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

Categories:Antiracism Analysis, Commentary, Organizing, Racial Equity, Racial Justice
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