Joe Costello on democratic politics and the Civil Rights Movement

"Immersed in our degraded political culture today, a person finds it difficult to appreciate only fifty years ago the United States experienced one of the great democratic movements of world history."

For something a little different, I’m republishing a hybrid book review slash essay on democracy by my friend Joe Costello. Joe’s been around politics and thinking about politics pretty much his entire life. Anything that he writes is worth reading slowly and carefully — especially his work on the politics of technology, which I highly recommend.

Joe wrote this about a month before Minneapolis broke out in anti-racism and anti-police riots and protests — a surge that then spread all across America. So it fits into our current political moment.

Joe frequently talks about the fact that no one remembers anything anymore. For a long time, I used to think that this was a condition peculiar to the immigrant experience. When my family got here, our knowledge of America began with what we saw when we arrived in 1990. To us, Clinton-style neoliberalism was the baseline for American political culture. We had no personal awareness of this country’s past or that things could ever have been different. But as Joe points out, this lack of historical memory is an integral part of what it means to be American. So we immigrants are off the hook!

Anyway, check out his review. It’s great.

—Yasha Levine


Review of Charles Payne's, I've Got the Light of Freedom

By Joe Costello
April 16, 2020

This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine
I've got the light of freedom
— Traditional

Across three thousand years of recorded Western history, democracy is an anomaly. Just as rare are good books on the culture, structure, and processes of democracy. As someone who spent a lifetime studying and progressively incapable of practicing democracy, I can recommend only a handful of truly good books on the subject. They would include; Livy's Rome, Thomas Jefferson's letters, Hannah Arendt's On Revolution, Stephen Cohen's Bukharin, Lawrence Goodwyn's The Populist Moment, and the French aristocrat Tocqueville's exceptional Democracy in America. To this list I add Professor Charles Payne's extraordinary book, I've Got the Light of Freedom, a wonderful history of the American Civil Rights Movement, offering invaluable understandings of and lessons in democracy.

Immersed in our degraded political culture today, a person finds it difficult to appreciate only fifty years ago the United States experienced one of the great democratic movements of world history. Payne's book records some of the thinking, discussions, and actions of the multitudes of people across the small towns and communities of the South, who came together and seized their democratic rights. Most essentially, the book offers lessons in the processes of democratic organizing, a necessary first step to reviving, reforming, and evolving democracy in America.

In a nation with no historical memory, or seemingly little memory at all for that matter, what little is remembered of the Civil Rights Movement is all rolled into one man, Dr. Martin Luther King. Even that is generous. It's entirely accurate to say what's popularly remembered is a few phrases from one speech. Dr King deserves the greatest respect, but he was not the movement. Payne explains, “The undervaluation of the leadership role played by ordinary people corresponded to an over concentration of the role of national leaders, Dr. King in particular.” Or as movement organizer Diane Nash said, “If people understood the movement, they wouldn't ask, 'When will we get another leader like that?; they would ask, 'What can I do?'”

Payne focuses his story in Mississippi, a state with the well deserved reputation of being the most violent, oppressive, and racially vile in the Union. He begins with the movement's long roots, reaching across the first half of the 20th century. Tales told of numerous individuals standing up in their communities. Payne emphasizes the importance of community in the rural South. How the practices and traditions of community were essential in shaping the democratic character of the movement itself, how, “...the historical vision of ex-slaves, men and women who understood that, for them, maintaining a deep sense of community was itself an act of resistance.”

The culture and ways of community provided a political tradition that was, “...part of a code of conduct which helped an oppressed people give back to one another some of the self-respect the racial system was trying to squeeze out of them, a profoundly democratic tradition holding that every man and woman, merely by virtue of being that, is entitled to some regard.

The book astutely identifies the mores and traditions, including Christianity, of southern Black community as essential elements for the movement's democratic character. “If humanism is belief in the essential oneness of humankind, then one traditional strand of southern Black culture was a visceral humanism, a dearly bought, broad perspective on human behavior that militated against thinking about people in one dimensional terms.” This included not simply understanding the humanity of their fellow Blacks, but the humanity of White racists.

This is in direct opposition to many of the so-called educated histories of the movement, which hold southern racists up to ridicule, not giving “them credit for being complex or understanding the cross pressures under which they were operating...racists pictured as stupid, vulgar, and one dimensional, is one of the hoariest conventions about civil rights and one of the most destructive.” Here is one of the reasons for the present degradation of democracy in America. The appreciation for human complexity has been lost, replaced by simplistic, comfortingly destructive stereotypes.

Community may be the most difficult element for today's America to understand. Our community values have been destroyed by industry, broadcast media, and now, commanding information technologies. To paraphrase Lawrence Goodwyn's amusing insight on culture, not only are we confused on the idea of community, our confusion makes it difficult for us even to imagine our confusion.

One of the movement's greatest democratic thinkers and practitioners was Ella Baker. Born at the beginning of the 20th century, Baker was raised in the small town of Littleton, North Carolina. After graduating from Shaw College, she moved to New York, where her ingrained community values served her well, working with labor unions, economic cooperatives, and editing newspapers. During this time, she came to understand the importance of the tools of democracy, such as reading and writing, education, and how to democratically organize.

At both its simplest and most powerful, democratic organizing is creating connections between people. First and foremost, this means listening and talking

to people, then listening and talking some more, and finally listening and talking. The goals of democratic organizing Baker states, “In the long run people themselves are the only protection they have against violence or injustice...People have to be made to understand that they cannot look for salvation anywhere but to themselves.” And by themselves she doesn't mean the individual alone, but individuals organized together and collectively acting. In the words of movement organizer Bob Moses, the real tools of democracy are people.

To utilize the tools of democracy, Baker, just like Thomas Jefferson, understood education was fundamental. From the Citizenship Schools formed by Septima Clark in the 1930s to the Freedom Schools formed by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee(SNCC) in the 1960s, education is essential to all organizing. Baker insisted, “Spend less time watching television and more time reading about political and social issues; uninformed people cannot participate in a democracy.” Which gets to the heart of the problem of democracy in America today, Americans are immensely ignorant and misinformed of almost every aspect of how the world operates.

Baker would spend a decade with the NAACP, become frustrated, and then help Dr. King found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference(SCLC). She was the first executive director. She quickly found SCLC too hierarchical, too male, and too ignoring of her keen democratic insights. In 1960, at her alma mater Shaw College, she helped found SNCC. Baker would say, SNCC “...exercised the independence that only young people or the unattached, those not caught up in a framework of thought, can exercise.”

With SNCC's founding, Payne focuses on their voter registration efforts in Greenwood, Mississippi. Action is the final step of all organizing. After listening and talking, education, meetings upon meetings, and a meeting can be between just two people, comes action, in this case, registering people to vote.

Payne brilliantly tells the stories of SNCC's disciplined organizational “spadework.” The stories of young SNCC organizers like Bob Moses and Stokely Carmichael connecting with older local Mississippians such as Amizee Moore, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the community of Greenwood. Spadework grew these connections, creating a network to support action. Moses defines spadework: “I just don't see anything to be substituted for having people understand their position and understand their potential power and how to use it. This can only be done through the long route of actually organizing people in small groups and parlaying those into large groups.”

The power of participation, engaging people in their everyday lives, creates a discipline stripping away much of the unhelpful zealous noise of far too much present politics. “Being forced to deal with the complex potential of real individuals is, as Bob Moses said, one way to keep from going off on tangents, ideological or otherwise. The common thread is a refusal to see oneself as merely acted upon, as merely victim.

Participating in actions against the American apartheid system meant regularly being jailed and beaten, more than few lost their lives. Hierarchical power is always upheld with some form of violence. Democracy may be little understood, but violence is a well understood tool of power, common to all hierarchical systems - all of them.

In an era filled with so much decrying of lack of leadership, we'd be surprised to find it right under our noses, if, we develop a democratic culture to facilitate its growth. McArthur Cotton another Greenwood SNCC organizer recalls, “In many cases, SNCC did not so much develop leadership as remove barriers, so that leadership already there might emerge.” As the beautiful Ella Baker put it, “Strong people don't need strong leaders.”

Greenwood's efforts are just one of countless organizing campaigns that occurred across the South, including school desegregation, sit-ins, and uncounted boycotts of segregated businesses. In fact, Payne writes, “Most Greenwood activists feel strongly that the immediate cause of real change, change that they could feel in their daily lives, came in response to economic pressure.”

Traditionally, the Civil Rights Movement's time frame is considered beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and ending with the signing of Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts a decade later. All movements are ephemeral. They have their own life spans and the results of their impact are measured by the long term structural changes they leave behind. The movement's accomplishment's were many; ending most, certainly not all, state sanctioned and codified racial segregation, opening the economy, and giving the descendants of American slavery the political rights first seized at the republic's founding.

There are plenty of lessons to learn from the decline of the movement, including the growth of internal doctrinairism and factionalism. Also, the movement became overshadowed by America's great bourgeois cultural revolution, which birthed from the movement. Ella Baker sums up the movement's decline simply, “In later years, the right of people to participate in decisions that affect their lives began to be translated into the idea that each person working had a right to decide what ought to be done. So you began to do your own thing.” There was no greater rot to democracy in America than the “do your own thing” ethos that infected American culture in the second half of the 1960s and 1970s.

Unfortunately, the movement's success came just as much of the politics of the old republic were failing and the industrial economy was beginning to shrink. Starting in the mid-1960s, America began dismantling our industrial infrastructure. Payne points out it was the mechanization of cotton, and agriculture as whole, that played a major role in helping instigate southern Blacks' struggle for political power. He writes, “By the 1960s, modernized plantations found they needed barely a fifth of their former work force...the collapse of the cotton economy led to less need to control Blacks, either through the near peonage of share-cropping or through violence.” This created a certain independence for growing numbers of southern Blacks from their previously overwhelming economic subjugation to Whites.

However, the literal industrial engines that produced the wealth of America in the first six decades of the 20th century, by the mid-1960s, began to be dismantled, moved off-shore, or transformed by automation. American industry provided the greatest material cornucopia in human history. Yet, even at its height, wealth distribution was massively unequal, leaving large segments of the population in poverty. The removing of state sanctioned racial segregation allowed a significantly greater number of people access to an economic pie beginning to shrink, helping fuel a new reactionary politics of White resentment. Fifty years on, this politics remains vigorously destructive. The deindustrialization of America strangled at birth economic opportunity for many of the movement's newly enfranchised citizenry.

Just as importantly, the newly enfranchised entered a political system quickly changing, and not for the better. The American republic was founded at the end of the Agrarian Era, a ten thousand year period where homo sapiens moved from hunter-gatherers to farmers. The new republic, its democratic institutions firmly of the Agrarian Era, had at best a fitful relationship to the burgeoning Industrial Era. Then in the 20th century came the onslaught of electronic media. Most detrimental for democracy was the eventual domination of television as the almost exclusive medium for political “news.”

Payne has some wonderful insights on television's role in the movement and paradoxically TV's destructive influence on our politics. Certainly, television played a major role revealing to the rest of the country the violence of the apartheid South. Television was strategically utilized by the movement for that very purpose. However, Payne importantly points out, “One of the persistent movement criticisms of the national press corps—the very idea of a 'national press corps' grew partly out of the movement—is that the press focused on big dramatic events while neglecting the processes that led to them.”

The long hard work of democratic organizing was never covered by television. Humorously enough, the 1960s cultural revolution, which grew out of the movement's shaking of the bottom of America's established social and political orders, came to see the media event as the pinnacle of politics. Democratic organizing instantly became a lost art, replaced by made for TV events, soundbites, and thirty second ads. With television triumphant, democracy declined and diminished.

Certainly the mass of local community associations, which Tocqueville correctly

noted as the key to the early 19th century agrarian republic's self-government, all declined as industry proliferated across the American landscape in the second half of the century. Their 20th century successors, from local political parties to the Elks Clubs, television destroyed. In these associations resided the democratic connections, the face to face networking, the listening and talking, that enabled the discussion necessary for any democracy. All lost, replaced by television's superficial authority and the processes of marketing and advertising. For all the talk about “fake news” today, we have been awash in the ballyhoo of advertising for over a century.

Paul Good covered the movement as a correspondent for ABC News and offers an insightful critique of television's coverage, not just of the movement, but of politics in general. Good states, “A policy of crisis reporting, moving on a story as it boiled up, quickly dropping it the moment its supposed interest had died and racing off to a newer crisis....Our procedure crimped perspective and often substituted the superficial glance for the needed long look.”

Technology's role in changing the old cotton economy and television's place, both in the movement and politics in general, are examples of the completely ignored politics of technology. Once adopted into society, all technologies have determining political implications. If we are to in anyway revive democracy in America, this is an essential subject to understand, especially in an era where new information technologies reshape every aspect of human society. Ruefully, community destroying broadcast media, today are replaced by the non-ironically labeled “social media” of digital technology.

Finally, the Civil Rights Movement's newly enfranchised citizens encountered a republic that always lacked the structures necessary to take advantage of the democratic culture and processes the movement had developed. The sublimely democratic Ella Baker already understood this. In 1964, she cautioned the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party on their way to the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, “...that while they were able to elect their own representatives, that wouldn't be the end of their troubles; elected representatives had to be watched....We must be careful lest we elect to represent us people who, for the first time, feel their sense of importance and will represent themselves before they represent you.”

Not coincidentally, in the middle of the Mississippi struggle, the great democratic thinker Hannah Arendt published On Revolution. She notes one great fault of America's founders was the absence of a role for townships and citizen councils, the very democratic structures that both preceded the republic and catalyzed it into existence. Arendt writes:

“...the state and federal governments, the proudest results of revolution, through sheer weight of their proper business were bound to overshadow in political importance the townships and their meeting halls...one might even come to the conclusion that there was less opportunity for the exercise of public freedom and the enjoyment of public happiness in the republic of the United States than there had existed in the colonies of British America. Lewis Mumford recently pointed out how the political importance of the township was never grasped by the founders, and that the failure to incorporate it into either the federal or the state constitutions was 'one of the tragic oversights of post-revolutionary political development'.”

In the last decade of his life, Jefferson returned to this flaw over and over again, writing every citizen needed to be a “participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day.” For this to happen, Jefferson, uniquely among the republic's founding pantheon, understood the established constitution needed revision. Two and half centuries later, it should be clear to all. The great success of the organized democracy of the Civil Rights Movement ran square into the limitations of the republic and our democratic decline.


You can follow Joe Costello on Twitter — or reach him at joecostello@gmail.com.


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