By Will Parry
The over-used word “historic” may well apply to a remarkable gathering held in Greensboro, North Carolina, during the last three days of July.
In that city, where in 1960 four courageous students defied the segregation laws of the South by sitting at a lunch counter and refusing to move until served, a group of distinguished leaders from the defining social movements of the 20th Century have declared themselves the “National Council of Elders.”
Ministers, activists, poets, former elected officials, retired military, disciples of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., they committed themselves to educating and mentoring the emerging leaders who will challenge social and economic injustice throughout the 21st Century.
The council was conceived by the Reverend James Lawson; his brother, the Reverend Phillip Lawson, and the retired educator, Vincent Harding. All three had worked closely with Dr. King and others in the movement. They were joined in Greensboro by seasoned leaders of the labor, civil rights, peace, women’s, immigrant, and gay rights movements.
“It is the first time in this country that people from movements of all kinds have come together, in many cases after 40, 50 or 60 years of organizing, for the creation of a more perfect union,” Harding said. Together, the founding elders have engaged in more than 1,250 years of social activism.
The Elders rejected the idea of “passing the torch.” Instead they intend to join with the younger advocates, organizing in “Occupy” and other movements as they develop.
As Nelson Johnson, co-founder of the Beloved Community in Greensboro, said at an initial press conference: “The past is a way of equipping us for the future, and we ain’t in no way tired yet.”
The founders at Greensboro included Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers; Mel White, who co-founded Soulforce, an LGBT adocacy organization; Dorothy Cotton of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmins, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; and Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Others included Joyce and Nelson Johnson, founders of the Beloved Community in Greensboro; Arthur Waskow, peacemaker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; John Fife, co-founder of the Sanctuary movement; Louie Vitale, a founder of the anti-nuclear Nevada Desert Experience; Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund; Grace Lee Boggs, Detroit social activist; and Sr. Joan Chittister, O.S.B., peace and human rights advocate.
During their spirited three-day conference, the Elders expressed concern that even if President Obama is re-elected, the assault on social and economic rights has gained a dangerous momentum. It is their objective to apply their hundreds of years of collective experience, based on non-violent advocacy, to check and reverse that momentum and to mould a nation more responsive to the needs of its people.