Content warning: This post discusses themes of sexual violence, though not in graphic terms.

Most books about the American Civil Rights Movement are more specifically about the men of the American Civil Rights Movement. I’ve heard the saying, “when people tell ya what they’re gonna do, believe them” – and that has lived up to be true as I make my way through Taylor Branch’s triptych on Dr. King. He set out to write the history of Dr. King and that he did. Genealogy after genealogy of Black preachers down to minutiae, meanwhile women like Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Diane Nash curtsy in and out without much fanfare.

So, I moved on in the Civil Rights canon, and last week had the unparalleled experience of pouring over Danielle McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. What a tour de force! (Read my mini review here). Thanks to McGuire’s incisive research and thorough fact checking, I am now the humble recipient of a new perspective on timing, purpose, legacy, and leadership of the Civil Rights movement, which I can’t wait to share with you. In her view,

[Rosa Parks] was a militant race woman, a sharp detective, and an antirape activist long before she became the patron saint of the bus boycott. After meeting with Recy Taylor [a survivor of sexual violence] Rosa Parks helped form the Committee for Equal Justice. […] Eleven years later this group of homegrown leaders would become better known as the Montgomery Improvement Association. The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, often heralded as the opening scene of the civil rights movement, was in many ways the last act of a decades-long struggle to protect black women, like Taylor, from sexualized violence and rape.

McGuire xviii

While the Voting Rights Act [1964] is often referenced as the culminating achievement of the modern civil rights movement, a pillar of white supremacy fell in 1967 when the Supreme Court banned laws prohibiting interracial marriage in the Landmark Loving v. Virginia decision. Only when we place the Loving decision within the long struggle for black women’s bodily integrity and freedom from racial and sexual terror can it be properly recognized as a major marker in the African-American freedom movement.

McGuire, xx

(I usually try to avoid quoting extensively from book introductions – but this was the most succinct distillation of these ideas that I could find. Whew!)

Between 1944 and 1967, and even into the 70’s, betwixt marches, sit-ins, and policy negotiations, McGuire articulates an incredibly thoughtful, strategic, consistent, and effective through-line of womens’ rights and reproductive justice as animating themes undergirding what we now think of as the Civil Rights Movement. It’s a brilliantly argued position and I really encourage you to stop reading this and start reading her book if you have the interest/capacity!

Of course, because I am me, as I was reading, I was paying attention not only to the “what” and the “why” of the movement, but also the “how.” Were there systems, lists, administrators, and operations? Who kept the lights on, decade after decade, case after case, defending the dignity and autonomy of Black women at the hands of white men? Truthfully, I did not find a lot of breadcrumbs in the text – and to be perfectly clear, that is 100% ok! But the breadcrumbs that I DID find? Well, they reveal some pretty crucial lessons about people and technology. Stay with me (Ira Glass voice).

Below I will highlight two stories of operational badassery which couldn’t be more different from each other. I think both provide some useful lessons for us in the pursuit of operational efficiency and collective liberation!

The Club From Nowhere

Mrs. Georgia Gilmore was a highly respected, emphatic community leader who took charge when the Montgomery Bus Boycott was set to begin. The Club from Nowhere started with $14 pooled among a handful of friends who kicked off a cooking/fundraising spree that kept the 13-month boycott going arguably as much as the intricate ride share program and the community’s deeply rooted spiritual conviction. Day after day, women in the Club would sell food in their neighborhoods and donate the proceeds to the Montgomery Improvement Association, as much as hundreds of dollars per week.

When the call for collections came at weekly mass meetings, Gilmore would stand up and shout, “We’re the Club from Nowhere!” and walk the women’s profits up to the front of the church. Gilmore’s proud strolls to the collection plate became one of the most anticipated weekly rituals. (…) The excitement and support for the Club from Nowhere, Glimore explained, encouraged “other ordinary folks” to do “the same thing in their neighborhoods — competing with us to raise more!”

McGuire 118-119

There’s a lot to unpack here – certainly class, gender, and their offspring, domestic labor, are at the top of my list, not to mention Gilmore’s irresistible chutzpah. But most of all, I want to lift up the system of it all. There’s nothing unusual about making a plate and selling it, but doing it in a coordinated, lauded, performative (in the best possible sense!) is special, and I want to talk more about what that means.

Floating an operation like a bake sale is no small feat, and that’s an understatement of a comparison to The Club from Nowhere. First of all, by all accounts, the Club was mobile or even door-to-door, adding another layer of logistics and complexity. Second of all, there were many cooks in the kitchen, literally and figuratively! Coordinating recipes, amounts, turf, schedule, waste, etc is nothing to sneeze at. Thirdly, this was organized by women who were also striking AND working AND doing tons of domestic labor, so it’s not like they had ample free time! As if that wasn’t impressive enough, they not only managed to feed the movement, but also did so in a way that generated revenue for the fledgling MIA. McGuire points out that they sold their plates of food to white and Black laborers alike. Last but not least, they did it with flair, ritual, and originality. And as a result, they succeeded wildly.

I don’t think this is the kind of work that we, collectively, picture when I say “fundraising system” or “operations” but it’s perhaps the oldest and most effective technique we’ve ever had! If we peel off the layers of misogyny and racism, I think what we’ll find is an objectively brilliant operations system with extensive “moving parts.”

There’s something that feels taboo in writing this story, almost as if it’s not mine to tell, or perhaps, I’m making a big deal out of something “pedestrian,” bearing the risk of being overly precious, or even voyeuristic. I shutter at the thought of “Columbusing” mutual aid.

I chose to write about this anecdote because I know what it is to cook for a movement, whether that is coolers full of coleslaw or kale salad (I’ve done both) or a dozen crock pots of lentil soup gently simmering away during a strategy retreat. In that particular story, I coordinated a sign-up system of precut mirepoix, spice blends, crock pots, pitchers, and a sandwich station. We fed 40 people 2 meals each for under $500. It required scaling up a recipe, and then scaling it back down to delegate appropriate portions of each ingredient to each capable volunteer; leveraging extension cords and bookshelves in a school library to power up our electric crock pots; securing paper goods and supplies; extensive communication and expectation setting; cost/benefit analysis (compared to catering); accounting and reimbursement tracking; coordinating multiple cars, drivers, and grocery trips; day-of assembly, hygiene, flexibility, and a sense of humor when the crock pots cooked at dramatically different temperatures and arrived at different times!

I don’t know what systems Gilmore and crew used to keep track of all of their moving parts, but I can only imagine that they were extensive. Today as we celebrated EQAT’s 10th anniversary, I had a flashback to planning and purchasing the food for a 2 week, 100-mile Walk for Green Jobs and Justice. I leaned on hard-won skills in my repertoire (and frankly, improved many skills through this work) … spreadsheets, leadership, delegation, cooking, planning, accounting, and ultimately faith – that it would all work out.

If we are committed to the pursuit of telling the administrative stories of the Civil Rights Movement, then kitchen table systems belong in the repertoire! Anything less is to cut women out of the story even more than we already are. Anything less is to deprive future organizers of tools that will become essential for their toolboxes.

Did someone say mailing list?

In my last post, I wrote extensively about the fundraising tactic of direct mail and how Stanley Levison and Jack O’Dell piloted the strategy for the SCLC in the early ’60s. They were on the first cusp of the technology that showed up again in At the Dark End Of the Street, albeit in a different context.

Joan Little (pronounced “Jo-Ann”) survived sexual assault at the hands of a prison guard in North Carolina and defended herself by killing him. Her case sparked a national grassroots movement that united an unprecedented coalition of feminists, anti-death penalty activists, and racial justice activists. I really encourage you to learn more about her (cw: graphic depiction of violence). In 1974 and 1975, Joan Little Defense Committees sprung up across the country; Rosa Parks even founded a chapter in Detroit, rounding out 30 years of activism on this subject. Almost in an aside, McGuire mentions:

The Southern Poverty Law Center, with former SNCC [Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee] leader Julian Bond at the helm, signed on early as well. They used Morris Dees’s direct mail expertise to solicit funds from people across the nation for Little’s defense. The letter they mailed to a quarter of a million people claimed Little’s case represented “the most shocking and outrageous example of injustice against women on record”

McGuire 261

The letter itself is cited in an archive, but does not seem to be availble online in a digitized format.

(Noteworthy to this data nerd: the activist blog linked above extensively references McGuire’s chapter on Joan Little, down to the very page where I drew this quote, but ignored the part about the direct mail tactic. Ahhh c’est la vie!)

Lo and behold, I set off to learn more about this Morris Dees character and WOWWWEEEEE there is a lot there to untangle, just as my friend Matthew had warned me. I started reading more about the history of the SPLC and while I think that it has done more good than bad, reasonable minds may disagree. Their fundraising overhead is astonishingly high – some wager that SPLC leadership is more interested in raising money and perfecting the perfect heartstring appeal than using the money to impact their mission. So while they do profile hate groups and take on ambitious litigation, they also do both in a way that generates headlines and improves their fundraising returns, leading to substantially inflated budgets, bigger than both NAACP and Equal Justice Initiative. There’s been a steady trickle of articles to this effect over the past 20 years, and much more unsavory stories came to light last year when Dees was ultimately fired. In my research for this post, I also learned more about Dees’ career as a direct mail aficionado and a political wildcard.

[Dear reader, this is already quite long, so here is where you can extrapolate some commentary about using skills for good vs evil, master’s tools vs master’s house, people are complicated, how the F did we let SPLC get away with this for so long, etc etc]

Because the story I am here to tell is about movement groups collaborating and leveraging data/systems to build stronger coalitions, bring resources to the table, and take a not-so-final bow in the story of civil rights and reproductive justice. The story I want to tell is that I wish we had more data know-how in our movement ecosystem so that we don’t have to make bargains with skeevy dudes like Morris Dees because no one we know has the expertise to pull off an appeal to 250,000 people. The story I want to tell is ordinary people making intricate systems to manage food and fundraising, and yet we consistently neglect to center their narratives. The story I want to tell is about how good systems are compelling, irresistible, transformative even! People WANT to be part of them! And the story I might be telling is about how direct mail can be used for good and bad, and seems to be intertwined with the fight for freedom and dignity for Black Americans. More on that hypothesis to come…

Like I promised, two verrrrrry different stories of operations systems that fueled the Civil Rights Movement at key inflection points. When we go looking for behind-the-scenes stories, there’s no telling what we might find.

3 thoughts on “care work is system thinking

Leave a Reply