In the final analysis, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — a "black" student-led organization lasting from 1960 through 1970 — entered into a long legacy of organizations dedicated to organized resistance to "white" supremacy in the United States. This legacy began centuries ago in our warrior societies in west and central Africa, and in the acts of millions of heroic individuals who resisted subjugation and debasement. The resistance continues today. And at all times Africans and African-Americans found reliable and self-sacrificing allies among "white," "red,"" and "brown" peoples. In fact, some "whites," like John Brown, were notoriously well celebrated for heroism in the movement for the abolition of slavery. Indeed, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, a rallying song for Union forces in the Civil War, was originally a song dedicated to John Brown. The Confederacy and the Confederate flag stood for one thing only, then and now: abject "white" supremacy in American society and the maintenance (or restoration) of African-American slavery. Accordingly, John Brown and other militant abolitionists are revered for banging nails into the coffin of racism.
From time-in-memorial the "black" freedom movement has been also juxtaposed with other movements resisting class, gender, and xenophobic oppression in the United States. And, of course, in SNCC, we enjoyed the direct dedicated support of many "white" comrades-in-arms (who included, disproportionately, Jewish "whites" among them), the collateral support of Latinos, e.g., the Farm Workers Movements in California and Florida began around 1962, and that of Native Americans where, e.g., the American Indian Movement, AIM, which began in the late 1960's, was inspired by SNCC as well.
Thus SNCC — the "blacks,""whites" and the Latinos within it — joined in a centuries' old movement that addressed, in its time, the challenges then current in the first half of the 1960's such as the fight for the de-segregation of public accommodations, the fight for "black" voter enfranchisement, and the fight for equal and generalized protection of the law; something theretofore denied to "Negroes." It's practice for the most part and its rhetorical strategy was that of "non-violent" civil disobedience, but there were times when I was in SNCC — 1965 through 1969 — when we were self-mockingly referred to as the "non-student violent disorganizing committee." SNCC, in a sense, was born in 1960 from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. SCLC itself being founded in 1958. But, indirectly, SNCC also drew cadre and inspiration from the Congress of Racial Equality ("CORE" dating back the 1940's), the Civil Rights Congress (1948), the Urban League, and the National Association for the Advancement Colored Peoples ("NAACP") and many, many other national and local organizations and religious and labor movement veterans and activists.
The late Jim Forman — SNCC's Executive Director from 1964 through 1966 and later its Director of International Affairs — once told me that SNCC's name came from its acceptance of the role of "coordinators" of the second, and successful, wave of "Freedom Riders" who — "black" and "white" together in 1961 — took on the daunting and exceedingly dangerous task of desegregating public accommodations along the interstate bus routes throughout Dixie. This work, especially for the "white" SNCC workers involved, was particularly dangerous as southern "white" supremacists targeted them with singular vengeance and regarded them as "nigger lovers" and race-traitors.
But it did not stop there. For the next four years "black" and "white" SNCC workers went on to challenge "white supremacy" in public accommodations and "black" voter disenfranchisement from Maryland all the way through Texas.* Together with other civil rights organizations SNCC galvanized a nation into a recognition that "white supremacy" — at least in law — had to end. And, indeed, they paid the price for entering "the Movement" in terms them suffering the deprivation of the amenities of life (even paid SNCC workers could only expect $5 to $30 a week and most were not paid most of the time), suffering abject and chronic fear and stress, jailings, beatings, defamation and suffering mental breakdowns. But they were also rewarded with some of life's most precious attributes: integrity, relevance, altruism and the irreplaceable memories of having bravely done the right thing when so many would not.
*The discerning reader will notice, admittedly to the point of perserveration, that every time I use the term "white" or "black" person I do so in quotation marks. This is to signify that — while, for the sake of convenience I, like everyone else, use the terms unqualified in regular discourse — an important point is to be made that "whiteness" and its "racial" antonyms ("black,""colored,"" coon,""nigger," "nigra," "negress," or "Negro") is, as a social construct, a tragic fiction. I have been told that there is more genetic variation in a single troupe of chimps than in all of humanity. "Whiteness" (and "blackness") is ipso facto a "white supremacist" category or "racial" construct. I will elaborate on this in later in this essay and on its unfortunate implication in SNCC's political history for some in "racializing" African-American self-determination slogans. For example, there was racialized "black nationalism" and there was non-racialized "black nationalism" as well; though few SNCC activists clearly understood the difference thus leading them to conceive of and express "black" self-determination slogans ("black pride,""black power, etc.) in racialized terms. And this was reacted to by some "whites" in "the Movement" with much consternation notwithstanding the efforts by "black" SNCC theorists of the time to assert that being "pro-black" was not to be "anti — white." My view is that, technically, being "pro-black" is definitely — and for very good reasons — being "anti-white." We African-Americans inherited and, unfortunately, were stuck with these "racial" terms of expression — along with their racist defects and ambiguities — as the only verbal terms available to us at the time. Please see below.
So, without seeking to patronize anyone, there can be no doubt that at this august 50th Anniversary of SNCC celebration in April, 2010, in Raleigh, North Carolina, we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to all SNCC workers who put their lives on the line for our Freedom; especially the "white" ones. The fight they joined in together with us was mainly a fight against "Jim Crow" or de jure lawful segregation; not one particularly for "integration" (a concept that was slightly different — though obviously related). That is, it was a fight to establish the formal rule of law consistent with the principles of constitutional equal protection. But SNCC's contribution was neither the only one in the fight against "white" supremacy in American history, nor the only one in the 1960's in particular. It should be noted however that the location of the civil rights struggles in which "white" and "black" SNCC workers participated were almost entirely in "black communities."
But SNCC members — mostly "black" members by the second half of the 1960's — also drew inspiration from the self-determining "black nationalist" and "separatist" legacies of the 19th century's "black Zionist" movements for African repatriation, from the apolitical "black power" economics of Booker T. Washington at the turn of the 20th century, from the "black nationalism and Zionism" of the United Negro Improvement Association (Marcus Garvey's UNIA in the 1920's), from the 1940's Allah Temple of Islam (later to become the Nation of Islam in the 1950's), from the African Blood Brotherhood (an organization that, in the 1920's, was partly responsible for the evolution of the non-racialized "black self determination in the "black belt" concept and slogan advanced by the Communist Party of the USA, and from Malcolm X's Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) starting in 1964.
SNCC did not carbon-copy any of the programs of these organizations. And, in fact, it had some antagonism with some of them. But the point is that the SNCC of the 1960's — all of the 1960's — was inter-active with and influenced by numerous organizations and trends that were in their own ways organizations resistant to either de jure "white supremacy" — white supremacy as enshrined in law and public policy — or to de facto "white supremacy" — the legacy of "white supremacy" in the social facts of life in American society, in general, and in the psychological facts of mass self-debasement among "black" people, in particular.
AS THE STRUGGLE AGAINST DE JURE "JIM CROW" REACHED ITS ZENITH IN 1965 NEW FOCI FOR THE MOVEMENT — IN THE NATURE OF "BLACK CONSCIOSUNESS" — EVOLVED
Starting in early 1966, the majority of SNCC leadership identified new issues for the agenda of the "black" freedom movement. Not only was it necessary for us in SNCC to continue desegregation activities and voter registration drives, but also we had to address the abysmal deficits in the collective self-image of "black" people — starting with a psychological reversal of the mass sentiment that "black" was ugly. And we had to find or develop "white" allies who had the insight and gumption to directly address the pernicious concept of "whiteness" itself (and the relative "white skin privilege") inherent in America's racistly stratified institutions and in the mentality of its "white" people. If that were not enough, we had to address the de facto "white" supremacist facts-on-the-ground: "black" economic immiseration, the lack of "black" political leadership at all levels of American civil society, the war in Vietnam, and solidarity with the anti-colonial (or anti- neo-colonial liberation) movements of people of color world-wide. The second half of SNCC was politically not less, but more, complicated than the first.
The psychological tasks alluded to above were largely "internal" to the "black community." Bold and iconoclastic rhetoric was required in this because we did not enjoy the convenient focus of de jure legal racism (the examples of which would include: literacy tests for voting, poll taxes, segregated schools, black juror impeachment, court-upheld racial housing covenants, and on and on) to rally against. Instead we had to take on a national mind-set that dehumanized the "Negro" even to himself and her- self, and to attack the images of "white supremacy" in respect of Eurocentric esthetic standards prevalent in the USA. By contrast, "the Movement's" earlier — external — focus on de jure Jim Crow laws and 'state action' (the acts of public officials) was relatively easy to achieve as a mobilization tool for "white" and "black" SNCC workers in the first half of the 1960's.
But in the latter-1960's phase of "the Movement's" internalization, starting in 1965, SNCC's leadership wisely and correctly, though initially reluctantly (requiring considerable prompting from members of SNCC's local Atlanta Project members), indicated that the tasks of "white" organizers was now to work "internally" within "white" communities to deconstruct the very mentality of "whiteness" (starting in themselves) and to undermine the acceptance of the "white" consensus and the relative "white" skin privilege among "white" Americans. "Black" organizers in SNCC could not do that. By contrast, our tasks involved building the rudiments of "black power:" creating "freedom organizations" or "black" political parties in predominantly "black" localities, electing "black" public officials, and challenging the absence of "black" history and "black" studies in America's schools. Theses evolved foci were breath-taking in daring: nothing of the sort had ever been tried in America — the citadel of world reaction and imperialism.
Psychologically, de facto internalized racism was exemplified in the oft-used idiomatic expressions within the "black" community, to wit: that 'niggers ain't shit,'' niggers are like crabs in a basket,' 'niggers and fliesI do despiseone spreads disease and the other spreads lies," as well as in the sexist and parenting pathologies that too many of us learned in 350 years of slavery.
All of this — every bit of this — resulted from the effects of "white" supremacy in the de-culturalization of the African and African-American slave, or in the colonization of continental Africans. And none of it could be addressed by "white" SNCC organizers. Thus the fight against racist dehumanization — a human and cultural right struggle — was every bit as important as a revolutionary objective in 1965 as the fight against de jure legal racism was in 1960.
Consequently, in 1966, "white" SNCC organizers were urged to re-enter our struggle as allies fighting against de facto practical and psychological "white" supremacy in society and in culture as a whole and to do so directly among "white people, i.e., directly in the "white" communities of America. They were not simply "kicked out of SNCC." They were being re-directed into taking on the next challenge. However, little that they faced in the brutal campaigns to desegregate Albany, Georgia, or to register voters in Holly Springs, Mississippi or in Selma, Alabama, would thoroughly prepare them for what we asked of them in places like Cicero (Chicago), Illinois or Boston, Massachusett's "white" suburbs (with its "white" women throwing bricks through the windows of school buses carrying "black" children to prevent the integration of public schools there), or in similar "white" communities of New York, Philadelphia, and a host of other American population centers!
By 1965 the federal government and its courts were content only with striking down de jure white supremacy in the laws of the land, in the acts of public officials, and in public accommodations that were in the stream of interstate commerce but — with the exception of busing of children to public schools to achieve de-segregation — they did nothing to combat de facto "white" supremacy in respect of its historically etched effects 'on the ground': in unequal housing, unequal health care, unequal economic opportunity, nor in reducing the shocking disparity in "white" and "black" levels of net wealth and assets.
Even "affirmative action" policies adopted in 1970 during the Nixon administration, ostensibly to advance the opportunities of "racial" minorities (in construction), were merely a cynical ruse used by his administration to create immunity from civil actions against employer-owners of segregated workplaces so long as they could show that they had developed a plan to eventually desegregate their work forces. (But affirmative action eventually worked too well — despite the ruse — and, five years later, came under attack because it became unneeded as a shield against civil rights law suits — once federal court cases provided further relief to "white supremacy" by requiring that plaintiffs of color alleging racial discrimination had to prove racist intentions on the part of defendants to produce and maintain racist imbalances in their employment or higher education policies).
Thus there was no leadership role for "white" organizers inside the "black" communities on matters like these either. But there were formidable tasks in store for them as they were encouraged to tackle the persistence and perniciousness of institutional "white" supremacy" among "white" people in America's predominantly "white" institutions, agencies and communities.
These newer foci for "the Movement" were explained in 1966 and 1967 ad nauseam to all who would listen. For some "white" organizers the evolution and inevitability of "the Movement" going in the direction of "black consciousness" in SNCC was immediately acceptable (as was the evolution of a SNCC leadership role in opposing the Vietnam war and the draft, in opposing colonialism, apartheid, and neo-colonialism, and in opposing Israeli Zionism following the 1967 war in the Middle East). A good many of them became engaged in community and labor movements and have never ceased to play revolutionary roles. And their anxiety was not provoked. By contrast, some 'dropped out' into virtually escapist — "counter-culture" — lifestyles.
But the ultimate validation of SNCC's evolution into the politics of "black consciousness" lie in the fact that the 1960's resurrection of "black consciousness" became a mass movement that mobilized and partially liberated the entire "black community" in this country and world-wide. That is, at the time, "blackness" was a revolutionary and liberating advance over previous versions of racialized identity: "colored," "Negro,""nigger" or "coons." And, as mentioned before, it was still, lamentably, a racialized construct. By 1969 "I'm Black and I'm Proud" was a national slogan! In fact, the "black consciousness" movement even took hold in apartheid South Africa and speeded up the demise of "white" supremacy there. And as recently as 1996, Brazil, the last country to outlaw African slavery in the western hemisphere — 1896 — saw the advent of its first racially conscious "black" magazine based on "black consciousness."
Yet regardless of its validity some "white" SNCC organizers were skeptical, and more than a few of them were simply (and understandably) grief-stricken at the loss of their place in an organization and in a movement that they had done so much to identify with, had served so courageously, and had sacrificed so much for. Additionally many had made sincere friendships in SNCC by 1966. For some these wounds have apparently not healed and they remain entitled and embittered — even coming to this conference having made the choice to castigate the SNCC of the second-half of the 1960's and malign its emblematic "black consciousness" leaders such as Stokely Carmichael or H. Rap Brown (Kwame Ture and imam Jamil al-Amin, respectively). A few have urged that we — at the 50th anniversary of SNCC's founding of all places — practically ignore SNCC's "second half" so that "white folk" will not be made to feel uncomfortable at this conference. This is lamentable and unintelligent. And it only shows that, as we say in Yoruba-Lucumi (an African and Cuban-based religion of which I am a part), "even the Gods are defenseless against stupidity!"
It is said that one can have one's own opinion, but not one's own facts! The fact is that all of SNCC 's activities from 1960 to 1970 were important, and every single organizer — "black" or "white" — deserves to be recognized and cherished for what they did or stood for whenever they worked for SNCC. We have fallen comrades from every year of SNCC's existence. We should honor them all. And the SNCC that I most remember is that SNCC where — despite fear and personal deprivation, and in spite of many characterological short-comings among many of us and outright personal and political treacheries among some of us — we would on short notice rush to the aid of our comrades and to the aid of non-SNCC community activists (the real heroes and heroines of "the Movement") whenever the need arose.
Finally, by way of historical review, just a few more points. SNCC began as a southern Freedom organization in a southern Christian religious context, though probably fewer than half of our workers at the time were particularly religious; left to our own devices. But the fact is that we entered into a southern Christian cultural context, and our people, our "Negro" churches, and our "black" protestant religious heritage, as a cultural phenomenon, provided resources for our spiritual, economic, and physical sustenance during those often bleak and sometimes terrifying weeks, months and years in "the Movement."
We also entered into a tradition of long-standing local freedom movements, labor movements and organizations already in place in the south. I met many men and women who had for decades fought against "white supremacy" in local and state-wide organizations. And finally, the modern southern freedom movement began — one could rationally argue — in the years 1954 to 1956 — with the momentous U.S. Supreme Court decisions of Brown vs. The Topeka Kansas Board of Education (Brown I and Brown I I, 1954 and 1955, respectively), outlawing racial segregation in public education because it was psychologically harmful and debasing to "Negro" youth because segregation itself implied and guaranteed permanent inferiority in the social and psychological life of the "Negro."
SNCC THROUGHOUT ITS DECADE-LONG HISTORY ENERGIZED THE ENTIRE AMERICAN PROGRESSIVE MOVEMENT
The reader will come to understand later in this essay why I emphasize that these seminal court decisions — ostensibly against de jure "Jim Crow" racism — lawfully enshrined "white supremacy" provisions and classifications in law going back to the Slave Codes of the 1680's and the Black Codes of 1870's — turned on the permanently objectionable nature of "Negro" psychological debasement that flowed in their wake and which produced a legacy of de facto "white supremacy" in American society and culture as a whole, and internalized in "the Negro," in particular.
It should be noted that many other peoples and groups directly benefited from the revolutionizing effects of the southern freedom movement. In the 1950's, progressive and liberal America was frozen in fear and inertia from the repression of socialists and communists as a result of McCarthyism. When I was a boy one could barely enter a "ban the bomb" or "peace now" demonstration without incurring risks of repression. But it was the Montgomery Bus Boycott movement in 1956 that shook America into the realization that mobilizations were immediately required to desegregate the schools, theaters, lunch counters swimming pools and so on, and that other "movements" were immediately plausible.
Thus, not only were "Negroes'" freedom at stake in the civil rights movement, a whole lot more was at stake as well. For examples, if "Negroes" could vote in the south then the Dixiecratic "white supremacists" of the southern Democratic parties, who had gained seniority in the U.S. Congress, could not continue to write reactionary racial, environmental and labor laws. That was their plan. They even brought women's civil rights provisions to the table hoping to derail civil rights legislation (it did not work) and, thus, in a sense the modern women's movement owes its existence to the civil rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's.
Similarly — from the 1920's onward — many American Jews had substantial interests in and control over the entertainment industry, particularly the Hollywood "Dream machine." This is no mere stereotype. Yet they were intimidated by anti-Jewish sentiments in the USA such that they rarely depicted Jewish causes and heroes and heroines in their material and productions. But in the 1960's, thanks to the mobilization of thousands of "Negroes" and Jews in the freedom movement, we also saw the emergence of a Woody Allen, a Barbara Streisand (who had the integrity to not have a 'nose job' and embraced her identity), a Leonard Bernstein, a Lenny Bruce, or Saul Bellow and so on, as un-intimidated and momentous Jewish talents.
Next, but for the anti-Vietnam war and anti-draft agitation of SNCC (along with SDS and other organizations), the Vietnam war casualty rates — which were comprised of 25% "blacks" and 25% Latinos — one-half of American combat fatalities(!) — would have gone unnoticed or unchallenged. It was only after SNCC pioneered this issue in January of 1966, that the reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against the Vietnam war and came to accept "black consciousness" as a legitimate aspiration of the Negro. And but for the "black consciousness" trends within SNCC — 1966 through 1970 — which included the slogans of "black pride,""black power ("black control of the black community!")," "black studies,""black self-determination," "black culture," "black public officials," "Black Panther parties" and so on, the movements in academia for ethnic studies, feminist or women's studies, peace studies and gay liberation would never have seen the light of day.
I would urge that the challenges of the latter half of the 1960's were identified and addressed by many SNCC members who had been active in SNCC's first half (1960-1964) as well as those who came into work "for" or "with" SNCC starting in 1965 and that they were of equal importance with the issues addressed in the 1960 — 1964 period. We not only continued the fights against segregation and voter disenfranchisement but we championed "black power" — the most important legacy of which is the existence of hundreds of "black," Latino and Asian-American and women politicians and caucuses in America's political spheres to this day. And they have made a big difference — including having paved the way for America's first African-American president and First Family.
"BLACKNESS" AND "WHITENESS" ARE BOTH "WHITE SUPREMACIST" OR CONCEPTS
Earlier in this essay I promised to explain why I write the racial terms "black" and "white" in quotation marks. The reason is that unless we have a critical understanding of the terms or constructs of "race" that we use in our daily language, we cannot understand how fully insidious "white" supremacy in culture really is.
The first thing that we did to assert "black" self-determination was to take control of the definitions that applied to us; to take control of the terms of our collective identity. It is not like America gave us a choice about addressing this topic. In its "racially" anguished history Americans frequently referred to their African slaves by their tribal or regional origins, i.e., by our cultural identities. Look back in the history books and you will find many examples of us being referred to "GuIneas,""Africans,""Eithiopes," "Congos" and so on. We even named our organizations unabashedly as "African" (e.g. the African Methodist Episcopal Church) These identities were not "racial"; they were cultural — and gave the slave and the freedman the dignity of having had an origin in culture and tradition, not an origin in slavery, nor as merely the opposite of a "white" man or woman.
But in the late 1600's and through-out the 1700's, probably starting in German universities, but quickly spreading to other European countries, a concept of "whiteness" as a pan-European identity began to emerge in intellectual and popular — quasi-scientific — discourse. Throughout the 19th century names like Gobineau, Mueller, and Chamberlain were associated with racist theories extolling the virtues and permanent superiority of "whiteness," of the Caucasian" and of the "Aryan" (Sanskrit for "an honorable people"). These racists — "white supremacists" one and all — were the intellectual progenitors of Nazism in Germany, and unabashed "white supremacy" in the European settler colonies of the Americas and, later, of South Africa and Australia.
But the United States, being created mostly by northern European protestant types, was particularly dedicated to destroying the very humanity and culture of the African slave. Unlike the situation in French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies were the policies of "assimilation" prevailed to some extent that accommodated African culture (and where Africans outnumbered slave-holders at about a ten to one ratio; with the reverse being the case in the USA) though slavery was more physically brutal there, slavery was more psychologically brutal in the United States because these European immigrant slave-o-crats tolerated no vestiges of African cultural practices nor identities. The African came here as a Bakongo, as a Fon, as an Ibo, or Yoruba, as an Ewe, or as a Mandika and so on, but, like everyone else coming to America, got turned rather immediately into a "race." But again, the African came here as the subject of a nationality or of an empire — i.e., as a participant in the world community of nationalities: not merely as someone whose history began in the Atlantic slave trade, as the "nigger"; the lamentable opposite of a "white" man.
Yet the European plantocracy in America deliberately and consciously adopted and edified in the laws of the colonies the classifications of "whites" and "blacks" to distinguish the African bondsman (even whose children were regarded as property, not as human beings, i.e., as inferior and subservient in perpetuity) from the "white" servant. And they prescribed rules and punishments that were more harsh for the Africans than for the newly-minted "white" bondsman (who had also come here as a European tribally or nationally identified creature: a Scott, an Irishman, a Frenchman and so on, in order to create an objective privilege for having "white" skin and fostering "white" solidarity. This is what the great James Baldwin referred to when he said in essence that 'white people' began at Ellis Island.' You may ask what this has to do with SNCC? Please be patient. The connection is forthcoming.
In reality, there are no such places as "white-land" nor "black-land." There are no such people as "white" people and, logically therefore, no such persons as "Negroes,""niggers,""coloreds," "spooks," "coons," nor "black" people. These are fictional "racial" identities, not truly cultural ones. We are, in fact, a culturally blended and distilled group of African-Americans, African-Caribbeans, and Africans. We are a cultural and ethnic nationality in a world community of nations and nationalities; not at all simply a "race" that is only to be defined as the inferior opposite of "white" people. However, in the 1960's, we had not reformulated these questions of identity as clearly as we may now do so in hindsight.
In fact, referring to ourselves as "black" was a daring and revolutionary advance for us in the 1960s'. It was a lot better than allowing ourselves to be referred to as "Negroes" or "niggers." But unfortunately, we were still trapped into using the language of the oppressor — a racial or "white supremacist" construct — even as we sought to escape our existential oppression.
While there are arguably other historical examples of racism as world-view--the Egyptians' reference to the "red people" of Libya, the Indian caste system (with "black untouchables" at the bottom naturally), Hebrew references to the intergenerational curse on the "black" descendants of Ham, or the Chinese preoccupation with the virtues of the "yellow" kingdom — nothing in history compares with the systematization of the ideology and false consciousness of "white" supremacy in the United States.
Viewed this way, it should not be hard to understand why African Americans in SNCC, responding to the rising tide of "black consciousness" in the second half of the 1960's, sought to edify "black" self-determination — including the right to identify ourselves as 'proudly black' — in every way possible. Hence, again, "black pride," "black consciousness," "black power," "Black Panther (parties)," "black control of the black community,""black studies" and the like, became the slogans and issues of focus because the embrace of "blackness" was viewed as a revolutionary advance.
Unfortunately, the edification of "blackness" — because "blackness," in the final analysis, was still a "white supremacist" construct — did imply the destruction of "whiteness" (but not necessarily the destruction of "white people" — see below) because in our culture "whiteness" was and remains the opposite of "blackness" in every historical respect.
Now this is where matters went awry within SNCC. First of all, if a "white" person naively continued to identify himself or herself as a "white person," for example, as a "white liberal" or a "white progressive," into the mid-1960's, he or she may well have felt that "black slogans" and "black" self-determination politics were a threatening rejection of and destruction of his or her own personal and group "white" identity.
The problem is that, in our own naivete, while many "black" SNCC cadre and theorists did understand that the wholesale embrace of "blackness" in pursuit of our people's self-determination goals that failed to distinguish between "racialized" "black nationalism" and non-racialized "black nationalism" would, in fact, put many naive "white" people on the defensive. First, this is what I mean by that distinction.
Some "black nationalists" — let's use those in the 1950's-through-1980's Nation of Islam as an example — actually viewed "whiteness" as a legitimate racial classification applicable to a perverted, and characterologically immutable, group of people (a group of "devils") — "white people." Their wickedness — the wickedness of the "whites" — was inherent; it came in on a gene, in their view. There was no way to reform them. By contrast, the "Asiatic black man" was inherently superior and civil and this would express itself when he had his own "nation." But until then he would continue to act like a "nigger" as he had been taught. This was an example of racialized "black nationalism."
In fact, the ideology of the old Nation of Islam was so racist that it even abhorred our African cultural heritage (hence we were called the '"Asiatic" black man') and it rationalized the over-valuing of light-skinned "black people" as having the "advantage" of being able to "pass between two worlds" (e.g., the master Farad Muhammad). The problem was not that they regarded most "white people" as devils (the case for that not being too hard to make if you slept on it), but that they viewed this condition as heritable, as immutable, as terminal, and about which — therefore — it was futile to agitate for changes in their devilish behavior. This is what made their "black nationalism" racist. Hence, my concept of "racialized black nationalism."
By contrast, I referred earlier to the slogan of the former Communist Party USA that, in the 1930's, called for "self determination for the Negro in the Black-belt" (a region or swatch of land in the southern United States running from Virginia through Louisiana). This too was "black nationalism." But no one could accuse the Communist Party USA of being a racist "white supremacist" organization though it was by no means entirely free of racialist biases among some of its members. The point that I am making here is that this is an example of non-racialized "black nationalism." It was and is possible to adopt such a concept. It was merely a "pro-black" "national" formulation (a revolutionary expression of the "national democratic struggle" in communist lingo of the time), not an "anti-white" formulation by any means.
Many other organizations, for example, the Trotskyists of the 1960's, another Marxist faction, as well as simply insightful "white" activists "got it" — as the clichi goes today. "Black" expressions of "Black self-determination" were not necessarily, nor predominantly, "anti-white people" (although among some "black' activists that was the case, to be honest about it).
In fact, the "black nationalism" of Malcolm X in 1964 and 1965 was an explicitly non-racialized version of "black nationalism." Malcolm was absolutely clear about this and it cost him his life.
Thus the expressions of "black" self-determination slogans and organizational tactics were absolutely legitimate, particularly for the cities where SNCC also had revolutionary cadre — e.g., the Atlanta Project in Atlanta, Ga., or the Chicago Project in "Chi-town" — in the second half of the 1960's. When one looks back, can one not see the positive impact in changing America that "I'm Black and I'm Proud," "black politicians" (the direct beneficiaries of "black power"), and "black studies" wrought?
Even though our SNCC "black consciousness" leaders like Stokely Carmichael ("Stokely Starmichael" — smile my friends) and 'Rap' forcefully tried to explain these subtle matters as best they could, many people, regardless of "race," were simply not ready to hear it. But it was not because they did not try. In fact, in their later years they even went further to sharpen their world-views, i.e., to put the self-determination aspirations of "black" people (and their personal identities) on a sound cultural basis; for example, "Pan-Africanism" for Kwame Ture or Al-Islam for imam Jamil al-Amin). I have heard recent reports that, though still in prison, imam Jamil al-Amin has converted the head of the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood to Islam. (Only 'Rap' could do something like that!).
As I arrive at my conclusion, let me remind you once again why I labored so much to distinguish between the civil rights struggle against de jure (legal) racism of the first half of SNCC's phenomenal decade, on the one hand, and the human rights struggle of the SNCC's second half, on the other, which took on the tasks of combating the de facto manifestations of "white" supremacy such as social inequality and the psychological terror that existed in the form of "Negro" self-hatred the derived from our forced identifications solely as a denigrated (no pun intended) "race"; the permanently inferior opposites of "whites."
A TIME FOR CELEBRATION AND PRINCIPLED CONCILIATION
The 1954 decision in Brown alluded to earlier struck down de jure or lawful "Jim Crow" segregation in a huge part of America's institutional life: its public schools. But the key rationale for holding that racially "separate but equal" schools were objectionable was not because they were never, in fact, "equal," but because racial segregation, ipso facto, created a pervasive inferior complex in "Negro" children that had life-long material consequences. The court addressed mass psychological debasement, not just an adulterated material socio-economic status and denied opportunities, in respect of "black" people.
It is no wonder then that SNCC also had to address the interior relations and the mental or psychological constructs of "white" supremacist racism in the United States among "black" people, even if the rhetoric used — the edification of "blackness" — was inherently ambiguous, at best, and a tacit concession to racism itself (because it remained a "white supremacist" construct). Thus the edification of "blackness" does, in fact, rightly, connote a rejection of "whiteness," but it did not necessarily mean a rejection of "white people." It was a rejection of the "whiteness" in "white people."
As indelicate, and sometimes as insensitive, as the process was the problem was not that SNCC "kicked "white" people out, per se, but that too many "white" people continued to uncritically regard themselves as "white" and thus ran for themselves an unacceptable risk of bruised feelings of rejection and disorientation when the foci of 'the Movement' and "black" mass consciousness took its necessary evolutionary steps in the mid-1960's. But, the fact was that a lot more than laws had to be challenged and changed.
When all is said, the one thing that we assembled here for this 50th Anniversary celebration of SNCC's founding in North Carolina in 1960 must remember is that SNCC lasted a full decade. And in every year of that decade "white" people and "black" people in SNCC (or working with SNCC and in concert with many others) made countless sacrifices and were mutually supportive in our quest to rock the foundations of "white" supremacy in the United States and in the world. We were very successful in so doing and the fact that each and every one of us is here today came back is mainly a testament to our integrity and humanity as activists in the great fight for Human Rights for all.
SNCC's inception was fostered by members of SCLC, though it never became a subsidiary of that organization (opting for an independent identity). Yet, though we often disagreed with him, let me end by quoting the reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. apropos of that fact: 'The moral arc of the universe is longbut it bends toward justice."
I salute you each and all and am proud to have been in your number.
(Michael F. Wright Ph.D., J.D.)
Copyright © Michael F. Wright, 2010
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