As the South goes, so goes the nation. Americans had better hope the old adage is true. In the age of Trump, no part of the country has seen braver organizing or more creative ways to meet urgent needs, and maybe that's because people in the South have lived with the legacy of dispossession, patriarchal white supremacy, monopoly capitalism and plantation politics for longer than most of us. Moneyed media give short shrift to the South and its visionaries, even as our electoral system gives the region's reactionaries an outsized voice. To do our bit to rebalance the picture and get some inspiration, the Laura Flanders Show went to North Carolina last fall to co-produce a special feature with Project South, one of the anchor institutions of the Southern Movement Assemblies, a bottom-up agenda-setting process, which is building #SouthernPower and exercising ways of self-governance.
The Seventh Southern Movement Assembly involved 300 people representing 70 organizations from all 13 Southern states, Puerto Rico, rural Oregon and beyond, over three days in Whitakers, North Carolina, last October. What follows is a transcript of many conversations, condensed for television.
Laura Flanders: What exactly is the Southern Movement Assembly (SMA), and the "Movement Assembly" process? How is it useful as a model for developing long-term -- and large-scale -- organizing around multiple issues that might be affecting a community? First, I talked to Trupania Bonner, of the Crescent City Media Group, an anchor organization of SMA 7.
Trupania Bonner: The Southern Movement Assembly is comprised of 35 or more organizations from across the US South. There's the Greater Assembly, the General Assembly Body, and then there's the Governance Council. Roughly, the Governance Council is the decision-making body for coordinating the efforts of the General Assembly.
The SMA has an annual meeting. We've had six years of seven gatherings. This is our seventh gathering.
Part of the structure allows us to pull in folks from the General Assembly across seven to eight front lines with each line elevating a specific issue. This is where members can begin to facilitate conversations regarding the landscape of the event, the kinds of oppression participants are experiencing, and what actionable agendas they can devise to combat that oppression. We have a morning session that covers skill-building for all of our assembly members. Then we move into the front-line assemblies where conversation is more issues-based. Then we fall into a bigger, fuller assembly process where all of those front lines converge. They share ideas and we begin to think about how we can collectively work across the region to carry out some of these efforts.
From the General Assembly process, we synthesize all of that information and meet the following day to break down and unpack the mounds of information we've gathered. After that, the General Council meets to make decisions about how we're going to coordinate these actions throughout the year. Once the Council meets post-assembly, then we have our general membership calls.
In terms of the communications, infrastructure and keeping all those folks together, since 2012 we've had Monday calls coordinated by the Governance Council in an effort to keep the core group together. We've also instituted monthly General Membership calls that allow for the greater assembly to hear where we are and keep track of the agenda items that we set at the last assembly process.
The Southern Movement Assembly 7 is being held at a site with some spectacular and meaningful history. The venue, Franklinton Center at Bricks, is a former slave plantation that was transformed into one of the first accredited schools for African Americans in the South. I speak with Nia Wilson and Mya Hunter, co-directors of SpiritHouse, the host organization of SMA 7, about what it means to be a part of SMA, and even more, what it means to hold space at a venue such as this.
Nia Wilson: SpiritHouse is a Black-women-led, grassroots cultural arts organization based out of Durham, North Carolina. We work around issues that impact the African American community related to racism, and looking at all the ways racism and white supremacy impact the community in terms of poverty, mass incarceration, etc. Then, we look at ways to attain liberation.
Folks forget to acknowledge that so many movements did start in the South.
Mya Hunter: We have a performance piece that we do. We seldom call it a "play" because it's directly about people's lives, and our personal lives. We invite folks to engage with us during the performance, typically taking the audience through songs. Guiding questions for us are how we can use culture to leverage our work, what our vision of liberation looks like, and how [we] can transform that vision into public policy.
Wilson: We see SMA as where the real Southern work is happening. It is a process of building on what was accomplished the year before and embracing a tradition of inclusivity. It is a model for movements across the country. Folks forget to acknowledge that so many movements did start in the South.
Hunter: Something that is particularly unique about being here at the Franklinton Center is that this was the site of one of the worst plantations in North Carolina. It's where folks were brought to be broken. There's cotton fields literally on both sides. Some people have never even seen cotton in its raw form. It's a visceral thing for some people who are watching little kids run in cotton fields full of joy.
What does it mean to recode the generational trauma in our DNA? How do we abolish prisons? What does it mean to have clean drinking water in our communities? What does it mean to have clean air, and also be in a place like this where, for the folks who were enslaved here, that image of kids running carefree through cotton fields was never a possibility. I think it's really important to be here in a place like this because we get to use those lessons.
I also talk to Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, an Affrilachian (Black Appalachian) born and raised in Southeast Tennessee, the first Black woman to serve as executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center and an active participant in the Movement for Black Lives.
Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson: Highlander Institute often describes itself as being a catalyst for movement. Over the last year, I've made a concerted effort to deeply listen to those around me. Indeed, I believe engaging people in the act of deep listening is what Highlander does best. It is from that listening that we ascertain new kinds of knowledge and can then use that knowledge to decide collectively what course of action to pursue. For the past 85 years, Highlander has come to be known as an institution that brings together people from all walks of life, giving them the opportunity to speak and be heard in the purest sense of those terms. Our goal isn't simply to churn out smart people, but rather to give individuals the tools to transform their material conditions.
Building of relationships creates a social safety net that the state can't take away from us.
Highlander has always pushed social movements in the South and across the world to really consider what we can call transformative and not just what we concede to in reform. Right now, we're building social solidarity economies. There's a whole swath of the Southern People's Initiative that came from previous assemblies around economic issues. Our role is to provide movement accompaniment and support. Southern Movement Assembly is composed of grassroots folks coming together to figure out how they can work cohesively to solve the problems in their communities, as well as identify alternative solutions so that they never have to experience those harms again.
Tell us a little bit about why the Southern Movement Assembly, and these ideas of new governance relate to your work at Highlander.
It's true that those of us fighting for a socially equitable world aspire to experience what true liberation feels like in real time, but oppression certainly does not disappear just because we're good people that love justice. To address this point, we've had to come to some agreement regarding how to conceive of a governance that feels the most just, a governance that works to restore people's dignity. To be doing that in a place like the Franklinton Center with its rich history, is simultaneously a beautiful and transformative experience as well as a truly painful and dramatic one. It is a social experiment in movement building, freedom and governance.
The capital we have is in relationships and kinship. We build kinship networks and, in turn, are transformed in the service of the work. The infrastructure that we're building doesn't exist to allow people to have more access and proximity to power. Rather, that building of relationships creates a social safety net that the state can't take away from us. Because we're in those relationships, we can move in moments of crisis in ways that other people can't.
I take very seriously the notion that organizing the South saves the country. "As goes the South, so goes the nation" is not an opinion. Indeed, it is a fundamental fact.
The idea of organizing the South seems awfully localized, in a sense. Yet, there are people here from the Pacific Northwest and the Congo -- I get the feeling that "Southern Movement" is also somewhat referring to the Global South. I asked Emery Wright, co-director of Project South ... and Fred Bauma, a visiting guest and activist from La Lucha in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Emery Wright: SMA really developed out of our experience of the lack of available resources in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In the Gulf Coast disaster, we saw that there was no mechanism for social movements to come together, make decisions, and then implement those decisions at the scale that was necessary to respond to that level of disaster. We made commitments to ourselves as relatively young organizers back in 2005 that part of our generational struggle was to figure out this question of movement governance and discover how social movements come together.
Central to the Southern Movement Assembly is its ability to connect with our brothers and sisters in the Global South because we share similar cultural foundations as well as struggles. We can use that to build not only grassroots power in the US South, but grassroots social movement power globally.
Fred Bauma: We can no longer wait until the state comes to our aid. We must build a proactive civil society which can find solutions for the problems that are specific to our communities. In the Lucha Movement, the leadership style can best be described as "horizontal."
Wright: Part of our struggle has been trying to connect to what we call the Black radical traditions of the US South. We believe that because of what is happening globally, history is very important to tap into today. We need to petition authorities to change and -- perhaps more importantly -- create what we need at the grassroots level to provide that change for ourselves.
Many of the organizers in attendance at the SMA 7 are longtime organizers, bringing a wealth of experience to the process, including Naeema Muhammad and her partner Saladin Muhammad. The Muhammads are legendary for their work in movements for justice and liberation in the South. Saladin is the national chairperson of Black Workers for Justice, and Naeema is the organizing director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. Having been raised and then working in the South, they have some thoughts on how the landscape of social movements in the US South has changed since the middle of the 20th century.
Naeema Muhammad: I grew up in the segregated South. Comparing life then to now, I feel like what we had before integration was, in some ways, a lot better. There was a sense of unity, of connectedness, the taking care of one another. You could say we were more like a cooperative kind of community where everybody shared. Whatever we had, we shared it with one another. Nobody went without because somebody in the community always had what you didn't have and was willing to share it.
Saladin Muhammad: I come out of both the Black Liberation Movement and the Workers Movement, but always had a view that the South represented something very special in both the national and global economy. Coming from the North and having some experience in organizing, you tend to think there's no experience here, or that everything is slow. I've learned quite a bit here in North Carolina.
This question about organization and building a movement requires more than just calling it a demonstration, though that is an aspect of it. These long-term relationships are a lesson from the old that the new has to embrace.
Our focus was to build organization at the workplace based on what we call the centrality of Black workers. Organizations fighting for individual issues don't constitute the social movement power that's needed. I think that there needs to be a greater understanding of the role of the South in the US and in the global economy. We need a Southern Workers Congress, for example, so we can come together as workers in the South and working-class communities and begin to talk about how we're going to organize labor, and what demands we're going to place on capital.
Naeema: I work with the most impacted communities. We call them "the dumping grounds." Eastern North Carolina is really the dumping grounds for the state of North Carolina. Whatever white people don't want in their backyard, we find it in our communities. We believe that people are our greatest resource. Nobody should be forced to live in the conditions that we're finding. What we need in the environmental justice movement is for people outside of the impacted areas to become more aware and informed about what is happening in these rural areas of America.
Saladin: Naeema and I talk about this constantly. We can't be pulled into a struggle not having defined what we want. It's not just about what we don't want. We know we don't want to live like hell, we are saying we want to live in dignity. But we're not defining the terms of that dignity.
Naeema: Although there are certainly experiments within this movement, the movement as a whole is not an experiment. We believe in the world that we're fighting for, the world we deserve.