Conference unites Southern Black movement forces

Savannah, Ga. — “The deep crisis facing Black people requires bold, radical action,” begins the Draft Manifesto for Black Liberation that was distributed at the Southern Human Rights Organizing Conference (SHROC X) held here Dec. 12-14.

This powerful gathering brought together primarily Black activists from many Southern states to discuss campaigns and conditions of the region and develop strategies for building an anti-racist human rights movement as well as the re-emergence of a national, unified Black liberation movement.

The focus of the conference was the emerging rebellion across the country against racist police murders and terror. Themed “War, Crisis and Repression — No Justice, No Peace,” the conference connected the domestic war on Black America with both endless foreign wars and the economic crisis of capitalism at a dead end.

In his opening remarks, Ajamu Baraka, veteran human rights activist and organizer, talked about how the capitalist crisis, which has left millions of people in the United States permanently and structurally unemployed, along with systematic white supremacy, is creating the material basis for this huge plague of racist police terror.

The conference was organized to honor the life and struggle of Troy Davis, an innocent man executed by the state of Georgia in September 2011 after serving 20 years in prison on a false charge. Friends and family of Davis fought many years for his freedom, knowing he was innocent. Davis was from Savannah and his family participated in SHROC X.

Davis’ sister, Kim Davis, spoke about how in one of the final struggles to free her brother, a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit turned down his appeal, refusing to consider evidence that had gone unheard for 20 years. The community refers to Chatham County, where this frame-up occurred, as “Cheat-em County.”

Along the walls were portraits of other Black folks killed or recently imprisoned by police departments across the country, including Charles Smith, a young man shot and killed while handcuffed by Savannah police in September 2014. Others pictured included Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Renisha McBride and Trayvon Martin. Also pictured were Marissa Alexander, Monica Jones and CeCe McDonald, three Black women, two of them transgender, who were jailed for defending themselves. McDonald was recently released.

Jamala Rogers, of the Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis, spoke about the daily spontaneous actions in Ferguson, Mo. She spoke about the strong, fearless leadership of many young Black folks now emerging, including groups like Hands Up United founded by Taureen “Tory” Russell and poet Tef Poe.

The conference also focused on Southern workers’ struggles for economic justice and power. Many from the Southern Workers Assembly (SWA) and the United Workers Congress discussed fighting racism, reactionary right-to-work (for less) laws and other questions facing workers of the region, including the fight for $15 an hour and a union.

A powerful panel consisted of Lisa Lopez, a former Walmart worker from OUR Walmart; Alfred Marshall, New Orleans Workers Center; Bernetta Lanier, International Longshoremen’s Association, Local 1414; Jerome Irwin, a Chatham County school bus driver employed by First Student, a private contractor for school buses in the surrounding county; Sarah White, Mississippi Workers Center; and a woman from the National Domestic Workers Alliance in Atlanta.

Irwin, an organizer with the Teamsters, spoke about their long-term efforts to organize the 500 employees of First Student. He talked about a recent contract settlement that resulted in year-round pay. According to Irwin, this is the first time year-round pay has been negotiated anywhere in the country with a private school bus company. He also talked about a major victory in which 19 workers were rehired after being fired in 2006, resulting in $250,000 in back pay divided among the workers.

The Teamsters are also continuing to wage a long campaign, started in 1995, to organize the truck drivers at the Port of Savannah. Similar Teamster campaigns are happening across the country, including at Long Beach, Calif.

Going forward from the conference, the SWA is seeking to organize picket lines at workplaces across the South in support of the Black Lives Matter movement — an effort to more strongly engage labor in the uprisings happening all across the country.