Saturday, February 9, 2019

Second of two reflections from the MI PPC Washtenaw Co Summit: La'Ron Williams

During the opening General Session of the Moral Fusion Summit on January 26, 2019 in Washtenaw County, MI, Rev. Joseph Summers and La'Ron Williams made powerful remarks to the Summit audience.  We present the text of those talks in these next two posts. Here are the remarks from La'Ron Williams:

Talk given by La’Ron Williams at the Poor Peoples’ Campaign Moral Fusion Summit: Challening the Racial-Economic Caste System in Washtenaw County.

What makes us a nation?. . .
We have no official national language . . . We don’t share a single religion . . . We aren’t of a single culture or “race” . . . What we are at this point is a group of people poised on the edge of having to make a hard choice. A nation is an idea . . . an idea . . . and the way that we move from this point forward will be the manifestation of the idea that we collectively decide to strive for …. the collective idea that we declare. 
In the year 1640, three men, all indentured servants held in bondage in the colony of Virginia, tried to escape together. Two of those men were what we today would call “White”, although history tells us that that term wasn’t used to describe human beings yet. The third man was “Black”. They were caught and they underwent a trial in which they were convicted and sentenced. The two White men were sentenced to four additional years of service, but the “Black” man, a man named John Punch, was ordered to serve for life. Now that case holds significance for two reasons:
1.     In the colonies that would become the United States, it was the first documented case of different punishments being handed out on the basis of physical appearance/background.
2.     It signaled the beginning of a practice that caught on like wildfire.
Up until that time, it was common for indentured servants to rebel, and when they did, they did it together – They didn’t care what each other looked like. But that court ruling acted to drive a wedge between “Black” and “White” indentures. What was once a united front of people fighting to end their suffering under a commonly recognized enemy was shattered by a simple idea that had no basis in reality.
It was a “divide and  conquer” strategy – a tool – that worked so well it eventually was adopted by all of the colonies. By 1681, the word “White” was encoded into law as a racial identifier. I repeat, it was consciously used as a tool to divide one group of poor folks from another. It worked then and still works today – so well in fact, that it has been expanded to operate across all kinds of lines of difference: gender, skin color, body size, religion, country of origin, income, and so on and so on . . .
In 1640, and for more than the next 300 years, the class status of that Black man, John Punch, and everybody who looked like him, including my own ancestors, was locked into the unfolding American social fabric. Our place was at the bottom – as slaves. Unable to hold political office, with no guarantees to education, and with no control over our own bodies, our class status was cemented to racial identity. 

But what about the descendants of those two “White” indentures? While some of them almost certainly have been able to “rise” above their condition, statistics show that relative to the society at large, the vast majority are much like they were back in 1640 – also unable to hold political office, with no guarantees to a quality education, and no control over their own bodies.    
Caste in America is real: Today, the richest one tenth of one percent of Americans control as much wealth as the bottom 90%. In spite of the fact that it is the poor and working people who built the wealth of this country and who continue to build it, that wealth has remained in the hands of a tiny few. 
. . . And it’s almost impossible to rise out of poverty. 96% of people who are born poor will remain poor throughout their entire lives.
Just as the economic condition of “Blacks” was cemented at the bottom of the social order through a slave system that was established before this country was even a country, we’ve also had landless and poor Whites locked into a position of relative disempowerment from the time of the earliest British colonial settlements. They’ve been called "waste people," "rubbish," "lazy lubbers," “rednecks” "crackers”, "clay eaters", "sandhillers," and “White trash”.
They’ve had good reason to rebel against the rich, but in exchange for any real access to social power, they’ve been handed a psychological and minor social status “advantage” -- what Michelle Alexander calls a “racial bribe” – a plan that has been accelerated over the past 50 years, to the point where a majority of those relatively powerless Whites now vote in favor of their “whiteness” even above and against their own self-interests, and view their natural allies – other poor folks – as their enemies.
In the late 1960s, Dr. M.L. King recognized the depth of this failure among America’s poor to transcend racial bounds, and that it would be even more disastrous for all of us, unless we experienced a “radical revolution of values.” King said that a slight shift to the left or the right could not save us; only a movement that changed our most basic moral narrative could refocus our priorities on building a society that honored the dignity of every person. This country had to be born again—not only in budgets and policy decisions, but in the deepest part of our spirit.
When the first Africans came to this part of the world in big numbers, they did not come here carrying two packed suitcases and a great big ol’ stack of books. They came here as people who had been caught, kidnapped, sold, or otherwise cajoled into one of the worst systems of slavery that the world has ever seen. They rode over here in the bottoms of slave-ships, chained together – squeezed together like sardines in a can, forced to eat, sleep, and live for months at a time in their own body wastes. And those Africans had nothing outside of themselves with which to fight that system of slavery. All they had was what was inside of them -- their memories of who they used to be, and their strong belief in who they could be again. They took those memories, they took those beliefs and they put them together with the best that they could find from the new world traditions wherever they found themselves, and they created a plan for survival as an act of their collective declaration . . .
They took the new world’s best ideas for freedom, and democracy and liberty, and they drove a hard wedge into the unequal fabric of American society. Those Africans created the basis of struggle that led to the Civil Rights Movement and the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign because declaration makes things possible. What kind of a nation do we want to be? . . . What do we want to see?
Nations are created by the will of the people who live within them. We are a nation poised on the edge of a choice. We have been (loosely) united by our adherence to certain democratic principles – even though they have never been fully realized, they have acted as a guiding set of principles toward which to aspire. Without them, we would have fallen apart long ago.
We need a new movement that unites the best of what we have to offer each other.
We need a higher ground moral declaration:
Some issues are not right vs. left, they’re right vs. wrong!
We don’t need to build walls, we need to build relationships!
There’s only one way out, and that’s for the hundreds of millions of people directly harmed by the economic and political system to fight as one against the tiny few who benefit from it.
There’s only way out – for the millions of poor folks of common condition – Black and White and everyone else – to connect race to class and class to race and to build across the artificial lines that separate us . . . To build an inclusive social movement that demands a revolution in our most basic values and begins to put people ahead of the material goods they create! . . . To build an America we all can live in, and to declare:
This is my place, this is my nation, this is my home!
This is my place, this is my nation, this is my home! 
This is my place, this is my nation, this is my home!