A history of outside agitation: the role of UUs

Marker for Viola Liuzzo, murdered by the Klan, March 25, 1965. Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail
Marker for Viola Liuzzo, murdered by the Klan, March 25, 1965.
Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer; with it, a chance to reflect on the history of outsider agitators. That term gained currency in reaction to movements like the Freedom Rides and the Summer, where northerners of all races came to break down segregation and Jim Crow. This was portrayed as dangerous, much like the old antebellum South and its fears of slave insurrection. In March,1965 a UU minister, James Reeb was killed while working with Dr. King, Jr. Two weeks later, another UU named Viola Liuzzo was murdered by Klan thugs. In every way they were different than the communities and people they were trying to help, but their sacrifice was important. That is because they were agitators, and agitators help justice triumph- no matter is they were ‘outside’ or not.

Marker remembering Rev. James Reeb, murdered March 9, 1965.
Marker remembering Rev. James Reeb, died March 11, 1965.

 

The role of outside forces, especially white leftist activists, has been hotly debated. I’ve shared some discussion on the matter. What we have is an old quandary- how can you help, without making things worse? The sandpit that makes outside agitators difficult, and even dangerous, is one of selfishness. If outside forces pour into Ferguson, or Sanford, Florida, or indeed Mississippi and Alabama fifty years ago, their level of self-interest helps determine their use. Put bluntly, joining a protest in St. Louis and throwing rocks at the police is a great way to get on TV. That kind of behavior sabotages local efforts to press for change, and draws attention to a small minority, to the detriment of larger grievances.

Though there are moral principles at stake here, the question those who wish to help need to ask is “if we can, how can we help you?” versus “I know what can help you.” Respect for autonomy, whether in the black community, or indigenous peoples fighting Chevron and mining companies, or whatever group is engaged in struggle, is important. Part of the Freedom Summer was allowing the oppressed to gain political tools to use against their oppressors. Supplying power to others, not using your own power in their name.

Abolitionist spirit: the role of outside agitators

An anecdote that may help stir your thoughts about what has been happening in Ferguson:

Saturday afternoon I attended a political meeting, held weekly. The planned roundtable was scrapped. M., the original presenter, instead traced the history that has led to Ferguson. It was an incredible journey, encompassing mob violence, Jim Crow, the Red Summer of 1919, deindustralization. On first glance it was incredible that our presenter could have put this together on short notice. However, as a black woman, her life has been affected deeply by these historical tendrils. White Americans have their own historical path that is second nature, but it’s radically different.

Subsequent discussion had many different threads, but the recurring one was the presence of “outside agitators” in Ferguson. I referenced an article published in Jacobin about the origin of the term, going back to how it was used to describe the Freedom Riders and those northerners who came to register voters and protest segregation.

There were some splits in opinion. I simply pointed out that a race-class struggle should not be confined to a small Missouri town, where the authorities have state and federal backing but the protestors do not. Our political group debated the usefulness and place of white anarchists, and groups like the Revolutionary Communist Party, who have been operating during the unrest. Do you criticize the moral stances of these groups, or just disagree about their tactics?

After a long back-and-forth among the members, M. got to close the discussion. What she said surprised me, and her point was powerfully made. This was a conviction.

Looking at the history of black people in the United States, one could say that outside agitators have been crucial to progress and freedom. In fact, she said that they were “the best thing to happen to black people.”

Oldest known portrait of John Brown, 1846 or 1847.

By far, the most deified group of Americans are the Founding Fathers. American mythology paints them as selfless, defenders of abstract ideas and promoters of radical concepts of freedom and equality.

Of course, that’s not true, and there are plenty of selfish reasons that these strata of people had for revolution. What M. said is that a much better embodiment of that commitment were the abolitionists in that period of 1820 to after the Civil War.

They too had selfish reasons for their actions, but when one looks at someone like Garrison or John Brown, you see the outside agitator in its full form. As Professor David Blight of Yale bluntly puts in in his (freely available) course on the Civil War era, John Brown was a white person who killed whites to free black slaves. The Founding Fathers never killed anyone to free blacks, but rather give them more personal power over slave policy. That has happened again and again, and let’s not just paint it as whites taking pity on blacks. It was people of all races, but outsiders none the less- be it a class difference, a political difference, or jut a geographic difference. Brown, for all his atrocities and personal faults, most likely accelerated the end of slavery. He agitated. He was an outsider. Someones you need a person to stir the pot.

Of course, M.’s opinion is her own, and that doesn’t mean it’s a popular one. The example of abolitionists is electrifying for me. It is a unique way of defending the outside agitator.