“We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes (repeat chorus)
Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons (chorus)
That which touches me most is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me (chorus)
To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail
And if I can just shed some light as they carry us through the gale (chorus)
The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hands of the young, who dare to run against the storm
Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me
I need to be just one in the number as we stand against tyranny (chorus)
Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot, I’ve come to realize
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survives (chorus)
I’m a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard
At times I can be quite difficult, I’ll bow to no man’s word. (chorus)
-Ella’s Song, by Bernice Johnson Reagon
In my home is a picture of Ella Baker. Every day I pass this visible reminder to never forget about the life of one of the greatest U.S. revolutionaries of the 20th century.
I remembered Ella Baker a couple of days ago to a room full of young people. I spent two days at an anti-oppression training with 70 youth leaders from around the U.S. and Canada part of the Energy Action Coalition, and in speaking briefly at the end of the second day I made reference to Ms. Baker. I referred to her as a person I considered to be a model for how I am trying to live my life, quoted from the words above about “the young, who dare to run against the storm,” and found myself saying that “Ella Baker’s spirit is in this room.”
I’ve never made a statement like that before, and in thinking about it afterwards on my way back home to New Jersey, I knew I wanted to find the words to “Ella’s Song” and reflect on them. All of the words in this wonderful song by Bernice Johnson Reagon, as I understand it, are words spoken or written by Ella Baker.
I was extremely privileged to get to know Ms. Baker in the last years of her life. She was recruited by civil rights and people’s lawyer Arthur Kinoy to become the Vice-Chair of the Mass Party Organizing Committee in the last half of the 1970’s, and as a member of that group, working in the New York City national office, I interacted with her in a number of meetings and settings. Although she was in her last years, and although her activism was limited, her quiet dignity and strength was palpable, and her deep wisdom and commitment was unquestionable.
We need to remember Ella Baker. Those who don’t know about her should make the time to learn. Barbara Ransby’s “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement” is an excellent source. We need to consciously bring her spirit and the example of her life, her commitment to bottom-up, participatory, empowering democracy, into our present-day movement for fundamental social change.
I think that Ms. Baker would be pleased to know that our movement is very alive and well, as indicated by the wide range of major actions for justice and peace, peace with one another and peace with the Earth, that will be taking place over the next two and a half months:
-a major People’s March for Peace, Equality, Jobs and Justice in Newark, N.J. this Saturday the 25th, on the 44th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice (www.peaceandjusticecoalition.org);
-actions in New Orleans and elsewhere throughout the South on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina at the end of this month (write email@example.com);
-a Climate Emergency Fast beginning on September 4th and continuing, for some, for weeks (www.climateemergency.org);
-actions throughout September in Washington, D.C. and around the country, including
nonviolent civil disobedience, as Congress considers giving more money to Bush and Cheney to continue their criminal war, actions demanding that the money be cut off and that the troops and private contractors be brought home and the military bases dismantled;
-mass nonviolent civil disobedience on the morning of October 22nd on Capitol Hill in D.C. and around the country being organized by No War, No Warming (www.NoWarNoWarming.org)
-regional demonstrations on October 27th throughout the country against the war, organized by United for Peace and Justice (www.unitedforpeace.org)
-thousands of young people gathering for Energy Action’s Power Shift conference November 2-5 at the University of Maryland (www.powershift07.org)
-the second Step It Up national day of action to stop global warming on November 3rd (www.stepitup2007.org)
I’ve been struck this summer by how the organizing work for all of this agenda and much, much more has continued forward despite the usual summer drop-off because of vacations and the heat. As I’ve experienced it, it’s as if our collective people’s movement understands that, though we all individually need to take time off to recharge our batteries and not burn out, the times are too serious to allow any overall slackening off. It’s as if the inspiring success of the U.S. Social Forum in late June has kept us all going strong.
As the summer winds down, as the cooler fall air approaches, as the organizing picks up in intensity on all these fronts and students return to school, let’s remember, as Ella Baker said, that “we who believe in freedom cannot rest, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
People around the world, oppressed and disenfranchised people here in the U.S., our destabilizing climate, many threatened species and future generations are counting on us to study, meditate on and live the words of Ella’s Song.