Civil Rights Era Council of Elders and the Possibility of Solidarity
In November, fifteen renowned engineers of the Civil Rights Movement showed up at various Occupy sites around the country to give what can only be considered a historically significant blessing to the new motion-driven phenomenon of hope and hunger for justice.
“When a culture is caught in fire, its people’s perception of the world is red. As they rush ceaselessly forward with a consumer’s mentality, they pollute everything in their way, conquering and destroying anything that interferes. Fire culture promotes consumerism and cultivates scarcity in order to increase restlessness, then uses the restless, burning psyche as energy to increase production and consumption.”
—Malidoma Somé, Healing Wisdom of Africa, pg. 171
The Organizing Committee for the National Council of Elders include such towering figures as James M. Lawson Jr., Marian Wright Edelman, Arthur Waskow, Joan Chittister, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Vincent Harding, Mel White, Grace Lee Boggs, and Dolores Huerta.
These leaders and all of the Elders constitute the best of the best in respect to shaping progressive social thought and redemptive nonviolent action.
But there were two problems:
- Joyce Hobson Johnson with Mel White (l), Arthur
Waskow (r) and Phillip Lawson as the Council of Elders at Occupy Wall St.Large numbers of Occupiers “don’t know much about history” and therefore had no idea who was in their midst, and…
- They found it possible to treat the Elders’ declaration and direct involvement as not worthy of their notice.
(from editors of Religion Dispatches)
The Council of Elders wrote Trinity Wall Street Episcopal Church about the Occupy request, via OWS. It is a long quote, but these “elders” are a very important voice.
We are veterans of the Civil Rights, Women’s, Peace, Environmental, LGBTQ, Immigrant Justice, labor rights and other movements of the last 60 years. Many of us have been or continue to be leaders of religious congregations and organizations, so we are deeply understanding of the need to protect the spaces and buildings that generations of the faithful have transmitted to us.
We are also deeply committed to using the share of God’s abundance that has been entrusted to us for the help and healing of those “least of these” — the poor, the humiliated, the hungry, the homeless, the dis-empowered —whom God has called us to protect.
We have special understandings of both of those commitments because as leaders of the social-change movements of the 20th century we have been called to deploy resources for the sake of racial and social justice and the cause of peace. Today we see the Occupy movement as efforts by a new generation of (mostly young) people to move forward as we did toward fuller justice and democracy for the diverse peoples in our nation.
We are concerned to hear that Occupy Wall Street has asked Trinity Church for use of the Lent-Space on 6th and Canal to gather, and has been refused.
We are especially moved to hear that the Episcopal Cathedral of Boston has invited the Occupy movement there to gather in its space.
We know that some question the need for Occupy to continue to occupy physical space but we have witnessed the impact of communal, inspirational, face-to-face contact in which people can be visible to the world and to one another. … In a world where the majority of our nation is oppressed by economic and racial inequality, experiencing isolation and dehumanization at every turn, the Occupy movement in its public presence has provided hope and purpose and a pressing challenge to us all.
We urge you to reexamine the possibilities in the light of the importance of Occupy Wall Street as a spark of God’s ‘Burning Bush’ in this moment of deep social crisis. We urge you to approve the use of this sacred space for a sacred purpose — the pursuit of justice in America.
Joyce Arnold wrote on December 20th, “This moment of deep social crisis” and “the pursuit of justice in America” are the best summaries of why the Occupy / 99% movement came into existence and continues to evolve.
There is a deep, wide, expanding crisis for millions. Lose your job, be unable to find another one within six months or so, and you have a mark against you in the job market.
Be unable to find full time employment for a year or two, and the marks are bigger and probably permanent. Trust the professionals who assured you the mortgage you were being offered was good, find out how wrong that was and join the millions foreclosed upon, and you have a mark against you.
If you were fortunate enough to have health insurance to begin with, but lost it along with your job, and you have a mark against you.
Graduate from college at a time of high unemployment, be unable to get a job in your field, and you have a mark against you. Bump into the racial, gender, economic, orientation and other existing prejudices, and you have a mark against you, and “the pursuit of justice” becomes a bigger uphill climb.
You don’t have to agree with the faith perspectives of the Elders in order to agree, to whatever extent, with their decades long commitments to the pursuit of justice. What the Council is talking about is human rights, including the basics of shelter, food, clothing, a way to make a living, access to health care. It includes the basics of fairness and justice and equality.
What the Council is doing, in itself, is providing another “basic” need: voices speaking out to name the injustices.
I hope those who recognize and accept the accuracy of what The Council of Elders are saying regarding the “deep social crisis,” but who do not think Occupy is the answer, will find other ways to pursue justice.
We are at a stage in human history that is as monumental as changing from a hunter/gatherer society to an agricultural society and from an agricultural society to and industrial society. Where we’re headed now will be different because we have exhausted planetary space and human space for us to continue to look at things through the Cartesian measurement of material things.
We need to face the way we used the world for our gains, pleasures, satisfactions. This is the way we evolve to a higher stage of humanity. And unless we want to live in terror for the rest of our lives, we need to change our view about acquiring things.
We have the opportunity to take a great leap forward in these very challenging times.
We need to change our institutions and ourselves.
We need to seize opportunities.
We need to launch our imaginations beyond the thinking of the past. We need to discern who we are and expand on our humanness and sacredness. That’s how we change the world, which happens because we will be the change.
—Dr. Grace Lee Boggs, 95, a long-time Detroit political and labor activist, author, and philosopher
This article originally appeared on Occupy Faith, and is republished here by its author, FOR Interfaith Fellow Michael Harrington. Top photo by Fred Murphy; other photos and graphics courtesy of Occupy Faith.