Empowering Communities

Has there ever been a time when community service was not valued or, indeed, held high as a standard of citizenship in this country? Roosevelt’s “New Deal” still stands as a model of government linking to community service. The power of John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural call—”Ask not what your country can do for you”—rested on a consensus of obligation to community service.

But whose community? What do we mean by “community” anyway? Although the 1960s opened with Kennedy’s almost romantic call to service, those who responded within the framework of civil rights struggle were often resisted—and not just by redneck racists, but at the highest levels of government.

In the early 1960s, government—and I would argue the nation in general—was uncertain whether African Americans were part of the “community,” except as recipients of charity. The kind of blatant racial discrimination found in the South embarrassed and offended, yes. But the denial of citizenship to blacks wasn’t really on the national radar screen. It affected nothing that those in power recognized as important.

Embedded in civil rights, and in the easier-to-digest “community service,” is the idea of empowerment-an idea that is not readily embraced if it means empowering those perceived as being outside of our own “community.” The southern civil rights movement, of which I was a part, got the nation’s attention and affirmed black citizenship. The way the movement accomplished that end offers valuable lessons for anyone considering ideas of community service today.

First, the southern civil rights movement is best understood as a movement of community organizing rather than one of protest. Movement organizers committed to a specific idea of “service”—the “redemption and vindication of the race,” to use an old phrase—sought ways to encourage the black community to find its own voice. And though prominent advocates had long spoken up for civil rights, what finally effected change was people—sharecroppers, day workers, maids, cooks, and nursemaids-finding their own voices. Across the long-silent black belt, people who were usually spoken for began speaking for themselves in tones loud enough to be heard. They said, meeting much resistance—some of it violent—”This is what we want!”

The movement is a powerful illustration of how much commitment can compensate for a lack of material resources. Typically, an organizer entered a town or county and, working with a handful of local people, built local organizations—freedom schools, political groups like the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama, rural labor unions or small enterprises like Mississippi’s Poor People’s Corporation. The point to understand is that community organizers don’t lead. Instead, they cultivate leadership—grassroots leadership.

One tool that turned out to be critical was the meeting, which shifted, as the movement unfolded, from being a gathering where a person or panel of people presided, delivering information and strategy to others who listened and accepted, to a gathering where people actively engaged problems in various arenas ranging from local violence and denial of civil rights all the way up to politics and law at the national level.

Such grassroots empowerment was a radical idea. Even long-established civil rights figures and their long-time liberal allies were uncomfortable with the Fannie Lou Hamers speaking with their plantation voices. At one point during the challenge by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party at the Democratic party’s national convention in 1964, Senator Hubert Humphrey bluntly rejected a core idea of the civil rights movement-meaningful participation in the decision-making affecting their lives-and said of Mrs. Hamer: “The president will not allow that illiterate woman to speak from the floor of the convention.”

Nonetheless, civil rights organizing produced a politically literate network of people who challenged and changed the status quo. They were not formally credentialed people. For the most part they, like Mrs. Hamer, did not even have high school diplomas. They were not members of labor unions or national church associations. They weren’t big shots in civil rights organizations. When I think of these ordinary people and the extraordinary struggle they waged, I think of Ella Baker, whose hands shaped a half-century of civil rights organizing. To effect change, Ms. Baker told us once, you have to face a system “that does not lend itself to your needs and devise the means by which you begin to change that system.”

Does the Bush administration have this in mind when it posits the value of a new initiative for community service? Do the powerful of America?