National Council of Elders formed
By Cash Michaels
Special to the NNPA News Service from Wilmington Journal
GREENSBORO, N.C. — They come from all walks of the civil and human rights struggle, each a distinguished leader with a long record of advocacy, molded in courage and sacrifice. Ministers, activists, poets, former elected officials, retired military, disciples of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and even the former U.S. ambassador to South Africa, among others.
But last week, these leaders — some in their 60s, 70s and even a few at age 80 and beyond — came together from across the nation in what they called “an historic gathering” at North Carolina A&T University, to be reborn in a collective purpose amid the legacy of the 1960 lunch counter sit-in movement that inspired the world and still inspires them all.
They are now the “National Council of Elders,” and by their own definition the entity is “a newly organized, independent group of leaders from many of the defining American social justice movements of the 20th century, committed to educating and mentoring future leaders who will join and lead democratizing movements in the 21st century.”
In effect, the Council — seeing a nation that 40 and 50 years ago they fought mightily to ensure would care for the poor, educate its youth and protect the rights of communities of color — is reengaging in those struggles on a collective level because they see the social progress that they and other leaders like Dr. King had achieved, being eroded slowly but surely.
Indeed, during their lively three-day conference discussions at NC A&T, some of the Elders had expressed concern that even if President Barack Obama was re-reelected this fall, the forces of negative change that have governed the nation’s economic and social structures in recent years have amassed a great deal of momentum.
Momentum the president, some Elders say, can’t battle alone.
The Council hopes that by coming together now, and bringing to fore, respectively, hundreds of years of collective experience in civil, human, environmental, anti-war, labor, women’s economic, immigrant and gay-lesbian rights advocacy, they can join with young leadership like the Occupy Movement and develop strategies, based on direct non-violence advocacy, to make America more responsive to the needs of its people, rather than the machinations of the powerful.
The Elders see their role today in so many facets: mentorship; empowerment; giving, yes, but also getting from youth leaders.
Telling the true, unvarnished story of how they, in their youth a half century ago, ushered in an era of true social change. The Elders see themselves sharing their respective wisdom, experience and knowledge with young leaders, while at the same time preserving the tradition of civil rights movement.
In short, properly equipping today’s young leadership with the historic and relevant perspective to lead, and thus, be further empowered.
“If you have your own voice, you can create your own weather,” says Bernice Johnson Reagon, leader of the famed a cappella freedom singing group, “Sweet Honey in the Rock.”
The phrase “tall order” doesn’t even begin to define the massive challenge this league of older diverse leaders face. But a closer look at who they are, the obstacles they once faced and the causes they frequently fought for, and in some respects are still fighting for, suggests that facing long odds and towering circumstances is nothing new for this veteran bunch.
Rev. James Lawson and his brother, Rev. Phillip Lawson, both of whom, along with retired educator Vincent Harding, founded the Council, have a deep civil rights resume.
Strong leaders in their own right, all three worked closely with Dr. King and others in the movement at various times, strategizing and teaching youth leaders with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the 1960s how to confront racism in the South, using the philosophy and practice of peaceful direct action.
Other Elders include Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez, to advocate for immigrant labor rights; and Rev. Mel White, who has long fought for equal rights in the gay and lesbian community.
The birthplace of the National Council of Elders is no accident.
Greensboro is seen throughout the civil rights community and the world as one of the meccas of the movement, where in February of 1960, four courageous NC A&T University students went to the downtown F. W. Woolworth store, sat down at the all-white lunch counter and peacefully, but firmly, demanded to be served.
It was a direct challenge to southern segregation laws, and it ignited a nationwide youth movement that saw the birth of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Raleigh, and young leaders like Rev. Charles Sherrod, who with his wife, Shirley Sherrod, who was fired from her job at the Department of Agriculture two years ago after she was falsely labeled as a racist by the Tea Party, attended the council conference. She was offered reinstatement, but rejected it.
When the Elders held their first press conference last week to announce their formation, it was on A&T’s campus, directly under the towering statue of the Greensboro Four.
“I am here, representing a group of people who have come to Greensboro to work on, develop and shape the beginning of a new organization, which in many ways is an historic organization, because it is the first time in this country that people from movements of all kinds, have come together, in many cases after 40, 60 years of organizing for the creation of a more perfect union,” Harding told the media,
They also came, from all across the nation, because of the work of Rev. Nelson Johnson and his wife, Joyce.
Longtime veterans of the movement for justice in Greensboro, the Johnsons have been leading from their college years where they respectively led movements for equality, to Rev. Johnson’s involvement in the November 1979 Greensboro massacre where Klansmen and Nazis killed several demonstrators, to the Beloved Community Center the couple manages today.
The respect that many have for the Johnsons’ great work in Greensboro, made this city of civil rights history the perfect place for the Council to be born, they say. It is by no accident that the National Council of Elders rejects the idea of “passing the torch.” That would suggest they have relinquished their roles in the human rights struggle.
Instead, they proclaim that they are “merging the light and heat of the torches (they) carried in the 20th century with the light and heat of the torches” now carried by the young leaders of the 21st century, to inspire them to boldly move forward towards what Dr. King called a beloved community.