I interview longtime activists about their experience with initiating and nurturing social change in their communities. This month’s feature is Cassandra Lopez (aka Mama Cassie), civil rights aficionado, mother, grandmother, devoted wife, educator, Detroit native, and grassroots organizer in Oakland, California.



Tell us a little about your background in community organizing. 

I grew up in Detroit on the lower East Side in a predominantly African American community. I was always curious why things were the way they were. One day, I went downtown with my mom and they were having a boycott at Woolworths. I asked what they were doing, and they said they were picketing against racial injustice in the city. For me, that’s how it all began.

In high school, I started attending protests that called attention to the segregated housing in Detroit. It was hella cold! I was always trying to get other people to join, but many of them didn’t want to get involved. Many were from middle-class families and they weren’t down with that. 

We had a civic corps in school that talked about the government’s function. I organized a petition in the neighborhood advocating for clean alleyways and got about 80 signatures. I took them down to city hall and they actually came out and cleaned the alley. 

At 18, I was involved in the Detroit branch of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I was with them for about a year and a half and went to the SNCC conference. Ella Baker was our hope.

In the 1950’s, I came out to California and raised some hell. During the summer of ’64, we challenged the white Mississippi delegation. A lot of people came and spoke to represent black and poor people in the South. 

I got involved with the Poor People’s March on Washington in ’68. We raised money and stayed in DC for 1-2 weeks. Then, they sent the police on us and we had to go. 

The fight for equality just went on and on.


Who and/or what inspired your journey in activism? Where do you continue to draw your inspiration from? 

When I came  to CA, it was Roscoe Proctor who inspired me to keep going. He was from the south and he’d been living in the Bay Area for a while and organized Youth For Jobs in ‘61. Young people built that organization from the ground up. We would call places to see if they would hire people. We became like, a clubhouse. We gave a lot of parties. 

Roscoe taught me the essence of organizing. He was really well-read. I worked with him for about 3-4 years. He was like a dad figure to me. We would meet many mornings over some grits and eggs while he gave me a lot of philosophical knowledge. He gave me books on our history, on black history. At the time, I didn’t make a lot of money, only about $25/week. Roscoe gave me something to look forward to in West Oakland before the Black Panther Party started organizing. I have a plaque of him in my house. 

There was also a tall brother. I can’t remember his name, but they called him Jesus. People would get scared when he talked. I worked with Curtis Lee for a little while, too. He was a big-time organizer in West Oakland, especially when it came to protesting police brutality. I was working with anyone who was doing something. I wanted my people to be free. I didn’t want to see us being beat over the head for the right to vote.

All of you young people give me inspiration today. A lot of you are standing up. I think we’ve come a long way, but we got a long way to go. In our community, we need to be better organized. Young people need to be brought into the fold to get a better understanding and some clarity behind their anger. 

 

What has been the biggest challenge(s) in your role as a change-maker? How have you managed to overcome and/or address? 

Well, I don’t know if I’ve overcome. As a Black woman, it can be hard. The sexism sucks. Some parts of the movement were very male-dominated. I’d go to meetings and sometimes be the only sista there. I was young, but I was very opinionated and had to hold my own. 

We really have to struggle to make sure people understand, If you do better, I do better. I love our men, I love our sisters, I love our children...you have to love them all. 

 

What specific projects are you currently working on? 

I just finished working on getting rid of Trump. I volunteered and helped mobilize voters for Vote Forward, letting them know that young people must participate in voting.

Next, I want to organize Black women across the country, especially those who don’t usually get involved in many things. It’s important for all of us to know basic civic stuff. We have to understand how this works and how it affects us and what we can do to change it. Not bullshit change but real change.

 

Despite the current state of things, how do you envision a better world? 

Capitalism has to go. It’s only going to take us so far and then we hit a roadblock again. You have to be able to change the dialogue, change the tone of the system. I could teach all day about the problems of capitalism and racism because they go hand in hand. I don’t see class over race; I put them together b/c one feeds the other. There’s a big money factor behind exploitation.

 

Food, like activism, can inspire unity by bringing people from all walks of life together. What food(s) resonate best with you and why? 

You can’t get well if you’re eating crap. My mom was from Florida, and my dad was from Georgia before moving to Florida. So, a lot of their food was that good down home southern soul food. I know how to make my mama’s cornbread. 

I like fresh food. Greens, vegetables, onions and garlic. I make sure my baked chicken is nice and crunchy. Sometimes I want Mexican dishes, but I’m still mostly a soul food person. I bake things like pound cakes but then I give it away to the young people. I spend a lot of money on all that, but what else are you going to spend it on? 

 

Is there anything else you want to share?

I love the Black community so much, it hurts. Black people are phenomenal because we are fighters. When you see the power we have when we come together, I think we are a people who cannot be defeated. We’ve set tones in this country.