VOICES OF RESISTANCE: 'We have more power than we realize'

Bob Hall leads a poll monitor training for the 2016 general election. (Photo courtesy of Democracy North Carolina.)

For more than 50 years, Bob Hall has been a central  if often unsung  force in the struggle for a more just and democratic South. In the early 1970s, Hall joined other civil rights veterans on staff at the Institute for Southern Studies, which would be his base of operations for the next 25-odd years. At the Institute, Hall led countless research investigations that led to changes in people's lives, unearthing hard-to-find facts about everything from mining, poultry and textile companies running roughshod over communities and workers in the South, to documenting the region's biggest landowners and the Big Money players in our political system.

Hall was also the brainchild behind the Institute's print magazine (and predecessor to Facing South), Southern Exposure, where his investigations into the South's power brokers won the National Magazine Award and other honors. But for Hall, the work has never been about winning personal awards or delivering hit-piece exposés. As he once said at an Institute event, quoting former Black Panther Huey Newton, "Power is the ability to define phenomena." It captured the essence of Hall's philosophy and approach: that to tackle problems like poverty, racial injustice or voter suppression, we first have to clarify the roots of the problem, revealing the powerful interests that drive a narrow and divisive agenda, and help ordinary people especially endlessly-stereotyped Southerners in struggling communities more deeply appreciate their own creativity, wisdom and power to change things for the better.

This week, Facing South is launching a new series, "Voices of Resistance." The goal of the series, coordinated by Rebekah Barber of the Institute and Facing South, is to glean insight and inspiration from the South's rich history of struggle for social change, as well as learn from a new generation of Southern leaders and voices in today's volatile political moment.

To kick off the series, we asked Hall to reflect on his history in the Southern movement and what lessons it may offer for the future. On May 24, Democracy North Carolina  an election reform and pro-democracy group that Hall has led since it grew out of the Institute in the 1990s  will be hosting an event in Durham to mark Hall's retirement and celebrate his work. We are honored to publish Barber's interview with Hall, a tireless, humble and inspiring voice of resistance and change in the South. If you have ideas for other Southern change makers to feature in our "Voices of Resistance" series, please contact Barber at rebekah@southernstudies.org. – Chris Kromm, publisher

What brought you into the movement?

I grew up in the church; my mother was the church secretary and main soloist in the choir. She earned extra money singing at weddings and funerals — it's how she raised us four kids on her own. She gave me a fierce work ethic and biting lessons of right versus wrong, which I fairly quickly turned against the church elders, seeing how they disrespected her and other black and white employees. I hated class discrimination early.

At 19, in college in Memphis in the early 1960s, I joined with a NAACP youth group in a campaign to desegregate the city's big white churches. It turned into a protracted, eye-opening struggle, gaining national attention. Hey, didn't the hymn say Jesus loves all the children, "red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight?"

I joined the Southern Student Organizing Committee (counterpart to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on white Southern campuses), attended conferences and protests, rallied and sang with Dr. King, felt the Movement's call for a beloved community, left school to organize with an anti-racism "mobile resource team," learned so much more than I ever did in school, and wound up in Atlanta in 1970 to join compatriots from SSOC and SNCC who had just launched the Institute for Southern Studies.

What has sustained you over time?

Certainly, a victory now and again is reinvigorating — and it's important to plan campaigns that include incremental victories to celebrate. I've witnessed the successes of the Freedom Movement, experienced other big changes, and studied the history of human brutality and revolution. So I know the horrors of today will be replaced, for better or worse — and I know we can influence that future. We have more power than we realize, especially when we act together for a common purpose.

I find the human condition a liberating source of humor and humility. We are mere mortals in a vast universe, here for a while and then gone. The key to flipping this bleak reality from a source of recurring despair is finding your story, a sustaining story that connects you to a larger identity and mission. This has been done for centuries. Then you must have the courage to stay with your story or multiple stories, even in the face of hardship. My core story is made up, like all of them. It places me on a path with a long history of freedom fighters and truth tellers. I walk in their shadow, I breathe their spirit, I carry their torch; it's now my torch to pass along. I do what I can, laugh and cry, fall and pick myself up. But I keep moving on — onward.

That's the heavy part. I also am restored and sustained by love, by a wonderful family, by music that hits my soul, by the ocean, by workmates, by the wisdom of others, by the grace of forgiveness, by a walk in the woods, by a good laugh.

What is your vision of a more just South?

Dr. King's vision of the beloved community is still compelling, worth studying and updating for its radical reordering of society. At the Institute for Southern Studies (ISS), we had a broad view of a justice-oriented South. Through Southern Exposure magazine, our newspaper column Facing South, and a stream of projects, we challenged corporate power and the ideology of greed, celebrated homegrown cultures of community, and championing popular struggles for self-determination, from labor unions to the theater arts.

At Democracy North Carolina, we're focused more narrowly on the political system. It's the fundamental way society sets priorities, allocates resources, solves problems, and makes decisions that greatly impact our daily lives. Our vision calls for a political system that is accessible, accountable, and a means of power-building for historically underrepresented voters, particularly people of color and their white allies working in fusion coalitions. We want mass civic participation of more engaged, better educated people, who recognize their intertwined common fate, who elect anti-racist representatives, and who create a government that "is instituted solely for the good of the whole," as the North Carolina Constitution proclaims.

What work being done now is laying the foundation for this more just South?

You can read ISS documents from 45 years ago that say the South has an "underdeveloped ideology or idea base for change and underdeveloped popular base for change." We need more work at the grassroots that addresses these twin problems rooted in our racist, anti-union past. We also need to move people from "what's in it for me" to the mutual benefits of "what's the good of the whole." I celebrate the continued work of ISS, Democracy NC and dozens of other groups with a focus on listening and deep education, analysis and organizing, opportunity building and change-making at the grassroots. Adopt the long view. Onward!