Filed Under:  Columns, Opinion

Civil Rights elders ‘pass torch’ to Occupy Movement

28th November 2011   ·   0 Comments

By J. Kojo Livingston
Contributing Writer

Sunday of last week, Veterans of America’s 20th Century civil rights movement entered the 21st Century Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Known as the “Council of El­ders,” they stepped inside the nation­wide encampments to symbolically share the torch of hope and justice and engage the Occupiers in dialogue about defining movements of the past. “We want to contribute to this intergenerational movement,” says Dr. Vincent Harding, activist and writer in the civil rights movement. “We are thankful for the efforts of Occupy Wall Street to unite the 99 percent and bring the many gifts and great energy of millions into effective action to transform our nation.”

What began as a single protest action on September 17, has blossomed into a movement that has spawned solidarity actions in over 100 cities, nearly every state and several other nations. The movement has spread to Mexico, Australia, 14 provinces in Canada and 12 nations in Europe.

Media reports to the contrary, the Occupation movement has stated clear goals and objectives. At the outset of the demonstration debut a four-page, full-color newspaper, called the Occupied Wall Street Journal, with a statement on page 3 announcing exactly what brought them together and why. It’s titled “Declaration of the Occupation” a la the Declaration of Independence. It attacks corporate greed, illegal foreclosures, bailouts for Wall St., discrimination, exorbitant student loans, political corruption, environmental degradation, the wars abroad — and the corporate control of the media which “keeps people misinformed and fearful.

In their Declaration of the Occupation of New York City they cite several grievances against Big Business: “As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice, we must not lose sight of what brought us together. We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies…We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.”

Occupy Wall Street has no leader but has been endorsed by the labor groups, and even marines have stepped in to protect protesters. Its ranks include over 100,000 students, union members, working mothers, single fathers, airline pilots, teachers, retail workers, military service members and foreclosure victims.

Solidarity speakers such as Cornel West and film maker Michael Moore have come out to address the crowd, even though amplifiers are not allowed. The crowd repeats what each speaker says loud enough for all to hear.

The Council of Elders is an independent group of leaders from the farm workers, sanctuary and human rights movements that shook the nation’s conscience with public protests over the past 50 years.

“We see Occupy Wall Street as a continuation, a deepening and expansion of the determination of the diverse peoples of our nation to transform our country into a more democratic, equitable, just, and compassionate society,” excerpt from the statement of solidarity by the Council of Elders to be read at each of the Occupy encampments.

By bringing their voices to the Occupy Wall Street movement, the elders are addressing a litany of social grievances, including poverty, mass incarceration, and what they call a culture of war and violence. Dolores Huerta, activist with Cesar Chavez and the farm-workers movement, believes today’s conditions create bitter divisions among peoples across the United States and throughout the world. “We applaud the miraculous extent to which the Occupy initiative around the nation has been non-violent and democratic, especially in light of the weight of the systematic violence under which the great majority of people are forced to live,” says the Rev. James Lawson, leading theoretician, tactician and theologian of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Council of Elders promotes compassion and non-violent action as the highest values to reverse trends that put profits ahead of people in its quest to contribute to the much-needed movement for a more just society and a more peaceful world. The council members are urging elders from around the nation to join the Occupy Wall Street movement.

In New York City on November 20th, members of the Elder Council spent time with those encamped at Zuccotti Park, beginning at. They led a worship service in front of the “red structure” within Zuccotti Park. Elders then hosted a dialogue with Occupy Wall Street demonstrators and other interested individuals.

President Barack Obama and Collin Powell have also expressed sympathies with the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.

At a press conference last month, the President said, “The movement expresses the frustrations that the American people feel that we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, huge collateral damage all across the country, all across Mainstreet. Yet, you’re still seeing the same folks who acted irresponsibly trying to fight efforts to crack down on abusive practices that got us into this mess in the first place… The protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works.”

More recently Obama spoke again on the movement that won’t go away, “The most important thing we can do right now is those of us in leadership letting people know that we understand their struggles and we are on their side, and that we want to set up a system in which hard work, responsibility, doing what you’re supposed to do, is rewarded.

Then on November 11, former Secretary of State Collin Powell spoke out and said the Occupy Wall Street protests are “as American as apple pie,” and political leaders need to do more than just “scream” at the demonstrators. “Demon­strating like this is as American as apple pie. There’s increasing gap between those who are doing very, very well, and I’m doing well, and those who are not doing as well are not seeing their lives improve. So there’s frustration, there’s angriness there,” Powell said.

He added, “This is something that our political leaders need to think about. It isn’t enough just to scream at our Occupy Wall Street demonstrators — we need our political system to start reflecting this anger back into how do we fix it? How do we get the economy going again?”

The council members are urging elders from around the nation to join the Occupy Wall Street movement. The current members of the Council of Elders includes:

• REV. JAMES LAWSON, JR. served 14 months in prison as a conscientious objector to the Korean War draft in 1951. After studying Gandhi’s principles of civil disobedience in India, he went on to train the Freedom Riders and other future leaders of the Civil Rights Movement as director of the Congress for Racial Equality.

• DR. VINCENT G. HARDING. Native New Yorker, theologian, civil rights activist, and author of nine books including Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement. He was an educator and activist in the Southern Freedom Movement and continues to advise churches, schools, prisons and community groups.

• REV. PHILLIP LAWSON is a long-time civil rights leader, Cofounder of California Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights and Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and Director of East Bay Housing Organization.

• DOLORES HUERTA. Cofounder of the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez, Huerta directed the famous national grape boycott that resulted in the entire California table grape industry signing a contract in 1970. Never deterred from the struggle, she has been arrested 22 times and was beaten by police when protesting George H.W. Bush.

• DR. BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON. Singer, author, educator, and Civil Rights Activist in the Freedom Singers organized by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, Reagon has recorded several albums including Lest We Forget, Vol. 3: Sing for Freedom and written on African American culture and history including We Who Believe In Freedom.

• DR. GRACE LEE BOGGS. At 95, Boggs’ life as feminist, activist, and author, collaborating with scholars such as C.L.R. James in the ’50s, is world renown. She has been an integral part of the Detroit Social Justice Movement since the 60s, founding Detroit Summer in 1992, a program aimed at connecting youth education with community struggle.

• DR. GWENDOLYN ZOHARAH SIMMONS. Activist in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee in the 60s, Simmons is also a student of Islam and Sufism and was staff for 23 years with American Friends Service Committee. She currently teaches subjects such as Race, Religion, and Rebellion.

• MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN. As the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, Edelman worked with the NAACP to defend activists in the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. She went on to found the Children’s Defense Fund and advocate against child poverty.

RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW has authored many works including “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Auth­ority,” a manifesto supporting military draft resisters. He is an ardent peace activist in the Israel-Palestine conflict and has been awarded by numerous organizations, including the Muslim American Society Freedom Foun­dation.

• REV. DR. GEORGE (TINK) TINKER is a prominent American Indian activist, theologian, and author of works such as Spirit and Resistance: Political Theology and American Indian Liberation. He has been a critic of Western intellectualism and economic, political, religious, and social systems.

• REV. JOHN FIFE co-founded the Sanc­tuary Movement, which organized over 500 churches to illegally support refugees fleeing U.S.-supported death squads in the ‘80s, and No More Deaths, a coalition to end border deaths.

• REV. NELSON JOHNSON is founder of the Beloved Com­munity Center in Greensboro, NC and a longtime advocate for poor people. He led the 1979 anti-Klan march in which neo-Nazis and Klan members, with police collusion, murdered five protesters on November 3, 1979, and has been a leader in the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation pro­cess, designed to seek truth and reconciliation around those events.

• JOYCE HOBSON JOHNSON — Active in civil rights struggles since the 60s, Johnson is Director of the Jubilee Institute of the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, NC, which provides institutional support, social and political analysis, and training for the broad-based progressive move­ment. She was also an im­portant figure in the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconc­iliation efforts.

• SISTER JOAN CHITTISTER, O.S.B. is a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania, where she served as prioress for 12 years. She writes a web column for the National Catholic Reporter, “From Where I Stand” and speaks on women in the church and society, human rights, and peace and justice in the areas of war and poverty and religious life and spirituality.

This article was originally published in the November 28, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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