With the recent passing of Nelson Mandela – the South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician, activist, lawyer, philanthropist and former President of South Africa – we decided to ask one of our newest MAG-Net members to reflect his legacy and work. Here's our interview with Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson and Janelle Jackson of Concerned Citizens for Justice (CCJ).
Q: Briefly introduce the work of your organization.
Concerned Citizens for Justice is a grassroots organization rebuilding the black liberation movement in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Our current campaigns include fighting to end police brutality, organizing to win a Civilian Review Board, and standing against the mass incarceration of people of African decent. (www.concernedcitizensforjustice.tumblr.com)
Q: What are the important fights or opportunities for organizing that are happening right now in your region?
Janelle: In Chattanooga, the fight to end police brutality and mass incarceration are ever-present fights for survival in low-income black communities. The brutal beating of Adam Tatum, which gained national attention, and the recent "Worst of the Worst" round up–the arrest of 32 black men incarcerated in an attempt to "break the back of crack" and end gang-related violence in our city–have made the critical necessity of winning this fight even more clear to us.
Ash: In addition, the United Auto Workers' efforts to build a union at Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant is another crucial fight in our city. Winning this struggle would be a victory for the labor movement nationally, and even more importantly to workers all across the U.S. South. The movement to win workers rights and economic justice, in addition to struggles for environmental justice, to end the legacy of Jim Crow and fight for continued voters rights protections, the fight for immigrants rights, and continued efforts to create truly democratic governance are a few of the very many frontlines that directly impacted people in Appalachia and the U.S. South are building movements around.
Q: In the wake of his passing, can you talk a bit about Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement's significance and parallels to the civil rights movement in the U.S. (from your perspective)?
Ash: The movement to end apartheid in South Africa and the mass movement for black liberation in the U.S. were very much interconnected in their respective fights to end racist segregationist laws and violence. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in particular, had close ties to African struggles for independence. The governments and corporations of the U.S. and South Africa also had close ties and the U.S. only placed sanctions on South Africa after pressure from the Black Liberation Movement in the U.S.. Nelson Mandela, and his former partner Winnie Mandela, had ties and showed solidarity to freedom movements all over the African diaspora, and were targeted by governments all over the world for their commitment to winning social justice and the fight for human rights for their people and black folks everywhere.
Janelle: Today, we see connections between the fight to end apartheid in South Africa, the historic movement for civil rights in the United States between the 50's and 70's, and the continued fight for Black Liberation in the United States. There are parallels between the segregation laws of apartheid South African and the Jim Crow U.S. South and the current laws and practices in the U.S. such as the Criminal Trespassing Laws that predominantly impact low-income, black people living in public housing in this country and the stop and frisk practices of police departments across the U.S. These laws fuel the epidemic of mass incarceration, systemically separate black families, increase the opportunities for police brutality to harm and have negative impacts on black communities.
Q: Many media outlets talk about Mandela's role as a peace keeper but avoid talking about him as a revolutionary (or acknowledging how he was long perceived as a "terrorist" in the eyes of the US) – what part of Mandela's legacy or what lessons about his life do you think are being left out of the mainstream narrative?
Janelle: That Mandela was a socialist who believed that the masses could build a classless society where racism and sexism no longer reigned supreme, was against Israeli occupation has been largely ignored by mainstream media. That the United States had a heavy hand in encouraging and sustaining the white minority who ruled over South Africa and consistently tried to destroy Mandela and the African National Congress has also been left out of the narrative.
Ash: Mainstream media will also ignore that there is still much to be done to make a reality out of the dreams of black South Africans, and that ending classism and patriarchy is still a focus for many. That Mandela was highly critical of the decisions being made by the United States that have negative impacts on people both in the U.S. and abroad (including drone strikes ordered during the Obama administration). The fact that Mandela helped form the Spear of the Nation–the armed wing of the African National Congress, and that he was willing to be imprisoned as a consequence for engaging in armed struggle when the limits of nonviolent struggle became clear in the face of the state's violent response to nonviolent struggle.
Q: One important aspect of the anti-apartheid movement that the media has left out, is the role of others and women in the fight. The media is perpetuating this cult of personality of Mandela, and in fact he was always challenging that. Thoughts?
Ash: Mandela was a charismatic leader, who most definitely should be celebrated as a revolutionary hero, but he also made clear that he was one imperfect person who joined masses of South Africans who recognized the importance of building a vehicle, an organization, that would consistently fight for liberation and win victories for the people. In fact, the African National Congress Women's League was comprised of amazing freedom fighting women like Winnie Mandela, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Dorothy Nyembe, Sophie du Bruyn, Ray Alexander, and Rahima Moosa, to name a few.
Janelle: The anti-apartheid movement was carried out through an alliance of the ANC (a mass based organization), the South African Communist Party and the Coalition of South African Trade Unions. Coalition between leftists, women, youth, workers, and international allies built a movement that could break the apartheid regime. We need mass movements like that today to overcome the oppressions that exist today.
Q: How can people find out more information about your work, or support some of the important fights happening now?
Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson is an organizer with Concerned Citizens for Justice and board member of Highlander Center in Tennessee. She is a long-time activist working around issues of community empowerment, environmental destruction, mountaintop removal mining, and environmental racism in central and southern Appalachia.