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Can social justice activism work if white people just don't get it?

Charleston's black activists have had it

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While sitting in the Birmingham City Jail in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote scornfully about white people who agreed with the causes of the Civil Rights Movement but refused to actively support it.

King declared that African-Americans' biggest stumbling block wasn't racist groups like the KKK, "but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'" he wrote.

Those immortal words are not just important because they were written by an icon during a trying time in his work, but because they continue to ring true many decades, years, and movements later. Whatever the identity of the complacent outsiders — whether they be white, men, or straight — the role of members of a dominant culture in helping to lift up their oppressed counterparts has been debated across struggles.

The second Charleston women’s March held on jan. 20, 2018 at brittlebank park was promoted as a “rally for electoral justice” with women of color at the forefront - SAM SPENCE FILE PHOTO
  • Sam Spence file photo
  • The second Charleston women’s March held on jan. 20, 2018 at brittlebank park was promoted as a “rally for electoral justice” with women of color at the forefront

Tamika Gadsden, a Charleston-based social justice activist known for organizing last year's Women's March in Brittlebank Park, did not return to the job this year. Though the 2018 event drew 3,500 people, according to her estimate, doing it again was not worth the stress, not to mention the clashes behind the scenes.

"A group of white women took to the stage without me knowing about it, and when I voiced my objections behind the scenes and used the phrase 'white privilege,' they called me a racist," she recalls.

There were cut-off microphones and angry tirades. National Women's March organizer Bob Bland took to Facebook in support of Gadsden's work, an ironic turn of events considering the national organization's own struggle with performative, non-inclusionary feminism, anti-trans sentiment, and allegations of anti-semitism.

"I also want to say very clearly that the attacks that have been levied against Mika are racism in action, and they are unacceptable," Bland wrote on Jan. 29, nine days after the Charleston demonstration.

Tamika Gadsden did not organize a Women’s March this year, choosing to focus on her own work instead - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Tamika Gadsden did not organize a Women’s March this year, choosing to focus on her own work instead

Gadsden, now 38-years-old, wants to focus solely on black-led movements and organizations, including her own Charleston Activist Network, a digital platform that promotes local gatherings and shares links relevant to the group's work.

"I'm no longer affiliated with Women's March," she says. "I had to stop banging my head against the wall and start working unapologetically with black folks exclusively. That's not to say I haven't had tremendous partners of all backgrounds."

A group of high school students planned an anniversary Women's March in Charleston this year. Demonstrators planned to depart from Memorial Waterfront Park, on the Mt. Pleasant side of the Ravenel Bridge, and walk to Charleston in celebration of the record number of women who are now serving in Congress. After trying to secure a permit from the Mt. Pleasant Police Department, the organizers eventually postponed the march. Plans for a new one have not been announced.

These are the pitfalls of internal, public disagreements between activists — everyday people who have committed themselves to the onerous and draining work of righting decades, if not centuries, of wrongs against vulnerable populations.

In a 2015 article for the Journal of Human Rights Practice, George Mason University professors Cher Weixia Chen and Paul C. Gorski analyzed data from interviews with 22 people who described their life's work as revolving around social justice or human rights activism. The participants had all temporarily paused their activism because of activist burnout, a concept defined by author Hillary Rettig as "having to disengage from one's activism at least temporarily due to combinations of emotional and physical exhaustion connected with that activism."

The researchers found three common symptoms of activist burnout, among them the deterioration of physical health and the deterioration of psychological or emotional health partially attributed to a "culture of selflessness" that discourages activists from taking care of themselves.

"They described, not just brief periods of weariness, but chronic, debilitating stress, anxiety, and depression that drove them away from their activism at least temporarily," Chen and Gorski wrote.

Hopelessness, exhibited as "feelings of despair as they questioned whether what they were doing had any effect on the injustice and abuses they were attempting to eliminate," was also described as one of the most common symptoms of activist burnout.

Pastor Thomas Dixon cites performative activism, regardless of race, as one of his frustrations - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Pastor Thomas Dixon cites performative activism, regardless of race, as one of his frustrations

Thomas Dixon says that feeling is what gets to him the most.

"The frustrations that I encounter with people who have the power and the authority to make real change, to benefit people, and they either ignore it or refuse to address it," he says. "That drains my soul."

In an August cover story for the City Paper looking at the evolution of self-care, Kennae Miller talked about why she started a yoga studio after seeing a lack of people of color, bigger bodies, and older people at local studios.

"Our activists don't even know that they need to unplug," she said. "They feel that guilt that when they rest or when they pause or take a break, it's gonna separate them from the work they're doing. We pour so much of ourselves — we need to pour back in."

For Dixon, that self-care looks like long drives with his wife, even if the trips are work-related.

"It's part of that burden or that gift," he said. "Somewhere it's a blessing, somewhere it's a curse."

Dixon, a pastor and a prominent community organizer in the Charleston area, started working in grassroots activism in 2012. That year, he was suddenly fired from a job he held for more than 10 years after being released from prison on drug-related charges.

"Here I was, an ex-felon, unable to find other employment readily," he says. "My advocacy started at one point with criminal justice, expanded to prison reform, expanded to ending gun violence, fighting for quality health care, fighting for quality public education."

Dixon - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Dixon

A 2019 candidate for mayor of North Charleston who is constantly hosting or attending one demonstration or another, Dixon says the white activist community in the Charleston area is "pretty solid." Still, he wishes more white people would choose to engage in anti-racist advocacy that went beyond tragic events and the ensuing photo-ops.

"When it comes to our community, the only time we see people get up and do something is after a tragedy, and that's gotta stop," he says, referring to the thousands who turned out for a "unity march" across the Ravenel Bridge days after a white supremacist killed nine parishioners at Mother Emanuel in 2015.

"All of those folks that was on that bridge that day was probably about 95 percent white folk," he says. "Where they at? It's that kind of activism that frustrates me a lot, when it comes to black or white."

On June 21, 2015, over 10,000 people gathered on the Ravenel bridge for a unity march days after the Mother Emanuel shooting - MIKE LEDFORD FILE PHOTO
  • Mike Ledford file photo
  • On June 21, 2015, over 10,000 people gathered on the Ravenel bridge for a unity march days after the Mother Emanuel shooting

A local white activist who goes by the name Mary Baraghání says she first noticed tension between white and black activists when she worked with the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, an organization that went dormant after the shooting death of its de facto leader, Muhiyidin d'Baha, in February 2018.

"I can recall at times where I saw a lot of frustration within black activism, or black activists, with white people taking over," she says. "It's hindsight right now, but I can remember seeing the frustration with white people always being at the forefront of things or white people taking an idea and not giving credit or what have you."

The 2018 death of activist Muhiyidin d’Baha took a toll on the Charleston chapter of Black Lives Matter - DUSTIN WATERS FILE
  • Dustin Waters file
  • The 2018 death of activist Muhiyidin d’Baha took a toll on the Charleston chapter of Black Lives Matter

The same feeling was floating around shortly after d'Baha's death, when the Charleston chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) started to fall apart. The national organization was conceived as a way to rally white people for anti-racist activism.

"Through community organizing, mobilizing, and education, SURJ moves white people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for justice with passion and accountability," its website reads.

The national chapter did not respond to a request for comment asking whether its mission has since changed.

"I'm of the opinion that SURJ was a failed experiment," said Jen Gibson, a white local activist who was involved with the group at one point, during an interview with CP in February 2018 when she was a candidate for House District 99.

"Charleston has such a diverse community of activist groups that I think we're just taking up space," she said.

Black women who were previously involved with Charleston's Sophia Institute also expressed a feeling that the nonprofit's work in promoting racial justice was performative, at best. The loosely-defined group, led by Carolyn Rivers, a white woman, was instrumental in the creation of the Social Justice Racial Equality Collaborative. The collaborative wrote a slavery apology that was passed by City Council last June.

Though the document was eventually approved, it was met with incredulity from various members of Council, five of whom went on to vote against it. Four of them were white and they all represent West Ashley, a majority-white residential suburb of Charleston.

"I encourage my colleagues to follow the example of the Mother Emanuel survivors and work to enhance our future and don't let words keep us from our destiny," said Councilman Bill Moody, who voted against the apology.

Speaking to CP last month, Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, one of the apology's main supporters, pointed to the fact that Council members unanimously voted for the 2019 city budget, which included money for a new city "manager of racial reconciliation," as proof that the body was not divided on race.

"The majority of Council voted and supported that position to be funded, so to me that's an indication of a Council that may differ in opinions, but we're not divided," he said.

The narrow, symbolic victory was not enough to heal the wounds of the Sophia Institute, which started losing women of color after the apology was adopted.

Patricia Williams Lessane resigned from the board of the Sophia Institute this year, citing diversity issues - RUTA SMITH FILE PHOTO
  • Ruta Smith file photo
  • Patricia Williams Lessane resigned from the board of the Sophia Institute this year, citing diversity issues

"There is this elitism, and a lot of times, I sense it from white liberal women," said Patricia Williams Lessane, the executive director of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston and a former board member of the Institute, in an interview with CP last month.

"You are going to hijack the work that other people are doing," she said. "And you know what? It's fine, because maybe their cachet is that they're white and women and can move something forward."

"I don't know," she added. "I'm done."

In their research, Chen and Gorski found that infighting and tense relationships within activist communities were one of the three most common causes of activist burnout. Eight of the study's participants "felt that the politics within their activist communities were often cruel and deleterious to themselves and other activists."

"Notably, although all participants were asked both about their own burnout and the bigger problem of burnout in their movements and organizations, not a single white participant mentioned this trouble with racism within [social justice and human rights] movements that was commonly cited by participants of colour," they wrote.

Merrill Chapman, a local white activist, emceed the 2018 Charleston Women's March.

After chartering several buses to D.C. to send local activists to rallies against the War in Afghanistan in the early 2000s, the self-described housewife from Mt. Pleasant lawyered up and went to battle against the Washington Light Infantry, which owns Marion Square, to defend her right to host a similar demonstration at the Calhoun Street park.

"That was my first foray into starting as an activist," she says.

Now the president of the South Carolina chapter of the Brady Campaign, a national nonprofit that advocates for gun reform, she says the job elicits a very specific type of burnout.

"Especially when we're talking about war or people losing their lives to gun violence, every once in a while, I just stay in bed with the covers over my head," she says. "It's as simple as that, and the next day I get up and fight even harder."

Over the years, Chapman has noticed a racial divide in Charleston's activist scene.

"There certainly is a huge schism between the classes and the colors," she says. "People are very angry, and reasonably so. I mean, Charleston was built on the backs of people of color, so I understand the anger."

Merrill Chapman, a longtime local organizer, says there is a “huge schism between the classes and the colors” in Charleston’s activist community - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Merrill Chapman, a longtime local organizer, says there is a “huge schism between the classes and the colors” in Charleston’s activist community

That division boiled over in a debrief after last year's Womens's March, where Gadsden, one of the organizers, says she was "verbally accosted and physically intimidated" after she voiced her concerns about white activists taking over the event, which was branded a "Rally for Electoral Justice" featuring women of color at the forefront, including keynote speaker Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter and honoree Septima Clark, the late civil rights activist from Charleston.

"I cut the mic on whoever — the women were strangers to me and were not supposed to be on the stage," Gadsden says. "I was told it wasn't my rally and that I'm making it a white-black issue, and I was also called a thug and a bully."

Chapman says she did call Gadsden a thug, but only after Gadsden allegedly hurled racially-charged insults at her.

"I grew up with that word as a 'union thug,' never did it dawn on me that it would be seen as a racial slur," Chapman says.

She says she has since apologized to Gadsden "several times." Gadsden denies this.

Kevin Gaines, the Julian Bond Professor of Civil Rights and Social Justice at the University of Virginia's Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, believes little can come from airing such intra-movement issues openly.

"People within movements for social change where there's a lot at stake are going to disagree, and people have to accept that, but if they are committed to social change, they have to be committed to the dialogue and debate in a participatory democracy where you can iron out the differences and remain focused on the goal," Gaines said in an interview with CP.

Conflicts between white and black activists are as old as the concept of injustice itself.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is one example. One of the major organizations in the Civil Rights Movement, SNCC began by promoting the interracial concept of a "beloved community" through the use of sit-ins and other demonstrations against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South. In its early days, the group strategically bussed in white students from the North to gain the attention of the media. In December 1966, under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael and amid the growing relevance of the black power movement, the group voted to oust its white members, according to the Mapping American Social Movements project at the University of Washington.

A symbolic death of sorts came in July 1968, when federal authorities claimed that members of the Black Panther movement walked into the office of James Forman, the chairman of SNCC's International Affairs Commission, in New York City. According to a New York Times report published in the Eugene Register-Guard on Oct. 19, 1969, one of the Black Panther members took out a gun, put it in Forman's mouth, and squeezed the empty gun's trigger three times.

A sign of the mental and physical tolls of activism, the report suggested that Forman checked into a hospital after the incident because he "suffers from a nervous stomach — an occupational disease of many former civil rights workers."

During the abolitionist movement of the 19th century, Frederick Douglass, a former slave, electrified crowds with his spirited description of the horrors of slavery. Tension soon grew between him and his close friend, white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, partially because the leadership of the American Anti-Slavery Society, a group founded by Garrison, thought that Douglass should be more deferential to them.

"It's a very, very old problem in the movements fighting racism and racial aggression, from the abolitionist movement to even more recently," Gaines says. "It seems like in the cases that you're talking about in South Carolina, the habits of expectations of white supremacy manifest themselves in a patronizing attitude toward black activists."

Ultimately, white support is all but required for any social movement that wants its demands met.

"There's always been a sort of tension between the political realization that African-Americans need allies, they need non-black people to be committed to share their vision of freedom and to help them work to achieve it," Gaines says.

Gaines says activists who are committed to anti-racist social justice work need to be in it for the long haul.

"The first thing that everybody needs to realize, whether they're black or white, is that fighting against racism in this society is hard work, and painful and difficult work, and there are going to be disagreements," he says.

He encourages white activists to engage in "rigorous" self-education by reading up on classic works in African-American literature and by remaining open-minded to the experiences of people who suffer from the oppression they fight against.

That kind of selflessness and discipline can be difficult in a line of work that's often crowded with big personalities and inflated egos.

"When I was involved with Black Lives Matter, I wasn't like, 'Oh, look at Mary doing all this Black Lives Matter stuff,'" said Baraghání. "I thought, 'OK, I have friends in this movement, I'm not going to make it all about myself, I'm just going to support them and support this agenda.' I think that's what a lot of people struggle with when it comes to activism."

"I have to sort of control the ego," Dixon said about one colleague when suggesting local activists for this article. Then again, he clarified, some people say the same thing about him.

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