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Human rigthts activist Ella Baker

Joe Biden opened his acceptance speech Thursday night by quoting someone whom most of the audience -- indeed, most American -- have never heard of.

"Ella Baker, a giant of the civil rights movement, left us with this wisdom: Give people light and they will find a way," Biden said. "Give people light. Those are words for our time."

He might have also drawn on another Baker quote from 1964: "Until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother's sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest."

Baker's words continue to resonate today, as we witness the resurgence of a new civil rights movement, sparked by the police killings of young black men, but rooted in the underlying grievances of racial injustice around jobs, housing, schools, and the criminal justice system. The four-day Democratic convention shined a spotlight on Black Lives Matter and on Donald Trump's efforts to repress the nationwide upsurge of protest in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in Minneapolis in June.

As these protests persist, activists can learn much from Baker. Working behind the scenes, she helped transform the Southern sit-in protests into a powerful movement for racial justice, led by young people with lots of anger and determination, but little political experience. Baker also has much to offer Democrats hoping to regain the White House, Congress, and important local offices like mayor and District Attorney in November, because she understood the importance of combining nonviolent protest, grassroots organizing, and electoral politics, including voter registration and turnout.

Baker was a mentor to several generations of activists. One of them was John Lewis, the beloved Georgia Congressman who died last month. Lewis first encountered Baker in 1958 at a workshop at the Highlander Folk School, an inter-racial training center for activists in rural Tennessee. Lewis, a student at Fisk University in Nashville, was 18. Baker, then 54, was a veteran organizer. As Lewis described her in his autobiography Walking With the Wind, "Baker had become a legend of sorts during the previous twenty or so years for her knack of relating to young people." After hearing Baker speak, and participating in training sessions with other young idealists, "I left Highlander on fire," Lewis recalled.

Lewis returned to Nashville and joined forces with other students to develop plans to desegregate the stores in downtown Nashville by engaging in sit-ins, a form of civil disobedience. Baker, along with James Lawson, conducted workshops to prepare them to respond nonviolently upon being harassed, spat upon, beaten, and arrested by white thugs and police, and held in jail, where they were also beaten. She did the same thing for students in cities throughout the South, particularly those at historically black colleges.

The first sit-in occurred in Greensboro, N.C. late in the afternoon of Feb. 1, 1960, when four young black men—Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil, all students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College —visited the local Woolworth's store. They purchased school supplies and toothpaste, and then they sat down at the store's lunch counter and ordered coffee. "I'm sorry," said the waitress. "We don't serve Negroes here."

The students refused to give up their seats until the store closed. The local media reported the sit-in on television and in the newspapers. The four students returned the next day with more students. By Feb. 5, about 300 students had joined the protest, generating more media attention and inspiring students at other colleges.

The Nashville students began their lunch counter protests on Feb. 13. By the end of March, sit-ins had spread to 55 cities in 13 states. Many students, mostly black but also white, were arrested for trespassing, disorderly conduct, or disturbing the peace.

Baker understood that the sit-in movement would eventually fizzle out unless the young activists came together to forge a common vision and organization. She persuaded Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to co-sign a letter inviting the sit-in participants to a meeting over Easter weekend, April 16 to 18, at her alma mater, Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., to discuss how to capitalize on the growing momentum. Baker expected 100 participants to attend, but more than 300 activists showed up.

In her closing speech, "More Than a Hamburger," Baker pushed the students to dream of how their sit-ins could develop into larger efforts to challenge racism in "every aspect of life." As Lewis recounted, Baker "praised our success so far but warned that our work had just begun. Integrating lunch counters in stores already patronized mostly by blacks was one thing. Breaking down barriers in areas as racially and culturally entrenched as voting rights, education, and the workplace was going to be much tougher than what we had faced so far."

The fruit of the meeting was the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which would expand the sit-in campaign, but also use other tactics, including freedom rides and voter registration drives, to dismantle segregation. SNCC reinvigorated the civil rights movement. The 20-year old Lewis was elected SNCC's first chairman.

Baker had spent decades traveling throughout the South for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Long before there were Rolodexes, email, and Facebook, she was famous for her vast social network. She gently encouraged the young activists to build a movement from these isolated local protests.

Many of the young civil rights activists called her "Fundi," a Swahili title for a master technician who oversees apprentices, to acknowledge Baker's role as their mentor. She eschewed a visible role, concentrating on patiently training the next generation of social change leaders.

Born in 1903, Baker grew up in rural North Carolina. As a girl, Baker listened to her grandmother tell stories about slave revolts. Her mother, a deeply religious former teacher, tutored Ella at home and coached her in public speaking. As a child, Ella was part of a supportive and tightly knit black community, where friends, relatives, and neighbors helped each other out. Her grandfather mortgaged the family farm to help feed families in need. For high school, Baker's parents sent her to the boarding school affiliated with Shaw University. She remained at Shaw for college, edited the student newspaper, and graduated as class valedictorian in 1927.

She moved to Harlem, hoping to get a graduate degree in sociology., Financial hardship forced her to set aside her dream, but she got another kind of education by attending lectures and community meetings and devouring books and periodicals in local public libraries. Despite her college education, her race and gender limited her job prospects. While waiting on tables and working in a factory, she began to write articles for the American West Indian News. In 1932 she found a job as an editorial assistant and office manager for the Negro National News.

Harlem was a hotbed of radical activism, and Baker soon got involved with local groups working on behalf of tenants and consumers. In 1931, she became national director of the Young Negroes' Cooperative League, which sponsored cooperative buying clubs and grocery stores designed to reduce prices and bring people together for collective action. In her next job, funded by the New Deal's Works Progress Administration, she organized consumer cooperatives among housing project residents. In 1935, she wrote an exposé of the exploitation of black domestic servants for the NAACP journal Crisis.

Baker started working for the NAACP in 1938 and three years later became its assistant field secretary. For five years, she traveled throughout the South, recruiting new members, working with local leaders to strengthen their chapters, and helping them organize campaigns against lynching, for equal pay for black teachers, and for job training. Rosa Parks, an active NAACP member in Montgomery, Alabama, attended one of Baker's leadership-training workshops.

At the time, the NAACP's leadership was dominated by middle-class black businessmen, male professionals, and ministers, but most of its grassroots activists were working-class women and men. Baker's experiences convinced her that "strong people don't need strong leaders." She worked to cultivate what she called "group leadership" in contrast to leadership by charismatic figures or the professional class.

Soon after the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott began, Baker, Bayard Rustin, and Stanley Levinson (a close adviser to King) used their connections with northern liberals and unions to establish In Friendship, which raised funds for the boycott campaign. They talked with King about establishing a new organization to build similar campaigns throughout the South. This was the genesis of the SCLC, which catapulted King from local to national leadership. Rustin convinced Baker to run the new organization.

Baker bristled at the sexism and outsize egos of the ministers who dominated SCLC and treated her as if she were the hired help. She was on the brink of resigning when the student sit-in movement began in early 1960.

As Baker guided SNCC's young activists, she reminded them of her belief in radical democracy: "People did not really need to be led; they needed to be given the skills, information, and opportunity to lead themselves."

In 1964, Baker went to Mississippi to participate in SNCC's Freedom Summer project that brought over a thousand college student volunteers to the state to register black voters and help lead "freedom schools." That summer, hundreds of volunteers were arrested; racist thugs bombed 67 churches, homes, and stores. Three of the volunteers—black Mississippian James Chaney and white radicals Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner—were murdered by segregationist vigilantes.

The murders drew national media attention. When Baker was asked her reaction, she said: "The unfortunate thing is that it took this…to make the rest of the country turn its eyes on the fact that there were other (black) bodies lying in the swamps of Mississippi. Until the killing of a black mother's son becomes as important as the killing of a white mother's son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest."

The summer campaign culminated in a mock election organized by SNCC. Blacks elected an integrated slate of 68 members, under the banner of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), to challenge the official all-white delegation at the Democratic Party's national convention in Atlantic City in August. Baker helped enlist support from liberal delegates from around the country, but President Lyndon Johnson, fearful of alienating southern white voters, rejected the MFDP's plan. Instead, he offered MFDP two seats in the state delegation. Led by sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses (another Baker protégé), the MFDP rejected the compromise. But the controversy pressured the party to change its rules for subsequent conventions to require more women and minority delegates. And despite its frustrations with the Democratic Party, SNCC and its Freedom Summer project – along with the march from Selma to Montgomery the following March -- played a key role in pushing LBJ and Congress to pass the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Baker continued her political activism—working on school desegregation efforts with the Southern Conference Educational Fund, supporting independence struggles in Puerto Rico and in Africa, and allying herself with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and other women's rights groups—until her death on her 83rd birthday, Dec. 13, 1986.

Baker would surely be impressed by the current wave of protest against racial injustice. She would also urge the activists to make sure they transform their outrage into an ongoing movement that can survive beyond the immediate reaction to the epidemic of police abuses. That means building strong organizations that can identify and train young leaders, mobilize people around both short-term demands (such as videotaping police activities and ending local stop-and-frisk practices), and conduct campaigns for longer-term policy changes (such as repealing Stand Your Ground laws, sentencing reform, felon disenfranchisement, voter suppression, and living wages) at the national, state, and local levels.

On Thursday night, Biden enlisted Baker's words to inspire Americans to take the country back from the forces of reaction and racism. As Baker understood, the first step is to elect good people to office who support progressive causes, but the equally important next step is to build and sustain a powerful movement for social justice that can hold both your allies and your adversaries accountable.

Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College. His books include The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style, and the forthcoming Baseball Rebels: The Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game and Changed America.


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Rep. Bennie Thompson

Photo by Customs and Border Protection (Public domain)

Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) Friday afternoon announced the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack has issued subpoenas to 14 Republicans from seven states who submitted the forged and "bogus" Electoral College certificates falsely claiming Donald Trump and not Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election in their states.

The Chairman appeared to suggest the existence of a conspiracy as well, noting the "the planning and coordination of efforts," saying "these so-called alternate electors met," and may know "who was behind that scheme."

Keep reading... Show less

Chris Cuomo

News Literacy Week 2022, an annual awareness event started by the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to making everyone “smart, active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in a democracy” has closed out. From January 24 to 28, classes, webinars, and Twitter chats taught students and adults how to root out misinformation when consuming news media.
There’s no downplaying the importance of understanding what is accurate in the media. These days, news literacy is a survival tactic. One study estimated that at least 800 people died because they embraced a COVID falsehood — and that inquiry was conducted in the earliest months of the pandemic. About 67 percent of the unvaccinated believe at least one COVID-19 myth, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
It’s not that accurate information isn’t available; people are rejecting reports of vaccine efficacy and safety because they distrust the news media. A third of Americans polled by Gallup said they have no trust at all in mass media; another 27 percent don’t have much at all.
Getting people to believe information presented to them depends more on trust than it does on the actual data being shared. That is, improving trust isn’t an issue of improving reporting. It’s an issue of improving relationships with one’s audience.
And that’s the real news problem right now; some celebrity anchors at cable news outlets are doing little to strengthen their relationships with their audiences and a lot to strengthen their relationships with government officials.
The most obvious example is how CNN terminated Prime Time anchor Chris Cuomo last month for his failure to disclose the entirety of his role in advising his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on the sexual harassment accusation that unfolded in Albany, a scandal that eventually led to Andrew Cuomo’s resignation.
But there are others. Just this month, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol revealed that another anchor on another cable news network, Laura Ingraham of Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle, texted then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows last January, advising Meadows how Trump should react to reports of possible armed protests at state capitols around the country. This revelation followed the story that Sean Hannity, host of the eponymous news hour at Fox News, also texted Meadows with advice last year.
And while he didn't advise a government official, CNN anchor Don Lemon revealed information not available to the public when he texted embattled Empire actor Jussie Smollett to tip him off about the Chicago Police Department’s wavering faith in his story about an assault. That’s from Smollett’s own sworn testimony.
When English philosopher Edmund Burke joked about the press being the Fourth Estate — in addition to the First, Second and Third (the clergy, nobility and commoners, respectively) — his point was that, despite their influence on each other, these “estates” — bastions of power — are supposed to be separate.
The Fourth Estate will always be an essential counterweight to government. But, since Donald Trump was elected in 2016, we’ve been so focused on stopping an executive branch from pressing the press to support an administration's agenda — either by belittling journalists or threatening to arrest them for doing their jobs — that we’ve ignored the ways that it affects and influences other Estates, and not necessarily through its reporting.
That is, we have news personalities-cum-reporters who are influencing government policy — and not telling us about it until it’s too late.
The United States has fostered an incredible closeness between the Second Estate — which in 2021 and 2022 would be political leaders — and the Fourth Estate. About a year ago, an Axios reporter had to be reassigned because she was dating one of President Biden’s press secretaries. Last year, James Bennet, the former editorial page editor of the New York Times and brother of Colorado Senator and 2020 Presidential candidate Michael Bennet, had to recuse himself publicly from the Gray Lady’s endorsement process. In 2013, the Washington Post reported at least eight marriages between Obama officials and established journalists.
To be clear, there aren’t any accusations that anyone just mentioned engaged in anything other than ethical behavior. But I, for one, don’t believe that James and Michael Bennet didn’t discuss Michael’s campaign. I don’t think the Axios reporter and her West Wing-employed boyfriend — or any journalists and their federally employed spouses, for that matter — didn’t share facts that the public will never know. Such is the nature of family and intimacy.
And as long as those conversations don’t affect the coverage of any news events, there’s nothing specifically, technically wrong with them. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t damaging.
As these stories show, when we don’t know about these advisor roles, at least not until someone other than the journalist in question exposes them, it causes a further erosion of trust in news media.
What’s foolish about the Cuomo, Ingraham, Hannity, and Lemon improprieties is that they don't necessarily need to be the problem they’ve become. Cuomo’s show contained opinion content like 46 percent of CNN’s programming. An active debate rages on as to whether Fox News is all opinion and whether or not it can rightly even be called opinion journalism since its shows are so studded with inaccuracies and lies.
What that means is that Cuomo, Ingraham, Hannity, and Lemon are allowed to take a stand as opinion journalists; Cuomo and Lemon never really worked under a mandate of objectivity and Ingraham and Hannity likely wouldn’t honor it if they did. Indeed, a certain subjectivity — and explaining how it developed for the journalist — is part of an opinion journalist’s craft. To me, little of these consulting roles would be problematic if any of these anchors had just disclosed them and the ways they advised the people they cover.
But they didn’t. Instead, the advice they dispensed to government employees and celebrities was disclosed by a third party and news of it contributes to the public’s distrust in the media. While personal PR advisory connections between journalists and politicians haven’t been pinpointed as a source of distrust, they may have an effect. Almost two-thirds of respondents in a Pew Research poll said they attributed what they deemed unfair coverage to a political agenda on the part of the news organization. No one has rigorously examined the ways in which individual journalists can swing institutional opinion so it may be part of the reason why consumers are suspicious of news.
Cleaning up ex post facto is both a violation of journalistic ethics and ineffective. Apologies and corrections after the fact don't always improve media trust. In other credibility contests, like courtroom battles, statements against one’s interests enhance a person’s believability. But that’s not necessarily true of news; a 2015 study found that corrections don’t automatically enhance a news outlet’s credibility.
It’s a new adage for the 21st century: It’s not the consulting; it’s the cover-up. Journalists need to disclose their connections to government officials — up front — to help maintain trust in news media. Lives depend on it.

Chandra Bozelko did time in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent, and she later established a blog under the same name that earned several professional awards. Her columns now appear regularly in The National Memo.

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