Monday, April 19, 2010

SNCC at 50

SNCC at 50

Remembering a student movement that changed America forever.

By: Charlie Cobb Jr.

The Root

April 15, 2010


In July 1962, I went with two students from Jackson,

Mississippi's sit-in movement to a little town in

Sunflower County called Ruleville. We'd only been in

town for a couple of days when, while walking down a

dirt road, a car stopped in front of us. A white man

holding a pistol ordered us into the car. He was the

mayor. He was also a justice of the peace; he owned the

town's hardware store and headed the local White

Citizens' Council.


Pistol in hand, he brought us to the hardware store,

where he ranted about New York Communists and told us to

get out of town. The leader of our little threesome,

Charles "Mac" McLaurin, responded, saying we were in

Sunflower County to encourage and help people register

to vote. The U.S. Constitution gives us the right to do

this, Mac told him. The mayor's unforgettable response:

"That law ain't got here yet."


This story begins two years earlier. On Feb. 1, 1960,

four students attending North Carolina A&T, a

historically black college in Greensboro, N.C.,

purchased school supplies at Woolworth's department

store, then sat down at the store's lunch counter for

coffee and doughnuts. "Negroes get food at the other

end," the waitress told them, pointing to the far end of

the counter where there were no seats and blacks were

expected to carry their orders outside. The four stayed

seated until the store closed.


By the end of March, the sit-ins had spread from

Greensboro to 80 other Southern cities. Two and a half

months after Greensboro, on the weekend of April 15-17--

Easter weekend that year--about 150 student activists

gathered at Shaw College (now Shaw University) in

Raleigh, N.C., where they gave birth to the Student Non-

violent Coordinating Committee (usually pronounced "Snick").


For me, the sit-ins were a wake-up call, and I became

deeply involved with movement, first as a student

protester and, before long, as a field secretary for

SNCC in Mississippi from 1962 to 1967.


The deeper meanings of the sit-ins, like much of the

Southern freedom movement of the 1960s, are not very

well understood. There are black people today in places

that black people once could not occupy. Back in the

day, we could hardly imagine a black person in the White

House or even reading the news on television.


But African Americans are not in these positions today

because a sudden change of heart occurred in this

nation. There was pressure: a significant amount came

from young people on the campuses of historically black

colleges and universities. In fact, the student eruption

triggered by the Feb. 1 sit-ins may have been the only

time when HBCUs, as a collective body, have had national

political impact. And young black people who came off

these campuses to organize kept the pressure on for

years, primarily through SNCC.


On April 15, I will be joining SNCC veterans at a

conference and reunion on Shaw University's campus. The

discussion will begin with some of the important lessons

contained in the sit-ins. It would be a mistake to

reduce the sit-ins to a simple demand by black students

for a hamburger or Coke where only white people were

allowed to eat. The sit-ins were important because the

students were challenging themselves, making their way

in a fashion that would become very significant to the

larger freedom movement. Before the sit-ins, civil

rights seemed like something grown-ups did. Now, as

SNCC's legendary Bob Moses once put it, remarking on his

reaction in Harlem to the sit-in students in the South:

"They looked like I felt."


The bonds we formed in the student protests 50 years ago

were strong despite the diversity of political opinion

and economic class among SNCC members. Listen to another

legendary SNCC leader, Charles Sherrod, the first of  us

to leave school and commit to working full-time as a

SNCC field secretary: "You get ideas in jail. You talk

with other young people you have never seen. Right away

we recognize each other: People like yourself, getting

out of the past. We're up all night, sharing creativity,

planning action. You learn the truth in prison; you

learn wholeness. You find the difference between being

dead and alive."


For all of the youthful energy and commitment to

challenge and change that erupted in 1960, the reason

for SNCC's existence comes down to one person--a

then-57-year-old woman--Ella Baker, one of the great

figures of 20th-century struggle. In a deep political

sense, we are her children and our 50th anniversary

conference is dedicated to her.


In the 1940s, Baker was the NAACP's director of southern

branches, organizing and assisting local chapters across

the South. In 1957, she was instrumental in the

establishment of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern

Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), becoming its

first executive secretary (actually "temporary"

executive secretary because she was a woman in an

organization of male preachers). She immediately

recognized the significance of the sit-in movement and

got $800 from King to bring together the student

activists to her alma mater, Shaw College, to create

SNCC while fending off efforts by SCLC to make us a

student arm of that organization.


What she stressed, and what came to define SNCC, was the

idea of organizing from the bottom up. "Strong people"

she would say, "don't need strong leaders." She

encouraged us to think that our work was community organizing.


In 1961, other sit-in students left their campuses to

work full-time for SNCC as "field secretaries." Again,

we saw challenge in this as much as political

commitment. Traveling by bus to Houston in the summer of

1962, I got off in Jackson, Miss.,to introduce myself to

the students who were sitting in there. Why? Because

Mississippi was identified in my mind--as it was in the

minds of many young black men of my generation--with the

murder of Emmett Till. I wondered what kind of black

people were these Mississippi students who dared

confront one of the most brutal and violent regimes in

the United States. When I explained that I was just

passing through on the way to a civil rights workshop in

Texas, Lawrence Guyot,, who would later head the

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), looked at

me with total disdain, "Texas? For a civil rights

workshop? What's the point of that when you're standing

right here in Mississippi?" I got the message, felt the

challenge, and stayed.


SNCC's mission was to organize in the toughest areas of

the Black Belt South. Older veterans of struggle, mainly

local NAACP leaders, guided us in organizing efforts for

voter registration. They felt that if the potential

political power reflected in the number of black people

were harnessed through registration, change could come

through the exercise of that power.


We dug in. Truthfully, until passage of the 1965 Voting

Rights Act, we never got huge numbers of people to even

try to register to vote. There was too much violence,

too much economic reprisal, too much intimidation, all

ignored by the federal government and supported by the

local so-called forces of law and order. In Mississippi,

when Byron De La Beckwith was found not guilty of the

murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, the state's major

newspaper had a front-page photograph of De La Beckwith

shaking hands with a smiling Gov. Ross Barnett.


Not being run out of Mississippi was a victory in

itself. We made our way to strong people who were

willing to expose themselves to reprisal in order to

fight for change. And our work had greater impact than

we realized at first. In 1964, the Mississippi Freedom

Democratic Party, which we helped organize, decided to

challenge the legitimacy and seating of Mississippi's

officially recognized Democratic Party at the National

Democratic Convention that year. President Lyndon B.

Johnson and other national party decision-makers

exercised what can only be called raw white power and

denied seating to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic

Party. This was because of the clout wielded by southern

white Democrats--power they owed to their exclusion of

blacks from the political process.


We were bitter about it because we thought we had

failed. But the party promised changes that would expand

the participation of women and minorities. In 1972,

these changes were formalized into what are now called

the McGovern Rules, outlawing explicitly racist local

party affiliates and increasing the number of women and

minorities in party leadership roles.


The candidacy of Barack Obama--and Hillary Clinton, for

that matter--would not have been possible without the

1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge that

generated the pressure for these new rules. President

Obama owes a great debt to this Mississippi challenge of

1964 as well as to the black people in Mississippi and

across the South whose blood still soaks the soil.


Civil rights victories--the 1964 Public Accommodations

Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act--were a dilemma for

us in SNCC. In five years, we learned that the problems

of black life in America were greater and deeper than

these two pieces of legislation could remedy. "Where do

we go from here?" we asked ourselves, and we never

really found an answer.


Differences of political opinion that had been

relatively unimportant in the heat of struggle loomed

larger now. Was willingness to face terror enough to

qualify for membership? How strong should central

authority be? Is nonviolence still relevant? What about

self-defense? How do whites fit in? The MFDP's challenge

of the status quo and its refusal to kowtow to liberal

Democratic Party pressures, our stance against the war

in Vietnam, our support for a Palestinian state, and our

use of the slogan "black power" brought the wrath of

former allies down on our heads. I think our stances

were all legitimate, but they cost us politically.


Complicating all this was the simple fact that we were

tired. We stopped organizing, in a sense, losing the

best in ourselves. As Bob Moses put it, SNCC was like a

boat in the water that had to be repaired to stay

afloat, but had to stay afloat in order to be repaired.


Our disintegration will also come up during our

gathering in Raleigh, and there are undoubtedly lessons

in it for today. Some of us will not have seen each

other for years. Still, I think that while "repair" has

gone on for decades, most of us are still afloat. And

there are lessons in that, too.


Charles Cobb Jr. is senior analyst for All Africa. His

latest book is On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of

the Civil Rights Trail


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