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Seven Great Ideas for Movement Builders

by Grace Lee Boggs

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As a Black Power activist in the 1960s, I identified more with Malcolm than with Martin.

However, my studies of King’s struggles with the urban crisis during the three years from the Watts uprising until his assassination in April 1968 have taught me a lot about the difference between radical organizing and movement leadership.

Radical organizers concentrate on mobilizing masses to protest against the system. Their main aim is increasing militancy and numbers. On the other hand, movement leaders recognize the almost pathological fear and despair that oppression creates and therefore the need for the oppressed to find creative ways to move beyond fear to hope, and beyond despair to transformation.

In recent months I have been exchanging ideas and experiences with John Maguire, a friend of King’s since their student days and a 1961 Freedom Rider. Together with Vincent Harding, John prepared the initial draft of King’s 1967 anti-Vietnam war speech. I have known Vincent since the 1960s, but I met John for the first time last October. Recently, John sent me the following Notes on Movement Building, inspired by our correspondence. I recommend their careful study and discussion by activists who are beginning to sense that something is blowing in the wind:

1. Suffering and oppression are not enough to create a movement. A movement begins when the oppressed begin seeing themselves not just as victims, but as new men and women, pioneers in creating new, more human relations, thus advancing the evolution of the human race.

2. Movement builders are able to recognize the humanity in others, including their opponents, and therefore the potential within them for redemption and the possibility of work-through-change.

3. Movement builders are conscious of the need to go beyond slogans and to create programs of struggle that transform and empower participants.

4. At the heart of movement building is the concept of two-sided transformation,both of ourselves and of our institutions.

5. Thinking dialectically is pivotal to movement building because it prepares us for the contradictions that inevitably develop in the course of the struggle. A struggle that starts with the need of a particular racial, ethnic, or social group only becomes a movement if it creates hope and the vision of a new society for everyone. But because great hopes can also lead to great disappointments, movement participants must be in touch with elements that sustain them through dark times as well as bright.

6. Movement building is intergenerational and involves children and youth, as well as adults, in community building and productive activities.

7. Movement building is essentially counter-cultural. It is a struggle to transform both ourselves (the way we think and act in relationship to one another and the Earth) and institutions. Radical organizing, by contrast, is mostly about distributive justice, making demands on the system in order to redistribute the products of the society (wages, healthcare, education, etc.) more equitably. Genuine movement building is about restorative justice, new ways of thinking and being that restore community and advance us another step in our evolution as human beings.


For information on Maguire’s Notes on Movement Building, see www.belovedcommunitynet.org . Grace Boggs has been an activist for more than 60 years and is the author of the autobiography Living for Change . She will celebrate her 90th birthday in June. This article appeared in the Michigan Citizen,  February 20-26, 2005.