Introductory Note: This letter began when several friends contacted me about the New York Times opinion article, "Waiting for a Perfect Protest?." The content below reflects the substance of those initial conversations. I then sent the letter to a number of former SNCC and SCLC staff, and Mississippi Summer Project volunteers and invited their comments. The document below is the final product. Of all the people I invited to sign it, only one said no.
November 29, 2017
"Waiting for a Perfect Protest?" (NYT September 1, 2017), an opinion piece authored by four clergy people (M. McBride, T. Blackmon, F. Reid and Barbara Williams Skinner), has the right sentiments, but is unfortunately wrong on important facts. They use the history of the 1960s civil rights movement to make a case against "paralyzingly unrealistic standards when it comes to what protest should look like." To the contrary, it is indeed those "unrealistic standards" that were, in part, responsible for the broad support the early phase of the civil rights movement — 1955-to-1964/65 — had from the rest of the country, even when its tactics made people uncomfortable.
To be precise, the authors say it is a "sanitized image" that leads contemporary activists to conclude "that protests organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and countless local organizations fighting for justice did not fall victim to violent outbreaks. That's a myth. In spite of extensive training in nonviolent protest and civil disobedience, individuals and factions within the larger movement engaged in violent skirmishes, and many insisted on their right to physically defend themselves even while they proclaimed nonviolence as an ideal (examples include leaders of the SNCC and the Deacons for Defense and Justice in Mississippi)."
The protests organized by SCLC and SNCC fell victim to the violence of white racists. In sit-ins, freedom rides and mass demonstrations, and at offices of voter registrars, they were nonviolent. That contrasts sharply with what "Black Bloc" anarchists and "Antifas" now do at planned nonviolent actions. They show up, then break windows, torch automobiles and otherwise engage in property destruction. In some instances they have engaged in personal violence against alt-right demonstrators.
In the name of "diversity of tactics", at least some nonviolent demonstrators refuse to repudiate these tactics. That is a mistake. (Charlottesville, nonviolent demonstrators say Antifa people rescued them from fascist violence. That individual Antifa people acted with humanity and courage is not the point here. We're talking about ideology, policies and general practices that should be repudiated by the mainstream movement.)
SNCC supported the right of local people to protect themselves in their homes, with guns if necessary. And when Holmes County leader Hartman Turnbow came out of his firebombed house with guns blazing, probably killing some Klansmen in the process, they applauded. Some of them carried guns in their cars when they drove on isolated roads seeking to reach cotton plantation workers to urge them to register to vote. But these were very different circumstances. SNCC people did not see a contradiction between this and their philosophical or tactical commitment to nonviolence.
The Deacons for Defense accompanied nonviolent demonstrators in some cases. They were armed, and promised to fire if the demonstrators were attacked. But it never happened! In no instance did the Deacons fire their guns. So, yes, "The civil rights movement was messy, disorderly, confrontational," but, no, it was not "sometimes violent." The Black Bloc/Antifa is a leech on the broader movement. If they want to do their thing, let them separately organize it.
Chude Pam Allen, Atlanta Student Movement and Mississippi Summer Volunteer, 1964
Elaine DeLott Baker, CORE field worker, 1964-1965.
Stephen Bingham, Aaron Henry for Governor campaign, fall 1963; Mississippi Summer Project Volunteer, 1964.
Edie Black, Freedom School Teacher, Mileston, MS, Summer 1964.
Ron Carver, SNCC Communications Dept. Atlanta, Georgia 1964-1965; Oktibbeha County GA, and DeSoto County Mississippi projects.
Janice Goodman, Freedom summer 1964, DC Representative, MFDP, 1964-67.
Bruce Hartford, SCLC field staff 1965-1967 Alabama, Mississippi.
Casey Hayden, SNCC 1960-1965: Freedom Rider; Northern Coordinator; Organizer Mississippi Freedom Summer, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Matt Herron, civil rights photographer 1963-1965.
Carolyn Egan Miller, Mississippi Summer Project Volunteer, July-September, 1964; SNCC Field Secretary, 1965-1966.
Mike Miller, SNCC Field Secretary, 1962-late 1966.
Susan Moon, SNCC, Mississippi Freedom Summer, Moss Point, 1964.
Dinky Romilly, SNCC Northern Coordinator, Atlanta, 1963-1965.
Nancy Stearns, SNCC Atlanta office staff, 1963-1964.
Karen Wolff, SNCC, 1965.
Bob Zellner, SNCC Field Secretary, 1961-68; Co-director and founder with, Dorothy Miller Zellner, of Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF) GROW Project 1968-79
Mitchell Zimmerman, SNCC Field Secretary, Arkansas 1965-1966.
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