"Strong people don't need strong leaders."
If you’re anything like me, you’re probably feeling a little down right now. But Ella Baker—the woman, not the center—has some words to cheer you up. We’ll get there in a minute.
First, why so glum? Ostensibly, I should have walked through the day in a haze of electoral bliss. California voters came through on some of the most important propositions: Prop 30, “Jerry Brown’s proposition,” passed safely, and the anti-union Prop 32 failed. In fact, out of the 11 state-wide measures on the ballot, eight came out in line with the Ella Baker Center’s endorsements. That’s not a bad scorecard. EBC’s endorsements aside, I, personally, got the outcome I wanted in the presidential race, and that’s a major relief.
So why don’t I feel happy about that? Why do I feel the same exhaustion, the same low-key melancholy mood I felt four years ago, the day after Obama won in a historic landslide? And why do I assume that lots of progressives and radicals will feel the same way?
I’d boil it down to two reasons. First, I’m scared that there’s a lot of really important work our leaders just won’t get done in the next four years. Climate change is the most obvious challenge that comes to mind. Then there’s immigration reform, all kinds of economic reform, infrastructure to be built, and so on. The last four years haven’t given me much faith that the federal government is up to tackling complex problems like these.
Second, I didn’t have all that much to do with the outcome last night. I did a little door-knocking this fall, and I got a bunch of friends together for a “proposition party” where we swapped knowledge and crowd-sourced the researching of complicated local measures. (I recommend this! It was a lot more fun than door-knocking.) But mostly, the election process left me feeling, as it always does, like a tiny, tiny speck. I know I made a little bit of difference, but not enough to see. Whether the results go my way or not, being one voter in a sea of scores of millions is not an empowering feeling, at least not for me.
But as I write this, I can see the postcard of Ella Baker taped above my desk (present there since before I joined the Ella’s Voice editorial board last month, just for the record). It has my favorite quote of hers scrawled on a sticky note just beneath:
“Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” I love this quote every day, but I love it most on Election Day.
The reason Ella stands out from so many other civil rights figures, the reason she’s on my wall, is that she had a gut-level trust in the authority and power of grassroots action that has been missing from far too many of the people we consider this country’s leaders—and even worse, that trust is all too often missing from ourselves.
When Ella helped spark the beginning of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), she did so because she was discouraged by the egotism among the older, exclusively male leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which is still remembered today as “Martin Luther King’s group.” She knew it was a mistake to make one person, no matter how principled, intelligent, or charismatic, the central focus of a movement. And she knew that no one man (and no small group of men, for that matter) was going to bring about real civil rights in this country. That level of change took a movement of informed, engaged people—and a whole lot of ‘em.
If some of us were surprised that Obama and the majority-Democratic congress didn’t fix all our problems, it was because we’d forgotten this central tenet of Ella’s organizing. We thought we had strong leaders, so we didn’t need to be strong people.
Don’t get me wrong, I want everyone who’s eligible to vote. Ella Baker Center and the myriad of other progressive organizations across the country want you to vote. And, yes, Ella Baker would want you to vote—indeed, SNCC’s biggest campaign was to register black voters in the South, and some SNCC members literally gave their lives in that struggle. But the movement was never supposed to end at the ballot box.
There is an excellent reason to be hopeful following yesterday’s elections, and that reason doesn’t have much to do with Barack Obama or anyone else we elected. Prop 30’s passage is incredibly important, but even more important is the movement that passed it. This movement consisted of grassroots coalitions like Oakland Rising. All over the state, people who hadn’t been involved in electoral politics before got connected to groups like Oakland Rising, got informed and got engaged. They picked up the phone, pounded the pavement, and had thousands of conversations with neighbors and strangers to tell them why Prop 30 was important.
I’m glad those voters listened to the canvassers and passed Prop 30. But even if the vote had gone the other way, Californians would still have woken up today in a more informed, more engaged state. We’re coming closer to a consensus that our wealthiest citizens will have to pay their fair share of taxes to keep our vital services going. And the folks who spread that message in the Prop 30 campaign have more tools now than they did before for keeping up the fight.
Whatever the strength of the leaders and laws we voted in yesterday, it was stronger people who cast those votes. Ella would be proud.