Reclaiming King’s Organizing Formula by the Rev. Michael Russell

Michael Russell is the pastor of the Jubilee Faith Community of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) in Country Club Hills, IL. Prior to that he did community organizing with Neighborhood Housing Services, Inc in Chicago’s West Englewood community. He is also an antiracism trainer and organizer with Crossroads Antiracism Organzing and Training.  Currently, Michael is vice president of SOUL, a grassroots coalition of faith based organizations focused on economic justice, leadership training and political responsibility in Chicago’s Southland.

Michael Russell is the pastor of the Jubilee Faith Community of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) in Country Club Hills, IL. Prior to that he did community organizing with Neighborhood Housing Services, Inc in Chicago’s West Englewood community. He is also an antiracism trainer and organizer with Crossroads Antiracism Organzing and Training. Michael is also vice president of SOUL, a grassroots coalition of faith based organizations focused on economic justice, leadership training and political responsibility in Chicago’s Southland.

As Black history month approaches its final week, I continued to be reminded of the grip racism and white supremacy have on this nation.  From the failure of a Florida jury to find Michael Dunn guilty of his unjustifiable murder of Jordan Davis to Ted Nugent’s racist rant about the President of the United States, the evidence that we are not in a post racial or colorblind nation is undeniable.  Just a month ago the nation was commemorating the birth and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in parades, interfaith services, community actions, and days of service but as I reflect upon the daily carnage of people of color lives lost and dehumanized in defense of white supremacy, I want to breathe new life and energy into Dr. King’s message and work for radical social transformation.

King believed racism and economic oppression were cancers invading and destroying the soul of the United States. He worked to spread a message and organized to share a non-violent methodology because he believed that people working together for a common purpose had the power to excise these malignancies from our society and because he wanted to agitate for geo-political and socio-economic change. As a Baptist minister King preached against social messages, which sought to dehumanize African-Americans.  Theologically and ethically, King held onto the conviction that God did not tolerate the sin of racism and stood on the side of those who struggle to bring dignity to all life. He appealed to the moral center of individuals and society because wanted them to understand that [t]he racial issue that we confront in America is not a sectional but a national problem. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Therefore, no American can afford to be apathetic about the problem of racial justice. It is a problem that meets every man [sic] at his front door.”[1]  King gave his life to organize a movement aimed at securing human and civil rights for People of Color in the United States because he knew that at stake was the very soul of this nation.

King’s formula for change is strikingly simple: Message + Methodology + Momentum (movement) = sociopolitical change. One example of the application of this formula was the Montgomery bus boycott.  The leaders of the civil rights movement were clear that racism was dehumanizing and denying basic human and civil rights to a part of this nation’s citizenry. They understood that racism had also socialized the African-American citizens of Montgomery to cooperate with and finance their own dehumanization through oppression, intimidation, and terrorism.

Recognizing that liberation of African-Americans in Montgomery, AL would require divestment from the infrastructure of the city, a bus boycott was planned.  Preparations were made to provide alternative modes of transportation.  Meetings were held to prepare the community for the pressure they would experience.  Then Rosa Parks, a 42-year old African-American woman trained in non-violent organizing at the Highlander Folk School, boarded a bus paid full fare for her ticket and refused to relinquish her seat defying the bus company’s rule that required a black person give up their seat to any white person upon request and move to the ‘blacks only’ section at the back of the bus.

For this act of civil disobedience, Parks was arrested; an event that catalyzed the community’s support for the boycott.  For more than a year, they inspired one another to resist and persevere through even the most violent tactics employed by local police, vigilantes, and the Montgomery business community.  The resisters remained committed to their message, and methodology boycotting the buses and businesses that participated in discriminatory practices.  They imposed grass-roots community based economic sanctions on their institutional oppressors.  These sanctions weakened the economic foundation that sustained that particular racist system and raised the consciousness of a nation to the need for the elimination of Jim Crow practices.

Right now we endure the continued exploitation of people of color who are used as human fuel for corporate economic engines, including United States militarization, criminalization and incarceration.  Our nation along with the global community is being torn asunder by economic policies that increase the gap between the “haves and have-nots,” governmental and social disregard for the human rights of its most vulnerable citizens, a growing environmental degradation crisis, hegemonic wars, and the devaluation of all life, Dr. King’s words ring prophetic and his wisdom timely.  As we organize to dismantle all forms of systemic and institutional oppression, our call is to struggle against the commercialization and dilution of the movement Dr. King helped birth.  We must accept his challenge, rally the resistance, modernize the methodology, and live into his legacy by organizing and working together until the dream is made real for us all.

Racism is alive and well in 2014.  Systems of oppression continue to morph into new constructs that marginalize and dehumanize us all.  Giving up is not an option.  Let us honor those whose lives and dreams have been cut short by racism by renewing our commitment to work across all lines of difference for a world and nation in which all people thrive.  As we conclude this years observance of Black history month let us not forget to that a true celebration and commemoration of Dr. King and the men and women with whom he labored in the civil rights movement demands that we work without ceasing to ensure human rights and civil rights are afforded to all.

[1] This quote comes from “The Rising Tide of Racial Consciousness,” Address at the Golden Anniversary Conference of the National Urban League delivered in New York City on September 6th, 1960.  For a full text of the speech follow this link: http://mlkkpp01.stanford.edu/primarydocuments/Vol5/6Sept1960_TheRisingTideofRacialConsciousnessAddressattheGold.pdf

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The Power of Our Shared Stories

Crossroads community gathers each summer at an Advanced Organizers Training to exchange ideas, to learn about new developments in Crossroads’ power analysis and methodology, and to build relationships. In 2013, Crossroads asked some members of its community to prepare 5-10 minute talks in the style of Ignite Talks. Crossroads core organizer and trainer, the Rev. Michael Russell shared this powerful talk about the power of the shared stories of People of Color in the United States. Watch this video and be inspired.

The Rev. Michael Russell is the pastor of the Jubilee Faith Community of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) in Country Club Hills, IL. Prior to that he did community organizing with Neighborhood Housing Services, Inc in Chicago’s West Englewood community. Michael has a Masters of Divinity from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and has completed post graduate studies at the Keller Graduate School of Business Management in Chicago IL. Michael is also an antiracism trainer and organizer with Crossroads. He co-authored “Lazarus at the Gate: Writings and Reflections on Poverty and Wealth,” a resource of the ELCA Poverty Ministries Networking program unit for Church in Society. He currently is vice president of SOUL, a grassroots coalition of faith based organizations focused on economic justice, leadership training and political responsibility in Chicago’s Southland. Most importantly though, he is a child of God, partner of Debra, father to Justin, Chandra, and Evan, and grandfather to Gabriel. They are inspiration for his antiracism work.

Let Us Not Stand Silent

Jessica Vazquez Torres, Core Organizer Trainer

A native of Puerto Rico, Jessica Vazquez Torres identifies as a “1.5 generation Queer ESL Latina of Puerto Rican descent.” She works as a consultant and core/organizer trainer for Crossroads. Jessica holds a BA in Criminal Justice and Masters degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity. She lives in GA with her spouse and two Shih-Tzu’s.

Bearing the weight of truth that challenges human assumptions is something Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did well.  If the photos and grainy videos show the whole story, he was a man who could stand in the face of great and difficult problems with aplomb, and speak with passionate certainty about grim reality and hope.

In the United States we have done Dr. King a great disservice by imprisoning him to one speech, a marvelous and uplifting speech about a dream, but nonetheless one that obfuscates his evolution as a nonviolent resister and thinker.

Exactly one year before his assassination, April 4, 1967, from the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York, Dr. King spoke at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam calling for an end to the war and articulating the implications of failing to take such a bold step. He titled his remarks, A Time to Break Silence.”

Dr. King’s journey to this powerful speech was a difficult one.  The movement he was leading appeared to be unraveling. There was tension and dissent among the ranks over whether or not the struggle for African-American civil and economic rights should be connected to the struggle to end U.S. military operations in Vietnam.

Close allies like Whitney Young were concerned that to take on Vietnam was to jeopardize all the work they had done on behalf of African-Americans.  Younger movement leaders like Stokely Carmichael were also challenging the core principles of the civil rights movement as articulated by King.  In their frustration at the slow pace of change, significant members of the younger generation of civil right organizers and revolutionaries were abandoning the idea that non-violence could bring change.  While chanting “Black Power,” Carmichael and other emerging civil rights leaders were calling for armed confrontation of racist Whites, the use of violence when necessary, and Black separatism.

Those concerned with preserving the focus of the civil rights movement of issues of race primarily and class secondarily, pleaded with Dr. King to remain silent.  Those concerned with the disproportionate drafting and loss of African-American men in the war and the U.S. efforts to disrupt the movement for self-determination in Vietnam pleaded with Dr. King to speak.

In between these two pulls Dr. King struggled until the harrowing images from Vietnam, the piled bodies of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese women and children, and the obvious links between war, poverty, and racism could not be avoided anymore. Early in his speech at Riverside Church King offers this confession, “Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart.”[1] He then follows this acknowledgment with a powerful and urgent plea for the soul of his nation.

We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.  Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message — of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”[2]

No longer able to ignore the links between war, poverty and racism nor the movement of the Spirit of the God in whom he believed, King begins to push the civil rights movement in a radically different direction.  Resting in his conviction that the Creator desired a reordering of society, King challenged his nation and those gathered at Riverside Church to find the moral courage to make a choice: These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”[3]

Dr. King knew that when he linked the struggle for civil rights with the struggles against poverty and war, he would bring discomfort into his life.  He knew that when he began to name the unholy trinity of U.S. materialism, militarism, and systemic racism people would resist.  But he also knew there was no alternative.  He knew that for freedom to ring in every mountain, valley, and corner of his beloved nation, he had to link these social sins.  And so must we.

The dream of Dr. King we love to cite will remain an elusive fantasy until we too link systemic racism with corporate greed, militarism, and the rampant materialism of our times.  In the last month alone our congress has acted not to extend unemployment benefits for millions of Americans while also ensuring corporations can continue to profit as the poor and vulnerable struggle.  Homeless shelters are filled with women, children, and men.  Those seeking jobs have stopped searching, resigning themselves to permanent unemployed status which means they are of no account.  Our public school systems are failing to educate the poorest and criminalizing those who fail to conform to our common core curriculums.  Our prisons are filled to the brim with non-violent offenders who are not being rehabilitated while the companies that own the prisons revive de-facto forms of Jim Crow.   And all along the stock market thrives.

Bringing about, working toward, honoring the dream of Dr. King demands that we see the connections linking systemic forms of oppression.  It demands that we speak out when it is unpopular; that we take stands not just on matters of racial discrimination but against xenophobic and homophobic legislation as well as the military and prison industrial complexes that destroy life.

Do we have it in us to speak? Do we have it in us to protest? Do we have it in us to raise our collective voice to speak out against systemic forms of oppressions like racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism, just to name a few, especially when part of speaking out is naming our complicity in this social ills and oppressions?

Dr. King said toward the beginning of this powerful speech, “the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony[4] because “the human spirit [moves with] great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty.”[5]

Let us not be mesmerized by the conundrums we face.  At stake is the soul of this nation. Let us not stand silent.

[1] Martin Luther King and James Melvin Washington, I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World ([San Francisco]: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), page 136.

[2] Ibid, page 151.

[3] Ibid, page 153.

[4] Ibid, page 136.

[5] Ibid, page 136.