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Ella Baker Legacy Energizes Movement for Black Lives

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Part 1

Ella Baker was 61 years old when her comrade, historian Howard Zinn, wrote in “SNCC: The New Abolitionists,” “Ella Baker is more responsible than any other single individual for the birth of the new abolitionists as an organized group, and who remains the most tireless, most modest, and wisest activist I know in the struggle for human rights.”

In a recent talk, Cornel West said: “There is no civil rights movement without the witness and example of Ella Baker.”

Ella Baker, however, has yet to receive full, mainstream public recognition for her contribution to American democracy, especially the co-founding and guidance of the most effective, innovative civil rights organization of the 20th century, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee—SNCC.

While it is true that the media demonizes Malcolm X and sanitizes Dr. King, Ella Baker, a Black woman, is simply ignored.

In her new book, “FROM #Blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation,” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes: “Black women have been central to every significant campaign for Black rights and freedom. Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash…were critical to the development of the civil rights movement, but that movement is still primarily known by its male leaders.”

Ella Baker was three decades older (She was called a “middle-aged hell-raiser”), but young activists trusted her because she showed more confidence in the audacity and inventiveness of youth than in the expertise of established civil rights organizations. The students affectionately called her “Miss Baker” (though she was married).

Her nickname was “Fundi,” a Swahili term for a person who hands down skills and wisdom from one community to another. Baker defied stereotypes. She was a militant revolutionary who wore elegant hats and dressed as if she were attending church.

The founding of SNCC at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1960 changed the tone and direction of the civil rights movement. The conference, which drew hundreds of students from throughout the South, was tense.

Male leaders in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference wanted to oversee the fledgling organization, to put SNCC under their control. Baker was the only woman to speak at the Plenary Session. She warned students against bureaucracy and co-optation.

She insisted on the autonomy of the students, who had already demonstrated their brilliance and savvy tactics in the early sit-ins. “I knew that young people were the hope of any movement. It was just a normal thing to me,” Baker said years later.

Each generation offers a new lens through which to view the contours of the future.

Baker’s democratic, grassroots practice permeated SNCC. By shifting the focus from appeals to the elite to organizing the disenfranchised and the poor, SNCC changed the center of gravity in the movement. Black communities were not helpless.

They were ready to fight. Mississippi historian John Dittmer wrote: “Not since Reconstruction had anyone seriously proposed that illiterate sharecroppers had the same right to the franchise as did teachers, lawyers, and doctors.”

Mentored by Baker, SNCC turned away from charismatic, top-down leaders to group-centered leadership. And it put direct, mass action at the center of strategy. SNCC students organized new sit-ins at segregated facilities, carried out the historic freedom rides in the face of violence, and registered black voters in defiance of the Ku Klux Klan in rural Mississippi.

SNCC’s assault on Jim Crow in the 60s did more to abolish the legal apparatus of white supremacy than years of well-financed legalistic and professionally run campaigns.

SNCC’s influence extended far beyond black communities in the South. Tom Hayden participated in SNCC meetings and actions, and he saw “participatory democracy” in action before he wrote the SDS Port Huron Statement. In the SDS Bulletin he asked: “Can the methods of SNCC be applied to the North?”

Paul Rockwell is a  Writer-activist in the San Francisco Bay Area.His essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, Baltimore Sun, Utne Reader, The Nation, and a host of alternative weeklies.

Activism

San Francisco Proposes Art Installation to Honor Black Lives, History of African Americans

The sculptural figures created in all-black steel with vinyl tubing, each standing four feet high, would surround the empty pedestal where a statue of Francis Scott Key once stood. Key, who wrote the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was a slave owner and abolition opponent.

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Dana King/ Wikimedia Commons

San Francisco, CA. – Mayor London N. Breed today announced the City of San Francisco is planning a new public art installation to honor Black lives and the history of African Americans. The installation is planned to be located in Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse next month, in time for Juneteenth.

The installation, ‘Monumental Reckoning,’ by Bay Area sculptor Dana King, honors the first Africans stolen from their homeland and sold into chattel slavery in the New World. The installation consists of 350 sculptures representing the number of Africans initially forced onto the slave ship San Juan Bautista for a journey of death and suffering across the Atlantic in 1619. A handful of these original 350 ancestors became America’s first enslaved people.

The sculptural figures created in all-black steel with vinyl tubing, each standing four feet high, would surround the empty pedestal where a statue of Francis Scott Key once stood. Key, who wrote the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was a slave owner and abolition opponent. Protestors toppled the statue on Juneteenth 2020.

“The art and monuments that we choose to display in our city and the civic art that fills our public spaces must reflect the diversity of our community, and honor our history,” said Breed. “This powerful public art installation in Golden Gate Park will help us not only commemorate Juneteenth, but also serve as an example of how we can honor our past, no matter how painful, and reflect on the challenges that are still with us today.”

Monumental Reckoning would allow visitors to commune with the figures. The phrase “Lift Every Voice” would shine from atop the nearby Spreckels Temple of Music through a second, connected piece by Illuminate the Arts. These are the first three words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, a song written by civil rights champion James Weldon Johnson which was first performed in 1900—the same year the Spreckels Temple of Music opened. 

For more than a century, Johnson’s song of unity has been sung as the Black national anthem. U.S. Representative James Clyburn is currently leading an effort to have the song named America’s national hymn.

“I’m excited to see the new monument go up in Golden Gate Park to honor Black lives and the rich history of African Americans,” said Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton. “I think this is a perfect example of trying to right a wrong. Rather than uplifting individuals with oppressive histories, this is an opportunity to honor diversity and our community through public art.”

The installation was approved by both the San Francisco Arts Commission and the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission’s Operations Committee this week. It is currently under review by the Planning Commission. “Lift Every Voice” will also need to be approved by the City’s Historical Preservation Committee before it can be installed. If approved, Monumental Reckoning would open to the public on June 19, or Juneteenth 2021, which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. The art piece would remain in place through June 20, 2023.

“The memory of African descendants deserves to be told truthfully and publicly,” said King, Monumental Reckoning’s creator. “Monumental Reckoning fulfills both objectives with the installation of 350 ‘ancestors’ who will encircle the Francis Scott Key plinth in Golden Gate Park. The ancestors stand in judgement, holding history accountable to the terror inflicted on the first group of enslaved people brought here in 1619 to the last person sold to another, all victims of chattel slavery. Even though the business of enslavement ended long ago, it still resonates generationally for African Americans and forms the bedrock from which systems of oppression proliferate today.”

Fundraising, community outreach, and ongoing support for the installation is being provided by the Museum of the African Diaspora. Creative and programming support would be provided by The Black Woman is God, which is an annual group exhibition of Black women artists curated by Karen Seneferu and Melorra Green. The project celebrates Black women as essential to building a more just society and sustainable future and reclaims space historically denied to Black women artists.

“What Dana King’s powerful installation communicates and commemorates is a sober cultural gut-punch long overdue, and I hope it’s the beginning of many such visual testaments in the public realm that venerate the origin stories of our most marginalized and disenfranchised populations,” said Ralph Remington, San Francisco’s Director of Cultural Affairs. “We almost never see images of Black people represented in our public monuments, or in the American telling of history. So, it’s no surprise that in a society rooted in white supremacy, people of color remain invisible and undervalued in our mythology, symbols, architecture and national narrative. While the City examines the historic works in our Civic Art Collection and the future of monuments in San Francisco, this installation will help build and advance a discourse about who and what we venerate in our open spaces.”

 “We are incredibly proud to host this powerful piece,” said San Francisco Recreation and Park Department General Manager Phil Ginsburg. “Monumental Reckoning prompts frank discussion about the legacy of slavery, while charting a course between past, present and future. We are grateful to have these crucial conversations in Golden Gate Park—a beloved public space that belongs to everyone.”

This story was produced by the San Francisco Mayor’s office.

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Art

MC Arts Gallery Opens During the Marin Open Studio

The Gallery and its website display the art of a number of Black artists which includes: TheArthur Wright, Lumumba Edwards, and Maalak Atkins. Zwanda and Mitchell Howard also display their art at the Gallery. 

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From top: Oshalla Marcus (director/curator, MC Arts & Culture) with Osiezhe’s drawings to the right of the photo, Zwanda, Mitchell Howard , ISOJI’s Art Is Health Band: Carlton Carey (drums), Mwanza Furaha, (vocals), Jack Prendergast (bass), Ricardo Moncrief (keyboard), James Moseley (guitar, vocal). Photos by Godfrey Lee.

The MC Arts Gallery, located on 100 Donahue St. in the Gateway Shopping Center in Marin City, is open during the Marin Open Studios, which took place on Saturday and Sunday, May 1 & 2. 

The Gallery and its website display the art of a number of Black artists which includes: The Arthur Wright, Lumumba Edwards, and Maalak Atkins. Zwanda and Mitchell Howard also display their art at the Gallery. 

Zwanda seeks to be creative as she expands her ideas as a sculptress and painter. She is inspired by the human figure and dancers and is fascinated with music and the instruments themselves. Her art is a way to express this love and to share it with others.

Mitchell Howard studied art at San Francisco State University and the Computer Arts Institute of San Francisco. He was an art director at Cummingham & Walsh in San Francisco and has displayed his paintings at the Hannah Gallery, worked on the Rocky Graham Park Mural and has taught art at the Martin Luther King Jr. Academy Elementary School.

“Art can bring people together and illustrate things that people can relate to,” Howard says. “Art can also be powerful in sending social messages to society. Art makes you think, it expands your horizons and makes you use your imagination. People may see different things in the same painting.”

Osiezhe, Shakira Gregory’s son, will be displaying his drawings at the Gallery.

The ISOJI’s Art Is Health Band played last Saturday afternoon with Mwanza Furaha as their guest vocalist.

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Art

City Council Approves $480,000 in Arts Grants

The city made the announcement Tuesday about the grants, which will support 772 distinct arts events and activities that will expose more than 110,000 participants to cultural programming.

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The Oakland City Council approved $480,000 in grants to 17 Oakland-based non-profit organizations and 20 individual artists through the city’s Cultural Funding Program, Neighborhood Voices.

The city made the announcement Tuesday about the grants, which will support 772 distinct arts events and activities that will expose more than 110,000 participants to cultural programming.

The grant program seeks to bring Oaklanders together to create and support a sense of belonging within a community, to foster social connections that lift people’s spirits, to encourage community well-being and offer visions for a collective future, according to the announcement.

The following individual artists each won $7,000 Neighborhood Voices awards:

Frederick Alvarado; Karla Brundage; Cristina Carpio; Darren Lee Colston; Maria De La Rosa; Elizabeth D. Foggie; Rachel-Anne Palacios; Laurie Polster; Hasain Rasheed; Kweku Kumi Rauf; Carmen Roman; Michael Roosevelt; Fernando Santos; Teofanny Octavia Saragi; Kimberly Sims-Battiste; Cleavon Smith; Lena Sok; Babette Thomas; Ja Ronn Thompson; Joseph Warner.

Each of the following organizations received $20,000 Neighborhood Voices awards:

Asian Health Services for Banteay Srei;

Beats Rhymes and Life;

Chapter 510 INK;

Dancers Group for dNaga GIRL Project;

Dancers Group for Dohee Lee Puri Arts;

Dancers Group for Grown Women Dance Collective;

East Oakland Youth Development Center;

Higher Gliffs for Endangered Ideas;

Hip Hop for Change;

Junior Center of Art and Science;

Mycelium Youth Network;

Oakland Education Fund for Youth Beat;

Oakland Theater Project, Inc.;

Sarah Webster Fabio Center for Social Justice;

The Intersection for Alphabet Rockers;

Women’s Audio Mission;

Youth Radio/YR Media.

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