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Commentary
Legendary lessons for D.C. activists
(Published February 21, 2005)

By BILL MOSLEY

Those of us engaged in the struggle for full democracy for the District of Columbia frequently become caught up in the issues of the moment the latest outrage perpetrated by Congress, the most recent legislative maneuver to give the District some portion (never all) of the rights other Americans have, and other reactive responses to developments in the world of our colonial overseers.

But sometimes developments make us slow down and look at the bigger picture. For me, two such events were the deaths of James Forman last month and M. Lindsey "Lin" Hagood in late December -- two champions of justice and democracy, not only for the District but for people everywhere.

To those who followed the civil rights movements of the 1950s and afterward either as an observer or participant Forman's role in the freedom struggles of African-Americans is legendary. His "aggressive competence," as Taylor Branch described it in Parting the Waters, helped turn the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from a group of enthusiastic but disorganized students into a spearhead of social change, conducting freedom rides, voter registration campaigns and sit-ins in the South during the days when confronting white supremacy could mean death.

In the years to follow, Forman saw the District's disenfranchisement as an unfinished part of the larger struggle as did Marion Barry, Dave Clarke, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Julius Hobson and other civil rights activists who took up the cause of democracy for D.C. Forman fought for local home rule as one of the founders of the Free D.C. Movement helping to bring about the local self-government (however limited) we have today. Forman was always ready to lend his voice and experience to the movement for full democracy and statehood, regularly speaking at rallies, demonstrations and strategy meetings even toward the end of his life when his health was fading.

Lin Hagood never achieved the fame of Forman, being more of a foot soldier than a general of the movement. But his energy and commitment to human and civil rights including D.C. democracy -- were second to none. Lin retired from a career as a government engineer to take up his true calling as a full-time civic activist. As a founding member of the Stand Up! for Democracy in D.C. Coalition, Lin brought an attitude of well-channeled anger to the organization; he advocated direct democracy and practiced what he preached. Readers of the Washington Post in 1997 were treated to a front-page color photograph of Lin, his snowy hair betraying his 70-plus years, being dragged by police out of a meeting of the D.C. control board at which he had risen to speak in protest of the board's takeover of the D.C. government.

Although James Forman and Lin Hagood came to the D.C. democracy movement from different paths, their lives and works leave us with a common message. Both lived by the words of an earlier District resident and champion of freedom Frederick Douglass who wrote, "Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are like men who want crops without plowing up the ground. . . Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will." Both recognized the limits of working within the system, the lobbying, litigation, public hearings and other means by which dissent is channeled and often co-opted. Sometimes activists need to break the bounds of polite discourse, to get into the face of the oppressor, to risk physical harm or arrest. It is difficult to imagine having achieved the degree of racial equality we have today without the sit-ins and freedom rides, and it is just as difficult to imagine winning full democracy for the District without equally imaginative and daring actions.

James Forman and Lin Hagood are no longer with us, but their examples can live on if we want them to.

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Bill Mosley is a member of the Stand Up! for Democracy in D.C Coalition. Contact him at billmosley@starpower.net.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator