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.
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.” 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.”
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.”
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“ 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.”
Let us not be mesmerized by the conundrums we face. At stake is the soul of this nation. Let us not stand silent.
 Martin Luther King and James Melvin Washington, I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World ([San Francisco]: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), page 136.
Robette has been Executive Co-Director and a Core Organizer/Trainer since 2002. Prior to that she was an antiracism program coordinator for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA) Faith In Action Department, providing training, technical support and advocacy for the Journey Toward Wholeness antiracism initiative. As a Karuk Indian, Robette brings a specifically indigenous perspective to antiracism organizing. She is a founding member and past president of Diverse & Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM), the continental support and advocacy organization for UUA People of Color. She is currently Board President of Oyate, a Native American resource and advocacy organization.
Readers who have recently attended a Crossroads “Analysis Workshop” may recognize the title of this post as a riff on the name of that workshop. If people know anything about Crossroads its usually that we do workshops that teach people about racism. And it’s true, we pride ourselves on our ability to break down racism with razor sharp, laser directed and sometimes mind-blowing presentations AND we do so much more than that! The challenge of living in a world that invites a power analysis of racism at every turn is that you can’t just switch it off! Because we encounter racial injustice and racial disparities around every corner, we are highly motivated to apply that analysis and work with “institutional perpetrators” to find solutions that will lead to social transformation. Well, that was a pretty heady mouthful! What does that mean?
Who IS the real Crossroads then?
The Crossroads of today has to be understood in the context of our origins. We are still that Crossroads of 1986 AND we are also an evolving, complex, and transforming Crossroads. Launching the Crossroads blog on the week in which we remember the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is quite intentional. It is a nod of gratitude to the Crossroads founders who participated in the Civil Rights Movement and who wanted to make sure the Movement was kept alive in religious communities. We continue to be inspired by the life-long commitments to racial justice of our founders and the early builders of Crossroads Ministry: Joe Barndt, Susan Birkelo, Susan and Chuck Ruehle, Victor Rodriguez, and Melvin Hoover. They are the foundation of Crossroads and they opened the space from which the Crossroads of today emerges.
Sometimes that space has been contested space, make no mistake. It wasn’t easy transitioning from an organization with a strong Civil Rights identity and orientation to an organization focused on racial justice more broadly. We are clear that People of Color continue to struggle for civil rights and equal access and control of the public institutions in the United States, but we are also clear that racial justice includes the sovereignty movements of Indigenous Peoples, and the anti-colonial movements of People of Color under direct and neo-colonial domination by the US. We know that racial justice has to be tied to revolutionizing our economic system because the exploitation of People of Color and poor White People is what fuels U.S. capitalism.
It also wasn’t easy transitioning from our Protestant Christian origins. Christianity, the way our founders understand it, is the path to restoring a human family deeply divided by racism and other systems of oppression. The diversity of spiritual and humanist traditions that exist in Crossroads today share a similar ethos, and may express it in radically different ways. It is not just a divide in the human family needing restoration, but the alienation from creation as the source of all life (which some may refer to as the Sacred or Spirit) that needs to be healed.
The guiding principle transforming Crossroads today is accountability to People of Color. It manifests in our current leadership: five Women of Color and one White Woman comprise the salaried and contract staff of Crossroads, our board is 75% People of Color, 40% of our 23 contract organizer/trainers are People of Color. More than a numbers game (as some of our trainers remind us, the plantation was a diverse workplace too), accountability to People of Color has led us to articulate a radically inclusive power analysis of racism and to invest in what we call Regional Organizing. That is, institutional organizing grounded in geographically identified communities in order to be in direct relationship with the Communities of Color for whom racism is a life and death reality.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Creating this blog is a commitment to transparency and nurturing the Crossroads learning community. It’s an invitation to Analyzing & Understanding racism today and exploring Antiracist Interventions. Clear, deep analysis of the power dynamics of white supremacy has always been key to successful, effective resistance. Analyzing & Understanding racism today is as important as ever. There are more ways to criminalize and exploit People of Color now that at any other time in our country’s history.
- More Men of Color are incarcerated now than were ever enslaved by the institution of Chattel Slavery and under Jim Crow. There are more Black and Brown men in prison than in college, and with the expansion of the criminal industrial complex and privatization of prisons, a large and profitable sector of the US economy thrives while Communities of Color are decimated.
- The US economy is sustained by the labor of undocumented workers. The deportation of those workers, which is higher than ever, is tearing apart families and lives.
- American Indian families opposing the adoption of their children by non-Indians have been arrested for obstruction of justice, contempt of court, even kidnapping. Indian families are expected to stand by and watch as state troopers remove their children from their homes. Meanwhile, non-Indian men who rape Indian women go unpunished and walk free to perpetrate their crimes with impunity due to issues of convoluted legal jurisdictions.
- Past racial justice accomplishments are being gutted: everything from voting rights to affirmative action.
- Even the growing wealth divide is highly racialized and highly gendered. At the prime age of income potential, Women of Color continue to have negative wealth while their White sisters median is $42,000.
- Racialized health disparities continue to manifest while study after study confirm racism is bad for the health of People of Color.
Yes, the work of antiracism, the work of Crossroads is needed now more than ever! So…I invite you. Read the blog; get to know us more deeply, get to know about racism and antiracism in all its complexity. Apply the Analysis and let us hear from you!