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  • Introduction:Reclaiming Populism as a Different Kind of Politics
  • Harry C. Boyte

Dominant definitions convey populism as a Manichean struggle. As the widely cited definition by Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell puts it, populism is "an ideology that pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous 'others' who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice."1

In these terms, populism replaces politics with moral categories.

This symposium explores an alternative, subterranean, and explicitly political meaning of populism. This populism is a different kind of politics, a politics of civic agency. It develops the power of "the people" to shape their destiny.

Such political populism has a rich history in democratizing movements across the world. Examples range from European folk schools and Russian populists to the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, as well as a tradition of broad democratic movements in the United States—black and white farmers cooperative movements in the nineteenth century, labor, farmers, and cultural workers movements of the 1930s, and the black freedom movement of the fifties and sixties. Architects of the black freedom movement, many with roots in 1930s organizing, often used the term "populist" in self-description. The freedom movement is particularly helpful for tracing populism's genealogy as a politics of civic agency.

In a story well told in Charles Payne's I've Got the Light of Freedom, activists in the 1960s freedom movement distinguished between "mobilizing" [End Page 173] and "organizing" politics. While the former, the politics of protest, included better known marches, Freedom Rides, and sit-ins, grassroots organizing took place in communities across the south on a large scale, forming a largely invisible foundation for the movement. "If people like Amzie Moore and Medgar Evers and Aaron Henry tested the limits of repression, people like Septima Clark and Ella Baker and Myles Horton tested another set of limits, the limits on the ability of the oppressed to participate in the reshaping of their own lives," he writes.2

Such organizing spread though citizenship education efforts. These began with Esau Jenkins, a black business leader on Johns Island off the coast of South Carolina in the late 1950s, with support from the Highlander Folk School. Citizenship education continued for several years at Highlander itself, in rural Tennessee, and in 1961, was relocated to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Martin Luther King's organization where it took shape as the Citizenship Education Program (CEP), directed by Dorothy Cotton.

From 1961 to 1968, SCLC's CEP trained more than 8000 p eople at the Dorchester Center in McIntosh George, who returned to their communities and trained tens of thousands more. The vision of CEP, drafted by Septima Clark, an early leader, was to "broaden the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepen the concept to include every relationship." Such broadening involved a transformation of identity, from victim to agent of change. Cotton tells this story vividly in her recent book, If Your Back's Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement. "People who had lived for generations with a sense of impotence, with a consciousness of anger and victimization, now knew in no uncertain terms that if things were going to change, they themselves had to change them." Cotton quotes Mrs. Topsy Eubanks, who described, with vernacular eloquence, "The cobwebs commenced a-moving from my brain."3

Cotton calls citizenship education "people empowering."4 Payne stresses the politicality of this process. "Above all else [leaders of citizenship education] stressed a developmental style of politics, one in which the important thing was the development of efficacy of those most affected by a problem." This meant that "whether a community achieved this or that tactical objective was likely to matter less than whether the people in it came to see themselves as having the right and the capacity to have some say-so in their own lives."5

In the late 1960s, key bridging figures translated the freedom movement's developmental or organizing politics into an explicit populism tied to community organizing. Community organizing, especially in what...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-9731
Print ISSN
1089-0017
Pages
pp. 173-176
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-03
Open Access
No
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