My inbox is overflowing with emails about how to honor Dr. King. Even the local coffee shop and my favorite athleisure vendors have something to say. Rest assured, this email isn’t a takedown of those tepid marketing blasts. Instead, I’d like to share what I’ve been learning – not about what Dr. King “stood for” but rather, how he was able to use his charisma, spiritual clarity, stubbornness, trusted confidantes, AND last but not least, rigorous operational systems to demand racial justice and economic dignity.
For every story about a speech, a rally, or a certain letter from a certain jail, there are 10 or even 100 stories about fundraising, logistics, financial reconciliation, mailing lists (ohhhh mailing lists!), data entry, and all manner of behind-the-scenes labor. In these stories, we find delightful minutiae of every day decisions. These decisions might seem small and boring, but they are actually empowering and accessible to regular people looking to get involved. Moreover, we meet leaders who are either “everyday people” and/or people from society’s margins. By the margins, I mean women, rural organizers, Jews, queers, and Communists to name a few (but certainly not all) intersections. There are SO! DAMN! MANY! lessons to be learned, stories to be unearthed, shoulders to climb upon, questions to ask, and awe to express.
Without further ado, 5 lessons from Dr. King and his entourage on movement building through problem solving and behind-the-scenes system crafting.
1. tough problems call for creative spreadsheets
In 1960, the State of Alabama charged Dr. King with felony tax evasion, a serious allegation that came with daunting consequences. His legal team, somewhat of an old boys’ club of Atlanta financiers, could not make heads or tails of his bank statements, that is, until Chauncey Eskridge entered the scene. He reportedly stayed up most of the night with paper spreadsheets in a hotel room. Instead of using financial statements as a “source of truth,” he referred to Dr. King’s datebook and personal receipts. The result? He was proven innocent and acquitted by an all-white jury, almost unheard of in those days. Moreover, Eskridge’s life was changed forever, and he remained in Dr. King’s inner circle quite literally until the day he was assassinated.
When faced with state repression – and let’s be honest, we will face state repression – sharp analytical skills, think-outside-the-box creativity, and a commitment to innovative ways to solve problems will prove to be essential. Heck, even our day-to-day work needs our best problem-solving abilities! This is why Chauncey Eskridge is one of my personal heroes. Word to the wise … you might want to share that link with your local database administrator!
Need help boosting up your spreadsheet skills? I gotchu! Follow along with the TDAA blog, where I share anecdotes from my database journey, spreadsheet tips, and original research on the operations of the Civil Rights Movement.
2. the ways we track our impact matter
One of my favorite Civil Rights leaders is Septima Clark, best known for being a brazen proponent of popular education. In this interview, she discusses voter registration drives that recruited 7,000 and 9,000 people. How do we know that? Because someone kept track! She coordinated hundreds of Citizenship Schools with special emphasis on deep organizing in rural counties in the South, including in places that were so dangerous that other civil rights volunteers refused to work there. How exactly did she keep track of her students and keep those lists safe (to the extent that it was possible)? I’m still working on answering those questions. Her homegrown tracking systems and organizing tactics don’t much see the light of day, but I’m hoping to change that! Sixty years later and we are still fighting voter disenfranchisement. This is another reason why it becomes so important to lift up the behind-the-scenes labor – and document what worked!! – as compared with just the “big ideas.” More to come on Clark’s legacy as this blog series continues.
3. solid systems make solidarity possible
I’ve encountered three jaw-dropping examples of organizations lending their mailing lists to support the efforts of another campaigns during the Civil Rights Movement. Any database administrator, marketer, fundraiser, or organizer can tell you that maintaining a mailing list is a huge effort, with or without sophisticated databases. Leveraging these resources for cross-campaign solidarity is a major takeaway of my civil rights research – offering an essential counterpoint to the stories of gossip, personal beef, and organizational politics that drove political wedges between natural allies.
- In the early 60’s, The Nation magazine agreed to share their mailing list with the burgeoning SCLC. Stanley Levison and Jack O’Dell used that mailing list (and added to it, of course), to create their shortlived, but legendary fundraising machine. I explore this history, and why it was so groundbreaking, here.
- In the early 70’s, the SCLC used their mailing list to send an appeal for the Angela Davis defense fund. I wrote about this story, and why it is important, here.
- In the mid 70’s, the SPLC offered their ginormous mailing list to raise awareness and solicit funds for Joan Little’s defense. She was being prosecuted for murdering a prison guard after surviving his sexual assault. I elaborated on this story, and why the SPLC is considered controversial to this day, here.
4. fundraising is organizing is fundraising is…
As I showed in the story above, what I see in studying the American Civil Rights Movement is a revolving door — in the best of ways — between organizing and fundraising. Certainly, Dr. King was a prime example of this phenomenon, but he was certainly not alone. Jack O’Dell, one of my favorite and hearbreakingly under-appreciated figures, had a long and storied career as a union organizer turned tenant organizer turned fundraiser turned electoral organizer and then some. The same is true of Anne and Carl Braden.
I know this is true because of the research I’ve done on these stories AND because civil rights archives are RIFE with newsletters, donation receipts, meeting minutes, financial statements, fundraising appeals, etc. These items typically don’t make it into the history books – or at least the popular imagination – but archivists seem to deem them just as relevant as published works. In the megaphone versus clipboard repositories, team clipboard has TONS of material to sort through. I better roll up my sleeves…
In contemporary times, I believe there is too often a silo effect between fundraising, operations, and program/organizing teams in movement organizations. My opinion on the nonprofit industrial complex aside (ahem), civil rights organizations like SNCC, SCLC, and SCEF appear to demonstrate a different way. They had some specialists working on systems and administration, but those specialists were typically activists who thought that they could best serve the movement by offering (or offering to develop) their administrative skills. How optimistic I feel when I dream of social movements recalibrating our efforts to see how connected these parts of the work truly are and how they can best strengthen each other!
5. join me in telling a new story
During the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, Dr. King popularized the idea of a “new Negro.” Rev James Lawson recounts it better than I can:
people who joined the bus boycott basically told society, “You can threaten us, but it won’t mean anything to us. You can use violence against us. We are not going to be intimidated by it, and you can arrest us and we are not going to fear going to jail for the cause.” When the city government took out warrants against some 90 or 100 black folks in the boycott, people shocked the community and the police and the mayor, because they went to the police station to turn themselves in. The police had never heard of such a thing.From “A New Measure of Power” interview with Rev. James Lawson, June 2013
By taking matters into their own hands, by asserting their freedom and dignity as Black people in Montgomery, and taking action rooted in Ghandian nonviolence, Dr. King witnessed his community grow into a new, spiritually fortified version of itself. This change was as much psychological as it was political. Black Montgomeryites were telling a new story about themselves, and living into their vision with powerful clarity and integrity.
As a social movement practitioner and spreadsheet whisperer, I wager it’s time to assert a new paradigm about technology, administration, and winning our ambitious, necessary, wildest, most visionary political dreams. I’m not saying it will be easy (but neither is organizing our neighbors, and neither is deduplicating a database, but we’ve learned how to do it!). A paradigm where every sign-in sheet is lovingly entered into a standardized database. A paradigm where every organization has the funds to fully resource their admin team. A paradigm where every organizer can pull a list of their volunteers/turf/donors/constituents. A paradigm where we challenge companies to be ethical but we don’t knee-jerk refuse to use the tools that we need to power our work. A paradigm where we value invisible labor. A paradigm where we take risks, embrace change, and fix things that are broken. A paradigm where donors appreciate those emails regarding lapsed credit card numbers because they know that that touch point, too, is campaigning. A paradigm where each person has self determination over their data footprint, their privacy, and their notification preferences. A paradigm that embraces both clipboard and megaphone. I know this paradigm because I’m seeing it and building it every day. And so can you!