Social Movements, Leadership, and Democracy: Toward More Utopian Mistakes
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Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 102-117



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Social Movements, Leadership, and Democracy
Toward More Utopian Mistakes

Linda Gordon


I think of this occasion as doing more than announcing the opening of collections, more than honoring this group of six leaders and two organizations to whom we are all indebted, more even than honoring the Sophia Smith Collection for understanding the importance of preserving this material and finding the resources to do it. I think of my task as honoring the process of struggle for social change altogether. As I wrote, I felt as never before like I was writing a sermon, an altogether strange feeling for me, to say the least.

So I want to choose as my text something from a book I just taught, Charles Payne's masterful I've Got the Light of Freedom, 1 a study of the civil rights movement in, as the bible might say, darkest Greenwood, Mississippi. Darkest in both senses of the word. Payne writes, "I once heard a journalist who had covered the movement remark that two decades after its height the civil rights movement had inspired no great works of art—no great novels or films, no great plays. He rather missed the point. The movement was its own work of art." 2 I had never heard this idea before but it immediately made sense. A social movement, Payne is saying, is not just an emanation of beauty, or of justice, or of rage, but a product of art, even artifice—that is, of craft, skill, strategy, hard work, and discipline. Social movement leaders are often master artists—note that we have no feminine word for mastery in that sense. In becoming social movement leaders, women face some of the same obstacles they face in becoming artists. As artists tend to be deprived of honor in our society, save for those few whose works become luxury commodities, so have social change leaders. And in some ways, the more effective the leader, the less the recognition, because it may well be that the most effective leaders teach and lead in such a way as to promote others rather than themselves.

Payne also wrote of the civil rights organizers he studied, "courage is the least of their gifts." 3 Knowing their extraordinary perseverance in the face of power water hoses, aggressive dogs, police beatings, southern jails, and marauding, sadistic killers, I found this an odd thing to say. Payne's comment, however, is the essence of the book's argument: its insistence that social movements and their leaders are not "natural" eruptions of discontent, not expressions of an instinctive human drive for freedom and [End Page 102] dignity, but rather complex intellectual projects, great political achievements.

Charles Payne's stunning book reminds us that historians are underdeveloped in analyzing social movements and social movement leadership. Sociologists have made an academic field of social movements and developed a large body of work analyzing, categorizing, and defining them. By neglecting this project, historians have been derelict in a public duty. Although university tenure committees do not always agree, historians have a responsibility to the citizens of their countries, even of the world. Historians produce our collective memory. We are, of course, just as fallible and subjective as memory but no one else is going to do it better. Preserving, interpreting, and communicating our legacy of movements for social change is vital to us all—even more vital to the younger among us. It is important because, first, we must honor those to whom we are indebted for the dignity and decencies we enjoy, even when we think we have far to go. Second, because failure to acknowledge these debts is a suppression of history and therefore of what we can learn from it. Third, failing to understand how we got to our present will certainly prevent us from understanding the present fully enough to change it. About a decade ago, a Polish Solidarity activist friend visiting in the United States heard a teenager say, dismissively, "Oh, that's history...



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