July 8, 2014

Following Marilyn

by Hannah Duncan

Hannah Duncan '15 is a Royce Fellow this summer researching the evolution of the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) to investigate relationships between the local leadership of CDGM and the funding provided, and later withheld, by the Office of Economic Opportunity.

Last week, I participated in a conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, hosted at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi.  As I attended panel discussions, moderated by the veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, I wondered whether my participation in the conference activities undermined the original goals of Stokley Carmichael’s reclamation of lost justice and development of black leadership.  As a white middle class girl and daughter of parents who work for the federal and state government, my resume and pedigree resemble Senator Eastland’s family tree far more closely than it does Ella Baker’s.

I spent my mornings remembering the victims of cross-burnings and beatings, and my afternoons interviewing the Parent Policy Council of Friends of Children of Mississippi (FCM), a Head Start organization which survived the funding wars waged against the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM)—funding wars which gave people, who look and sound like me, the responsibility of calling all the shots. 

FCM survived these wars by teaching black parents how to manage early education initiatives in their own communities.  FCM, directed for 47 years by Dr. Mavin Hogan, developed this leadership under the auspices of Head Start, a white-washed federal “no we don’t care for politics, we are just interested in early education” agency, while all-the-while rewriting the democratic process with internal elections, organizing strategies, and local nominations which would rival the activist credentials of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Little did I know when, 15 months earlier, as I sifted through folders in the CDGM Box of the Jackson archives and fell head over heels for the “Living Arts” curriculum, written by (according to a scrap of paper) Marilyn Lowen in the summer of 1965, that I would be following in Marilyn Lowen’s footsteps from New York to Jackson 49 years after she first came to Mississippi, and that I would finally overtake Ms. Lowen outside the doors of the Tougaloo chapel. 

Marilyn Lowen—a New York Jew whose commitment to civil justice was ignited in the embers of the Holocaust and whose desire to secure the rights of black Americans enshrined her memory in the footnotes of Living Arts, and whose more recent fight for a free society brought her to the West Bank’s Separation Barrier with the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

It’s a strange world we live in.  A strange world where I too am the grandchild of New York Jews who escaped pogroms in eastern Europe, where I too identified education as the (hopefully) last frontier of civil rights, where I too travelled to the West Bank with Fatah, and where I too found myself a long way from home for a hot and humid summer in Jackson, Mississippi.

This is not to say, however, that my Judaism is the answer to my original angsty and existential question: why am I here? 

Unlike the great-grandchildren of black Americans, who experience deprivation, disenfranchisement, emotional and physical harm, from the same hatred that enslaved many of their forebearers, the suffering of my eastern European family members bears no resemblance to my very full participation in American democracy today.  And, while the Palestinians in Hebron hold signs demanding the same “one-man, one-vote” as black Americans in Mississippi and black South Africans during Apartheid, it is important to recognize the historical distinctions between a particular fight, country, community and person because it is only through these differences (affirmative action in America, Free Mandela in South Africa, and the right of return in Palestine) that justice, and through justice—equality—is achieved.  

So, I ask again, why am I waking up each morning in the dorms of Tougaloo College? I am participating in the 50th anniversary Freedom Summer, I am joining the labor rights protest at the Nissan plant, and both Marilyn Lowen and I (as the living history of her contribution to the movement) are adding our very respectful footnotes to the ever-growing archive because we can and will continue to speak truth to power—we can and will reclaim this historical narrative—without sacrificing the energy evoked by Stokely Carmichael’s black fist in the air, and momentum built by a growing coalition of black parental leadership in the Mississippi Delta—still the simmering bastion of our collective hope.

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