A lil' Activism- Part 3
Sat Apr 29 18:39:07 CDT 2000
Black Radical Congress
Ricky L. Jones, Ph.D. & Ede Warner, Jr., Ph.D.
rljone01 at louisville.edu ewarner at louisville.edu
1100 S. Brook Street Louisville, KY 40203
502-583-7935 Fax: 502-852-8166
April 29, 2000
P.O. Box 740031
Louisville, KY 40201-7431
Far From a "Lone Voice"
On Easter Sunday, April 23, 2000, Dr. Ricky L. Jones stood on a pew interrupting the "The March Toward Destiny Rally" at it's first stop, Quinn Chapel AME Church. I confess, I was at his side.
I was at his side, despite my deep respect for the black church. I was at his side, despite my deeply spiritual nature. I was at his side, knowing the importance of the black church as a site of resistance against African American oppression uniformly throughout America's dark past of slavery and legal segregation. I was at his side, knowing that the near recent past of the black church in the white media centers around bombings of church homes by those determined to destroy what many black folk cherish above all else on earth. I was at his side, knowing the traditional linkages of religious leaders in the black community standing at the forefront of civil rights activism for the last fifty years.
I was at his side, because as much I as trembled at the thought of treading on the sacred ground for many in a black community that lies at the center of my identity, I was more afraid of the isolation, arrogance, wrong-headedness, and outright deception that I witnessed over the three weeks prior to the march. In fact, although I have been a Louisville resident for seven years, and had NEVER participated in any civil rights activism in this community, I felt that my personal relationship with God demanded that I not sit idly by and watch some serious transgressions which directly negatively-impacted the black community.
I am a debate coach and I make my living listening to the arguments of others and evaluating those arguments. Frankly, when my friend and colleague brother Jones, approached me saying, "I am going to disrupt the march at St. Stephen's Church. Are you with me?" I looked at him with my best, "You must be kidding face." It would take a tremendous argument for me to ever consider this. Although hesitant, I listened. Jones made his case. I read a letter he had written to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, outlining how the small group of civil rights activist at the forefront of the fights against city/county merger and for a civilian review board had been pushed to the background, with little or no voice. The letter outlined the "hazy" establishment of a "steering" committee which would take the lead of a protest march that was originally scheduled for Oaks day, moving it to Easter Sunday. The letter talked about how SEVERAL members of the steering committee opposed at one time or!
another, all three of the key elements of the march: fighting for anti-police brutality measures; fighting the merger; and a time-tested, successful form of civil rights activism, protest. The letter said that when Jackson first arrived and met with Coleman and CAPA (Citizens Against Police Abuse), the protest would occur on Oaks day and City Hall would be the target. The Mayor was outraged, and within days the appointed?/selected?/elected? members of the newly formed "steering committee", NOT including Coleman, were meeting with Jackson back in Chicago, changing the date of the march to Easter, and clearly establishing that NEW leadership was now in charge, relegating Coleman, CAPA, and others to an after-thought.
The letter made it clear to Jackson that Jones would PROTEST the march if two conditions were not met: 1) That those who just joined in the march WOULD NOT take leadership positions in the march and allow those who had been working on these issues for years to continue to dictate the strategies and tactics which had been quite successful to this point; and 2) That the site of the protest be moved out of St. Stephen's Church, since the minister had declared that Desmond Rudolph was not the right "poster child" for the march AND that protest activism was outdated.
Jackson never responded to the letter, although he did acknowledge to Jones that he received it at the wreath-laying ceremony, orchestrated by Coleman after his plans were changed. Jackson also spoke indirectly to Jones during his speech at the ceremony saying that we must come together for the cause, no matter who gets the credit.
At this point for me, Jones' arguments were compelling. But the question remained, What do the "real" activists fighting for these changes, Rev. Coleman and CAPA say about this? So, I went to my first CAPA meeting and listened to Jones pitch them his story. Clearly, many, perhaps all agreed that the power of the steering committee essentially shut CAPA out of the decision-making process, but the group sat divided on the idea of disrupting the march. "The march is about unity. The more the better, even if we aren't in the lead." some exclaimed. Others felt differently. The actions of the steering committee were indeed unjust, hypocritical, and gave the perception that the members of the steering committee were the real activists on these issues, sending yet another signal that the large African-American churches were the first and last word regarding black empowerment in Louisville.
The next night, I went to a merger meeting. For the first time, I met and listened to the words of Rev. Coleman. He read Jones' letter. He said he agreed with Jones regarding the events leading to the preparation of the march. He talked about decisions having been made to change his original plans. He said his heart wasn't in their march. He said he would participate in a small capacity because he had asked Jackson to come back in the first place.
Jones requested that the letter demanding changes made to the march be forwarded to the steering committee. The committee did not change the march. They did attempt to directly and indirectly threaten Jones, silence Jones, and manipulate Jones. A few symbolic changes occurred by the time of the march. The end-point was moved from St. Stephen's Church to an outside location still on church property. Coleman, who was taken completely off the program when he stopped attending the Steering Committee meetings (he was always one of 18 members), but was added late to give the benediction. Ministers called Jones colleagues, bosses, friends, associates, and lawyer, all in efforts to stop his threats to protest the march.
As I watched it unfold, I became a true believer. The only question left was, why protest in the church? The answer was simple: because the steering committee made the church the center of the march and of ALL the preparation for the march. Steering committee meetings were in the church. The starting point and end point was on church property. Originally, we were going to protest the march at St. Stephen's. Then they moved it outside. So, Quinn's Chapel became the only viable sight.
But many are angry at us today and say, "Why the church?" We could demonstrate outside the church, but frankly, what effect would that have? The purpose of our protest was to show that the march was illegitimate, built on deception, and was NOT an effective type of protest (moving from one church to another as opposed to marching on City Hall makes no logical sense. Our goal was to create the most successful type of political protest possible. The event was originally conceived by Coleman as a political protest, not a religious event.
Our demonstration was met with anger and disgust. Dr. Jones stood on a pew and demanded that Jackson allow him to speak for two minutes. We stood up and raised our hands. Sure we disrupted the protest non-violently and frankly, we wanted to be forcibly removed. We wanted the media cameras, which the steering committee wanted in the church (how sacred is that?), to see the entire event. We wanted the city to know HOW strongly we felt that it was wrong, strongly enough to stand on a pew in a church. We wanted the police to carry us out of the church, during a protest against police brutality. And it nearly happened. Several police in uniform descended upon the church immediately. Many plains-cloth officers were already invited guests of the steering committee to demonstrate the power of healing, I guess.
We were told that day, by many in the crowd, and even ministers that, "God would send us to damnation" for this action. We were called a group of rioters, not interested in saving the community. We were called many names and some wanted to physically fight us over the issue.
Interesting. Announced as a day of healing and unity, we were being thrown out for dissenting and criticism the leadership of the march! What would have happened had the FOP wanted to talk for a few minutes? What would have happened if the Mayor demanded to speak? What would have happened if pro-merger forces wanted some time? Look our point from the outside was that you have no business taking political issues into the church. Sure, church officials can take political stands and it makes sense for religious leaders to be at the forefront of activist movements. But when you take the political protest, by definition a hotly-contested event, into the church, you must accept the baggage that comes with politics, some of which is political dissent.
The irony is that when dissent did occur, the first reaction of local black leadership and its flock, was to SILENCE it. If you speak out against us, God will get you. They did not say, Dr. Jones, you can talk and we will answer your claims. They said, "YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO SPEAK!" It's not appropriate.
So, we can only talk about the politics put on the agenda by the steering committee? Here is an example of why it was a stupid decision to host the march on sacred grounds. What if when the Klan comes to protest next month and decides to have their march on their religious grounds? Do they reasonably think that opponents will simply not show up to express their displeasure? C'mon, you've got to be kidding. They know that opposition is always part of their protest. Did King do most of his protest activism in the church? Of course not, he may have talked about politics from the pulpit, but he rarely, if ever, made his political stands there. His political ACTIONS were generally separate from his job as a religious leader. The two may be related, but they are not the same. The sad fact, is the steering committee KNEW of our intent, but yet, took no action. They probably felt that no one would cause problems in a church! Trying to speak a dissenting voice in a church!
was the ONLY way to highlight the contradiction and hypocrisy and arrogance and abusive power and deception shown in the development of this march.
Look, the folks on the steering committee are good folks, all of which have done very positive things, generally related to their areas of expertise. Alderpersons serve government, ministers provide religious healing for our tired souls, and businesspersons keep our economy afloat. HOWEVER, we had a group of tireless civil rights activists who have spent countless days of their lives becoming experts at protest activism. Love him or hate him, Rev. Louis Coleman is the FIRST name that anyone thinks of regarding activism for black folks around Louisville. Coleman knows and understands how protest activism works. CAPA has proven that they know and understand how activism works. When Coleman says that the march should be on City Hall, people who support progressive activism should listen and learn, until they earn the right to make these decisions. When CAPA says let's have a vigil and demand the mayor speak to us, if folks are sincere in wanting to be activists for chang!
e they should FOLLOW, not lead. Those two right-thinking political protests, which also happened this past weekend, went virtually ignored because city government officials, religious leaders, and business leaders, willingly or unwillingly abused their power and took over a job they were woefully underprepared for and did not earn the right to lead. Coleman may not speak as eloquently as others, and may never be pastor of a black mega-church, BUT only Coleman has earned the right to stand at the forefront of any decision-making regarding African-American protest in this city. And his words should be heeded, not ignored. Period.
The march was a political sham. A one-day photo opportunity which made no one nervous, demanded little or nothing, and served the opposition as much as those fighting for change. There can be NO HEALING, as the steering committee proclaimed, until gains have been fought for and won. Has a Civilian Review Board been established? Have the pro-merger folks closed their umbrella and went home. I think not. Celebrate healing when the wounds have been closed. Until then keep the politics out of the hands of opportunists looking to solidify their power base or with ulterior agendas not focused on the issue at hand.
Finally, some believe that Jones' is out here alone. Nothing is further from the truth. If know one else agrees, I will continue to stand at his side because I believe his criticisms are as of yet, unanswered. But I think attempts at cutting off the "lone head" , i.e., silencing Jones' only is creating a multi-headed hydra. Many in fact agree with the substance of his claims, and only disagree with the way we presented them. So be it. I hope their religious teachings allow them to forgive us. I also hope that they don't throw the baby out with the bath-water, and critically examine the black community's power base, and begin to think seriously about what needs to be done, for real change to occur. If marches are continued to be directed by the opposition of the key issues, progress will move backwards. If religion intolerance for political dissent, continues to illegitimately wield power over those with more expertise in demonstration and protest, progress will move b!
ackwards. And finally, if the response of current black leadership is to try and cut of the head of the apparent leader (several members of the steering committee have met with the UofL President in an effort to have Jones' terminated), another illogical act of intolerance, as opposed to addressing the issues in a public forum, then the black community in Louisville will continue to stand divided. Those in power simply need to listen and answer criticism with an admission that they are human and make mistakes. Hiding behind argument by authority, especially God's authority, only serves to remind many of us how human clergy folk actually are. I pray that we can move forward with the courage it takes by all parties involved, and regain consciousness about who should lead, who should follow, and who should give us the spiritual and emotional strength to survive. All are important, but no one person or group can be responsible for every aspect of black identity. Only colle!
ctive action which recognizes each individuals strengths and weaknesse
With undying love for my people,
Ede Warner, Jr., Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Communication & Director of Debate University of Louisville
Ede Warner, Jr, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Communication/Director of Debate
University of Louisville
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