One last post on the community organizing kerfluffle set off at the Republican convention. This is the text of an open letter to Sarah Palin, written by Gabriel Thompson–an author and former community organizer.
An Open Letter to Sarah Palin from a Community Organizer
Sarah Palin, I’d like to introduce you to a woman named Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, who passed away in 1992. Based upon your recent comments about community organizers, I’m certain you’ve never heard of her. Most people haven’t, and most people don’t know a whole lot about the principles and history of organizing. But unlike you, most people don’t go out of their way to disparage a group who has done so much to make this country great.
I don’t pretend to believe that you wrote the speech; I presume you were being a loyal soldier and reading whatever your speechwriters felt would rile up your base. But because you spoke the words, they are now yours to defend, and one line in particular is indefensible: “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities.” Rhetorically, it was cute—a zinger that drew laughs. But politics shouldn’t just be about scoring points.
Keep your line about organizers in mind as I tell you about Robinson. Like you, she was an accomplished woman; unlike you, she was a community organizer and not a professional politician. In the 1950s, she was a teacher of English at Alabama State College in Montgomery and the President of the Women’s Political Council (WPC), a local group dedicated to organizing for equal rights for African Americans.
Along with registering people to vote, a pressing concern of the WPC was the segregation of Montgomery’s buses, which forced Blacks to sit in the back. In 1954, Robinson wrote a letter to Montgomery Mayor W. A. Gale, who in your determination had “actual” responsibilities. The letter threatened a boycott if the racist seating arrangement was not abolished. The Mayor paid no attention. Unfortunately, this is a frequent occurrence: politicians often worry more about money and political survival than social justice. Luckily, that’s where we organizers come in.
A year and a half of community organizing later—with the WPC now 300 members strong—Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat. Robinson and the WPC wasted no time, working through the night to produce thousands of copies of a boycott notice, which began: “Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat for a white person to sit down…We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial.”
Did you know it was a group of women organizers who called the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which heralded the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement and introduced Martin Luther King Jr. to the national stage? Did you know that every mass movement for social justice—from establishing the 8-hour day to gaining female suffrage—was made possible by the struggles of thousands of unknown people? They didn’t do this for votes, or because their handlers told them it was expedient. They took great risks for no monetary gain—often, in fact, risked losing their livelihood, if not their very lives—because some people are called by a higher responsibility. It has to do with justice and ending oppression, not with vote getting and political maneuvering.
Although you are ignorant about organizing, in one way you have done the country a national service: you have made community organizing a newsworthy topic. You see, organizers like Robinson don’t make the news, because they don’t brag about their accomplishments. They work behind the scenes, listening to concerns instead of making speeches. They develop leaders who engage in campaigns that force politicians to respond. When we win—and we win a lot—the politicians who have changed their stance then get to boast about laws that they either initially fought or did nothing to support. That’s fine with us. Let politicians do what they do best, and take responsibility for good news.
But please don’t be fooled. Read some history from the bottom up. Learn a bit about the Jo Ann Gibson Robinson’s of the United States before you insult them. As you embark on your new journey, you might find that they have a lot to teach about this country you claim to so dearly love.
Gabriel Thompson is the author of Calling All Radicals: How Grassroots Organizers Can Help Save Our Democracy, which chronicles the years he spent organizing in Central Brooklyn with the Pratt Area Community Council.