50 Years After Little Rock: Building a Movement Against Cultural Apartheid

It’s always important to keep an eye on the past while organizing for the future. Many times, we forget we are the children of and contributors to the richest history this country has to offer. Keeping that in mind, the first day of the 3rd Annual Mid-South Conference of the Left was reserved for those who came before us. The gathering, which brought over 50 progressives from five states, was held the weekend of October 5 -7, 2007 and was an event to remember.

We began with a Friday night presentation by Michele Rossi and David Duhalde on the history of the Democratic Socialists of America. Rossi, a member of DSA’s National Political Committee, and Duhalde, the youth organizer, explained DSA history in the context of left movements in America. The next workshop was Arkansas specific. UCA professor Jayme Stone gave a presentation on the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; multiracial socialist organizations that worked to change the landscape of the delta. Between histories, she taught us all old union songs. It was a rather short day, and we all reconvened for food, drink, and camaraderie at a nearby home.

The next day we buckled down. There were twelve workshops, most lead by student activists, on a full range of topics. We shared knowledge on union organizing, the effects of state capitalism on the biosphere, gay and transgender rights, South American social movements, electoral politics, educational policy, organizing tactics, and a feminist socialist critique of capitalism.

The best thing to come out of holding conferences is always seeing activists grow confident in their abilities to take the lead. Participatory education is the key to building grassroots movement, and people always come away from teaching experiences with a sense of confidence and accomplishment that will carry over into future organizing.

After a long night of socializing and bonding, we titled the last day: “If no one seems to understand, start your own revolution and cut out the middle man.” The day was dedicated to the do-it-yourself culture and local grassroots organizations. We organized the last day to start at 11am with a quick workshop followed by lunch and a music block. Local bands and slam poets performed in between workshops which centered around regional issues such as the West Memphis Three and the Jena Six. We wrapped the workshop portion up with a round table discussion on hip-hop and socialism, which was probably the best workshop I’ve ever attended. Most workshop attendees participated equally in the discussion, and the discourse was very lively and positive.

Over the course of the weekend, we spent a lot of time learning about the movements that we came from and the movements that we are in, but we didn’t forget to talk about the movements that we are trying to build. Things look bright here already, in the Jena Six discussion we talked about committing ourselves to coalition-building. We held our first public forum on racism where a number of community organizations convened and spoke fearlessly about cultural apartheid. I’m also writing this from the desk of the Bayard Rustin Social Justice Center, a project of the St. Peter’s Episcopal Church of Conway, Arkansas of UCA Young Democratic Socialists. It’s a brand-new radical book and ‘zine library, food pantry, venue, and free tutoring center. It’s not even worth organizing if we can’t work to institutionalize free radical thought. We should commit ourselves to community outreach and open dialogue, reaching out of our cliques to find points of commonality and working towards universal human dignity and sovereignty.

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