*Waves* Welcome Civil Writes Vol. VII, where I profile behind-the-scenes operations/admin badasses of the American Civil Rights Movement and document their data cultures and practices. If you’re primarily here for spreadsheet tips, stick around – there is more to come. As always, if you have a spreadsheet/database dilemma, write to my Dear Spreadsheet Whisperer column and I’ll write back, usually with puns. Onward!


May I recommend an astonishing podcast? In it, François Clemmons, most famous as Officer Clemmons on Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood, tells – no, sings, illuminates – his life story and oh so much more. Here’s a blurb from the podcast host:

François Clemmons was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1945 on the plantation where his great great grandmother Laura May’s family had been slaves, then he moved with his mother and siblings and aunts and cousins to Youngstown, Ohio during the Great Migration. Youngstown is where he started singing, and he never stopped singing. He sings in the middle of sentences, he sings on the way to the bathroom, he sings like the world depends on it, which maybe it does.

Erica Heilman

As I was absorbing Clemmons’ storytelling, warm joviality, and sharp insights, I tried to slow the pace of my racing thoughts and really. just. listen. Afterwards, I was so intoxicated by his descriptions of love and justice that I simply HAD to call one of my social movement mentors, who also sings his way through the hard things in life. Not much of a singer myself, I’m grateful to be surrounded by them and to benefit from social movements that SING! My experience of social justice music traces back most directly to the American Civil Rights Movement, which is where this blog post will pick up.

François Clemmons Remembers His Years With Mister Rogers in Advance of a  New Memoir | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
Francois Clemmons!

My trails to learn Who Kept “This Little Light Of Mine” On continue. In the past couple of weeks, I read a phenomenal essay on Jack O’Dell by Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation – in which he asks why he focused so intensively on Stanley Levison in his earlier research on Robert Kennedy’s administration, when Jack O’Dell was the practitioner/executor of many of Stanley’s ideas. Is racism to blame? In any event, he had the opportunity to reconnect with O’Dell in their older age, adorably while attending The Nation’s annual cruise / political convention. Now, I am making my way through Dangerous Friendship: Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King, Jr and the Kenney Brothers. So far the book hasn’t impressed me, but there are snippets that are helping me round out some gaps in my timelines. I wish there was more discussion of the operational decisions of the civil rights movement and less Red Scare paranoia.

I also did some biographical research on Vernon Jarret, a journalist who’s articles I quoted extensively in from bus boycott to badass bureaucracy. If not for his articles, Ann Smith Pratt, carpool logistics coordinator and hairdresser extraordinaire, would have no quotes of her own in the civil rights canon. I started reading some of his columns, where I am almost certain I will be introduced to behind-the-scenes rockstars whose administrative prowess changed the movement for the better. While sometimes I feel discouraged that references to these folks are few and far between, I feel even more excited because the history IS THERE if we only look for it in earnest.

Which brings me to the next piece I want to profile here, a longform article from 1972 on what happened in the S.C.L.C. after Dr. King’s untimely assassination, originally published in Atlanta Magazine. Besides navigating “clash of giants” style ego battles between preachers, I also saw a consistent thread of seeking/questioning an appropriate balance between nimbleness and bureaucracy, between action and administration. Spoiler alert – we need both!

“Used to be, if there was trouble somewhere, everybody in the place would pick up and go,” said the Rev. Andrew Young, one-time King lieutenant and now the conservatively dressed director of Atlanta’s Community Relations Commission. “We’d have maybe two people to answer the phone. Everybody else would go march.”

Peter Range

Fact check… not true! According to Septima Clark, organizer and popular education champion,

[When Andrew Young was executive director of SCLC] we branched out to something like fifteen different women [working in the main office]. The organization grew. I think it happened because of the team of workers.

THEIR OWN TALKING: Septima Clark and Women in the Civil Rights Movement, courtesy of Southern Cultures, a project of Center for the Study of the American South

Ok, so we’ve established that there were ALWAYS folks working behind the scenes, answering the phone, organizing paperwork, acknowledging donations, managing volunteers, assembling mailings, organizing phone trees, managing schedules and logistics (the list goes on). But according to this article, the pendulum was beginning to swing too far in that direction:

Today, SCLC rarely commits all its resources to a single issue. Instead of a hundred or more workers in the field, there are only a dozen. Its 48 other staffers—most of them in Atlanta—have desk jobs to perform and phones to answer.

The article elaborates that the SCLC budget had also shrunk by more than half, which is to say that fewer workers in the field are predictable, though regrettable. How do we strike the balance between administration and mobilization? I think the answer is in joining them together.

Later in the article, we get some JUICY references to my favorite topic – the SCLC’s mailing list that was painstakingly assembled by my heroes, Jack O’Dell and Stanley Levison (read more about this history, and why it matters here).

SCLC raises its money strictly through private donations. It owns what is considered the best mailing list of liberals in the country: some 200,000 names, mostly of whites. It steadfastly resists efforts of other organizations to buy the list, but it recently tested the potency of the list by mailing an appeal for Angela Davis’ defense. In three months’ time, it brought $47,000. The postage cost alone, however, was formidable.

Peter Range, emphasis my own

Inflated bureaucracy wasn’t the only quagmire that the SCLC needed to sort out. During the early 70’s, SCLC leaders had to discern where they stood on the spectrum of radical Black separatism to assimilation, which campaigns to prioritize (deep, rural organizing? urban healthcare union organizing?), the role of faith in their public narrative, and how to address the changing political conditions of the 70’s, all without Dr. King’s charisma and near inexhaustible energy.

Here’s where the magic comes in:

Despite enduring tension and criticism from firebrand student radicals of SNCC, the SCLC held the line as mostly preachers, skewing middle-aged to older, aligning with less risky and improvisational actions when compared to some other organizational counterparts. (By the way, that’s not a criticism coming from me – I appreciate the interplay of a healthy movement ecosystem with a range of political/tactical inclinations).

So it really surprised me to see this line about sending a mail appeal for Angela Davis’ defense fund! (More sidenotes from me – I read her autobiography earlier this year WHICH SHE WROTE AT THE AGE OF 28!!! and it was one of my favorite books of the year). Angela Davis was then, and is now, a polarizing and controversial figure. Getting behind her publicly like this represents a counterpoint to the accusation that SCLC was a stodgy, conservative organization. I didn’t set up that rationale very well in this blog post, because I don’t have the sources right here to back it up, but trust me that it’s out there. But then again, like all binaries, I think this is a false one. There is certainly more nuance to be found than pitting Black activist organizations against each other on a hierarchy of radical-ness.

What makes me so EXCITED about this is it was operational prowess that enabled the SCLC to show up in a big way for Angela Davis. It wasn’t (just? eep my bias is coming out here…) speeches and social media posts – it was leveraging one of their biggest assets, that they are incredibly protective of, to move resources from their base of support toward another struggle. And yes, Angela Davis’ struggle was connected to racial justice, but it was also very different from the work the SCLC was undertaking.

This reminds me of the story of how SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) sent out a mailing appeal to their substantial list in support of the Joan Little case – a letter that went out to 250,000 people, amplified her story, and fundraised for her defense.

This goes to show me that maintaining accurate mailing lists are not only essential for running effective grassroots campaigns but also pivotal infrastructure for building generous partnerships and powerful, political coalitions. Through our data systems, we put our mission and values into practice. In order to “share the mic” – we need a mic of our own.

It may be the case that the SCLC became administratively bloated in the 70’s – I don’t have enough information to come down on either side of that debate. Certainly, we must be vigilant about resisting the nonprofit industrial complex. Part of resisting the NPIC is treating our technology systems as our collective record of care and compassion in our social movement organizations, as inextricably connected to campaigning, and as an expression of love. And another piece is to have enough people doing admin-related work so that we don’t get burned out and so that our movement can benefit from well-organized, well-resourced organizations. I want us to see administrative work just the same as capital-O Organizing, not a distraction from it. To get there, I know that we need to invest in both tooling and culture change. I hope that documenting how Civil Rights Era organizations tackled these questions will help us illuminate the path forward. But anyway, back to Love:

If you want to tap into that feeling of love, listen to Mr. Clemmon’s podcast. It was incredibly healing for me, and inspires me to cultivate that atmosphere in everything that I do.

One thought on “unsung heroes of a singing movement

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