For those on the left who don’t understand my willingness to work with whites they regard as conservative or racist, let me tell you a little bit about my political mentor, Rev. Claude Williams. Rev. Williams, with whom I spent four summers with during the early 70’s organizing his personal papers, was a Presbyterian minister brought up in the hills of Tennessee in an evangelical tradition ( a credo he described as “God said it, Jesus did it, I believe it, and that settles it”) who had a conversion experience in his late 30’s and became an advocate of the social gospel and an opponent of southern segregation. He had an opportunity to put these principles into action when he became a minister in a mining town called Paris Arkansas during the Depression where he devoted his ministry to strike support, moved to Commonwealth Labor College when he was forced out of Paris, and there became a supporter of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, an interracial organization that fought for the rights of sharecroppers and tenant farmers being forced off the land by Depression conditions and New Deal agricultural program
When organizing for the STFU, Williams developed a unique strategy for organizing southern blacks and white for progressive unionism by employing biblical imagery common to both. His fiery preaching and innovative charts and posters, using quotes from the bible to promote interracial solidarity and a cooperative commonwealth, made him one of the South’s most effective organizers, and a hated figure among local elites, who literally ran him out of Arkansas in the late Thirties . From there, Williams moved to Memphis, where he helped organize interracial locals of the Food and Tobacco Workers Union and in North Carolina and then was brought up to Detroit during World War II by the UAw to help preach to the Southern Blacks and Whites working in easy proximity during that city’s auto plants.
After the war, Williams moved back to a farm South of Birmigham where he began working with interracial locals of the Mine Mill and Smelters Union and holding meetings on his property to help people register to vote. When a wave of McCarthyite reaction set in, Williams became a target of the local Klan, who set fires on his property, killed his dogs, and forced him to stop holding interracial meetings on his farm. But his white neighbors, who had been the recipient of many acts of generosity on the part of Williams and his wife Joyce, refused to let the Klan kill him, so he remained on his farm through the worst days of Klan and Citizen’s Council Terror until and opening came in the middle 60’s and a strong civil rights movement came to the Birmingham area
I had learned about Williams amazing work when writing my Master’s essay on the Southern Tenants Farmers Union, but meeting him in person, an being given responsibility for organizing and filing his personal papers was a transformative experience. Williams was a big, powerful, hard drinking man who held a deep conviction that Southern working class whites, when they could overcome their racism, were far more reliable allies to Blacks than northern white liberals because they had a common religious heritage as well as a common class interest. He had shown the potential of this approach in labor struggle after labor struggle before McCarthyism had sidelined him and believed it was the only one that would allow progressives to challenge domination of American politics by the rich and powerful.
Having the opportunity to live with a person who not only articulated such a view with great eloquence, but practiced it every day, and survived attacks that would have silenced most people, made a tremendous impression on me. Wiliams challenged me, as he did all leftists, to relinquish elitist contempt of working class people and meet them on their own ground, using arguments rooted in their own culture and traditions, and providing an example of courage and generosity they would respect. As he told me on countless occasions “ We don’t need leaders of the people, we need leaders among the people.!”
Throughout my life of political activism,, I have tried to take that message to heart and reach out to people of diverse political perspectives while fighting for racial and economic justice.
Nothing I have experienced in 40 plus years of activism, including my experience with the Occupy Movement and the 99 Percent Clubs in the last 6 months, has convinced me this approach is wrong..
January 14, 2012