“There’s a Chinese saying, ‘women hold up half of the world’. In the case of the civil rights movement it’s probably three-quarters of the world.” - Julian Bond
I love that March is Women’s History Month. To me, it’s the perfect extension of Black History Month in February because Women’s History Month allows us to shine a spotlight on the women who were movers and shakers in Black History. When discussing history, we tend to pay attention only to the great men, and forget the great women and the great number of relentless individuals dedicating their lives to a cause greater than self. Great figures are necessary for movements because they are the rallying voice of millions and can channel the energy of many into a singular persuasive argument that those resisting the relinquishing of power can react to and interact with. But social movements do not happen because of singular individuals. Revolutions require solidarity and a vast support network. The real power of social change lies in the strength of grassroots organization. It requires the people who march en masse, those who bring food to people standing in line to register to vote, organizers for carpool rides so that a bus boycott can continue indefinitely, and behind the scenes volunteers that are the backbone of social justice organizations.
During months like February and March designed to celebrate “radical” history, I remember the leadership and strength it takes to be the face of a movement, but also the amount of commitment it requires from ordinary individuals who simply want to live their lives free from oppression. During these months, I remember the women whose hard work throughout history has often gone unnoticed. I remember the women like Ella Baker, Fanny Lou Hamer, and Diane Nash whose commitment to grassroots organizing and community programs paved the way for future generations, as well as all of those men and women who carried the weight of the civil rights movement on their shoulders unnamed. I remember groups like SNCC and the BPP that went to communities to serve them, who provided services and risked their lives without waiting for permission, and exemplified the idea of participatory democracy.
It doesn’t take a lot to serve. Serving can be as simple as being open and honest with people about injustice, building positive relationships with others, or giving help to anyone who needs it. Especially when it comes to feminism, the way in which you relate to others and the sexual environment you create for yourself can be a radical act in & of itself. To quote the late great Howard Zinn, “small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world”. I appreciate National Months such as these because they have the ability to remind us that we all can make a difference and have a duty as citizens to build the beloved community Dr. King and others have worked for.
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
— Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”