Comments at Greensboro Justice Fund 30th Anniversary Reception

November 7, 2009

by Pam McMichael

Highlander Director

The Highlander Center is honored to be given this opportunity to carry on the legacy and work of the Greensboro Justice Fund, and honored to be carrying forward that work with the Beloved Community Center.  We would like to express our deep appreciation and respect to the survivors, families, members of the Greensboro community and members of the Fund for your vision, history, courage and work over these 30 years.

We look forward to working with many of you and the Beloved Community Center to help build organizing skills for racial and economic justice in the name of Sandy Smith, Cesar Cauce, Michael Nathan, Bill Sampson and Jim Waller.  Their names, their work, what happened here 30 years ago, and the story of this community and the Fund should be familiar to all who work for justice in the South and across the country.

The Greensboro Justice Fund Fellowship at the Highlander Center will be a year long program with learning activities at Highlander and support for other learning opportunities and exchanges. We will establish 5 fellowships in honor of the five killed and conduct a new class of fellows each year, connecting each class with the fellows who have come before, thus building the network of fellows over time.

As we establish the Greensboro Justice Fund Fellowships at the Highlander Center, we will need and ask for your friendship, your counsel, and your collaboration. And when we come together to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the murders, we look forward to more healing based on more truth and more justice, and to the stories of those 55 plus fellows and interns who will have been working because of and in the name of the Greensboro Justice Fund.

At Highlander, those of us who are the current Board and staff, represented here tonight by Board Members Roz Pelles and Charles Price and myself, step into a 77 year history that was created by thousands and thousands of people, many of whose names are known to us,  most whose names are unknown. It is always humbling, and sometimes daunting, and we believe the best way to honor that history is to learn from it so that we may be the most effective social justice actors that we can for the challenges facing all of us today. This is the spirit we carry into the Greensboro Justice Fund Fellowships at the Highlander Center.

And we do face huge challenges – people hurting from the cumulative effects of a brutal and unsustainable economic system, environmental crisis now no longer denied, structural racism still prevalent in all our institutions and systems, and white supremacy always present, but raising one of its ugly heads in particular ways now against a Black president and the agenda for change on which he was elected.

Here in the South, demographics are also changing rapidly due to forced migration from economic forces, and immigrant communities are hurting and targeted as well, and the have not’s of all races are pitted against each other.

These challenges facing us are also opportunities if we can build a strong anti-racist, multi-cultural movement. Divide and conquer and scapegoating are timelessly effective strategies to keep those of us who should be allies from working together. Let’s not fall for it his time.

I first heard of the Greensboro Justice Fund in the 1980s from my mentor, friend and colleague Anne Braden. If Anne were still alive, she would be here today, so I would like to bring some of her words into the room.

“Just as it was that racism has shaped our history as a region and as a country, so it was the struggle against racism that has  moved our country in a more humane direction.

The fight against racism is not something we are called on to help people of color with.  We need to become involved as if our lives depended on it, because in truth, they do.”

I think about that quote today because so much good policy shifts that benefit all of us are at risk because of racism, and we as white people have work to do with other whites.

And on this occasion, and in the context of these times, I turn to Martin Luther King from his writing in “Why Can’t We Wait?”

“In Connor’s Birmingham, the silent password was fear. It was not only on the part of the black oppressed, but also in the hearts of the white oppresssors….. that too prevalent fear which hounds those whose attitudes have been hardened by the long winter of reaction – it was a silence of fear – fear of social, political and economical reprisals.

The ultimate tragedy of Birmingham was not the brutality of the bad people, but the silence of the good people.”

I know the people in Greensboro know about that.

We are about to enter the season of Thanksgiving, which my friend Pancho Arguelles from Colectivo Flatlander in Texas calls, “the holiday of selective memory where we give thanks for what we have and try to forget how we got it.”

May the work of the Greensboro Justice Fund Legacy Internships at the Beloved Community Center and the Greensboro Justice Fund Fellowships at the Highlander Center continue to help break through selective memory, to break through silence, to remind us always of our own history so we can learn from it, and with that learning, help nurture the grassroots organizing work from which real change can come.

On behalf of the Highlander Center, thank you again. It is our honor with the Beloved Community Center to serve, to be part of carrying on this legacy and this work of the Greensboro Justice Fund.