Ella Baker

"In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed."-- Ella Baker Credit: Creative Commons/Wikipedia

In late June I traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, for the fiftieth anniversary of the 1964 Freedom Summer, where some 1,000 of us met after decades and celebrated the heroism of young volunteers and local African Americans who struggled and died for the right to vote. We talked about the way forward to eradicate still-existing racism in the country and we called the names of all our dead, a list of men, women and children whom the nation has never mourned.

As a recruiter for Freedom Summer and staff member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) fifty years ago, I had the honor of being approached by several volunteers whom I had helped select and who told me that going to Mississippi that faraway summer had forever changed their lives.

What propelled me into the civil rights movement in the first place as a young woman was the exhortation I had received from my secular Jewish progressive parents: that it is unethical to stand idly by while people are oppressed and suffering. What SNCC taught me was that I needed to act in my own community. It took me some time to put all of this together but finally, eleven years ago, I went to Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza for the first time. Based on what I saw with my own eyes and the anguish I felt in my own heart I became a Jewish activist against Israeli governmental policies of injustice and inequality.

It was only a few days after I got home from Mississippi this past June that a new assault on Gaza began, the third in seven years. I had already seen in my two visits to Gaza what the siege was like for Palestinians living in Gaza.

At the time of this writing, the death toll is horrifying: a staggering total of 2,114 Palestinians, of whom 506 are children, and 10,529 wounded. Four Israeli civilians and sixty-four soldiers have died. Can we even begin to imagine the horror all these families are experiencing? Despite several short ceasefires, “Operation Project Edge” continues and rockets continue to be fired.

And now in the midst of an already terrible summer, Ferguson happens. Another incident of violent racism in our country.

For me, the events in Ferguson and the events halfway around the world are linked. I am not saying they are the same. I am not even saying there are many parallels, but there are some similar lessons.

In 1969, Ella Baker, SNCC’s great mentor, pointed us in the direction of meaningful action when she said, “In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed.” This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning – getting down to and understanding the root cause. Baker continued, “It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.”

This is the crux.

We have not yet managed to understand the “root cause” of deaths like Michael Brown’s in our country. This is the work still ahead of us. I understand Ferguson to be one more example of the basic inequality that still exists in the U.S., where communities of color are still unrepresented in their police departments or their city governments and live amidst poverty and neglect.

Yes, certain aspects have changed in the South; these days you don’t take your life in your hands if you travel in an automobile in an interracial group, and you are unlikely to be arrested if, as an African American, you try to eat in a restaurant, and you did, up until recently when voter ID laws and other impediments were invented, have the right to register to vote. But by all other measures, specifically education, housing, jobs, poverty, and an unequal criminal justice system that retains more than two million people, mostly Black and Brown, in prison, we are a racist society. South and North, East and West. We have not attacked the “root cause”: a basically flawed economic and social system that sanctions exploitation and needs racism and division to survive.

And what, in my opinion, is the “root cause” of all the death and destruction in the Middle East? It isn’t Hamas, it isn’t who sent the rockets first, who killed which teenager first, and it isn’t who broke which ceasefire first. The underlying cause flows from the injustice of one group controlling the lives and future of another group. As long as Israel occupies Palestine, and as long as Palestinians resist (which, according to International human rights law, they have the right to do), confrontations and death will result. The root cause is the occupation, which itself flows from the previous dispossession of Palestinians from the land they inhabited for generations.

Though the situations are thousands of miles away from each other in different languages and different cultures, somehow or other we will all have to follow Miss Baker’s teaching: to look deeply, beyond the horror of the moment and our particular loyalties.

Because once we understand that there are root causes, we will be able to make effective efforts to change them.

Dorothy Zellner is one of the founders of Jews Say No!, serves on the board of the Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theater and is a member and volunteer with Jewish Voice for Peace. She was a staff member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC staff) from 1962 to 1967.


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