Pearl River As Chief Organizer of ACORN all of these years, I’ve been fortunate to know hundreds of great community and organizational leaders at the country, state, and local level. The ones I would know best were the leaders elected to represent their division of the organization. I would see them at board meetings, actions, conventions, and often when I visited their offices, but it was only luck that would allow me the pleasure and good fortunate to know some of the members and leaders who were the backbones of the organization at the grassroots level in the same way I would know our members from my early days in Arkansas, with our local union, or in some of our legacy organizations in New York, Philly, Chicago, and elsewhere. A silver lining in the tragedy of Katrina in New Orleans is that it was all-hands-on-board giving me the gift of getting to know a woman like Annie Falls in the upper 9th ward as a special type of person and leader.
As an organizer, Annie is what many would call a “secondary” leader. She wasn’t the person to run the meeting from the front, be on TV, or be quoted in local media, but she was the co-chair of her local group, the woman who we could count on to be on the bus to go to conventions, be in the picket line or action, and, importantly, as the head organizer of the Louisiana affiliate, Beth Butler, called her in remarks at her funeral, she was the person when “taking on the powers that be…[that] had the command of the room, the strength and conviction of any commander in chief…defending their own.”
I can remember driving a crew to her two-story house, less than a mile from where we lived, to help clean out her bottom floor after Katrina. She had never missed a beat in rebuilding, had saved some pictures above the water line, and never hesitated about coming back. She was a slip of a woman with beautiful white hair, when I knew her. I didn’t know about her seven children, her career as a 4th grade teacher, or the fact that she had spent a lifetime singing in the choir at Baptist churches all over the city, but I wasn’t surprised to hear that there were more than 300 people at her funeral or that it was a musical celebration of sorts that lasted three hours with waves of people taking the seats in the pew as others left the church.
She had been a stalwart in UTNO/AFT, her union, just as her husband, Henry, who had also been active in ACORN and our Taxi Drivers’ Union, had been in his postal workers union before he retired. They were working class and community soldiers that formed the foundation of organizations like ACORN and their unions. They didn’t quit. They just transitioned from being active in their work to being just as active in their community when they retired. If there was a fight, they were in it.
Henry died before Katrina, but we all got to know Annie better after the storm. When our family would decide to go to a basketball game in the upper rows, Beth would sometimes reach out for her and ask if she wanted to come along with our crew, and a number of times she did so, both when I was in town and sometimes when I wasn’t. Beth remembers worrying about her on those long climbs to the top, how she would never falter, and “revel in how many children were seated around us and just enjoy it even more.” I can remember looking down the row and seeing her shout and cheer at the shots, just as loud as our children were.
Annie had grit. She never faltered. She always persisted. What many organizers don’t realize or sometimes forget is that we can’t make change or keep the organizations we build together without the working leaders, like Annie Falls, who are our foundation blocks, who maintain and sustain the organizations at the street level and wherever they are needed, day by day, month by month, year by year. Annie Falls is one of many, but she, and sisters and brothers like her, are unique and irreplaceable. Our unions and organizations depend on others having basked in Annie’s light and strength, understanding that they can take the next steps to fill her shoes to keep the march moving forward.