Writers unite to focus on challenges to freedom

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The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words of protest will be read Sunday.

On May 17, 1838, the writer and activist Angelina Grimké took to the stage at Pennsylvania Hall to give a keynote speech at the Antislavery Convention of American Women. As she spoke, thousands of men mustered outside on the corner of Sixth and Race, enraged that a white woman was speaking in public solidarity with the black men and women by her side. The men in the mob intended to silence Grimké and her allies, for what she proposed - an end to slavery and equality for all Americans - needed to be stopped.

A few minutes into her speech, Grimké, a transplant to Philadelphia from South Carolina who brought her own experience with slavery to bear on her writing, got heated up. We forget all the enslaved endures, she suggested, "if we shrink in the time of peril, or feel unwilling to sacrifice ourselves." Then, as the record indicates, there was a "great noise" inside the hall. Grimké pushed on. Then: "Another outbreak of mobocratic spirit, and some confusion in the house. . . . Shoutings, stones thrown against the windows . . . ." By the time Grimké finished, the mob had broken through the hall; by the end of the night it was a smoldering ruin.

This Sunday, contemporary authors will join as part of an international day of protest for free expression, dignity, and truth sponsored by PEN America, Writers Resist (#writersresist). At Philadelphia Writers Resist: United for Liberty (#writersresistPHL), we expect to conjure the spirit of Angelina Grimké.

But not just Grimké's brave spirit - her very words. As writers assemble in more than 50 cities to defend First Amendment rights against a president-elect who regularly threatens editors and producers, researchers and reporters, actors and screenwriters, journalists and poets who challenge his authority or expose a lie or a con, they will read from luminous American protest texts, from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate through this gathering, to Langston Hughes, Gloria Steinem, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the Founding Fathers.

In Philadelphia, we have the special honor and responsibility to animate the visions of a just world, like Grimké's, written or presented here. These texts on civil rights, on racial and gender equality, LGBTQ rights, environmental justice, and economic opportunity form an unfolding, expanding narrative of the American experiment, what is and what might be. To resist a president-elect and a radicalized Republican Party that wishes to consolidate power around a dangerous agenda, we wish to say we are ready with Philadelphia wisdom.

That wisdom comes from the words of Grimké's allies, black and white, such as Sarah Forten, the clever defiance of revolutionary poet Hannah Griffitts, civil-rights pioneers Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, and Octavius Catto, and even the enduring brilliance of the U.S. Congress, which officially approved the Bill of Rights at Independence Hall on Dec. 15, 1791.

But the Philadelphia-legacy freedom texts that authors will read from emerge from every era. In 1876, in preparing to present a Women's Declaration of Rights on the 100th birthday of the nation at Independence Hall, Susan B. Anthony and the National Women's Suffrage Association, declared, in a startling resolution, that "a woman's head is her head, her body, her body, her feet her feet, and all ownership and mastery over her are in violation of the supreme law of the land."

Likewise, the social activist Voltairine de Cleyre, one of the truest, and least known, writers in the history of Philadelphia, wrote, in 1902, after being near-fatally shot at Fourth and Green Streets by a mentally ill former student, "I have no resentment towards the man. If society were so constituted as to allow every man, woman, and child to lead a normal life there would be no violence in this world." De Cleyre fought bitterly to counter the exploitation of workers and the environment, ideals picked up by the poet Allen Ginsberg, who gave a passionate reading of his poem "Friday the Thirteenth," at the original Earth Week, in Fairmount Park, April 22, 1970. Two years later, Temple University psychiatrist John Fryer single-handedly challenged the medical status of homosexuality as an illness in a seminal speech he delivered at the American Psychiatric Association convention. Dr. Fryer, as "Dr. H. Anonymous," wore a mask to disguise his identity. Now, we celebrate his vision and courage.

On Sunday, the extraordinary group of Philadelphia poets, novelists, filmmakers, memoirists, and journalists we've organized will read from these and other Philadelphia freedom texts, in addition to the bracing work of national writers such as James Baldwin, Claudia Rankine, and Bob Dylan. As the president-elect's administration and party takes aim at health care, safety regulations, immigrant rights, Social Security, public education, environmental protection, and worker and disability rights, we'll need all their collective force if we hope to resist.

Philadelphia writers Alicia Askenase, Stephanie Feldman, and Nathaniel Popkin are the organizers of Philadelphia Writers Resist, which will meet from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday at the National Museum of American Jewish History, Fifth and Market. Free and open to the public. For information: https://writersresistphl.tumblr.com. Register at: www.facebook.com/events/424262767905244.

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