At the Democratic National Convention, Joe Biden began his nomination acceptance speech with a quote from the civil rights activist Ella Baker: “Give people light and they will find a way.”
Unlike Joe Biden, Ella Baker was not a politician. She was an activist and organizer for change. She was active from a young age in the NAACP before helping Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, one of the most influential organizations in the civil rights movement, which she helped direct. But Baker disagreed with the SCLC’s top-down leadership structure. In 1960, she organized the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), with a vision to form an organization that encouraged all of its members to learn to be leaders in the struggle for Black liberation. SNCC was among the groups organizing sit-ins, Freedom Rides challenging racial segregation in interstate transit, and voter registration in Mississippi and Alabama. The organization became increasingly radical over the course of the 1960s.
Politicians love to cherry-pick quotes from activists – activists who won wide respect and moral authority in the eyes of the public through decades of dedication and struggle, actively participating in the social movements that actually brought about change. Politicians hope that by quoting activists like Baker, some of that respect and moral authority will come their way too.
The problem for people like Biden, however, is that activists like Baker understood that the real change we need doesn’t come handed down to us from whomever is in the White House. Activists like Baker understood and lived the idea that society will only change when we all rise together to make it change, through our active participation in and ownership of our struggles.
By quoting Baker, Biden is continuing the tradition of Democratic Party politicians pretending to be part of social movements, as opposed to what they actually do, which is to try to take them over or crush them. What Baker would want us to remember, and what Biden would like us to forget, is that we can’t just put our faith in the Democrats every election year and hope they’ll fix things for us. As tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters in recent months have seen with their own eyes, we are the ones who make the change.
Ella Baker said it best in a speech at a Puerto Rico solidarity rally in 1974 – a speech that you’re less likely to hear quoted by Mr. Biden:
“You and I cannot be free in America or anywhere else where there is capitalism and imperialism, until we can get people to recognize that they themselves have to make the struggle and have to make the fight for freedom, every day in the year, every year, until they win it.”