By Mike Miller
July/August 2010 Issue of Poverty & Race
Held April 15-18, 2010, at Shaw University, the nation’s oldest historically Black institution of higher education, SNCC’s 50th Anniversary Reunion Program notes on its cover page, “This conference was planned in strict accordance with SNCC’s principles of decision-making. Therefore, we don’t really know what will happen when until it does. An attitude of flexibility mixed with humor will help a lot.” In fact, the reunion was tightly organized, and ran on time. That was all the more remarkable because more than 1,000 attended an event that many of its planners originally anticipated to be attended by a maximum of 500. Indeed, it was an earlier myth about SNCC that it was disorganized…though it became that in its later years.
For those who don’t remember, or don’t know, SNCC was born in April, 1960 when leaders of the sit-in movement convened at Shaw University at the invitation of legendary African-American organizer Ella Baker, then the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s acting Executive Director. SCLC hoped the student movement would become its youth arm. Baker advised the students to form an independent organization. They did, and wrote a major chapter of the Deep South Civil Rights Movement history from 1960–1965, then opened the debate over black power when SNCC chairman Stokely Carmichael made the slogan popular beginning in 1966.
In 1961, after the Southern Black student movement exploded with sit-ins and Freedom Rides, a small group left their college campuses to become full-time “Field Secretaries,” using community organizing tools to attempt registration of Black voters in places where racist power depended on its exclusion. When SNCC threatened to self-destruct in an internal debate over direct action versus voter registration, Ella Baker’s wisdom came to the rescue, and the organization decided to do both.
Working with the most marginalized low-income Black people in counties where they were as much as 85% of the population, SNCC’s patient door-to-door canvassing led to the formation of grassroots organizations across the “Black Belt.” In Albany and rural Southwest Georgia; Selma and Lowndes County, Alabama; Cambridge, Maryland; Danville, Virginia; the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas, and more, SNCC organizers built or strengthened local movements for racial and economic justice and voting rights. The best known of these efforts resulted in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and its 1964 challenge to the seating of the all-white delegation at the Democratic Party National Convention, and rejection of a so-called “compromise” that offered MFDP two at-large delegates. While the rest of the Civil Rights Movement urged acceptance of the compromise, MFDP’s delegation, with SNCC support, overwhelmingly rejected it.
Mississippi’s 1964 visibility resulted from a Summer Project that invited 800+ Northern volunteers into the state, and the state murder of two of them along with a young local Black. Within SNCC, the Project was controversial because it threatened to overwhelm the still-fragile grassroots relationships SNCC had been cultivating, and because the mostly white volunteers would replicate historic patterns of deference to whites. COINTELPRO infiltration, and bitter internal debates on black power and its meaning, the role of whites in the organization, the nature of the U.S. government, and more all combined to unravel SNCC; it disbanded in 1970.
The reunion held within it all the elements of SNCC’s history: deep feelings of comradeship (“a band of brothers [‘and sisters’ was later added], a circle of trust,”), humor, rich music of the gospel tradition, creative singing and song-writing of SNCC’s Freedom Singers, bonds between Black and white SNCC workers that remain strong today, militant nationalism, Pan African Marxism, anger at what remains undone in the struggle for racial and economic justice. And there are people who don’t talk to one another because of struggles 50 years ago or conflicts in planning this gathering. The SNCC experience was an intense one. As I reflect on it, it was an extraordinary privilege to work for five years in a Black-led organization dedicated to racial and economic justice and democratic participation by poor and illiterate Southern African Americans.
SNCC’s accomplishments were celebrated in speeches and panels. Former SNCC Field Secretaries, who are now nationally and internationally recognized leaders, spoke, as did other notables—the best-known of them: John Lewis, Member of Congress and a Majority Party Whip.
Rev. James Lawson, nonviolence teacher of the Nashville Movement; Julian Bond, past Chairman of the NAACP Board; Bob Moses, initiator of the Algebra Project, which uses experiential learning methods to teach math to low-performing middle- and high-school students; Bernice Johnson Reagon, scholar and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Each was greeted with thundering applause.
The 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Acts resulted from the combination of earlier NAACP legal and local action, and CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality), SCLC and SNCC direct action and voting rights work in the South. SNCC added two crucial ingredients: When others were willing to compromise or were intimidated by violence, SNCC was not. CORE stopped Freedom Rides because of violence in Alabama; SNCC picked up the banner and continued the Rides into Jackson, MS where the Riders were all jailed. SCLC did short-term mobilizations designed to arouse white support in the North and put pressure on Congress and the President. SNCC dug deep roots in the Black Belt counties, and stayed over the long haul. During the 1960s, SNCC was denounced by the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, and by many liberals and mainstream media (including the New York Times). At the reunion, Attorney General Eric Holder, representing the Obama Administration, paid homage to SNCC’s courage and intelligence, saying, “There is a direct line between the sit-ins and President Obama in The White House.” The City of Raleigh, State of North Carolina and President of Shaw University all gave greetings, and Shaw donated its facilities for the reunion.
One of the purposes of the reunion was to pass on experience to a younger generation. Student leaders and activists from Black and other colleges and universities in the South were present, as were the children of SNCC activists. The Young People’s Project, an outgrowth of the Algebra Project, had a strong presence. A number of children of SNCC veterans spoke, expressed respect and love for their parents’ generation, and demonstrated their own commitment to activism.
More than 20 panels and other sessions examined a multitude of questions, including: nonviolent philosophy; the shift from campus activism to full-time fieldwork; organization-building; national response to SNCC; Northern support work; the larger vision beyond civil rights; black power; Pan African Marxism; the role of whites; the role of women; SNCC’s political impact; how SNCC evolved; the role of MFDP in reshaping the Democratic Party; why SNCC ceased to exist; organizing poor whites; SNCC’s influence on Black art; current imprisonment of substantial numbers of young Black men; and more.
Additional plenary and general sessions included Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory, Danny Glover, SNCC photography and SNCC music. A book party included 35 authors, most of them former SNCC staff. And a film festival featured documentaries and docudramas telling SNCC’s story.
Harry Belafonte’s lunch talk, 45 minutes without a single note, took SNCC to task for indulging in self-congratulation. His remarks were well received, and he got several standing ovations. But conference planners rejected any idea of reviving SNCC and decided young activists in attendance would draw whatever they found useful from the reflections on the past. Some informal talk in the hallways and hotel bar expressed dissatisfaction at the lack of focused attention on past mistakes, why they were made and how today’s activists and organizers might avoid them. SNCC’s veteran field secretary Charlie Cobb once said to me, “We never figured out how to be an organization of organizers.” Two clear and competing views might have been resolved had SNCC remained rooted in the communities where it worked. By 1965, that rootedness began to erode. An early 1967 Executive Committee meeting debated what organizing was and could not resolve the question.
My view is that with the first group to drop out of school to become full-time workers in the Black Belt, SNCC’s core mission became building Black people’s power guided by justice values. It lost sight of that mission, and lost its rootedness in local people. The two losses are deeply intertwined; I think they were a result of deepening despair at the pace of change in the South, and the murders of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and dozens of lesser-known Black leaders.
For me, the SNCC experience was one of the most meaningful of my life. It, and my subsequent work directing an organizing project for Saul Alinsky, infused my subsequent 45 years as a community organizer. As it was a privilege to be part of SNCC, so it was a privilege to be part of the reunion. One would have to travel far and wide to be in the presence of such a smart, joyful, committed and talented group of people.
Mike Miller was a SNCC Field Secretary from mid-1962 to the end of 1966. In the summer and early fall of 1963, he worked in Mississippi. Most of his work was in Northern California, and included support work for the Southern movement, co-coordinator of the United Farm Workers’ Schenley Liquor boycott, and local community organizing in San Francisco.
He is author of A Community Organizer’s Tale: People and Power in San Francisco (Heyday Books, 2009). He directs ORGANIZE Training Center, www.organizetrainingcenter.org