SCN: Thank you so very much; we’re deeply honored that you would take this time to talk with us. It’s my understanding that my predecessors had a brief interview with you concerning your summer program.
MWE: Right—which we are very proud of. And it’s just growing and growing. It’s where our movements going to come from.
SCN: And how are things going down at the farm?
MWE: There are people down there today from around the country looking at the new people to try and figure out how they can start freedom schools. The farm is jumping! And we have a new wonderful non-violent organizing director Rev. Janet Wolf who is on the cutting edge of his administry, and we’re working with Jim Lawson and other elders from the sixties – Vince Harding and others – then do some serious organizing training. We really have to focus on organizing, organizing, organizing our young people, our faith folk, our women, because it’s movement time. No one wants to spend the next ten, twenty years defending against more and more budget cuts and being on the defensive. It’s really time for us to realize our power and to do it non-violently. And so, focusing on organizing and movement building to take the children and the Peoples movement to the next stage is the focus here, and Haley’s Farm is at the center of that – so come down and see us; you have to experience Haley.
SCN: I’ve actually been – I broke bread there with Alex a few months before he died.
MWE: Well, it’s real different now since he left us this very important place – that really is about our roots. You need to come and see how it has been transformed; I think that he would be pleased. You haven’t seen our new chapel?
SCN: No ma’am.
MWE: Well, we finished the last unfinished building that he left.
SCN: Yes –
MWE: That’s the Langston Hughes library which Maya Lin redesigned – which is exquisite – and then she built a chapel based on Noah’s Ark. Our logo is a boat that a little child drew, and that was the first new thing we gave Haley. We finished that fund that Mr. Haley had left. But then I said the first new was going to be at chapel. And it’s a splendid, multipurpose place. I would invite you to Freedom School Training which is always in the first week in June just so you could SEE how it is a new home to this movement and it’s really percolating up. We have 1,500-1,600 young people out there for training; we’ve housed them at the University of Tennessee. But I was so pleased because they worked well through 14 hours of the day. We have an outward-bound team-building course – one of the meadows across the river and they didn’t leave one piece of paper on the ground. They really own it. And they really come there and they are serious about reclaiming our children through freedom schools and their own local organizing. So come and see what he left us in his legacy and what we’re trying to do with it.
SCN: Thank you, I definitely will. I would like to check in: did you watch the debates last night?
MWE: I did watch the debates last night.
SCN: And … am I wrong to think that the word “poverty” or poor children was not mentioned by either candidate?
MWE: Well, I think Romney may have mentioned it in passing, but it was just a throwaway. You know, it’s election year and there are no friends in politics, okay? Let’s just say that. And people… first job they think is to get elected. And the middle class has been the mantra. So there has been far too little about the needs of the growing poor in our country, which has come about as the result of not only the economic downturn, but a fundamental structural changes in our economy with so many low wage jobs and the majority of people who are poor working trying to play by the rules everyday cannot earn enough to lift themselves and their children out of poverty. And I’ve given President Obama a lot of slack because while he has mentioned the middle class, his stimulus package really expanded significantly in support for the poor. I look at the substance, I look at what they do – not what they say. And you saw huge new investments in early childhood education and head start and early head start in expanding their income tax credit, and the child tax credit which alleviate poverty in the massive expansion of food stamps, and let me tell you that the 47 million people who are on food stamps today, which is our only – and primary – safety net for what I think, those people did it for resurrection because they put hunger and the inadequacy of our food program on the national agenda and it took years because people don’t understand how hard it is to bring about change to expand the food programs but they all come back to that push in the poor peoples campaign which are jobs and to end hunger in America. President Obama has expanded food stamps, but more importantly, has expanded the affordable care act and has expanded Medicaid in the largest way since it’s inception. And so what he did – versus what he said – ought to be acknowledged. But it is clearly time for us to talk about a concerted campaign to create jobs, jobs—jobs, to continue expand and invest in education, and career preparation and to really talk about the needs of clothes, this wealth and income gap to end poverty in this country starting with our children. And we’re going to make a big campaign around that because what is happening is morally obscene. It is our biggest national security problem, when we have a majority of all our children of all racial income groups are unable to read and compute at grade level – not ready for school. Not engaged after school and during the summer like what we’re trying to do for freedom schools and when 80% of black children and almost of 80% of Latino children, who are going to be the majority of our future workforce VERY SHORTLY when they can’t read and compute – and if you can’t read and compute in this globalized economy, you are being sentenced to social economic debt, to that prison pipeline and I tell you, we are on every cylinder to see how we can wake up the country and wake up the black community to this cradle-to-prison pipeline.
SCN: I wanted to ask – we only have a few more minutes – you’ve laid something out when you raised the question of the Poor Peoples Campaign to the expansion of food stamps, Poor Peoples Campaign to the prison, cradle-to-prison pipeline – could you just talk to me a little about your pushing Dr. King to take up the Poor Peoples Campaign, how that has informed your work and how you arrived at the latest and most ambitious campaign with the creator of the prison pipeline.
MWE: Well, I didn’t really have to push Dr. King to do very much about it. He was struggling to figure out his next steps in light of the growing attention of the nation to the Vietnam War and the invisibility of the poor back then. And you know, he understood that the war on poverty was a scrimmage compared to what we were investing in Vietnam and the justice was indivisible and that we were sending poor young black folk and other young poor folk over to fight a war against other people of color while we were neglecting their rights to be able to do what they needed to do here at home. And so I was still in Mississippi, with Robert Kennedy coming down, and have seen the hungry bellies of children and he had really called for immediate response by the federal response to get that food down and look back at – even with Robert Kennedy and then Dr. King – documenting with doctors and others how serious hunger and malnutrition was, it was excruciatingly hard to move the country to do what was right and to do what was sensible. So in frustration, when I was up visiting in Washington, I went out to see Robert Kennedy on the way back to Mississippi and reported to him how slow the federal government was in moving things and tell him I always try to drop through Atlanta to see Dr. King on my way back to Jackson. And he told me to tell him, Dr. King, to bring the poor to Washington, because the war was overshadowing them and we needed to put some pressure on president Johnson, and I did that. And Dr. King’s eyes just lit up; he was very depressed in those last years in trying to figure out if this movement should move north, because the country went to Vietnam and got tired of poor folk – and what to do next. And he also understood that political and civil rights without economic and social rights was not going to take us where we had to go. And so I told him about that, his eyes lit up! He um, I loved it, he said, you are an angel just appeared, and he immediately seized unto the idea, and his staff was not very pleased. But we brought together people from Mississippi to show him what was going on down there. He went and saw a lot of the hunger in Marks, Mississippi and brought people from Mississippi over there to talk to his staff. His staff was split between whether we should be focused on ending the war in Vietnam or whether we should take on this big new thing, but he was so clear. And it really was a warmer, shared, dreamt vision. But no civil rights, critical civil rights, trying to get that from blacks and one group, which is you know affecting everybody including other people of color and spawned more movements, but he understood that you had to have cross-racial movement. It would have to focus on economic rights, on jobs, on income, on food, on housing, on hopefulness and by bringing together white, black, Latino, Native Americans it was a very big piece. They did it! Even though we didn’t get immediate, massive responses on a lot of the plans it put hunger on the national agenda; it set its place in a lot of motions. It created a whole new set of public interest voices, including: the Children’s Defense Fund and our parent organization the Washington Research Project, but over the last four decades has resulted in enormous numbers of new laws focused on the substance, and we decided after five years of following up on the Poor Peoples Campaign’s demands, to help poor people of all colors gain basic social economic rights including food and jobs and housing that we would focus in on the prevention side because this country does not like to help poor black, or brown dependent adults. And so the more and more I got into it—I began to understand that we had to intervene before these problems became serious, to make sure that our children begin to have a better life. And that we did not want to continue welfare dependency, that we had to prevent it, by education, by early childhood development, by expanding Head Start, by making sure every child came to school ready. And so it spawned the CDF, and it spawned many groups today that are talking about rights—that focus on hunger. And so it really has had a cascading effect on trying over the next month to go through the PPC boxes and see if we can’t put another eye and view about the PPC, because movements take a long time. We’re going to be forty years old next year—the Children’s Defense Fund—but it’s also the fiftieth year anniversary of the march on Washington of the Birmingham Children’s March, and Kennedy’s assassination. I know a lot of people are going be gathering to celebrate the Dream but it’s this time I’m call on a promissory note and to finish this job and so we need to end poverty. When Dr. King died, as you know, we had eleven million poor children; today we have sixteen point one million poor children, and the children of the poorest group in the country. It’s a disgrace, and the younger they are – the poorer they are, and I’ll just tell you that this is going to be the set of issues that are going to undo America. Because we are destroying our work force, we are destroying the very fabric of America’s dream, which is our children, can have a better life than we do. And this cradle-to-prison pipeline is the latest manifestation of it. And it’s driven by race, it’s driven by poverty, and the most dangerous intersection for a child trying to grow up today is at that intersection of poverty and race. One in three black boys going to prison, we are just destroying everything…
SCN: Could you define for me briefly what the cradle-to-prison pipeline is?
MWE: It is the… many children in America never ever get on the road to success. They’re born with three or four strikes against them, without prenatal care… we’ve made progress… without healthcare, um without… in poverty, you know, 40% of black children are born into poverty, and many of them are born into single-parent families without a father, without income that is able for the family to be able to support them. So these deficits that you get in the richest nation on Earth accumulate over time. And so that’s why we’ve struggled so hard to make sure that you can begin to support families, so you can begin to talk about the achievement gap. It’s present at nine months and it grows as public safety net programs reach only a small percentage, so that’s why so many of our children get to school so unready to learn. They go to schools that don’t expect them to learn, and help them to learn, and if you don’t have an education in this society, um, you know you don’t have a chance to get a job and to have an above-the-board job in this society. And so they go off to schools that fail them, and not only fail them but push them out, through these extraordinary zero-tolerance discipline problems. The schools are the main feeder systems into that juvenile justice system and into the cradle-to-prison pipeline. And we’ve gotta break that all up. I mean I think we adults have lost our minds by suspending and expelling five-year-olds and six-year-olds, even handcuffing them and arresting them. We’ve got to make schools educate and keep children in school I have never understood why a child who is truant and tardy gets suspended rather than being found out why they are not coming to school. And then you get to the after-school, because we don’t have community support, and that’s why we have freedom schools after school in the summer so you don’t continue to have an achievement gap increase. But here we have a situation today, where whatever is said about children and the poor, the younger and poorer they are, racism is resurging all over the land, schools are re-segregating, there’s never enough funding for children in schools that are poor and of color go, and all the odds are stacked against them and the result is, you’re having them come out of school, unable to function and to be prepared for a job and the workforce, or to go to college or a career. You’ve got millions of them dropping out of school. You’ve got them being mistreated in schools through misclassification in special ed programs, and through school discipline policies that are disproportionately applied against black males and black children, and poor children. And the huge effects of all of these results is really a crisis. And so the cradle-to-prison pipeline, you know, it starts with birth in these poor families and people who have not been taught themselves to parent and to just try to stay on top… and I think most parents want to do the best they can, but you can’t teach what you don’t know. And we have got to make sure that we also, while we fight for decent public policies and fair and equitable funding and good teachers, that we also try to reweave the fabric of family and community (as a church is no longer a church – the doors are closed; and drugs deals are open 24/7) and neighborhoods and we’ve got to create movement that was like that movement—incredibly courageous, 40-50 years ago where the parents and children themselves were front line soldiers and wanted to have a better life with there children. Well, we have to confront it again today; we are now in the post-reconstruction era of the second time and we need to wake up—we need to reclaim our children and we need to find the means to have that next transforming movement that Dr. King tried to start.
SCN: What gives you hope?
MWE: I just look at all the young people who are doing well—we celebrate every year children who are beating the odds despite homelessness, despite joblessness, despite abuse and violence in the neighborhoods. With one caring adult and a support system, we give them scholarships but now 700 have gone on to college—become doctors and lawyers—I look at the new laws that are on the books that have helped millions of children so we have power to do this. I look at all the young children of freedom schools who are getting a new lease on life. I look at my little 92 pound director of use organizing who grew up in my home rural county and went out to Spelman, got her masters, and with the second start-up of freedom schools and the second graders started getting all our youth organizing, and look at what’s happening with the young people who came to our national conference. 3000 people showed up, half of them young people, and they’re all out there now beginning to get it, beginning to organize, saying they want to have a better life. And we’ve got many new laws on the books, millions of children have gotten the Head Start experience, million of children have gotten health care, millions of children have been helped to escape property and the expensive burden income tax credit and child tax credit. So we’ve made a difference, but we’ve got to make a bigger difference and what is been missing is a non-violent direct action movement. We have not had Miss Rosa Parks, we have not had the sit-in movement—we have not had the freedom rides equivalent. That’s more difficult today because of the changes in the society, the difficulties of dealing with complex issues, but we’ve got to have that movement, we’re going to have that movement and we’re not going to stop—until we do. So the best way to honor Dr. King’s Dream speech next year is by going to that next step and focusing and organizing, organizing, organizing, and let the focus be our children, because if this country continues to let its children, the majority of whom are going to be very shortly—poor, black and Latino—go down the drain, we’re not going to be able to compete with anybody in the new era so I think this is a wonderful convergence of time but it’s going to take black community and others of color speaking up.
SCN: Thank you so very much, I look forward to seeing you down at the Haley’s Farm!
MWE: Come, remember the second week in June, come and see the energy and the new leaders, we have committing a new generation of leaders that I’m so proud of.
SCN: Thank you so much!
-Interview conducted by Rev. Osagyefo Sekou
Transcribed by Eric Gerdner, Clay Bugh, and Mar Romero