Today’s blessing: talking about decentralized, leader-full movements, Ella Baker, and Bayard Rustin with Joan Browning, a former Freedom Rider and a member of the 20th Century civil rights movement’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Since yesterday, I’ve been in Browning’s county in West Virginia. I spoke to a local interfaith group this afternoon about the origins of #BlackLivesMatter; the policy platform of the 50-organization Movement for Black Lives; the faithful imperative to intervene in and transform injustice; and some of my recent experiences with militarized responses to public grief rites—including candlelit vigils.
Over the years, Browning has also reflected on the relationship between her personal religious convictions and her public activist witness. She writes:
I cannot imagine where, except from religious convictions, I may have received the courage and moral clarity to be part of SNCC and indeed to continue living my life today. By the time I found SNCC, I was learning that the church structure taught, but did not practice, beliefs that are central to my existence. In SNCC, nobody in SNCC ‘preached’ but in fact almost all practiced at a clear and indisputable level my fundamental religious beliefs. So, for me, SNCC was not a religious institution but it was a structure that allowed me to join with others and together, whatever their motivation, we were practicing my religion.”
Faith is important to me too. I believe that religious people have a moral responsibility not to be silent when we see suffering, even if paying attention is uncomfortable or inconvenient, and even if intervening means we have to give up our quiet lives and receive push-back both from (a) society that’s quite comfortable with the way things are and (b) fellow religionists whose beliefs permit them to be passive or neutral about social oppression and violence.
Activists have explored this question in various contexts for decades, centuries, even. Each time we ask elders their advice, they offer something like this to the generation that follows them:
a. Remember: We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.
b. Refuse to cooperate with evil.
c. Speak only for yourself. Allow no one to speak for you without your consent.
d. Listen to people speak in their own voice.
e. Recognize how you contribute to oppression.
f. Know that only the injured can forgive.” —Joan Browning, 2004