The following article was published in Vol 4 Issue No. 2 “Not a moral issue“
Florynce “Flo” Kennedy was known for her flamboyant style, often wearing a cowboy hat, and for being “the biggest, loudest and indisputably, the rudest mouth on the battleground where feminist activists and radical politics join in mostly common cause” (People Magazine, 1974). She used her lively attire and outrageous comments to draw attention to the injustices women encountered until her death in 2000. Kennedy consistently defied norms, so much so that she organized a “pee-in” in Harvard Yard in 1973 to protest the lack of women’s bathrooms in university buildings.
Florynce Kennedy was a Black feminist lawyer and activist who drew connections between the women’s movement and the Black liberation struggle. Kennedy demonstrated that systems of oppression are connected, and she invited members of various movements to join together.
Kennedy knew that the path to liberation was to join forces and build a mass movement. During the 1970s, she was the women’s movement’s most well-known Black feminist, yet Kennedy has been almost completely erased from this age of radical politics and activism.
Kennedy was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on Feb. 11, 1916, to working-class parents, the second of five kids. Her family experienced racism in their predominantly white neighborhood, including the Ku Klux Klan trying to drive the family away.
Kennedy would later say: “My parents gave us a fantastic sense of security and worth. By the time the bigots got around to telling us that we were nobody, we already knew we were somebody.”
After the death of her mother, she moved to New York City with her sister. She worked various part-time jobs while attending Columbia University, majoring in pre-law. Kennedy was one of the first Black women to graduate from Columbia Law School after fighting to be able to attend. She had threatened the school with a discrimination lawsuit.
Kennedy opened her own law office. Business was not always good, and she had to take on a job at a department store. Kennedy represented women who were victims of domestic violence. She also defended the estates of Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday against record companies to receive royalties owed to them.
These cases left her feeling disillusioned despite winning them. “I realized that the law was not set up for justice for anybody that I cared about — it may be justice for the landlords and the banks and the television networks and the telephone companies to get multi-million dollar raises, but when it came to the people I cared about, justice was nonexistent.”
Kennedy made a turn toward activism after becoming discouraged by the legal system. As an attorney, Kennedy spent her time representing political activists, such as Black Panther Party members and Assata Shakur, and filing anti-discrimination complaints. She filed a lawsuit against the Catholic Church in 1968 on the grounds that the church violated its tax-exempt status by breaking the separation of church and state with its interference against abortion rights.
She was an original member of the National Organization for Women, though she left in 1970 feeling frustrated with the leadership ignoring statements made by Black women in the organization. NOW’s lack of radical politics and their reluctance to unite the feminist and Black Power movements alienated Kennedy. She would say she was not the type to fight for control of an organization, thinking “I can’t waste my time on this bull[shit].”
In 1969, Kennedy played a major role as one of the lawyers in the Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz case, a class-action lawsuit that was the first constitutional challenge to repeal New York State’s restrictive abortion laws. The case was a first of its kind in that it raised the issue of a woman’s right to abortion rather than a doctor’s right to practice medicine. It was also the first time the plaintiffs were the women who had illegal abortions or had been forced to remain pregnant and give birth. Kennedy developed tactics that were used sometime later during Roe v. Wade, including using activist language in court.
There were demonstrations during the case, some of which Kennedy helped organize, that led to the legalization of abortion at 24 weeks’ pregnancy. She spoke at one rally saying, “There is no need for any legislation on abortion just as there is no need for legislation on an appendectomy.” Kennedy was convinced that the law could push forward social progress only if used along with political activism, and the result of this case strengthened her belief.
Today, right-wing attacks on women and reproductive rights continues. We need to be on the offensive to defend Roe, but also to demand that abortion, birth control, and other reproductive health services be safe, accessible and free for all. Women like Flo Kennedy were the builders of this type of feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s. We can learn from them in so many ways. As Flo Kennedy would say: “Don’t agonize, organize.”
February 14, 2021 6:31 pm
As a young teacher in Chicago in the 2010s, I remember cranking up my radio to hear Karen Lewis speak. She was a badass and a beacon of hope. It’s hard to explain the boost my coworkers and I got from seeing a teacher go head to head with elite politicians, or from hearing her precisely and forcefully articulate thoughts and frustrations we’d had but couldn’t express.
Ten years later, as a union leader in a city a thousand miles away, it’s the legacy of the movement she helped build that stays with me.
In a moment of crisis, Karen Lewis and the CORE caucus reinvigorated class consciousness in teachers’ unions. A movement that began with book groups and local school council meetings ended up kicking off an era of teacher fightback that has dramatically reshaped public education.
The neoliberal policies that are often lumped together under the umbrella of “education reform”– expansion of charter schools, “no excuses” discipline, high-stakes testing, Teach for America and other “alternative” pathways to teaching–have been around, in some form, for decades. But the conditions of the 2009 recession ushered in a renewed fervor for austerity that Lewis and the CTU had no choice but to confront.
More so than previous efforts to privatize and cut costs in public schools, the hallmark of Obama-era education reform was its calculated manipulation of social justice rhetoric. Democrat reformers like Obama and his education secretary, former CTU CEO Arne Duncan, waged an ideological war on unions, positioning themselves as champions of children in oppressed communities. Teachers and their unions were demonized as enemies of meritocracy, the last obstacle standing in the way of ending the racist educational apartheid that plagues our country.
But Lewis saw through the lies. And more importantly, she recognized that parents would too. One of the key principles of the CORE caucus that Lewis helped found was that educators and families were natural allies. But alliances, like any relationship, are built with communication, time, and trust. During her tenure as CTU president, Lewis and other CORE leaders dedicated years to reshaping the organizational structure of the CTU to prioritize organizing, rank-and-file engagement, and relationships with parents and community school councils.
While Chicago privatizers were working overtime to lure families away from “failing” neighborhood schools, Lewis and the CORE caucus banded together with parents to ask why neighborhood schools were failing in the first place. Lewis told the truth that the Mayor and the CPS bigwigs who left poor schools with no libraries, no playgrounds, no nurses, social workers were cut from the same cloth as the capitalist politicians who left whole neighborhoods with no grocery stores, no safe sidewalks, and no decent housing. If educators wanted better outcomes for kids, it wasn’t enough to bargain over wages and benefits.
It was this shift toward demanding better living and learning conditions for Chicago children that shattered the reformers’ narrative and gave CTU real power for the first time in decades.
Teachers all around the country watched the 2012 CTU strike with great curiosity. In the midst of the harshest austerity push in decades, CTU was talking about racism, poverty, curriculum, and mental health at the bargaining table. They used the bargaining process creatively, calling management to account for the trauma CPS had inflicted upon poor and oppressed communities. They demanded more than anyone thought possible, and with the backing of parents, students and community groups, they won.
Lewis and the CORE caucus created a blueprint of working class unity between educators and families that could compel school districts to act. In the years since the 2012 Chicago strike, the Red for Ed movement has swept the country, beating back school reform policies and asserting the power of educator unions in big cities and red states alike.
Today the battle for the “soul of public education” rages on, and the well-funded and skilled class enemies of public education continue to hone their tactics in response to our wins. But Karen Lewis remains a larger-than-life figure for good reason. By breaking open the struggle for better living and learning conditions for our students, the movement she led in Chicago has repositioned teachers as partners in the fight for justice outside of schools, and teachers’ unions are at the vanguard of that struggle.
Karen Lewis, presente!
Across the world education has been a critical factor in overcoming the oppression of women, and a centerpiece of revolutionary action. Education serves a particular purpose in class society, especially in the capitalist United States. It has always had liberatory and revolutionary potential for oppressed people. “Education to Liberation,” examines: the tension between the conformist pro-capitalist purpose and the liberatory potential of education; how women have gained access to education; and the role women have played in the sphere of education itself.
This issue includes:
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