The University Record, February 4, 1997

Panelists shared views on activism in time of backlash

By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services


"Activism is what Martin Luther King was all about," said John H. Matlock, assistant vice provost and director of the Office of Academic and Multicultural Initiatives. And activists were what some 75 students, faculty and community members got as they heard an outspoken, multi-generational panel of speakers declare their views on "Activism in Backlash Times."

Noted poet, dramatist and self-described "Marxist" Amiri Baraka, known in earlier years as LeRoi Jones, quoted Langston Hughes' poem, "Mr. Backlash Blues," written some 30 years ago, to make the point that today's backlash against ethnic groups is nothing new.

African Americans suffer from the "Sisyphus Syndrome," he said, where they push a rock up to a high point, and then the economy contracts, the rock rolls back down and they start all over again.

Baraka blames big business. Despite the media focus on the strong economy, "the economy is strong only on Wall Street," he said, and the poor still suffer. He called for different groups to "organize around like-minded things" and for students to form study groups outside the University to consider politics, economics and social policy. He also called for a multi-party political system, elimination of the electoral system, reparations for African Americans in the form of free education, and increased community activism.

Joanne Watson, executive director of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP and a "Pan Africanist" who "doesn't believe in `going along to get along,'" echoed Baraka's views.

"Martin Luther King often repeated `How long?'" she said. "How long must we suffer? How long will our churches be burned? How long will we be lynched? How long will we be failed without a cause?

"It is critically important that those of us interested in social justice and equality vest responsibility and control in our own community. Our new paradigm must be, `How long before I organize? How long before I stop contributing to the profits of those who oppress me? How long before I seize control? How long before I demand reparations?'"

Valerie Yoshimura, president of the Detroit chapter of the Japanese Americans Citizens League and a Ph.D. candidate in French Literature at the U-M, focused on the excitement of protests versus the hard, behind-the-scenes work of long-term activism.

Of Irish and Japanese descent, Yoshimura's first step down the road of activism came when she discovered at age 10 that her father had been forced into a U.S. internment camp during World War II. As a student-activist at University of California, Santa Barbara, she was among those who stormed the chancellor's office, but also watched divisions develop between those who were willing to be arrested and those who were not. She was not.

She also had to decide whether to join a hunger strike that was to last until four new professors were hired for a new program in gender/ethnic studies. She decided, given the hiring timeline, that the hunger strike was unrealistic.

After graduation, her career led her into quieter forms of activism---museum exhibits on Japanese American women and working for one-time presidential candidate Jerry Brown. A period in Washington, D.C., where she saw decisions being made at receptions, taught her that "you have to be in the room so you can be making the decisions over the drinks. Interpersonal contacts are part of how it all works. I've mellowed a bit. I would never trade those great years at Santa Barbara, but I believe different methods of activism are appropriate for different times."

Art and design undergraduate Ryan C. LaLonde, one-fourth Native American and gay, discussed how difficult it is to work in two different activist communities, and how hard it is to combine educating people about a cause and participating in protests.

Being gay is particularly difficult, he suggested. "Gays suffer oppression from their friends, family and people we thought would be our friends. Schools, for instance, don't tell you that Langston Hughes was gay."

LaLonde urged that all the oppressed build alliances with other groups. "Work together and don't allow backlash against each other."

Reflecting on Yoshimura's point, he added, "I want to be the person who goes into the meeting in the morning and then comes outside to protest at lunchtime. Protests may not change the minds of those inside but they enhance the self-esteem and solidarity of the group outside."

Lester Kenyatta Spence, a graduate student in political science, also stressed the importance of long-term commitment and patience, in addition to the willingness to protest.

"People say, `Yes, let's have a BAM [Black Action Movement] IV. It is about time! Let's do it next week.' That is not what activism is about. That is about fun, marches, protests and TV."

A prime example of tenacious activism, he said, was Katie Hall, a U.S. representative from Indiana who almost single-handedly turned Martin Luther King's birthday into a national holiday. According to Spence, she was elected, joined the insignificant national holiday committee, "appointed herself chair, and then spoke to every member of the committee to urge them to make MLK Day a national holiday."

Next Hall met with every member of the House of Representatives, riding the train running between the Senate floor and the senators' office building for days so she could reach as many senators as possible, too.

"This is true activism," Spence said. "It is lots of work. You may never see the fruits of your labor or your name in the paper." But commitment and persistance is how change comes about, he believes.