Brooklyn I’m talking to Ernie Dumas, a former editorial writer for the Arkansas Gazette, at a coffeehouse in Little Rock’s Heights neighborhood. A woman overhears us, disappears, and comes back and gives each of us a book of interviews she had done with ten African-American women in the Delta towns of Gould and Marvell, Arkansas. I read the book, having promised to interview her for my show, and find stories of the SNCC bombings there, which I had heard before from Bobbie Cox, one of the early ACORN organizers, because it was her grandmother’s house, where she had housed the SNCC organizers. Another story talked about the life-changing experience in the 1970s of working in a sewing factory in the area where the ILGWU was the union, and Art Martin, a friend and comrade, was business manager at the time. What a wonderful twist of fate to stumble into Becky Williams, read Sowing Seeds of Justice, and talk to her about Eastern Arkansas, those times, and these women in Wade’s World.
It goes on and on like this. One connection after another that pops up expectantly. Maybe it’s not mystical or fate at all? Maybe it’s just the theory of “weak links” or the “six degrees of separation” getting fewer and fewer, as I get older and older. Maybe this is what a form of wisdom is, the ability to link the past with the present to find deeper meanings?
Maybe it’s also about perspective and a sense of the continuity that runs straight through struggles for social change that breeds these deep connections? Recently, the head organizer of ACORN in the United Kingdom reached out to me for advice on an upcoming staff meeting, where he wanted to start inoculating the organizers about the inevitability of attempts to repress their work as they continued to grow rapidly.
Reading a new book about the extra-legal, brutal attacks on the Wobblies, members of the Industrial Workers of the World, prior to World War I, was a good reminder of how much worse it can be. Reading about the red-baiting and race-baiting that hounded SCEF, Dombrowski, Highlander, Miles Horton, Virginia Durr, and others, or pacifists, labor and civil rights organizers and leaders both locally and nationally like Evers, King, and more, I was forced to revisit how much repression is standard operating procedure. Obstacles to change and resistance to organizations involved in change and social movements is the rule, not the exception.
The other day, I passed my 53rd year working for ACORN and its family of organizations. I remember talking to a political science professor at Williams College around 2010-11 after the ACORN attacks in the United States. I expressed some sorrow to see the US organization hounded until it closed its doors and reorganized. She looked at me as we talked after my presentation and said, “Wade, you know better. How many social change organizations even make it to 38 years in the United States? What are you complaining about?” She had a great point.
It turns out I knew too many of these cases too well and even intimately, and we might have learned too little from the history. Liberals always run. Funders always disappear. Politicians in the main look for the safest road. The attacks may be short and misinformed, but they are still painful and often permanent. Maybe I should stick with a belief in magical realism, rather the real facts, because it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there will always come a reaction to our actions, and we will always have to be getting even stronger to face them together, because alone, they simply tear the people apart, who thought someone would stand beside them.
The women in Williams’ book took the good with the bad. They relied on faith, family, and love of their land and traditions. They, like our union and ACORN members, have resilience. They are survivors. They take a punch from life and do their best to get back up again. With those kinds of role models all around us, it’s not hard to do the work every day, no matter what others say and do.