Vivian Rothstein is a labor rights activist, feminist, and community organizer.
She was instrumental in the civil rights movement and the peace movement. She is also among CLUE’s co-founders.
She was among hundreds of Black and white students who volunteered for Freedom Summer 1965.
In my lifetime, the Southern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s has been the wellspring of justice organizing in the United States. With few material resources, the Southern Movement was built on the bravery and leadership of disenfranchised African-American people and their allies.
Northern volunteers, of which I was one in the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, were there to support and amplify the leadership of the local people — to learn from them and respect their understanding of what they needed to be free.
The first thing the 100+ summer volunteers were asked to do was demonstrate in Jackson, Mississippi for the right to demonstrate. The city had consistently refused permits for civil rights groups to march in favor of voting rights.
On that day over 400 people participated, were arrested, and spent 12 days — in the local city jail — for the white women and on the ground at the county fairgrounds, segregated by race and gender — for everyone else.
To prepare for the action we were taught about nonviolent resistance, the philosophy and the discipline that Rev. James Lawson Jr. had introduced to the civil rights movement. That included acting in a dignified and peaceful manner, not fighting back or insulting police officers when we were arrested for parading without a permit, and agreeing not to be bailed out until everyone could be freed.
We learned that people are not good or bad – that they could change – and that our dedication and example could help them change. And that the wisdom and engagement of the least powerful people at the bottom of a society can overturn an oppressive social order. In fact, that’s the only thing that can.
By introducing the philosophy of nonviolent direct action to the Southern Movement, Rev. Lawson provided a roadmap to advancing freedom and justice by using the power of the people – their power to come together in unison for change, to unmask their oppressors, to speak the truth while upholding the dignity and worth of all people.
These beliefs are integral to the life of CLUE which Rev. Lawson helped found in the early 1990s. I am deeply grateful to him and to the movements he has inspired for enhancing our lives and our nation and giving us confidence that making powerful progress towards justice is indeed possible.
Postscript: After widespread reporting on the mass arrests of peaceful protestors in 1965 Jackson, Mississippi, the charges against us for parading without a permit were eventually dropped, and the city began granting permits for civil rights demonstrations.