Who Taught Us That?
Written by James M. Russell,
“Every citizen should be a soldier. This was the case with the Greeks and Romans, and must be that of every free state.” Thomas Jefferson, slave owner and Founding Father, early 1800s
“If you're not ready to die for it, put the word 'freedom' out of your vocabulary.” Malcolm X, 1960s
Dozens of women, children and men did, in fact, die during the civil right’s struggles of the 60s and 70s. People like Cynthia Wesley, James Chaney, Fred Hampton, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Medgar Evers, and Emmett Louis Till. However, paving the way for those heroes of the late 21st century were the freedom fighters of the preceding years, decades, even centuries who went by the name of John Ahern, Steve Biko, Emily Wilding Davison, James Brine and John Brown.
Those heroes did not put themselves in harm’s way for Malcolm or Jefferson, no, the Davidson’s and Biko’s died for a brand of freedom that dates back to the time when the first cave-dwelling Neanderthals left the main group and formed a separate group, then another group, then another. So while different tribes multiplied like horny rabbits, one of those woolly mammoth eaters got the idea “Hey, I should be the boss of everybody!” It was from that moment, the lofty concept of rights and freedoms began its decline.
Of course, the whole idea of social living requires some give-and-take. Rousseau, in his seminal work The Human Contract pointed out that we citizens must surrender some of our freedoms in exchange for living in a society that provides us with indoor plumbing, hot and cold running water, security, streets, traffic lights, and the like. All the benefits of urban life. We, you and I, could have lived with that loss, but once the guardians of society – Emperors, Queens, Kings, Presidents, and various Potentates – tasted power one thing led to another and shazaam! The world was enveloped in an evil cloud of repression, exploitation, dictatorship, slavery, fascism and a host of other ‘isms’.
Born into that age of ‘isms’ were the 60s and 70s civil rights warriors -women, men and children whose tactics - sit-ins, marches, stealth sabotage, freedom rides, passive resistance, human barricades, petitions, and yes, even taking up arms - we learned from the American Labour Movement of the early1800s, the British Labour Movement, the Suffrage Movement of the early 1900s, the Anglo-Irish War of 1919, the South Africa Anti-Apartheid Movement of the 1950s, and yes, even the American Revolutionary War.
The warriors of America and Canada’s civil rights struggle did not need a Malcolm X or a Jefferson to tell us that we must fight if we ever hope to free ourselves from racist institutions, unjust laws, killer cops, and thugs hiding under white sheets. Still, it is important to remember that the civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s drew heavily on the struggles of those valiant forbearers from the eighteen and nineteen hundreds whose tactics, successes and failures we must study, and improve upon if we ever hope to make the ongoing crusade of 2017 and beyond relevant and effective.