On September 25th, the American Folklife Center and the Library of Congress’s Hispanic Division brought together eight scholars and activists for a day-long symposium titled Organizing Across the Boundaries: Strategies and Coalitions in the Struggle for Civil Rights and Social Justice. It was the last event for this fiscal year in our public programs series, Many Paths to Freedom: Looking Back, Looking Ahead at the Long Civil Rights Movement. Our goal for this series was to showcase new scholarship that challenges our understanding of the Civil Rights Movement, and to also bring together historians and activists who have been in dialog with each other for many years about “what really happened” in the movement.
Maria Varela opened her keynote address with a riveting story about driving through the night with other Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) members from Memphis to the Mississippi Delta. With a car full of white men on their tail, Varela floored her trusty Packard to over 100 miles per hour and found refuge on the highway in front of a lone semi-truck. She explained how she initially became involved in the movement by joining the Young Christian Students, which led to a position with SNCC in Selma, Alabama, where she worked with a local priest to teach literacy classes. Varela’s stunning photographs, which she shot for SNCC, were among the highlights of the day. Varela emphasized that the focus on SNCC’s demise in the late 1960s as the result of a rupture between black and white activists obscures the roles of Latinos and Asian-American activists in the organization.
In the first panel of the day, Gordon Mantler of George Washington University provided an overview of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, based on the research he did for his new book Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974. He explained that this two-month event on the mall in Washington, D.C., was an unparalleled opportunity for different ethnic and racial groups to come together, learn what they had in common, and work together for economic justice. Carlos Montes, who grew up in east Los Angeles, told us about his adventures traveling across the country to the Poor People’s Campaign with the Brown Berets, an organization of college-age Chicano students committed to revolutionary action. Montes noted his astonishment at meeting poor white families from mining communities in Kentucky and West Virginia and to discover the surprising commonalities between browns, blacks and whites at the gathering in D.C., especially on issues of economic and political powerlessness and a desire to change the structural causes of inequality in the country. A particularly interesting point of emphasis for Montes was to note the change in his personal identity from “Mexican American” to “Chicano,” or from a conservative, passive persona to a fully committed activist deeply engaged in the struggle for la raza. Noting that he had recently learned to use the phrase “transformative” to describe his feelings about the Poor People’s Campaign, Montes reminded the audience that in the 1960s, “we just said, ‘It blew my mind!'”
In the afternoon, Lauren Araiza of Denison University spoke about her book, To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers, which examines the surprising coalitions between the United Farm Workers union and many African American civil rights organizations and revolutionary groups, in particular the Black Panthers. She provided a fascinating account of the California grape boycott led by the UFW, and how the Black Panthers led an effort to boycott the Oakland Safeway grocery store, which had also refused to donate food to the Panthers’ free breakfast program for children. Bill X. Jennings, a former Black Panther Party activist and now the BPP historian and archivist, shared his memories of many events and social programs sponsored by the Panthers in the Bay area. Jennings showed historical images from the BPP archives and talked about the Panthers’ work with the UFW as well as their joint actions with the Brown Berets to highlight issues centered on police brutality and suppression of minorities during those turbulent years. Among the highlights was a photograph he showed us of himself at the Safeway boycott, while explaining that he still refused to shop there. Jennings’ digital collections are available for viewing on the website he manages: It’s About Time: The Black Panther Party Legacy and Alumni.
We ended the day with a panel on interfaith coalitions. Raised a Latino Mennonite himself, the Texas A&M University historian Felipe Hinojosa examined this community in his first book, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith and Evangelical Culture. He explained how these evangelicos joined with African American Mennonites to challenge the racism within the church, supported the United Farm Workers in California despite opposition from white Mennonites, and created their own local centers for church services and activism
. Glen Pearcy, a former minister, activist and a filmmaker of long standing, showed segments of his Academy Award nominated film from 1974, Fighting For Our Lives, which documents the violent reactions and reprisals against the UFW for its strikes against non-union harvested grapes in 1973. The segments highlighted both the steady presence and support of Protestant clergy in UFW actions and the brutality of the reactions, culminating in particularly poignant scenes from the funeral of a farm worker who was killed by the growers. Interestingly enough, these scenes, filled with imagery of Christian last rites, were contrasted with preceding shots of an earlier funeral featuring Islamic prayers for an Arab American and Muslim farm worker, who was also murdered by the growers’ hired thugs. (Pearcy’s collection of photographs and film footage from his earlier civil rights work in southwest Georgia is now available at the American Folklife Center.) Lastly, Richard Baldwin Cook, a 10-year staff member of the National Farm Worker Ministry (a key ally of the UFW), movingly spoke about the role of ministers in gathering the support of churches across the country for various social movements. He also explained his falling-out with Cesar Chavez and provided a cautionary tale of the dangers of letting charismatic leaders dominate social justice movements.
We’d like to extend a special thanks to all of the speakers who participated in this public program series over the year. This symposium was filmed by C-SPAN and will soon be broadcast on their American History TV channel. It will also be available in the future as a webcast on the Library of Congress website.