---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 11 Dec 2001 23:14:49 -0800
From: radtimes <email@example.com>
Subject: Organizer's Reflections on Some Organizing Things [SDS and Much
Two items from another list:
Date: Mon, 3 Dec 2001
From: "Hunter Gray" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Organizer's Reflections on Some Organizing Things [SDS and Much More]
Note by Hunterbear:
First, heavy and extremely wet snow is falling all over this high-up area.
I've been "moving" it for the last couple of days especially -- and have
done much already this very, very early Idaho morning. When I'm done with
this little writing piece, I'm going back out [so I may, to a point, take my
time on this,] A thought: the people in the "old time" -- whatever their
ethnicities and cultures -- never had to worry about "clock time."
I'm primarily an organizer by vocation -- [although I'd say it's an art.]
For me, it's always been full-time organizing and sometimes part-time
teaching -- or full-time teaching and full-time organizing. I generally look
at things from a working organizer's perspective.
Quite recently, on another list, there's been some discussion of the decline
and demise of Students for Democratic Society -- one of the genuinely bright
lights of activist organizing during the 1960s. [Some of this has been
by the recent Bill Ayers' book on the background and development of the
Weatherman faction, Fugitive Days.] In addition, questions about the
relationship of local organizers to their national offices came up
I gave a short reflection on some of these things which I'm now expanding a
bit and giving here.
I have no formal background in SDS, would never presume to be an authority,
but I did know a number of people in it during the earlier years -- especially
when I was deeply involved in Deep South organizing [1961-67.] During that
maintained close and on-going connections with SNCC [Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee] which, during its most
active period [1960-68], did itself maintain some ties with some components
and people in SDS.
After 1967, I was in several parts of the country, including the
Pacific Northwest -- and regularly encountered SDSers who were still
effective grassroots community organizing, anti-War work, and campus
battles for democratic rights. But the ideological conflicts were becoming
very heavy storms -- centered more and more around increasingly exotic,
on-the-far-edges variants of Marxist-Leninism as well as on violence-prone
anarchism. And these wars were literally engulfing the organization.
For anyone in SDS, all of this was obviously becoming
inescapable -- indeed, totally unavoidable -- and seemed to friendly
outsiders like myself, at least, to be flowing downward in a peculiarly
two-dimensional fashion: a stifling and diversionary atmosphere vis-a-vis
bona fide organizing on the one hand and, on the other, an extremely
stimulating and ever-proliferating one for what I call "abyss factionalism."
When I arrived in Chicago in June, 1969, to spend the next four years
directing a very large-scale grassroots social justice community
organizing project on the
increasingly bloody South/Southwest Side, the SDS controversies were
boiling to the fore. Much of the fighting in and around the once far-flung
and vital and now cracking/splintering organization was centered at Chicago.
But, by this time, it all seemed totally internalized and none of it
seemed to have much grassroots meaning at all.
A Packinghouse [UPWA] strike was underway in Back of the Yards and
environs. On another front, old Southern colleagues of mine -- Rev C.T.
Vivian and Rev
A.I. Dunlap, then based at the Chicago Urban Training Center -- were
organizing dramatic demonstrations designed to open up construction trades
to minority workers. We supported all of that and other things such as the
anti-War campaigns. Writer/activist Staughton Lynd was gathering extremely
historical data on Left organizing in Steel -- and was into his own very
solid social justice endeavors. The Black Panthers were doing some good
and were very much in the sights of every fink in the region -- as shown so
that Fall in the cold-blooded "murders under color of law" ["law" both local
and Federal] of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.
In fact, much was going on all over -- but SDS seemed totally out of all of
that -- and completely enmeshed and trapped in its nightmare of unending
and fast-deepening ideological wrangling which, increasingly, took on the
inevitable personal connotations.
I remember visiting the huge Amphitheatre [or whatever] on the Near South
Side around this time, at a point where the SDS factions were having their
Armageddon -- their convention shoot-out -- inside. I saw literally no one
that I knew from the
old days and the turgid leaflets seemed to me totally from and within
Old radical buddies -- e.g., a former student of mine and, always, an
old friend despite a few political differences, Mike Bayer of CPUSA [ then
the Party's Indiana organizer out of Gary], agreed with me that the internal
SDS wars were pulling the multi-splintering SDS and all of its components
right over the rim of a Grand Canyon and down into the Inner Gorge.
The Mountains of Challenge we all faced were very steep, formidable. And, of
course, they certainly continue to be! There is an old Mississippi saying
that might pertain to the extreme frustration and increasingly polarized
factionalism that plagues so many Left organizations: "A rabbit can't fight
nobody but a rabbit."
By the time the really violent SDS split-off -- the Weatherman faction --
launched its Days of Rage very briefly on Chicago's Near North Side in
the Fall of '69, the whole kaleidoscopic SDS-related scene was for most of
"another picture show." For all practical purposes, this once great
organization/movement was gone.
Our own Chicago South/Southwest Side organizing got off to a very good start
and moved very well. In that four year period [1969-1973] , we helped
people organize about 300 multi-issue block clubs in two large umbrella
plus a number of related advocate organizations.
Our turf was the whole sweep from 28th down to 63d, and from the Dan Ryan
Expressway westward and far across South Ashland Avenue and beyond --
working almost completely with Black, Puerto Rican, and Chicano people. That
was our major
thrust, but we had, across our rough and rugged geography, some other
concurrent projects as well.
In one of those, we organized Chicanos and Anglos together against a major,
people-strangling urban renewal scheme aimed at the 45th and South Ashland
area -- heart of the old Back of the Yards. [Our organization in that
campaign was completely integrated and, from the outset, had a Chicano
president for one year and an Anglo president for the next on an on-going
basis.] And, although we had to fight the Richard Daley machine, a slew of
corporations, the old and corrupt Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council
[the first Saul Alinsky organizing project of decades before, now hopelessly
"gone wrong"], and much more -- we-all won the prolonged campaign. The
grassroots people stayed in their neighborhood.
Early on in this situation, in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of
SDS, some very
nice, but naive kids from Progressive Labor [Maoist], who had SDS
connections, came to the edges of our developing urban renewal battle.
Completely unaware that the old Back of the Yards Council under
Joe Meegan had moved 180 degrees from Alinsky's altruistic vision
[unavoidable, given the top-down "elitist" Alinsky style of organizing],
they now moved to support the infamous Meegan and "attack" us! I
immediately met with them, wised them up pronto, and they were quite OK
after that -- but they soon drifted on and beyond [and probably out of
things altogether.] They seemed to me shell-shocked and lost --
There are always many victims and casualties along the Trail to the Sun.
In the '60s, there were certainly many of all kinds and in all sorts of
situations -- and SDS was one of them. Very much indeed one of them. If
SDS had continued its original focus of steady, systematic social justice
organizing, things may well have gone differently.
But bona fide grassroots organizing is, frankly, the hardest, toughest and
most demanding work there is. It's also the most satisfying.
On the relationship of local organizing to national offices, it has always
been my experience, frankly, that the local organizers and their
always "where it's at" -- no more, no less.
But, given the oft-geographical distances -- even in these days of
instantaneous computer witch-craft communication -- there are always
dichotomies and mutual mis-readings vis-a-vis the organizer "at the point of
production" and the far-off central office.
These varied readings at varied levels were true, for example, even in such
solidly committed Left unions as the now gone but legendary International
Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers [Mine-Mill.] An example was stress
around tactics between the excellent
local organizers and excellent local people on the one hand, and, on the
other, the excellent International Office and the excellent
Secretary-Treasurer [Maurice E. Travis] -- during one of the Union's most
well-known and historic strikes: the prolonged, October 1950 into January
1952 "Salt of the Earth" struggle against Empire Zinc on which the very
fine, enduring and classic film is based. [You'll note, I'm sure, that I've
used "excellent" four times in one sentence.]
But there was always a very basic and enduring intra-union solidarity at all
levels -- encompassing and nourishing mutual respect -- in that episodic
situation and in
the other Mine-Mill struggles.
I and others, much involved in the Jackson, Mississippi NAACP -- as well as
the state-wide organization -- did very heavy and intensive grassroots
organizing in and around Jackson. Out of that came, of course, the
tremendously massive and historic Jackson
Movement of 1961-63 -- climaxing in May and June of '63 with extremely large
non-violent demonstrations. Repression was brutal, bloody. But that was
not our only
At virtually every point we had to fight -- as soon-to-be-martyred [June
NAACP Field Secretary, Medgar Evers, had had to fight for years -- the
conservative, foot-dragging National Office of NAACP: tied politically and
completely to the Democratic Party, fiscally conservative, and badly
frightened of Southern turbulence.
When our Jackson Movement really hit its high water stride, the National
covertly and desperately and finally openly with the Kennedys et al. to
undercut and try to
kill the Movement.
I was Advisor to the Jackson Youth Council of NAACP, a member of the Board
of Directors of the Mississippi State Conference of NAACP Branches -- and
Chair of the Strategy Committee of the Jackson Movement. I've told that
whole epic story in great -- and to this very moment, unchallenged -- detail
in my book, Jackson, Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and
Schism [under my original name of John R Salter, Jr.]
After the Jackson campaign, as Field Organizer for the hard-fighting and
Southern Conference Educational Fund [grassroots civil rights organizing
anti-Klan work] during a very substantial and solid stretch of quite
productive time, I always had the firm backing of our excellent executive
director, Jim Dombrowksi of New Orleans, a veteran radical -- who
consistently supported me all the way. But he and I didn't always agree by
any means on tactics. I was hot-eyed
as hell and he more seasoned. But, again, it was all in the context of
solidarity and mutual respect -- and Jim, always a very solid guy, had no
problems with my going my own way, following my own organizer's star. We
respected each other enormously.
That was essentially true throughout SCEF during that great era. Shared
vision, mutual respect.
And so it goes in the Save the World Business. I can tell many other
stories -- of good national and central offices and some not so good -- but,
a committed organizer, you just have to keep at it.
If you're lucky, the "top brass" backs you up. If not, you try to keep them
out of the way and, in the end, you may well get "burned" -- but you keep
right on keeping
on. You may be eventually fired for "insubordination." That's happened to
me -- i.e., when I was fired from my position as director of social justice
activities for the Rochester, NY Catholic Diocese by Church officials
frightened by our militancy -- and very likely, also, by our many tangible
And, if and when you're axed, you then simply find another good horse to
the next great stretch of the way. If you're a good person -- and certainly
organizer -- you'll find a good mount.
The best grassroots organizers in SDS -- and I can name
a number -- gave up on it and went into other far more solidly
effective activist endeavours, union organizing, or back to academia. And
some of those were certainly leaving by '67 and '68.
Every Movement is built on the wreckage and the lessons of its predecessors.
The basic struggle for a full measure of social justice -- for socialist
democracy, as many of us see the Vision -- continues. It always continues.
In that context, hard, tedious grassroots social justice organizing is
Always has been, always will.
In Solidarity --
Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]
Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]
www.hunterbear.org (social justice)
Left Discussion Group
Date: Mon, 03 Dec 2001 21:42:04 -0500
Subject: RE: Organizer's Reflections on Some Organizing Things [SDS
and Much More]
I do not usually cross-post on lists, but since Hunter did, I thought I
might too. Here (with some deletions, and an addition at the very end) are
some related ruminations of mine.
First, I want to thank Hunter (and others on the other list) for sparking
this discussion of SDS and also of organizing dynamics.
I was one of the leaders of U of Michigan (Ann Arbor) SDS from 1964 -
August 68 (when I moved to UCLA as
faculty and got involved in a lot of activity there, but not the local
SDS chpter which was PL dominated.) In
some ways, I helped hold VOICE-SDS (the U Mich chapter) together in
1967-68 at a time when the Weatherman
faction (Bill Ayers, Diana Oughton, etc), national office/RYM types,
PL, and IS folks were all at least
semi-organized. At that stage, though, most were still trying to work
together. Bill and Diana had an
alternative "Children's Community School" that they were running on
pretty-screwed-up lines (a friend of mine
whose kid tried it told me so, anyway). It did keep them out of the
hair of the rest of us.
I think the SDS splintering was a deeper problem than just normal
"central organization" stuff. It grew out of
the fact that the main core of the student movement was discovering
that its forces and pre-conceptions, even
though they were still growing, were just not up to the job at
hand. Their conception of this "job", of
course, was changing--becoming revolutionary, even though we had little
sense of what kind of revolution we
wanted, or how we could get it. That is, this really was a necessary
crisis of ideology, and one which the
movement failed miserably. There may well have been no
solution. During the period from summer 1968 to about
November 1969, I switched track and became Marxist in orientation, and
joined IS (which, if any group did in
those times, probably had the best-grounded approach both to
organizing, class, race, and Marxism--as I thought
then, and still do.) Nonetheless, the old IS split multiple times in
the 70s itself, burning out a lot of
My own analysis is that we still don't know what the role of a central
office should be. Its role will vary at
different stages in a movement's development, and should do so; but we
do not yet know how to make it work
Also, that we need to develop a solid vision of what we are fighting
for, not just against. Not that we will
agree on this, but that we need but better senses of what the issues
are and what we are disagreeing about.
And it all has to be firmly rooted in Marxist dialectics.
Finally, and this I did not say on the other list: Labor organizations
need to be carefully analyzed. Given their strategic role in the class
struggle, both labor law and corporate policies and strategies strongly
push them towards class-collaborationist approaches and towards
bureaucratic forms of organization that demobilize the memberships. Even
the best of organizers are subject to this dynamic; and the best clearly
feel the agony from it while bravely struggling onwards. At times of mass
outbreaks of labor militancy and/or radicalism, the working class can break
through, at least for a while; but as the CIO and some AFL experience of
the 30s and 40s shows, this is only temporary if the movement does not
destroy capitalism. (I have written a book, Teamster Rank and File,
Columbia University Press 1982, and several articles on these themes.)
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