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Detroit’s Sankofa: Looking back to move forward

By Prof. Charles E. Simmons

In Ghana, there is a mythological bird that looks backward to reflect on the past, while it moves forward. Simultaneously, it carries an egg in its mouth to symbolize the future. As the movement for Democracy and economic justice grows in Detroit, we need to give some thought to the character of organization and goals of past struggles so we don’t make the same mistakes in 2013. There were many factors that caused the decline of the movement for justice in the 1960s, and if we are not careful, we could repeat them in the 21st century. As one who participated in movement building since the 1950s, I want to share my views of common organizational practices both in the United States and in the African Diaspora by good, intelligent and dedicated people.

First, there was male chauvinism — even among the most dedicated brothers — that severely restricted the growth of female leadership and contributed to their demoralization and often the demise of the organization. This resulted in the limitation of development for our communities and a failure of strategy and tactics in many cases. As Dr. W.E.B. Dubois noted in the last century: “On this point, there can be no argument; and no hesitation. Unless we develop our full capabilities, we will not survive.” This must be corrected today by requiring a minimum of 50 percent leadership positions for women at every level and in every type of organization.

Second, there were limitations of our vision within the movement. The mainstream civil rights organizations argued that success was desegregation. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. cautioned, we must be careful about our integration into a burning house. The simple reform of a greedy capitalist system with its roots in slavery left us vulnerable to the twists and turns, ups and downs of the market. Although that system expanded the middle class of Black and brown people, it also expanded and deepened the poverty of our masses. That system has now collapsed on the global level, bringing down its fragile structure of democracy with it, like a house of cards. Witness the continuing economic and political crisis in all of the rich nations today as they suffer from the rapid dismantling of the social services and benefits; restriction on and destruction of labor organizations; and endless warfare.

The radical youth organizations such as the Black Panther Party and the Detroit-based League of Revolutionary Black Workers went further on the path of visioning fundamental social change and courageously embraced a view of struggle in harmony with the global liberation movements. However, there was too often the limitation of attempting to superimpose the revolutionary struggles in the so-called Third World of agricultural nations on the industrial U.S. political and economic system. We all have to re-think our goals. We must study the political economic systems of capitalism and socialism with a clear, critical mind and examine alternatives to the present management of chaos at the local, state, national and international arenas.

Third, the combination of top-down leadership and the failure to educate the rank and file of our people within the movement, resulted in the collapse of the struggle when the top leadership was wiped out by lies, spies, imprisonment and assassinations. Those at the grassroots level of the organization too often were not experienced, nor knowledgeable about the needs and methods of struggle to carry on the movement. The remedy is for us to stop the blind worship of heroes and realize that they are also human beings who will make mistakes.

Fourth, as a group, we failed to educate our children about the nature of our struggles, and to bring them into the movement and train them as future leaders. We have been training our youth to become successful and move away from the community rather than to return to continue the long-term building of families and communities. We must reverse this trend.

Professor Charles Simmons is co-founder of the Hush House Black Community Museum and Leadership Training Institute for Human Rights. Simmons can be reached at

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