My wife, Marie Ström, and I went to the National Museum of African American History and Culture last Thursday, October 26. It was a powerful experience for us both, shaped as we were by the struggles against racial oppression in our different countries, the US and South Africa. But the visit to the Museum was not mainly a trip to the past. It prompted many thoughts about today, and the similarity in message which infuses the Museum and the Obama Foundation, launching today, October 31, in a kick off summit in Chicago.
The vastness of the Museum’s collection can be overwhelming but it serves a purpose. It is an amazing story of human agency in the midst of oppression and suffering. For African Americans, agency meant far more than survival. It involved creating a multitude of empowering institutions, the development of political and civic capacities, and the forging of a mighty philosophy of nonviolent change which transformed victimhood into collective power.
The Museum is immense in scope and material. On the bottom floor, the history begins with the emergence of the slave trade of the 15th and 16th centuries, and the displays made vivid its horrors, degradations, and brutalities. The Museum also tells stories of insurgency and empowerment against savage efforts to break the human spirit: stories of solidarity in the belly of the slave ships; enormous resistance - -one out of ten ships had slave rebellions and many chose to die by suicide or jumping into the ocean rather than lose their freedom; rebellions in the Americas, in some cases involving poor and working class whites, and indentured servants. The Bacon’s Rebellion in the late 17th century was a pivot, producing an explicit ideology of racial supremacy and oppression, in which planter elites began aggressively to spread the idea that European-Americans were “white” and Africans “black” – and subhuman. A plaque quoting Soren Kierkegaard seemed appropriate:
“Once you label me you negate me.”
Experiences of alliance-lost created an underground river of memory which Martin Luther King recalled in his great sermon, “Drum Major Instinct,” in 1968. He described a conversation in jail. “The white wardens enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. We would get to talking—calmly, because they wanted to talk about it. We got down one day to the point the second or third day to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, ‘Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. You're just as poor as Negroes.’ And I said, ‘You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people.’”
The Museum also tells of the creation of multiple spaces of freedom: churches, beauty parlors and other black businesses, women’s organizations like the Council of Negro Women, black businesses, fraternal and sororal organizations. “To shield their families from the unfairness of segregation, African Americans created communities that served their social, political, and religious needs,” reads one display. “The activities and organizations they created – from fraternal groups to literary clubs—provided them the opportunity to interact with one another and hold positions denied to them otherwise. Building communities together, they also developed the skills in oratory, organization, and leadership that ultimately served them so well in demanding their rights as citizens.”
All these strands fed the citizenship school movement which I worked for. “Between 1957 and 1970 civil rights activists established nearly 900 Citizenship Schools in rural areas throughout the South,” reads the description. “The immediate goal of this grassroots educational campaign was to help African Americans pass the literacy tests required for voter registration. However, the schools also trained people to become activists themselves and work for change in their own communities.” Septima Clark, founder and director of the program, summarized its mission: ‘Literacy means Liberation.’
Clark also described the mission of the whole movement as “broadening the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepening the concept to include every relationship.” This meant transforming an identity of “victim” or “oppressed” into an agent of change.
Martin Luther King constantly delivered a similar message: out of oppression can come not only a sense of self-worth but also the will for constructive action.
King spoke to black high school students in Cleveland on April 26, 1967. “I had to ride the bus from home every morning to the other side of town. And fortunately I had parents who taught me from the very beginning that I was somebody, and that I should never feel inferior. Every black person in this country must rise up and say ‘I’m somebody; I have a rich proud and noble history, however painful and exploited it has been. I am black, but I am black and beautiful.’”
He also challenged victimhood, a challenge I often heard from the leaders of the citizenship school movement like Dorothy Cotton. “I’m not unmindful of the fact that through segregation and discrimination many of us have been scarred,” King continued. “But I think it is safe to say that there is a host of young people in the Negro community who can brilliantly apply themselves and thereby make full and constructive use of the freedom we already possess. This means we must set out to achieve excellence in our various fields of endeavor. It may be that you will have to work harder than other people but don’t mind that. Go on and do it anyhow. Set out to do a good job and do that job so well that nobody can do it any better. If it falls your lot to be a street-sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say here lived a great streetsweeper who swept his job well.”
When King assigned me to organize poor southern whites I was struck by how much these folks, mostly of Scottish descent, admired the spirit of African Americans in the civil rights movement. “We need to take a lesson from them,” was a common comment.
In a time when most people feel powerless and victimized – not only by politicians but by big business, by education, by the mass media, and other institutions – this message of collective self-affirmation and collective empowerment has once again a renewed relevance everywhere.
And the Obama Foundation embodies it. “Our mission is to inspire and empower people to change their world,” reads the website. “From leaders who are already making an impact to people who are interested in becoming more involved but don’t know where to start, our goal is to make our programs accessible to anyone, anywhere. We’ll equip civic innovators, young leaders, and everyday citizens with the skills and tools they need to create change in their communities.
The conclusion seemed straight out of the Citizenship School Curriculum we used in the citizenship schools. “We’re just getting started. Join us in this experiment in citizenship for the 21st century.”