The Movement For Black Lives Convening In Cleveland—A Transformative Experience

The family members of Emmett Till, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd and too many others speaking briefly about the reasons why we fight- Photograph by Carlton Elliott Smith

To me young people come first, they have the courage where we failed

And if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale

The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on

Is when the reins are in the hands  of the young who dare to run against the storm

Lines from Ella’s Song (We Who Believe In Freedom) by Bernice Johnson Reagon pulsed through my mind, heart and soul throughout the July 24-26 Movement For Black Lives (MBL) Convening on the campus of Cleveland State University. They are still resounding.

The Millennials who planned, organized, and attended the MBL convening are folks who could be highly successful in the halls of academe or commerce. They have the smarts, the drive, and the education. But they have chosen to make sacrifices of personal comfort and forego material gain to found and sustain the civil rights movement of the 21st Century.

As a middle-aged senior who had been more observer than full out activist, participating in the Convening was a privilege. The Reverend James Reeb Fund of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) subsidized attendance of about 20 UUs—lay, staff and clergy—at the Convening.  Thank you, UUA, for seizing this moment to be relevant in the wider world.

The planners initially expected about 200.  About 1,200 showed up.  All were housed and provided with two meals daily on the campus and in nearby hotels and motels and other campuses.  Shuttles ferried Busloads came from Oakland, California; New Orleans, Chicago, New York and Washington, DC.  Many arrived without firm housing reservations, knowing the importance of being there and trusting that they’d find housing.  (And they did.  I heard no one complain that there was no room in the Inn.)

That which touches me most is that I had a chance to work with people

Passing on to others that which was passed on to me

I arrived at midday on Thursday and was immediately put to work phone banking on housing arrangements.  I was energized by the democracy and inclusiveness of the last-minute planning process.  As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., recognized a few nights before he was killed, “ I might not get to the mountaintop with you, but I know that we will, as a people, get there.”

We who believe in freedom cannot rest

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

On Friday, the formal program began at 10:00 am with a short welcome to Cleveland.  The group then departed to begin the first of four segments that offered more than 100 workshops in four tracks:  Culture, Organizing, Imagining, Healing and Cleveland.  There was parallel programming for children and for white allies.   At every opportunity—lunch, downtime, there was spontaneous singing, chanting and drumming.    Classic Man and Alright were the weekend’s anthems.

Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons

Is as important as the killing of White men, White mothers’ sons

We who believe in freedom cannot rest

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

The mid-afternoon Opening featured a moving ceremony honoring the families of those who had lost loved ones due to police killings.  Michael Brown’s father, Tamir Rice’s mother and so many others told personal anecdotes about their children and ended with the response, “And this is why I fight.”  I was fortunate to be part of a small ensemble who sang “I Need You To Survive” as part of the tribute to families of the fallen. 

The Convening broke early.  On our own, some of us rode downtown to see a bit more of Cleveland.  Many young folks went to a party at one of the private clubs in Cleveland.

Saturday’s Plenary Session, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” began by using red, green and yellow cards to get a quick sense of the focus of how to prioritize all of our concerns.  Participants were encouraged to talk about these in small groups and to send summaries of their discussions to #MBL.  Facilitators were waiting there to summarize our collective findings and use them to refine the agenda on our final day.

We rise together.  We throw no one under the bus. (From Black Lives Matter Guiding Principles)

But then, # MBL Leaders—in another brilliantly strategic move—tossed the planned agenda in favor of hearing directly from those most affected. 

On Friday night, there had been two ugly incidents involving transgender women at the club party. One transgender woman had been asked to have her bag searched although there she was able to point out at least two others already let inside with bags bigger than hers who didn’t have to be searched.  In a second incident, a transgender woman was barred from using the bathroom of her choice.  A group of 30 trans people came onto the platform, explained their hurt at being marginalized—even in this group where they had been leaders and planners.  It was about not having gender-neutral bathrooms on the Campus.  It was about not lifting up the transgender women who had been murdered in the previous day’s memorial.  It was about straight folks not showing up at the workshops about any aspects of transgender lives and pain.  It was not asking by which pronouns they wanted to be addressed.  The experience made me think of the homophobia and sexism of the 20th century civil rights movement.  Bayard Rustin, who was a brilliant behind the scenes planner for the 1963 March On Washington, was kept under wraps, more for his sexual identity than for his radicalism.  No woman was asked to speak at the 1963 March. 

I scrapped my plans for a governance workshop and went to a transformative session, “Liberation Can’t Wait: How Black Queer and Transgender Folks Can and Must Be At The Forefront Of The LBGTQ Movement for full equality and liberation.  I also went to a film showing about Out In the Night about the jailing of queer women for fighting back against an assault.  Wow!  I have both a deeper understanding and thirst to understand more about the folks who live on the margins of the margins.

Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me

I need to be one in the number as we stand against tyranny

At the final Sunday session, we continued plans to take our learnings back to our local areas and organizations for implementation. 

We who believe in freedom cannot rest

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

We who believe in freedom cannot rest

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

In faith,

Carol Carter Walker