2015 is the RFC’s 25th anniversary year. This extraordinary project—which only exists because of the generosity of tens of thousands of concerned people—has grown from funding summer camp for two children of a political prisoner in our first round of grants, to our plan to award $370,000 in 2015 to help hundreds of kids across the U.S. who are living through similar nightmares to what my father and uncle experienced as children.
An accomplishment this impressive merits an equally special celebration. Artists have been some of the staunchest supporters to stand with my family, and then with the RFC, over the years. From Picasso and Léger who created art to protest my grandparents’ unjust executions, to Advisory Board members Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Harry Belafonte, Richie Havens, Adrienne Rich, Eve Ensler, Ossie Davis, Susan Sarandon, Mandy Patinkin, Chuck D, and dozens of others, it’s been an honor to have these principled and talented individuals in our corner.
And of course, our grants enabling RFC beneficiaries to participate in all manner of artistic endeavors over the years has exemplified our mission of helping meet these youngsters’ “educational and emotional needs” just as much as the prison visits, school books, and myriad other services and resources our grants help fund.
It’s for all these reasons that I’m thrilled to announce that the RFC will mark its 25th anniversary by hosting an evening of programming celebrating “Artists as Activists.” This event will take place on Saturday, October 17, 2015, in Eastworks in Easthampton, MA where the RFC office has been located since 2002.
To open the evening, I’ll moderate an on-stage conversation with Erin McKeown, Gina Belafonte, and Ellen Meeropol exploring the role and power of artists in movements for social justice. Erin, a dedicated activist as well as a dynamic singer-songwriter, will follow up the discussion by giving a concert that will be opened with several songs performed by A Besere Velt (A Better World), the progressive Boston Workmen’s Circle Yiddish Chorus.
Gina, who is an actress and activist in her own right, is Co-Director of Sankofa.org, the organization her father Harry founded to encourage artists to use their platforms to bring attention to social justice issues.
And my mother, author Ellen Meeropol, wrote all of the RFC’s Celebrate scripts along with her new novel, On Hurricane Island, which asks what happens when the U.S. treats its own citizens the way it does so called “enemy combatants.” The evening also will include a short film with salutes from Angela Davis, Holly Near, and many of the other artists, activists, and allies who have helped us reach this milestone.
It is an honor and a thrill to announce this line-up and to invite you all to join us. It’s especially timely to do so this week, given that Erin McKeown was one of the earliest of what is presently a cohort of nearly 150 artists and growing, to add a verse to “Take Down Your Flag.”
Perhaps you’ve already heard of this song that has gone viral over the last few days. But for those who have not, on June 19, 2015, (a date that has special significance for my family and the RFC community) singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey wrote and first sang “Take Down Your Flag” at The Calvin Theater in Northampton, MA as a reaction to the horrific Charleston church shootings two days earlier.
Peter’s sparse and gorgeous melody and original lyrics eulogized Suzie Jackson, the oldest of the shooting victims, and called for South Carolina to take down the Confederate flag flying over the statehouse before Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s body laid in state under it, and other victims’ families buried their loved ones while this symbol of racist hatred - alone among all the flags - still waved at full staff.
Shortly after first playing “Take Down Your Flag,” Peter posted a YouTube video of himself playing it. Soon several of his friends in the music community, including Ani DiFranco, Pamela Means, Vance Gilbert, Anais Mitchell, and Erin McKeown, had stepped up to write verses for some of the other victims. As I write this less than two weeks later, more than 140 versions have been posted to YouTube, each with new verses honoring the lives lost in Charleston, as well as those wounded by all manner of racist hatred in this country. Recent additions honor the courageous activist Bree Newsome who scaled the SC statehouse flagpole and took that flag down.
I can’t think of a more fitting way to announce our anniversary event plans, than to share with you Erin McKeown’s contribution to this movement: her version of “Take Down Your Flag,” dedicated to Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. Stay tuned for details about ticket sales, which we anticipate beginning later this summer, and save October 17th, to join us in honoring “Artists as Activists” as the RFC celebrates 25 years of supporting the children of resistance.