VOICES OF RESISTANCE: Joining local struggles to build a Southern movement

In this photograph from a 2014 Southern Movement Assembly gathering, Saladin Muhammad is on the right. (Photo from the Southern Movement Assembly Facebook page.) 

This week, hundreds of activists and organizers from across the South will converge at the historic Franklinton Center in Whitakers, North Carolina, for the seventh annual Southern Movement Assembly, which describes itself as "an organizing process and a convergence space that centers the voices and experiences of grassroots leadership on multiple frontlines."

Among those who will gather to strategize how to build collective people power across the South will be long-time labor organizer, Saladin Muhammad, who serves as a spokesperson for the North Carolina-based Black Workers for Justice (BWFJ), which organizes vulnerable workers to assert their agency and build political and economic power. The group was formed in 1982 out of a struggle led by Black women workers against race and gender discrimination at a Kmart store in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

We recently spoke with Muhammed by phone about his work with BWFJ and the Southern Movement Assembly for our ongoing "Voices of Resistance" series, which aims to draw insight and inspiration from the South's deep history of struggle for social change and to learn from a new generation of Southern leaders working in today's volatile political climate. His responses have been lightly edited for clarity. If you have ideas for other Southern change makers to feature in the series, please contact Rebekah Barber at rebekah@southernstudies.org.

Can you tell me about your work with Black Workers for Justice?

The history of the South and the question of Jim Crow apartheid — as many of us have described it — has been one of intimidating the workers. If you dare to challenge our economy, if you dare to challenge the political system, you will be fired.

So a lot of the work of Black Workers for Justice has been focused on building what we define as strategic areas of power and resistance. For the last 36 years, we have consistently focused on trying to build a rank-and-file infrastructure or network to build bases in the workplace.

We have been building labor unions or labor organizations that organize workers to deal with the economic and political questions. We think it's very important to impact the economic forces that dictate government policies, so we look at the effect of the Koch brothers and how they have essentially taken over many state governments and aspects of the federal government. We believe that it's important to challenge the economic forces in order to increase the power of resistance and transformation.

For a long time when we started out, many of the standard organizations, including the NAACP, had important reputations in their own right but didn't have a sense of how to deal with discrimination and injustices in the workplace. They would ask the question, "Did they discriminate against you in anyway?" — trying to figure out how make a lawsuit out of it but not how to build the organization to be able to fight back and challenge it.

So we had that perspective of how to challenge discrimination — not in contradiction with the NAACP or any other important social justice group but because that was our focus and most of our members existed in the workplace.

How did Black Workers for Justice become involved with the Southern Movement Assembly?

The South has been a historical focal point of the struggles for social justice and has played a special role in the development of structural racism and the U.S. economy. There have been organizations that have continued to fight around these issues since the ending of the civil rights movement era, but like most of the struggles around the country there has been a lot of fragmentation, and struggles have been framed as local struggles as opposed to national or regional or even statewide struggles.

The Trump administration has intensified the problems that we face, but it did not disorient us, frighten us, or make us scatter. We define this as a victory because, in our perspective, the intent of this political regime is to intimidate, frighten, and dismantle forces from acting together.

So in 2010, the Southern Movement Assembly brought together a number of local forces from different parts of the South in Alabama to rebuild a Southern movement — to tie the local struggles together and to engage them in what we call a governance, a framework where together we begin to define how we relate to each other and what kind of strategic campaigns and demands we can make as a movement.

What have some of these strategic demands been?

We tried to define demands in ways that allow people to contextualize their local struggles within the regional framework, and we've called that the Southern People's Initiative Blueprint. The Blueprint has three components — "a new social economy," "a people's democracy," and "protected and defended communities."

When we talk about "protected and defended communities," we address issues relating to police brutality. We begin to understand the political nature of our struggles.

The cooperative movements — urban gardening, worker cooperatives, and rank-and-file trade unions  — all fall under "a new social economy," while "a people's democracy" includes addressing the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, voter suppression, and redistricting.

Since the Southern Movement Assembly has been joining forces to organize collectively, what have been some of the victories you have seen?

Well, I would say that defining victories must take into consideration that we have not been thrown off of our strategic direction. For example, when the 2016 presidential election was taking place, we knew that our work would need to go forward and continue, regardless of who would have been elected. Obviously, the Trump administration has intensified the problems that we face, but it did not disorient us, frighten us, or make us scatter. We define this as a victory because, in our perspective, the intent of this political regime is to intimidate, frighten, and dismantle forces from acting together. We see the fact that we have remained engaged in a movement as a victory.

Black Workers for Justice, as a member of the SMA, have been engaged in North Carolina. We were a part of the founding initiative of HKonJ [an annual mass march in Raleigh led by the state NAACP that mobilizes people around an intersectional progressive legislative agenda]. We've participated in and mobilized for Moral Monday. We believe that North Carolina has been very pivotal in developing a popular resistance.

What are you most looking forward to about this weekend?

The convergence of forces. We are expecting participation from organizations from 13 states. People are coming together to learn about each other and establish communications with forces who may be in the same battlefronts.

Because many groups are engaged in similar struggles, we think it's very important to establish communication with each other and figure out ways to work in a more coordinated fashion. We are looking forward to getting a sense of how particular struggles are exposing themselves in different states, so we can learn from each other.

It is also important for us to come together so people can get a sense that they are not fighting by themselves but are part of a larger movement with a vision. Too often the people's history is not captured as a part of how change is being made, so it's important for the people to be the history makers and to be conscious of the history that we're making.