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On the Freedom Side

How Five Decades of Youth Activists Have Remixed American History


Wesley C. Hogan


Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019

Paperback. vi+354 p. ISBN 978-1469652481. $27.95


Reviewed by Lesley Speed

Federation University Australia, Ballarat



The roles of youth in freedom movements in the United States since the 1960s are the focus of Wesley C. Hogan’s On the Freedom Side. The book takes its title from a song performed by the activist group the Dream Defenders at the Lincoln Memorial after the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, an event that drew global attention in 2012. Indeed, Hogan’s book refers to many key moments and movements, from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s to twenty-first-century Indigenous opposition to the oil industry’s Dakota Access Pipeline. The political range of the organisations in On the Freedom Side extends from the racial and economic campaigns of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (EBC) to the queer intersectionality of Southerners on New Ground (SONG); undocumented immigrant youth in United We Dream; the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) that includes the Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Black Youth Project 100; and the Native American youth activists of the Indigenous People’s Power Project and the International Indigenous Youth Council. While this is a historical study, Hogan highlights the contemporary and changing aspects of the movements in this book, which is avowedly ‘evocative and descriptive but also speculative and impressionistic’ rather than seeking to put forward a definitive account [12].

On the Freedom Side centres on examining the essential role of organising in freedom movements, in taking ideas to action and connecting people with shared or intersecting interests. As Hogan points out, organising is central to finding ‘ways for people to govern themselves’, and indicative of how freedom movements look beyond ‘finding better representatives or parties’ [204]. At the same time, however, organising is an area of activism that is largely invisible to history. While the movements here require no introduction, the book uses interviews and anecdotes from organisers and participants to provide a sense of immersion in how these movements were fuelled and shaped by organising. Hogan demonstrates how these ‘stories resist a single line of influence and instead reach back to alternative genealogies whose historical dynamism often evades journalists and scholars’ [12]. Echoing her role as Director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, the book is characterised by a strong sense of proximity to human interactions within and between organisations, a proximity that can often also be found in screen documentaries.

Of central significance is the work and legacy of the African American activist Ella Baker (1903-1986), an organiser who worked largely behind the scenes over several decades. On the Freedom Side positions Baker as significant not only for her relatively well-known work in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, including her role as a mentor in the SNCC. Of more specific salience here is the key moment in 1960 when Baker decided to ‘dedicate her work to young people, to their vision of change’ [22]. This moment is shown to be central to how Baker’s work forms a legacy for contemporary activists. An example is the EBC, established after Baker’s death, which follows its namesake’s example by organising with black, brown and low-income people to address political and economic inequalities. Arguing that young people have ‘taken the lead’ in the US and globally in democratic movements since the 1960s, Hogan writes that these ‘are Ella Baker’s children’ [10]. Indeed, it has become almost a dictum that ‘the most pressing challenges of today, from climate change to escalating inequality and war, are the result of mature, adult decision-making’ [11]. Yet Hogan’s book also transcends such generalisations by presenting a history that refutes characterisations of relationships between youth and adulthood as unequivocally conflicted. Instead, On the Freedom Side presents a nuanced analysis of how Ella Baker’s activism involved a commitment to intergenerational collaboration and to listening and working with people of diverse backgrounds, approaches that are shown to inform the movements in this book.  

The history in On the Freedom Side is relevant in many ways to the present day. Indeed, the role of youth in political movements has become increasingly visible and topical since the Occupy movement and other global protests in 2011. The focus of Hogan’s book resonates with the prominence of strikingly young activists in the late 2010s around the world, in strikes by school students against climate change and in the work of the Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg. While having affinities with global developments, however, the integrity of Hogan’s study is grounded in events in the regional United States and in the significance of the local in international issues. The local environment is at the heart of the actions of Native American youth against the Dakota Access Pipeline, while involving cultural and environmental concerns that are also relevant to Indigenous peoples abroad. While the chapter about the M4BL examines activism that responded to deaths of black males in Florida and in Ferguson, Missouri, the importance of this history has since been reinforced by the 2020 George Floyd protests both within and outside the US. The book’s references to the actions of President Trump’s government, such as placing immigrant children in detention centres, are both a reminder of the continuing relevance of freedom movements in the US and a magnet for international debate. Hogan’s history is strikingly contemporary, fostering awareness of how some periods are significant because ‘people figure out how to act’ and these are times that ‘in the process rearrange people’s heads and lift cultures onto a different track’ [9].

Not concerned only with protest marches and pamphlets, On the Freedom Side also emphasises the significance for activism of recreational and cultural forms, creative styles and individual expression. These are brought together in Hogan’s linking of remix culture to role-playing, social media and artistic work in social programs and political organising. As she suggests, the book is both about and for young people, who ‘may find in these pages a past that provides both expected and unforeseen paths for reinventing, reclaiming, and remixing strategies to build on their time – the mixtapes of their own generation’ [12]. The metaphor of the mixtape is harnessed to remix culture, of which the significance here extends from music and its role in social movements to the mixing of influences and approaches from the history of freedom movements. Like the immersive encounters with movements in this book, democracy is characterised by Hogan as ‘a lived experiment, a constant process of exploration, struggle, invention, and reinvention’ [13].

With music as a leitmotif, On the Freedom Side situates recreational and cultural activities as important in the work of freedom movements. The book opens with an account of an after-school programme in Petersburg, Virginia, where children race each other in a gym to answer mathematical questions. For activism, the strategic and tactical usefulness of play, theatre, storytelling and music are evident in theatre workshops and creative curricula run by youth organisers linked to the EBC and transformative storytelling by undocumented youth. Storytelling and art also formed part of the Indigenous movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Drawing on a cultural tradition of relay runs while using social media to publicise their delivery of a petition, Indigenous youth activists ‘innovated within sacred traditions’ and formed a precedent for other movements internationally [163]. On the Freedom Side delineates how various contemporary movements have been shaped by social media, which famously enabled people with shared interests to communicate and work together globally. However, these organisations’ relationships with social media are also complex. An example is BLM, of which the name was popularised as a hashtag, which was then used by a wider range of people whose stances do not necessarily coincide with those of BLM chapters. The book’s positioning of organising as a core activity that is not limited to, or primarily associated with, advanced technology is underscored by accounts of how BLM and the Dream Defenders came to view social media as a useful tool but not as their primary realm for organising.

Intersectionality is another theme central to this book, and is no less distinctively associated with contemporary youth than social media are. Intersections of ethnicity, gender and youth are both part of Ella Baker’s legacy and have been increasingly foregrounded, with LGBTQ perspectives, in twenty-first-century activism. On the Freedom Side observes that as recently as the turn of the century, organisers faced obstacles in attempting to bringing together LGBTQ and black perspectives in social movements. Indeed, in this book the focus on youth is actually one of several attributes of identity that converge in the movements examined, challenging and moving away from the limitations of single-identity politics. These movements bring together, in various configurations, LGBTQ, race, class and gender perspectives, disability receiving less attention. Queer, black feminist influence was central to the development of BLM, for example, just as SONG has collaborated with the M4BL; BLM supported Indigenous opposition to the oil pipeline, and queer activists have had a major role in the undocumented youth movement. Drawing on and expanding the legacy of Ella Baker’s role in African American and youth activism, On the Freedom Side examines relationships between generations of youth activism and intersectional politics.



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