Monday, July 28, 2014

In Memory of Owen Brooks: Mississippi's Civil Rights Veteran

by Nomad

Remembering one of the veterans of the civil rights movement who never stopped fighting for the Mississippi's black community.

Owen H. Brooks is probably not a name you've heard of. I know I hadn't before I saw his obit in a Mississippi newspaper the other day.

As a civil rights leader in Mississippi for over 40 years, Brooks was one of those rare types who possessed both the motivating idealism but also the stamina and long-term commitment to make a difference.

Brooks, the son of West Indian immigrants, was born in New York in 1929 and raised in Boston. He said that he had become politically active at the age of 13. No surprise, perhaps.
 It was a part of his upbringing.
His mother was reportedly a big supporter of Marcus Garvey, a black leader in the early years of the 20th century who promoted the return of the African diaspora to their ancestral lands.

Another childhood icon was African-American singer and actor Paul Robeson whose advocacy of anti-imperialism, affiliation with communism, and criticism of the United States government resulted in his being blacklisted during the Red Scare of the 1950s. (Brooks actually met Robeson on several occasions.)

Brooks graduated Northeastern University as an electronics engineer but gave up that comfortable career to join the civil rights movement. Attending the March on Washington in 1963, along with more than 200,000 Americans Owen was moved by the speeches of Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders.

While in Boston, Brooks had been an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and helped with fundraising efforts in Boston Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the most important organizations of the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.   
He decided to put his idealism to the test and took a major step which would change his life. During early to mid-1960, all liberal eyes around the country were focused on Mississippi. In response to discriminatory state policies, thousands of idealistic civil rights workers flooded the state to defeat segregation. 

In 1965, Brook was one such "outside agitator."  

He was there at the beginning: from the CORE sit-ins to the Selma-to-Montgomery march. He was there when the 1964 Democratic National Convention was interrupted by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. They demanded the seats of the regular Mississippi Delegation on grounds that half of the would-be electorate had been denied the vote in violation of the Constitution. He joined the 15,000 strong James Meredith March from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi in June 1966.

Eventually, he settled down with the Delta Ministry in Greenville, Mississippi. The ministry was started by the National Council of Churches to work with the SNCC to register minority voters.
From its outset,
the Delta Ministry was plagued by opposition from white Mississippians, both church people and politicians, who resented the presence of liberal northerners supporting the Freedom Democratic Party and black militancy.
Eventually in 1967, with Brooks as its director, the Delta Ministry went on to fight for the poor black community in the state. According to the book, Divine Agitators: The Delta Ministry and Civil Rights in Mississippi 
The DM sought to provide "relief, education and training, self-help initiatives, economic and community development, and the fostering of indigenous leadership and leadership skills" in the poorest areas of the state.
In spite of funding problems and organizational infighting,  Brooks and his staff at Delta Ministries successfully exerted pressure on state and federal agencies to provide relief funds for the Mississippi's poorest communities.  
Under Brooks, however, the group became divided over philosophical and personality issues. For his part, Brooks was more interested in targeting broader statewide goals while his staff wanted to focus on projects and leaders at a more local level.
By 1977, the Delta Ministry had become something of a "one-man organization" and Brooks reportedly kept the group alive "through his sheer will."

Owen Brooks 1983
Back in 1983, Mother Jones' Manning Marable profiled Brooks in an article. His sense of cynicism at Mississippi politics is apparent.
Under Brooks' leadership, the Delta Ministry has been a major force in independent grassroots politics. Staffers involved themselves in electoral politics, says Brooks, only to the extent it builds independent black political structures. "Frankly, we don't spend time with white candidates," he says "They won't support our programs or our political candidates. They just hustle us for votes."
Radical and outspoken to the core, Brooks did not mince his words about how he thought the civil rights movement had failed. 
In 1983, Brooks sounded disappointed with the lack of progress. He said: 
The black middle class uses the mask of their religious persuasion to continue their commitment to capitalism. Upward socio-economic and political mobility is their Jesus Christ."
Despite the desegregation campaigns which led to the election of more than 400 blacks to political office in Mississippi (the highest number in any state), Brooks was dismayed to find how little was actually accomplished. 

This he blamed on the opportunism and the distraction of personal ambitions of black politicians. Some leaders, according to Brooks, had used the civil rights movement to "advance their own political careers." They had, he said, "led the black community down the wrong road."

Critics could perhaps have made the same charge against Brooks. Some said that, under Brooks' leadership, Delta Ministry was handicapped by "often poor and unrealistic planning and unrealistic expectations of the poor and uneducated blacks they were trying to help."

Nevertheless, Mississippi blacks owe so much to Brooks and the Delta Ministry.  Under Brooks tireless efforts, his team developed projects to promote black self-help and independence. 
The organization provided emergency assistance, counseling, advocacy and other services for the poor both blacks and poor whites. It also provided centers for battered black women and fought for the rights of black inmates.

In addition, under Brooks, the Delta Ministry set up
health care for poor blacks by assisting the Medical Committee for Human Rights; supported the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), one of the pioneer Head Start programs; fought for school desegregation; and promoted economic development through farm cooperatives and small businesses.
Other projects included The Hunger Center in Greenville which sold canned goods and fresh vegetables, as well as the Fannie Lou  Hamer Youth Project which brought prominent black intellectuals to lecture to rural black teens.

As one source tells us, the Delta Ministry:
..became Mississippi's largest civil rights group and provided numerous services and programs for area blacks through the 1980s. It had "a significant impact on the black struggle for equality in Mississippi."
Owen Brooks' passing marks the end of an era and a life dedicated to helping, in spite of overwhelming odds, Mississippi's poor black community.

As the 1983 Mother Jones' article notes,  
Owen laughs when asked why he stayed in Mississippi. How has has survived the collapse of liberal support, the constant police and FBI surveillance, a staff that has shrunk from 36 to four, and financial troubles that resulted in his going on half-salary for nine-months last year?
With his residual idealism still evident, Brooks answered:
"I've always seen the future of black people as being in the South- away from the death of the inner city, close to the land, where the roots are."