. It's that hunger for justice that fueled the anti-lynching campaign of the 19th and early 20th century. It is that hunger for justice that fuels the gay rights movement, the women's rights movement, the anti-war movement. It is that hunger for justice that fuels the struggle for self-determination in Palestine today -- a struggle we often times don't want to talk about. And it's that hunger for justice that fuels the movement to abolish the death penalty.

In the wake of the election, many of us have been in a state of awe and depression, and often, when I talk about history, I kind of snap out of it, because I became a historian because I wanted to understand the world in order to change the world.

And when you look back at history and the many different circumstances and situations under which people persevered -- under which people persisted and struggled and were determined and resolved and remained passionate and clear. And then you think we're in a much better situation today than people who struggled under slavery. We are in a much better position today than the people who struggled under the yoke of colonialism. We are in a much better position than people who struggled a generation or two generations ago. It is an insult to our parents, grandparents, and those people that struggled before us if we fail to understand that.

So we need to stop whining. We need to understand that at least 50 million people opposed George Bush and his agenda and that's a lot of people. That's a good starting point.

I was recently in South Carolina, and I said -- there's a lot of talk about red and blue, I'm coming to you from a blue state and I know this is a red state. (I'm somebody who has an experience on the left; it's real weird for me to cede that notion of red to the republicans -- but we know what it means today.) So I said, I'm coming to you from a blue state and I know this is a red state, and they said no, no, no, there's pockets of blue. So if you look at one map, you see there are all these people who are on this right-wing bandwagon -- but when you break it down a little differently -- which, to it's credit, the Chicago Tribune did in one the maps that it did -- you see there's pockets of blue all over the place. And if we didn't have this damn electoral college, the popular vote might have played out differently. Right? The campaigns would have been different. We would have been looking at a spread that was much different.

I say all that to say, also, that electoral politics are not going to save us. It's one arena of struggle -- it's important. But electoral politics are not going to save us. If John Kerry had been elected, John Kerry was not going to save us. My friend Barack Obama is not going to save us, and we've got some struggling to do with him as well.

But for me, in terms of this whole notion of red state and blue state, every state that justifies state-sanctioned murder is a red state. Because those states have blood on their hands. And unfortunately, both the Democrats and the Republicans have failed us on this issue.

How dare they talk about exporting democracy when we can't get our votes counted in this country? How dare they talk about exporting democracy when tens of thousands of ex-felons cannot vote in this country? And how dare they talk about moral values when men and women are sitting on death rows across this country. The outrages that went on in Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad is a mere extension of the outrageous practices that go on, on a daily basis in this country -- in what Angela Davis and others have called the punishment industry -- because it is a profit-driven industry. It is a racist industry. It is an industry that finds benefit in figuring out new and sinister means of punishing people for crimes that when they are committed by rich people aren't even crimes. And we know about that here in Chicago all too well and all too painfully. We have the scandal of the torture practices of Jon Burge and company. We know about the numerous cases of death row inmates who were slated to die and later found out to be innocent. Now if that's not a form of torture, I don't know what it is. To sit in a cell alone and think that your days and hours are numbered and to know that it is for a crime that you did not commit.

I want to say parenthetically when I say that though -- and I give all credit to people who have been involved in the Innocence Project, of really targeting those cases where we know that there is not even evidence against people -- but I agree with the people who spoke before to say we also have to take it further than that. Who are we to say that if someone commits a crime, they are not worth living? Who are we to say there is no forgiveness, there is no transformation, there is no possibility of a future if you commit a crime? So I think we really have to focus attention on the innocent who are on death row and focus on the cases where there has just been such a sham and it's such a gross miscarriage of justice. But we also can't stop there, and we have to take it further. You are absolutely right, those of you who have devoted much more time and energy in research to this issue than I have over the year. This demand for Abolition is absolutely the right demand. There are some issues around which there can be no compromise, and I believe in my heart that this is indeed one of them. 

A lot of the post-election analysis in recent weeks has been about the percentage of people that voted for Kerry, the percentage of people that voted for Bush. I'm interested in the 40% of people that didn't bother to vote. Why? Not because they're stupid. It's because they saw the ever so slight margin of difference between the two. So we have to organize those people.

Looking back from the vantage point of 20 or 30 years, Martin Luther King is a hero, SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] people are heroes, Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney -- the three young people who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964 -- are heroes, but they weren't heroes then. So when you look around this room and you say this room ought to be filled, this room ought to be bigger than it is, remember that some of those activists who are the most revered today are people who often struggled in spite of opposition, struggled in spite of the actions of allies who should have been there with them, struggled in spite of small numbers at moments in time when everyone of good conscience should have been standing with them.

And I just want to give you some examples of that. When the desegregation sit-ins began in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, many of the young people who took that leap, that tactical leap were criticized. They were criticized initially by the NAACP, who saw them as rabble-rousers who were breaking the law, and making the movement look bad because they were getting arrested. And the NAACP had decided on this legal course of struggle. Those same activists were kicked out of some of the historical Black colleges -- that we now look to and revere so much -- who had very conservative administrations in many cases. [They] didn't want to look bad to the donors and trustees of those institutions by having young people who had been arrested come back into their student body, and they kicked them out of school. So people who stood with them often didn't.

Martin Luther King came on the scene in 1955 and 1956 and anybody who's familiar with my work -- I'm not a King worshiper and I'm not here to say Martin Luther King was the Messiah. But what I am here to say is that we often have very distorted views about Martin Luther King. He wasn't the popular guy that he now is. I mean we know Martin Luther King widely now, but we don't know him deeply. As Martin Luther King came into his own as a radical thinker, as an activist who wanted systemic change, he was shunned by many of the liberals who stood by him in the early days. Many of the ministers in the Black Baptist churches turned their backs on King as he took positions against capitalism, imperialism, and against the war in Vietnam in particular. He gave a very famous speech in Riverside Church in New York, in which he opposed the war in Vietnam and had a barrage of letters attacking him for that stance. So even somebody who seems above reproach at this moment in time was somebody who withstood opposition, the abandonment of allies, and so forth.

When you fight today you also fight in the tradition of Ella Baker, and Ella Baker to me embodied some of the best of what the struggle for social justice really represents. Because Ella Baker emphasized the importance of collective struggle, she emphasized the importance of women and poor people being at the very center and heart of that struggle, and she emphasized a certain kind of radical democratic practice.

Ella Baker emphasized that waiting for a Messiah or prophet to deliver oppressed people is a dead-end strategy. So even though we applaud the actions of George Ryan or eloquent writers like Scott Turow, who have taken positions against the death penalty, it is ultimately the people in the trenches, people like all of you, the families of people who have been incarcerated or been on death row, who are going to be the decisive factors in this struggle.

And I am confident that we will be victorious. 

One of the ways that we will be victorious, I think, is by linking the struggle to abolish the death penalty to other struggles for social justice in this country and around the world. And here we find another lesson from the 1960s. When Black sharecroppers from Mississippi began to see their plight as connected to migrant workers from Mexico, New Mexico, Texas, and the Southwest, the movement was stronger. When we began to link Jim Crow segregation and racism to the fight against colonialism in Africa and Asia, the movement was strengthened.

There is a line of thinking that wants to cordon us off in our little struggles. You're fighting against homophobia; don't let anybody put any other issues in there. If you're a feminist and your fighting around gender issues and for a more liberal view of gender in this society, which I am deeply committed to for my son as well as for my daughter, then police the borders of your organization -- don't let anybody dilute your issue. And if you're fighting around jobs and labor issues, don't let all those other complicated issues get in there. This is the wrong strategy. We don't dilute by forming coalitions. We grow and strengthen.

Now I think those have to be principled coalitions, but they have to be coalitions nonetheless. And if anything, our enemies can teach us this lesson if we are a little hard-headed and don't believe one another. Because many of the people who are supposedly pro-life when it comes to a one-inch fetus are anti-life when it comes to the death penalty -- or even the rights of juveniles in the juvenile justice system. So we have to forge connections between a woman's right to choose and the campaign to end the death penalty. Many of those same small-minded people who hate gays also hate people who are not white, middle-class educated, and buy into their brand of Christianity. So let's be clear.

We need to change a lot of things in this country. And if we have to name names, a lot of this has to do with our current administration in Washington. But a lot of it has to do with larger issues, like racism, sexism, imperialism, and the outright arrogance of elites who are running things.

When I thought about my remarks today, and I thought about what issues might be in the forefront of people's minds, in addition to the issue that has brought all of you together today, I thought about the war. And I really do think the challenge -- in addition to fighting for secular space, which is increasingly shrinking in this country -- is to redouble our efforts in opposition to the war, but to have that in very broad terms. Because the war is going on many fronts. Right? The war is going on in Iraq, but there's a war going on against poor Black and Brown communities in this country, too, and we have to insist that anybody who talks about an anti-war campaign has to have that as a part of their agenda.

We have to make sure that our hunger for justice is bigger than George Bush's hunger for power and oil. We have to make sure that our hunger for justice is bigger than the appetite of the growing prison system to consume black and brown bodies. But another hunger that we have to be in touch with is not simply the hunger against injustice and the hunger to end injustice -- but the hunger for something better, the hunger for something different.

One of the things that did indeed get me through my post-election depression was I was in the process of reviewing a book by a friend of mine, a historian and activist by the name of Robin Kelly. And Robin Kelly has a new book called "Freedom Dreams." And he's been criticized for this book, because people say, listen, people are in dire straits and why are you talking about dreaming? Right? It's the dreamers who are left behind; it's the dreamers who are left on the sidelines, right? The dreamers who have the reality that's passing them by. Why aren't you concerned with the bread-and-butter issues? Why aren't you concerned with the concrete issues in front of you? Robin's answer is -- which I think is brilliant, is quite simple -- the dreamers and the doers are often one and the same. And, in fact, it's not simply all our hate of injustice but our love of freedom and humanity that will propel us forward and the furthest.