Standing on the Shoulders of Greatness

“I am answering the call to leadership. I will challenge the process, inspire shared vision, enable others to act, model the way and encourage the heart.”Gwen Winston, a Detroit wise woman and activist who has been a leading voice in empowering women for over 20 years.

Earlier this week women activists in Detroit sat huddled together as the women of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) shared their wisdom and experiences in the Civil Rights Movement and the birthing of the Black Power Movement.

SNCC represented youth from across the country who played a key role in shaping the Civil Rights Movement.  They were young people from all races and backgrounds willing to take risks and test the limits of nonviolence as a tool of defiance and transformation.

SNCC confronted the systems that upheld racism and sexism from lunch counters to voters’ rights in the rural South to the desegregation of national bus lines. The young freedom fighters, most of them now in their 70’s, ignored the restrictions of class to also learn from the people they served. Their fearlessness forced the world to acknowledge the injustice of segregation.

As a 40-year-old who would enter this world a full decade after these women came on the scene in the early ‘60s, I was riveted by the first-person accounts of these magnificent elders on what it took to launch the Civil Rights Movement.

It is living history.

Gloria House, Marilyn Lowen, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan and Gwen Patton transported us back, as they read excerpts from their contributions to the anthology Hands on The Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts By Women in SNCC.

These elders were in their teens and early 20’s when they seized a pregnant moment in history that beckoned them to the trenches in the struggle for civil rights. Going up against authorities and the Ku Klux Klan, the freedom fighters persevered, terrified yet resilient in their commitment to freedom and peace. As Gwen Patton remarked so passionately, “The movement is a mindset, it is not an extracurricular activity. It is a way of life.”

The gathering this week was full of inter-generational beautiful women activists from many backgrounds glowing with promise and fortitude.

Sitting with these amazing women felt like I had come full circle. Their stories reminded me of my work as a young woman fighting for social justice across the South in the early ‘90s – that has led me to the complex struggle to restore and empower the city of Detroit now.

Dr. Gloria House, respectfully known as Mama Aneb by our Detroit community, spoke with a soft clear voice drawing the attention of the whole room as she read her writings about organizing voters in Alabama, and the role she played in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.  She currently heads the African and African American Studies Department at the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus but her feet are grounded in the Detroit community.

Mama Aneb is a powerful leader fueled by her continuing commitment and dedication to justice, a world renowned artist who can transform worlds with her words, a mentor, Sister, and mother who makes me smile with thanks that she has touched my life. She carries this weight with grace and a quiet indomitable strength that inspires me to continue my work as an activist.

The ceremony closed with the “Passing of the Torch, Passing the Flame” ceremony. The elder activists passed the torch to the younger women in the room charging us with continuing this vital work.

In that moment I knew that I was in the right place at the right time. I know that my passion and desire for the healing, liberation and empowerment of the People will never die. As I stand on their shoulders, I must always remember to make sure that I do the same for the generations behind me.

The M.L.K. Day 2012 Committee and The Building Movement Project hosted this beautiful event and I will forever hold that powerful moment of time in my heart.

Credit, front page slider image: SNCC Women in Jail


About Oya

Six years ago, Oya, as her friends affectionately call her (and pronounced like she lives her life: "Oh Yeah!"), founded the first Detroit Women of Color International Film Festival. The festival uses the power of film as catalyst for women to see themselves as agents of change. As an artist, activist and organizer, Oya has been creating programming that utilizes art to heal, educate, and empower communities for over 20 years. Click here to read more about Oya

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