Still Organizing After All Those Years

31 01 2011

In 30 years, our lives can take us many places, and sometimes even home again. Steve Sumerford was in his 20s when the War Resister’s League received one of PDF’s first grants and sent him off on a disarmament tour of the South. Supporting the year-old Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign which pressured the government to stop the nuclear arms build-up, especially between Russia and the U.S., grassroots groups were organizing across the country to push for nuclear reductions through ballot initiatives in towns and cities. PDF was an early funder and deeply involved in this effort.

Today Sumerford is Assistant Director of the Greensboro Public Library in his native North Carolina, and comments, “I have wonderful things to say about PDF.”  Said Sumerford recently on Guildfordboomers.org, “I think that the fact that what was going on for me in high school and college really shaped me about my career and how to spend my time and money.” He noted that many of the achievements younger generations take for granted now were issues we fought long and hard over in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Sumerford says that it intrigues him that so much of what was important to him and to his development growing up in the 1960s and 1970s – including the national conversation about social justice, equal rights and U.S. foreign policy – is largely silent today.

And despite the achievements of the past three decades, the same issues keep surfacing. Consider the New Start treaty, an arms control pact that would force the United States and Russia to pare back nuclear arsenals and resume mutual inspections that lapsed in 2009 for the first time since the cold war. Are we back to where we, and PDF, began?

Sumerford says that he is heartened by what he sees among many younger people, who are bringing their own values to the idea of making a difference in the world. “I am happy to see that there is a growing number of college students and young adults in Greensboro who are getting involved in social change and peace work. They are doing it differently from the way my generation did it and that’s a good thing. They organize meetings and activities with text messaging and blogs. We used to have to turn the crank on a mimeograph machine to get the word out.”

Organizing our communities, one step at a time, perhaps in different ways, but we’re still organizing.

from Peace Developments, May 1982, Vol. 1, No. 1

“Tour Sparks New Groups” by Steve Sumerford, Staff of the War Resister’s League in Durham, North Carolina

With the financial assistance of the Peace Development Fund and the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute, I spent five weeks on a disarmament speaking/organizing tour of the South. I visited the following communities: Atlanta; Hazard (KY); Charlottesville; Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Auburn (LA); Tuskegee, Mobile, Carrolton (AL); Memphis, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Dallas and Houston. It would be impossible to detail or even summarize my experiences in each of these communities, but I can share a few of my impressions.

I served many functions on this tour, depending on the needs and desires of the local organizers. In my role as Speaker/Resource person, I gave talks, workshops and media interviews on the following topics: the draft, counter-recruitment, the links between racism and militarism, the economic impact of the arms race, how to make arms control a local issue, the “Freeze” campaign, and the UN Special Session on Disarmament. It became clear to me just how isolated Southerners feel from the rest of the peace and disarmament movement. A personal visit from a regional organizer served to lessen this isolation, and I will be following up this tour with letters and phone calls to local organizers to maintain their new connection with regional and national events.

The most exciting thing about the tour is that I discovered just how much disarmament and anti-militarism organizing is going on in the South. When we first opened the War Resister’s League regional office in 1977, you could count on one hand the disarmament groups in the South. Now there are at least 50 or 60 groups focusing on the issue of militarism in some direct way.

I feel the tour was very successful. I came home with a great sense of hope because of the growing commitment of those dedicated organizers in places throughout the region.

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