A transcript of the February 22, 2009 discussion of the Southern Freedom Movement and On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail led by Charlie Cobb at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.
If you were part of the Southern Freedom Movement, and are listed in the Veterans Roll Call, you are encouraged to add your comments to this discussion by emailing them to email@example.com. (If you are not already listed on the Roll Call, please add your name and information.)
The Roots of On the Road to Freedom
Community Organizing, the Movement, and Obama
Sam Block and Greenwood MS.
Young People Take Leadership Roles
Ella Baker & Womens' Leadership
Roots of the Modern Freedom Movement
At the Grassroots a Peoples' Movement
Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP)
A Luta Continua, the Struggle Continues
Sexual Orientation & the Civil Rights Movement
Black Power and the End of SNCC
A Time of Confusion
Algebra, Education, and Civil Rights
SNCC & the Leadership Role of Women
SNCC's Task Was Done
SNCC, the Movement and Africa
Role of the Kennedys
Shiree Dyson: If you would take your seats, we would like to get started. Does everyone have a seat? We could bring out more chairs if we need it. OK, we'll get more chairs out. I'd like to welcome everyone to the Museum of the African Diaspora. Thank you very much for coming out on this rainy afternoon. My name is Shiree Dyson. I'm the Director of Programs, Education, and Exhibitions here. While you still have time, if you haven't, take a look around the museum. Please do so in February. The entire month is free, and you have a few days left. If you know some folks who have not yet made it to MoAD and want to visit the museum, please invite them to come back as well.
I would like to introduce you to Jean Wiley — who is my aunt — that's her first title, amongst other things. She is, I'm sure, a friend to many of you here. She is a serious Veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. I've heard lots of stories, and I'm really glad that we are able to do a program every year with the Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement here at the museum. She is going to introduce our guest speaker, and thank you for being here.
Jean Wiley: Hi, everybody. Thank you, and again welcome for coming out today. We had hoped for lovely weather — we'll make this lovely.
We are co-sponsoring this event with the museum. We're a group of Veterans of the Southern Civil Rights struggle. We meet regularly, monthly as a matter of fact, to do all kinds of interesting things, but one of them is to have and to tape our conversations about various aspects of the Movement as we experienced them, not as they're written in the history books, but as we ourselves did in fact experience them.
Many of us did not know each other while we were in the South. We met for the first time when we came together up here. We were in the South at different stages of the Movement, also in different places where the broader Movement occurred in the South. I, for one, was in Alabama, and it was in Alabama that I met Charlie, and we've been close friends ever since. I don't recall the exact circumstance of when we met, and that's OK. There are a lot of things I don't recall anymore! [Laughter]
The main thing is that we're here, and we're fine. Charlie has a vita which is really long. And there is no way I am going to stand up here and read his vita nor did he want me to. I just want to remark about how the Movement enabled us to have such wonderful — long lasting over decades — friendships. That's a lasting legacy that we weren't even aware of when we were down there.
There was a lot we weren't aware of. For example, we were talking today earlier about how beautiful, physically beautiful, some of the areas in the Deep South are. Actually, Charlie was talking about it, because of course he travels because of the book. And I finally said, "I don't remember nothing beautiful!" [Laughter] Not a thing beautiful! I just don't. And of course, that's understandable. You know, we were working in a reign of terror. Nobody knew whether they would ever come out of the South alive. And so, there were things that I missed entirely.
What I didn't miss were the people that we worked with, really wonderful people, and I'll let Charlie tell you a little about that. So, I'm delighted to have him here among us. He doesn't get out here very often. I hope you will love his book. He will be signing books later. Before I give the microphone to him, though, what I'd like to do is to ask all of you who worked in the Southern Movement, in the South, to stand. Everybody who worked in the Southern Movement, in the South, to stand. [Applause] And while you're standing, I'd like you to be joined by — while you're standing please, I'd like you to be joined by everybody who helped with that Movement in any capacity, anywhere, please stand. [Applause] And give yourselves a hand. [Applause]
And thank you. Charlie's going to speak for about a half hour because he wants the bulk of the time we have together to be discussion, so that's what he's going to do. Later, I may ask you to identify yourselves as you begin to talk, but for now, here's Charlie Cobb. [Applause]
Charlie Cobb: Thank you, Jean. It's good to be out here, not the least because the weather here is far warmer than where I came from [Providence, RI], rain or not. It beats snow. I want to do maybe three things in the time we have:
About the book. We have two problems, it seems to me, with respect to how Civil Rights Movement history is treated, despite the fact that there is a large body of material. One problem is that a lot of what's written about the Movement misses what I call "Movement Culture." They get the events right, but you don't have a sense of how the Movement really took shape. A certain sensibility — a movement sensibility — is missing.
I mean, how does Jean Wiley get from Baltimore to Alabama? And why? How does Wazir Peacock get from Tallahatchie County, Mississippi into the Movement in Mississippi? None of that culture is in [other histories], so the book attempts to tackle that. The basic assumption of the book is that you have to look at the grassroots to understand what took place, that you have to look at ordinary people, at what they decided to do, in order to understand the Movement.
And most importantly, you have to look south. You know, John Kennedy, or Lyndon Johnson, or the U.S. Congress did not wake up one morning and say, "Oh, we've been doing wrong, and we're going to do right now." It didn't work that way. We'll try to talk about this.
The second problem with history is that the way it's written — very little of it connects to young people. I'll tell you a story that I told Jean and some other people the other night. I did another book [Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project] with Bob Moses, one of the legendary figures in Mississippi's movement, about his work today as a math teacher and how he connects that to Civil Rights.
And when the book came out, I was back in Mississippi. One of the things I was doing was bringing some copies to some of the people in Mississippi who had helped me, and one of the schools I went to, to give a book to the principal, was the Brinkley Middle School in Jackson, Mississippi. Brinkley Middle School is in Medgar Evers' old neighborhood. And while I was waiting for my ride, because I was getting ready to go up to the Delta with some friends, I was sitting on the steps of the school surrounded by these middle school students. Now, as it happens, the school is not only in Medgar Evers' old neighborhood, it's directly across the street from the Fannie Lou Hamer Public Library.
So I went into what I only half-jokingly call "old-guy mode" and decided to talk to these students about Mississippi's movement and Civil Rights, and I asked them about Medgar, of whom they didn't know anything. Except one kid did finally volunteer, he said something like, "Well, didn't he get killed?" And that's what he knew about Medgar Evers.
So I shifted gears as the car arrived to pick me up, and I pointed at the library. I said, "Well what about Fannie Lou Hamer? Can somebody tell me something about her?" Well, none of these kids, 13, 14 years old, knew anything about Mrs. Hamer. So standing up to walk to the car, I pointed to the library, and I said, "Look. She's really important to the Civil Rights struggle in Mississippi. You need to know something about her, and if you're interested, when I get back in a few days, I'll talk to you some about her, because I knew her." And I was getting ready to tell them a Fannie Lou Hamer joke. Well, it wasn't a joke, but a humorous story about Mrs. Hamer. But when I said, "because I knew her," this boy jumped to his feet. He was about 13 years old. He stared at me in total amazement, and he said, and I remember the words, "Mr. Cobb, you was alive back then?" [Laughter]
So we've got this issue, which has to do with the sense of time in young minds: me, the dinosaurs, Abraham Lincoln, slavery, Frederick Douglas. For many of these kids it's all just kind of lumped together in their minds — back there, then. If the public library was named for Mrs. Hamer there couldn't possibly be anyone alive today, walking around, who knew her, making it hard for them to imagine that I was, "Alive back then." So we have this problem to solve with young people, of how you connect them in a real way with the past, in this instance to the freedom struggle past. A 13 or 14- year-old shouldn't be startled, at least in the year 2009, to meet someone involved in 1960s struggle. I mean, this is not 2109 when there will be real grounds for being startled at meeting someone like me born in 1943 and politically active in the 1960s. And I was talking to those kid in 2001.
So the roots of this book, in some respects, have to do with not only my feeling that you had to offer readers a sense of Movement culture from the perspective and with the sensibility of somebody who was deeply involved in the Movement, but there was also this question — and I was trying to begin addressing it with this book — that is, could you write something substantial and interesting that appeals to young people, teenagers, essentially, without it being too simplistic for adults?
All during the writing of this book, part of what's shaping the language, the story telling, is what would work if you're trying to talk about Tallahatchie County Mississippi, or Sunflower County Mississippi, or Lowndes County, Alabama, or Albany, Georgia? What would work with somebody who's 14 or 15 years old? Also, the design of the book, because there are both sidebars and a lot of photographs — 150 photographs. The publisher was more generous with photographs than I had any right to expect.
That being said, I want to move right on into the next part of my
presentation which has to do with the discussion of the Movement. If
you want to know more about the book, you can just ask me after the
To begin, although I do not subscribe to the view that we are now living in some kind of post-racial America, I do think that Barack Obama's election confirms one significant attribute of change in the racial dynamic of the United States. Specifically, the incorporation of Blacks into leadership positions at the highest levels of government, positions that were once thought to be for whites only, like the presidency, or the Secretary of State for that matter. However, the trickle down effect of this evolution in government is uncertain at best.
And whether or not it represents Black power in the sense of what the
Black community of the United States gains or influences remains to be
seen. I myself doubt that it does. And this doubt, I should say, has
nothing to do with the silly argument that keeps popping up in various
ways maintaining that Mr. Obama is not really Black.
Having said that, let me also posit that the presidency of Barack Obama has some of its deepest roots in the Civil Rights struggle that began accelerating just before the start of World War II. And the real story of that struggle, what connects Mr. Obama to it, is the story of community organizing: quiet, careful work, often at great risk in dangerous, sometimes murderous, out of the way places across the South. Now community organizing is a very old tradition in Black America. Slaves, after all, were not picketing the plantation, or having sit-ins at the plantation manor dining room, seeking a seat at the table, or marching in protest on the auction blocks. They were organizing — escapes sometimes, sometimes rebellions. They were always seeking and organizing ways and means of survival in a strange, new, and mostly hostile land far from their homes on the other side of the Atlantic.
Now, I'm going to focus here on Mississippi where community organizing for Civil Rights led to the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, or MFDP, in 1964, a grass roots political party that paralleled and challenged the all-white, so-called regular Democratic Party in the state.
See Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) Founded for more information.]
And later on in my remarks here, I'm going to elaborate on why there is a straight line between the MFDP and Barack Obama, and why the MFDP is at the core of my contention about the Civil Rights struggle and Mr. Obama.
But I think we need to take a certain route through community
organizing before arriving in that place with any real understanding
of why I think this. Mississippi was the state I was most deeply
involved with as a young Civil Rights organizer. This most notorious
of Southern states is perhaps the only state in the country that, in
its entirety, could be characterized as an out of the way place. As
one of my Movement colleagues, the legendary Bob Moses once remarked,
"When you're in Mississippi, the rest of America doesn't seem real.
And when you're in the rest of America, Mississippi doesn't seem
Ths vicious racial oppression that once completely defined this state gives a special kind of clarity to any discussion of race and the force and violence used to deny Black people full citizenship. You'll see that in a moment, listening to a description of an encounter reported by another friend and comrade and hero from the days of Mississippi's mid-20th century freedom struggle.
Sam Block is his name. He, like almost everyone who formed the backbone of the Mississippi movement is not well known. And he died far too young, from both the physical and psychological traumas of that struggle. Sam's words will come from a 1962 field report he wrote describing the early days of his efforts to organize around voter registration in the Mississippi Delta. With its soil made rich by the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, the Delta is Mississippi's cotton country, where the White Citizen's Council was born. The Council was the white collar Ku Klux Klan.
Sam was the first of us, meaning the first of us who were young — 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 and 23 years old — to organize for voting rights [in the Delta]. And Sam began working in a town where the White Citizen's Council was particularly powerful — Greenwood, the county seat of Leflore County. Greenwood and the rest of the county, like most other Delta towns and counties, were two-thirds black, and like the rest of the Delta, only a handful of those Black people were registered to vote. When Sam arrived, there were more than 13,000 voting-age Blacks in Leflore County, but only about 200 had succeeded in getting registered.
But let's pick up Sam's report. The "N-word" as we now say in polite company, is used here. It is necessary, as you will see, but I apologize in advance for any discomfort it causes. Sam Block:
We went up to register, and it was the first time visiting the courthouse in Greenwood, Mississippi, and the Sheriff came up to me. And he asked me, he said, "Nigger, where you from?" I told him, "Well, I'm a native Mississippian." He said, "Yeah, yeah. I know that. But where you from? I don't know where you from." I said, "Well, around some counties." He said, "Well, I know that, but I know you ain't from here, 'cause I know every nigger and his mammy." I said, "You know all the niggers, do you know any colored people?" He got angry. He spat in my face, and he walked away. Then he came back and turned around and told me, "I don't want to see you in town anymore. The best thing you better do is pack your clothes and get out and don't never come back no more." I said, "Well Sheriff, if you don't want to see me here, I think the best thing for you to do is pack your clothes and leave, get out of town, 'cause I'm here to stay. I came here to do a job, and this is my intention. I'm gonna do this job."
See Mississippi Voter Registration — Greenwood for more information.]
Now, I think, really, everything you need to know about Barack Obama's election is right here. Sam's words were a promise and a prediction, and we joined him in the Delta and, like Sam, stayed to do the job. We were committed to doing the job, and in doing the job, broke the back of apartheid in Mississippi.
But the outcome did not just affect Mississippi, the job we did resulted in changing forever the rules of the National Democratic Party and was the groundwork that prepared the way for the Obama presidency. Basically, in fighting for the right to vote, and winning, the door was opened to the possibility of winning any elected office, even the highest in the land.
As the Black abolitionist, Frederick Douglas, pointed out over 150 years ago, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress." The violence underlying the Greenwood Sheriff's words reveal the blood-soaked ground across the American South that has been the price of progress.
But, there are still some important questions to answer in trying to grasp the significance of Sam's courthouse encounter with the Sheriff. Who was Sam Block? How did he get to Greenwood? What made him stay in defiance of the Sheriff's threat?
First, Sam Block was a native Mississippian. He came from the Delta
town of Cleveland in Bolivar County which neighbors Leflore County.
And part of what Sam represents is the fact that Mississippi's Civil
Rights Movement was driven and led by Mississippians. And also
important, I must add here, was that the Southern Freedom Movement was
led and driven by Southerners. They organized to change their society,
organized to change a way of life that for over 300 years had been
defined by white supremacy — absolute white power over
Black people. Through their organizing, these largely unsung heroines
and heroes changed the nation. The 1965 Voting Rights Act, for
example, that has so dramatically increased Black voting power was
almost entirely the result of the Southern Freedom Struggle.
But there are some other things you need to know about Sam. He was just 22 years old at the time of his courthouse confrontation. What is frequently left out of the narrative about the modern Civil Rights Movement is that, in many instances, it was led by young people. To quote Martin Luther King here, speaking in support of sit-ins at a February 16, 1960 Civil Rights rally in Durham, North Carolina, " What is new in your fight is the fact that it was initiated, led and sustained by students."
Now, I was an 11th grade high school student when on February 1, 1960, the sit-in movement erupted in Greensboro, North Carolina. Black students there began refusing to leave whites-only lunch counters in restaurants. Within two months, such protests had spread to over 80 Southern cities.
See First Southern Sit-in, Greensboro NC and Sit-ins Spread Across the South for more information.]
In those ancient pre-YouTube times, these student protests reached us
via newspapers and television. And for me and most of my friends,
before seeing these sit-ins, Civil Rights had been something grown-ups
did. Now, looking at young people like Diane Nash or John Lewis or
Julian Bond, college students, my generation, what was coming through
to us was that the Civil Rights struggle was something we could
do. As Bob Moses put it, describing his reaction when he saw in New
York City newspapers photographs of students sitting in at Southern
lunch counters, "They looked like I felt."
Sam Block was also one of Amzie Moore's people. That's who sent him, via SNCC, to Greenwood. SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, grew out of the sit-in movement and then evolved into an organization of organizers working closely with the older veterans of the Civil Rights struggle, many of them local NAACP leaders like Amzie. Many of you won't know his name any more than you knew Sam's, but you need to know some things about Amzie, because understanding what he represents is another essential component of any real understanding of the political process that has resulted in Barack Obama.
Amzie Moore was the President of the Cleveland, Mississippi, NAACP and had decided he wanted to tap into and use the young energy he saw in the sit-in students. He admired what the students were doing, but he was not at all interested in organizing sit-ins in his town. He wanted a voter registration campaign. He put that idea on our political plate, challenging our idea that direct action only meant sit-ins and picket lines and protests. Amzie wanted to see the emergence of Black power in the Delta. Black people in enough numbers were there. The registered Black voters were not.
As we began working in the Delta, Amzie Moore's home was our central
headquarters. His house was an orientation center, a place for
breakfast of scrambled eggs or for a spaghetti dinner. He provided
telephone connections and the house was always full of conversation as
well as Amzie's sometimes grim, sometimes funny stories of Delta life
and earlier Civil Rights struggles. Flood lights washed his back yard,
because he was certain that one night, Ku Klux Klansmen or white
terrorists of some sort would attack his home. Our relationship with
Amzie puts into perspective yet another important dimension of the
modern Civil Rights Movement: the convergence of young people, like
Sam or myself, with older people like Amzie. He was 49 years old when
we met him. I had just turned 19. They were willing to share their
experiences and open up to us networks that they had built over many
years, even decades of struggle.
Ella Baker introduced us to Amzie. You cannot talk of the 20th century Civil Rights struggle without discussing this remarkable woman. And let me also say — as an aside here, although it could easily be central to our discussion — that you cannot talk about 20th century Civil Rights struggle without discussing the leadership of women.
Ms. Baker — and she was always Ms. Baker to us — was the NAACP's Director of Southern Branches in the 1940s. She was the person who organized Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, after the 1955-56 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. In 1960, when she was 56 years old, she immediately recognized the significance and potential of the emerging student sit-in movement and negotiated $800 from Martin Luther King to bring the student activists together at her alma mater, Shaw University, in Raleigh, North Carolina. Out of this meeting came SNCC, the organization for which I was a field secretary.
See Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Founded for more information.]
As much as anyone and more than most, her hands and her brains shaped
the theory and methods of community organizing which under-girded the
modern Civil Rights struggle. Her main lesson: Organize from the
Many people date the start of the modern Civil Rights Movement with the founding of the NAACP in 1909, but I think it was World War II that provided the essential foundation for the kind of struggle that unfolded across the South during the 1940s, '50s and '60s, ultimately providing the possibility for the Obama presidency.
Let's stay with Amzie Moore a little bit longer. He was a World War II veteran. Across the South, when they came back home, Black World War II vets like Mississippi's Amzie Moore or Aaron Henry and Medgar Evers, or in North Carolina, Robert Williams, to name a few, took leadership roles in the Black community. When Amzie returned home from the war, he went to work in the post office and also used his savings to open a gas station. At his gas station, on Highway 61, then the main artery between Memphis and New Orleans, he had refused to put up "White" and "Colored" signs, racially segregating his restrooms. There was a small cafe attached to the gas station, and it too was open to anyone without regard to race. This outraged whites who attempted to mount a boycott of his businesses, a futile effort in a territory that is 66% black, but nonetheless, often Amzie who had fought the Nazis overseas after all, sat in the bay window of his living room with rifles and pistols, waiting to repel the attack he was certain would come. And from my point of view, it's probably why it didn't come.
Aside from thrusting forward a new generation of Black leaders, the convergence of some very particular and very critical forces in World War II's aftermath helped power the modern struggle from which there would be no turning back: the commitment to democracy and human rights embedded in World War II's fight against fascism, the accelerating struggles for decolonization in Africa and Asia, post-war economic and educational opportunity in the United States with so much of the world in rubble, and finally, the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education which began the process of dismantling the legal framework which underwrote U.S. apartheid. Importantly, that decision engendered hope, one of the indispensable ingredients for resistance.
See Brown v Board of Education for more information.]
But what uniquely marks the post-World War II era though is that people, who were usually spoken for by others, began to speak for themselves. And not only that, they spoke for themselves in such a way that they could not be ignored. This is really important, so I'm going to restate it in a slightly different way. Ordinary people, who were usually spoken for by sympathetic advocates — or spoken of by hostile white supremacists — began speaking for themselves saying, "This is what we demand. This is the kind of society in which we wish to live."
Montgomery, Alabama's mid-'50s bus boycott and the now almost completely forgotten student struggle in 1951 Farmville, Virginia, may be the post-World War II events that best represent this.
See Montgomery Bus Boycott and Student Strike at Moton High for more information.]
I also think that if there is an individual who best symbolizes this it is Fannie Lou Hamer of Mississippi. She was a sharecropper and timekeeper on a Delta cotton plantation who became not only one of the leaders of Mississippi's 1960s movement but a great national voice for Civil Rights. In any case, maids, sharecroppers, day workers, cooks, janitors, farmers, factory workers, housewives, students, as I said, ordinary people, people who were usually spoken for or of, these voices began to be heard or at least could no longer be ignored in the mid-20th century. And in raising their voices, they changed a way of life.
Few people give enough credit to the fact — or pay enough attention to the fact — that before he achieved national and international renown, Martin Luther King was a young, local minister. How he emerged is important to understand in the emergence of a movement driven by local people at the grassroots. After Rosa Parks' arrest, Black Montgomery mounted a highly successful one-day bus boycott. At the end of the day, Montgomery's Black leadership, many of them ministers, met in Martin Luther King's church to discuss continuing the boycott until the city committed to desegregation of bus seating. Most who spoke, spoke against doing this, expressing various forms of fear.
Finally, the preeminent Black leader in Montgomery, E.D. Nixon, one of A. Philip Randolph's union men in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the former head of Alabama's NAACP, rose and spoke, accusing the ministers of cowardice. To quote him exactly, this comes to me from Mrs. Johnnie Carr, one of the great women of Montgomery's struggle, "You preachers been eating these women's fried chicken long enough without doing anything for them." It was women, after all, riding buses across town into the white community, to jobs as maids and cooks, who suffered the most regular and greatest humiliation on public transportation. "Now," Nixon continued, "it's time to get up off of your butts and do something for them."
It was then that a 26-year-old Martin Luther King stood up, "I am
not a coward," he said. The embarrassed gathering agreed to
continue the boycott, and Reverend King was elected head of the
organization they formed at that meeting, the Montgomery Improvement
There are lots of stories like this across the South. I say, only half-jokingly sometimes, that Mississippians kidnapped me. Here's what happened. Because I'd been involved with the sit-in movement in the Washington, D.C. area, CORE — the Congress of Racial Equality — had invited me to participate in a Civil Rights leadership training workshop for young people in Houston, Texas. And I decided to take advantage of the invitation to see all of the Deep South. I bought a bus ticket that would carry me from Washington, D.C. through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and on into Houston, Texas.
When I reached Mississippi, however, I got off the bus in Jackson and made my way to the office SNCC and CORE shared in the heart of the Black community. There had been sit-ins in Jackson over the past year, and I wanted to meet Black people who were brave enough to sit-in in Mississippi. That state, as far as I and everyone I knew was concerned, was the worst, most dangerous place on earth for a Black person. So I wondered, what kind of Black people would be sitting in and protesting in Mississippi? I had to meet these unimaginable people.
One of the students involved in those sit-in protests, Lawrence Guyot, who later became Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, challenged me when I explained that I was just passing through, on the way to a Civil Rights workshop in Texas. "Civil Rights workshop in Texas?" Guyot sneered. He gave me a hard look. Now, almost everybody calls him by his last name, and Guyot's a big guy. And he hovered over me, forceful, and with total disdain it seemed to me, "Tell me, just what's the point of going to Texas for a workshop on Civil Rights when you're standing right here in Mississippi?"
To me his challenge was clear: You can chatter about Civil Rights in
meetings, or you can do something to get those rights. If you want to
do something, then the thing to do is join our effort here in
Mississippi, something I hadn't given any thought to at all.
Basically, Guyot's saying: We have a movement here. We have something
we're building. Join us if you're serious, or go to Texas if you're
not. I stayed. Now actually, my decision to stay is more involved than
this, and by way of a commercial, I can say I tell a more complete
story about this in my book. [Laughter]
Beyond the personal, however, the larger point reflected in Guyot's challenge is that as important as challenges to segregation and racism were, more important were the challenges Black people made to one another within the Black community. And this is perhaps even more important today. You see, what Guyot and other young people, including Sam Block, were beginning to do in Mississippi was to organize people for change.
And it's really right here at this idea I want to get you to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and its challenge in 1964 to the all-white, so-called, regular state party. The Mississippi Democratic Party, without elaborating, because we don't have time, was completely illegal; in that it did not follow its own rules. And in what surely must be a surprising fact, the Democratic Party in Mississippi had very progressive laws concerning the selection of a delegate to participate in the Democratic Party's national convention. It's just that they didn't follow them.
I mean, state party rules required that you advertise the meeting starting at the precinct level, you open it up to everyone, and you transparantly work your way all the way up in the delegate selection process, until you wind up with a state delegation. But that's not how it worked. You know, they met at Billy Jack's gas station, or somewhere in an unadvertised meeting that would certainly not allow Blacks to participate if they even found out about them and showed up, and they said, "Bobby Joe, do you want to go to the convention this year?" That's how they did it.
So, we decided to challenge of legitimacy of this good 'ol boys 'round-the-cracker-barrel' process, and after electing their delegation by following the state party's own rules, the MFDP took its delegation and its challenge of the legitimacy of the all-white, so-called, "regular" Democratic Party and its exercise of power in the state to the floor of the 1964 Democratic Party National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
See MFDP Challenge to Democratic Convention for more information.]
But, as the exercise of — let us say it — raw white power from Lyndon Johnson's White House unfolded in the name of practical politics, we also saw contempt for the participation of ordinary people in the decision making sections of the party that claimed to represent them. "The party, the President will not let that illiterate woman speak from the convention floor," liberal Senator Hubert Humphrey said of Fannie Lou Hamer when MFDP delegate Ed King suggested that she be one of the two party representatives allowed onto the floor as proposed by Walter Mondale.
After turning its back on the MFDP because of the power wielded by
Southern white Democrats — power they owed to the
exclusion of Blacks from the political process, the National
Democratic Party, to ameliorate its betrayal, promised future 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 MFDP challenge that generated the pressure
for these new rules. That, in fact, was the trigger for changes in the
process. I could go on at some length about the MFDP and the
Democratic Party, but this is enough.
Let me conclude with one final point. In the United States today, with Civil Rights and Civil Liberties under assault in the name of national security, the most important lesson of the Civil Rights Movement is still relevant. You have to make a demand for the kind of society in which you want to live, especially if you want to live in a free society. As we used to say, "Freedom is not free."
So consider these words which can serve as a theme for today's
struggle, as much as they served as the founding principles of the
United States in 1787. "
We, the people of these United States,
in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure
domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the
general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and
our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the
United States of America."
For all the contradictions found throughout U.S. history, this is the core ideal of the country. But the question is: Do we really want to do this? Government, as we've known it since the country's inception, has always been ambivalent, and at many times hostile, to this ideal. Slavery stands as the clearest example, although there are no shortage of other examples: Native Americans, immigrants from Mexico, etc, issues around sexual preference and so forth.
The Mozambicans said over the years of their fight in East Africa, to free themselves from Portuguese rule, "A luta continua," "The struggle continues." And this idea is really at the heart of what I'm trying to talk to you about, what we learn from the passage of time, from, say, Martin Luther King to the now of Barack Obama, is the emergence of ordinary people as leaders and spokespeople who are the real force for change. The people who keep their eyes on the prize, as the old song goes. And today, this need, it seems to me, is more urgent than it has ever been and perhaps too, more possible. So I say, A luta continua. Thank you. [Applause]
Cobb: This is the question time, or the exchange time. However,
you all want to do it. You can rise and make a comment, question me,
challenge me, beat me up. [Laughter]
Woman #1: I have a question about issues with sexual orientation. I think many of us have read about Bayard Rustin and how he was a gay man who was not welcome as an openly gay man even though he had a really influential role in the March on Washington. Can you tell us some other things about what the role was of sexual orientation in the Movement of the '60s?
Cobb: Well, not much. I would caution you that in some ways you can't generalize about all the organizations. There's a real difference between SNCC and the NAACP, or SNCC and an organization of preachers like SCLC. I don't recall sexual preference being much of a discussion in SNCC. Where such pressure visibly targeted Bayard's sexual preference in particular was around his relationship with Martin Luther King and SCLC.
There were actually two kinds of pressures applied on Rev. King and SCLC with respect to Bayard. One was political and the other had to do with sexual preference. Bayard was first attacked, not for his sexual preference, but for the fact that he was a socialist, with a history as a very young man of having a membership in the Communist Party. So, you know, the FBI and all of those people, including the NAACP and other organizations much more conservative, really attacked King and SCLC for their relationship with Bayard.
And the second, which I think was less important than what I just said, had to do with his sexual preference. The one point of which I know where Bayard's sexual preference was actually used in an effort to pry him from Martin Luther King's SCLC came from Adam Clayton Powell, the congressman from New York — Black — in 1960 when Martin Luther King had in mind launching a campaign targeting the Democratic Party's national convention. It was a protest, and Adam Clayton Powell was angry that King hadn't consulted him. And this gets into a more complicated story about rivalry than I really want to get into up here, but suffice to say, Adam Clayton Powell told Martin Luther King, unless he backed away from these protests, and these were supposed to be large protests, he would publicly accuse King of having a homosexual relationship with Bayard Rustin.
So that's the only point which I can say that
homosexuality — it seemed to me that King's
relationship with Bayard Rustin, Stanley Levison, and other people
[such as] Jack O'Dell, these attacks were more often attacks made
because these people were somehow identified with the left, and in
some instances, with either the Socialists or Communists. SNCC
encountered the same thing, certainly in Mississippi, with our
decision to use lawyers from the National Lawyer's Guild, which was
considered too far left to be used. Never mind that Mississippi only
had three black lawyers in the entire state.
Man #1: In studying SNCC — I mean, I think it's one of the most amazing organizations — but I'm curious more — because I've learned a ton about voter registration and all the great work you did — I'm curious about the end, the end of SNCC.
Cobb: Me too. [Laughter]
Man #1: I mean, for someone who wasn't born until 1976, trying to really understand Black Power and the transition from sort of the end of Dr. King and SNCC and CORE to the Black Panthers, and it's obviously very complicated, and so, just your impressions or —
Cobb: Well, I'll give you the short version. It's a whole nother lecture, you know? I'm trying to include this in something I'm writing now, but firstly, I want to say very quickly that the least important factor in the quote, "end of SNCC," is Black Power. That has very little to do with why. One aspect of Black Power does, I'll mention in a minute, but basically I would put that at the very bottom of my list.
One, we came out of the Atlantic City challenge exhausted. And bitter. And it wasn't just SNCC. After Atlantic City — before she died — Mrs. Hamer used to talk about — call the NAACP the "National Association for the Advancement of Certain People." [Laughter]
So she died quite bitter about what she felt — not what white people had done — but what she felt were the failings of the Black bourgeoisie. And we were struggling with that too.
In some ways, part of the more important part of the end of SNCC could be summarized as being victims of our own success. I mean, we had actually achieved what, as students three or four years ago, we had started out to do. We had a Voting Rights Act by 1965. The year before that we had got a Public Accommodations Act.
So the question is, because you could see that getting those things didn't solve the problems we were looking at. Yes, you can now go to whatever restaurant, in Greenwood or Greenville, at least some of them, and it was at least legal. But it doesn't solve the problem, the most immediate problem, certainly in the Mississippi Delta, was the accelerating mechanization of cotton fields. We could see by the 1960s that large numbers of human labor was soon no longer going to be necessary in these fields, and you had this population that was working in these fields that had never been educated. It was totally unequipped to function in an industrial society moving rapidly towards becoming a high tech society.
We didn't know how to organize around that. For example: in Mississippi some people organized the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union up in the Delta. They tried to mount a strike, but it's very difficult to mount a strike if the labor isn't needed. If you've got automatic irrigation systems, if you've got cotton picking machines, and all you need are a few tractors. So part of the stress in SNCC at least — I can't speak for other organizations — had to do with: What do we do now? How do we organize people now?
There was a huge argument inside SNCC that, again, I'm not going to go on and on about, but SNCC had been an organization of organizers, and what we did was we moved into these communities, and we worked with people, and we tried to break this paralysis that had many people frozen, paralyzed, afraid to take a step to make a change. And we created space for people not only to move but to create their own organizations, like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. And then you went on to try to organize people to do other things. And we never felt that it was our job to tell the organizations we organized what to do.
And we weren't building a massive national apparatus, so the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party wasn't a part of the apparatus of SNCC. That's why Stokely left Mississippi. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party — and a lot of us disagreed with it — decided to campaign for Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey. Stokely wanted an independent Black political party. But the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was the Mississippians' organization. If that was what they were going to do, you weren't going to fight them. You had created them, encouraged them to take charge of their own life, so Stokely left the state; he went to Alabama.
One argument in SNCC — and it was never resolved, was — Do we continue to do that? Organize community organizations? Or, as some people argued, do we build a national organization like the NAACP? And we have members all over the country, and we have affiliates, and we have a national program, an ideology, a central authority, all the stuff that didn't much exist in SNCC. I mean, there were people who said, despite your failure, your inability to get the MFDP seated in Atlantic City, despite the controversy, there are a lot of people that support you, especially the students that had worked in Mississippi, so if you want to build a national organization, with a national policy, you can do it. That argument went on for several years and was never, never resolved.
Now, where Black Power plays into this was in 1966, in my view — and there are people like Wazir here, and Jimmy [Rogers] here, and Jean Wiley there, and other people who were around during these times who may have comments to make in this regard — but with the cry for Black Power and Stokely's emergence as a prominent figure, it was the first time SNCC had a nationally charismatic leader. John [Lewis] wasn't. Chuck McDew wasn't, and Marion Barry wasn't. They were the chairpeople of SNCC who preceded Stokely.
And one of the things, and again, I don't have time to go into it in
great detail, one of the things having a nationally charismatic leader
meant was that the grassroots organizing at the local level suffered.
Not because the controversy around Stokely took money away from SNCC,
but because organizationally much of what we were doing began to
increasingly revolve around Stokely. It wasn't Stokely's fault, but it
nonetheless is a political factor in what I think was the demise of
SNCC. This is a bit over-simple, and you'll have to wait for the book
I do after the one I'm working
on — [Laughter] — to really get a more
thorough discussion of this.
Betita, I know you had your hand up. Yes?
Betita : My name is Elizabeth Martinez. I'm a Chicana, Mexican-American. I was running the New York office of SNCC in the 1960s. Jim Foreman was the Executive Secretary who put me there. And I just want to add a couple of points to the ones that were just made about SNCC. There was certainly ideological confusion, I thought. I could see that in New York, at least. [Some said we] should merge with the Black Panther Party. But then Jim Foreman had different ideas, much more international, and in fact organized a group of SNCCers — that's what we were, SNCCers — SNCCers to go to Africa.
There was a lot of uncertainty about what we were. The meeting that
exemplifies that — there was a meeting of the Central
Committee, and they were talking about studying socialism, and there
was a guy in back from Atlanta, whose name I will not repeat, he said
in a loud voice, "Marx was a white man, mother******." And this
is an example of the sort of state of mind. But there were other
things too. At one point, SNCC took a position in favor of Palestine
and I was doing fundraising. Boy, did I see the money dry up. I mean,
I'm saying a lot of our support — because of the
killing of Andy Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two Jewish heroes of
the Movement in '64 — a whole lot of the money that
we'd been raising dried up. So, I'm just saying there was a lot going
on at the time that undermined a certainty about the future direction,
and we dealt with that as best we could. Amen. [Laughter]
Kathy Emery [Education & Democracy]: When I read Radical Equations, I understood the argument to be that you wanted to use algebra in the same way that you used voting as an organizing issue in the Civil Rights Movement. And I was wondering if you still feel that way?
Cobb: That book came out in 1999, I have a broader concern [today] about education than I think I had before doing Radical Equations. In a lot of ways, that book started me thinking very seriously about public education, particularly public education in inner cities and minority students. Algebra is basic to a meaningful education today. And you need to get it a lot earlier than many kids in public schools get it, if they are in inner city public schools.
Literacy and education have always been a part of civil rights struggle. So that makes algebra crucial although the culture seems to have the opposite view. For example, you cannot go to college and sit down in your first class and say, "You know, I never did get that reading and writing stuff." You can't do that. But you can still go to college and say, "You know, I never did get that math stuff." And I agree with Bob's argument that you need to have algebra, which is your gateway. It doesn't have to be. Geometry is the gateway in France, for example. So I agree with Bob that algebra is the gateway for the kind of literacy you need to have in the 21st century, that it needs to be right up there with reading and writing if you're going to function meaningfully in a hi-tech society like this one; be able to take advantage of the full plate that college offers, or get a job, or support yourself and a family.
I make a much more coherent argument about this in the book, Radical Equations, I think. That being said, there's an issue, I think, larger than algebra, and that is, children going to public schools need to be guaranteed that when they come out the other end as 12th graders that they're actually educated. In Washington, D.C., my home town, the typical high school graduate, a person coming out of the public school in the 12th grade — and only 60% get to the 12th grade, 40% drop out — the average student coming out of the 12th grade is reading, writing and calculating at an 8th grade level.
Now, they cannot function in any meaningful way in this society as a full citizen with an 8th grade education. To my way of thinking, that's a Civil Rights issue, because Civil Rights has always been, really, the issue of citizenship. Who gets to be a full citizen? And who doesn't? I mean, because they assumed in Mississippi — the state, as I said, I worked in a lot — that Black people didn't need to be full citizens. They kept Black people uneducated. The state's view was that Black people didn't need to be full citizens. They need to be nursemaids; they need to be cooks; they need to be cotton pickers and what not. Education for Black people was built around that notion. We used to call that 'sharecropper education,' where in Mississippi they let schools out when the cotton had to be picked, or they'd let the schools out when the cotton had to be chopped, sent these school kids out into these fields, and we would call that sharecropper [education].
Well, that's what you got in the inner cities right now, sharecropper education. Even if they go to school for the whole full term, they're about as equipped to function in the 21st century as a sharecropper in Sunflower County was equipped to function in the 20th century. That's a Civil Rights issue because the state is denying them full citizenship. If we had a society, if we had school boards and governments that were committed to a quality public education, the algebra issue would be solved within the context of students actually getting a quality education. It wouldn't be a discussion.
The problem is not simply that algebra isn't being taught to seventh
or eighth graders, the problem is also that all of the people who make
decisions about public education have no vested interest in it
themselves. Their kids don't go to public schools. You know, they lose
nothing if this school or that school sinks to even lower levels than
it is now. You have to make the fight to change this in the same way
people forty some-odd years ago had to make the fight for voter
registration, because it's about citizenship. Blacks freed from
slavery in the 19th century recognized that right away. And that's why
you have, in many respects, public education in the United States,
because that was driven by freed slaves of the South who, in
legislatures, fought for public education. And that
fight — it's the one undone task, the major undone
task of the modern movement that was so successful around voter
registration and public accommodation, in my way of thinking.
Sherri Sawyer [San Francisco Freedom School]: I just wanted to discuss, in terms of coalition building, I think you talked about that, and also your involvement when the four major Civil Rights organizations came together in the Freedom Summer of '64. And I wanted you to kind of talk, kind of reflect on the success and challenges that came out of that and how, bringing that forward, could relate to coalition building that should be done now, particularly around what I hold dear to my heart, the inequities in public education which you just talked about.
Cobb: You know, where coalition building worked was at the grassroots. Even before it was formalized — say in Mississippi — as COFO, the people who were out there doing the work in the counties were working together. In fact, while COFO is often described as a coalition of SNCC, CORE, SCLC and the NAACP, a more accurate characterization would be a coalition of local groups in the state. So one lesson it seems to me from the Civil Rights Movement that is applicable for today is you better look down at the grassroots rather than up at the top if you want to have a meaningful coalition.
The troubles in the 1960s around coalitions had to do with national offices: what [NAACP Executive Director] Roy Wilkins thought, or what [CORE Chairman] Jim Farmer thought, or what [NAACP Deputy Executive Director] Gloster Current thought. At that level. And don't get me started on how damaging Black elected officials have been to grassroots organization. [Laughter]
But if you got down to SCLC field secretaries like James Orange or NAACP secretaries or youth chapters, these problems were much less. I mean, if the Ku Klux Klan is after you, or somebody like that, and you're seeking support, you're not going to say, "Wow, You're an NAACP person. You can't be involved in this."
So that's what I think about coalition building. To the extent that
you're working at the grassroots — which is something
that has suffered greatly, it seems to me, certainly since the
1970s — to the extent that you're doing work at the
grassroots, you'll get the coalitions, just the way you get the
leadership. Leadership emerges from the movement that emerges, and
coalitions form within the context of serious work at the grassroots.
But if you're talking about walking into a conference room with the
head of this group and the head of that group, I'm not particularly
optimistic about that style, myself.
Fran Beal [Women of Color Resource Center (WCRC)]: One of the things I appreciated about the book is the resurrection of the role of women in the Civil Rights Movement. I don't think there's another book that's been written on the Civil Rights Movement that has captured this in the same sense. Maybe Parting of the Waters touched on it a little bit, but it also made me understand a little bit better why an organization like SNCC's Black Women's Liberation Committee would emerge out of SNCC and then eventually grow into the Third World Women's Alliance.
And it's also an example, in some ways at the end of SNCC, of one of the seeds that was planted and then grew off on its own, just as there were many of the organizations and coalitions in the South that did that. And one of the reasons I appreciated [the book] is that there's always been this kind of fight with some white feminists who tend to dismiss SNCC because of what I consider Stokely's unfortunate comment. And I know for a fact, because I asked him, he was kidding. He was being flippant.
Cobb: And plus, everybody was drinking beer, so no telling what will come out!
[One evening after a meeting, while performing a satire about the media supposedly interviewing the mythic freedom worker Junebug Jabbo Jones, Stokely (playing both roles) quipped: "What is the role of women in SNCC? — Prone!" Some time later, this quote was taken out of its satirical context and misconstrued as a serious comment that supposedly represented Stokely's, or SNCC's, or the Movement's, attitude towards women.]
Fran: I mean, the truth of the fact that he shouldn't have said it shows that he had not yet come to understand the importance of the struggle for women's equity or equality, and so could make such a comment. But it's not that he meant that women in the Movement should be prone. But we've had to fight that within the Women's Liberation Movement ever since then, because they tend to dismiss SNCC.
Now I think that [sexism] was a big problem in SCLC and in CORE and in the NAACP and all the rest of them, in a way that it wasn't a problem in SNCC. Which doesn't mean that sexism didn't exist within SNCC. But [within SNCC] there was a liberating movement of women taking up the struggle for Civil Rights, and in leadership positions that just didn't seem to exist in some of the other organizations.
Cobb: Yes. I mean, whatever Stokely said, you have to acknowledge that Stokely as the overall Delta Project Director had a lot of women in leadership roles. And as project directors.
Fran: That's right.
Cobb: But the larger point that I always make with regard to women in the Civil Rights Movement — people often talk of the support that women gave to the Civil Rights Movement — I make a different point. I say that the point to understand is not the support. Lots of people gave support to the Movement. What you really need to understand is women led in the Movement. I could spend a lot of time on people like Gloria Richardson, or Septima Clark, or Ruby Doris Smith, Ella Baker. I mean, there are a whole lot of women I could talk about. When you talk about these women you're not talking about the support they gave to the Movement. You're talking about the fact that they were leaders in their own right. I think that's a discussion that still needs to be pursued, because I don't think it's properly understood.
And lastly, yes, the differences between say SNCC and SCLC or the NAACP in terms of their attitude towards women, some of that was generational. An organization of preachers, essentially Baptist preachers, in their mid-30s, is going to be very different on any number of issues, than an organization of people ranging in age from 18 to 25. I mean, it's just going to be different.
They're almost — and this is almost a whole nother
conversation — the way you had two NAACPs, the NAACP
of the national office and then the NAACP of the local branches. CORE
was that way too. You have the CORE that was reflected in the people
who set it up in the 1940s, and then you had this other CORE that was
coming out of the sit-in movement. These are people like Rudy Lombard
and Dave Dennis out of Louisiana and other places. That's a whole
nother kind of discussion.
Fran: I just wanted to make one comment about the demise of SNCC, because I think at a more general level — organization follows politics. What's your task that needs to be done? And one of the things I remember from that period is we had, in a sense, as you said, defeated Jim Crow, and there were many people who were then going off to try to implement the rights that we had won. And people don't remember, it took 20 years for the first Black person to be elected in some of the Black belt counties in Alabama after the Civil Rights Act. I think it was '82 when Hank Saunders was [elected] the first Black [state] senator since Reconstruction in Selma.
There was a whole section of people that tried to implement the rights or take advantage of the rights. But more than that, for SNCC as an organization, I think that it was unclear what needed to be done at that point. And there was no agreement in terms of politics, of the political direction that we should go. Therefore, it was almost inevitable that SNCC would demise at that point. And I don't see it as a necessarily bad thing, because that would be saying, "This group of people that accomplished this task wants to stay together just because they accomplished that task," rather than, "We're now united around a new view and a new vision" and move forward based on that.
So I think that SNCC's task was done. Therefore, it didn't hang around and become a kind of a mushy-mashy type of an organization living in the past. So I think it was actually good that there was a demise. It gave rise to other organizational forms in other movements, like the Black Woman's Liberation Movement. That's just one, that's the one I was involved in, so it's the one I mentioned. But I think it was time for SNCC to be finished in that sense, because the task that it set out to do was done.
Cobb: I agree with you.
Woman #2: I want to sort of take it to a different place. First, I have to say that I completely enjoyed your book. It's one of the most enjoyable reads.
Cobb: I like to hear that! Say that louder! [Laughter] [Applause]
Woman #2: I'm one of those people who was not born in this country, so all of this is — feels — well, it's a whole other conversation for me — [because] I was not in this country while all this was going on. So I was intrigued by your accounts [in the book] of what happened to some of these African ambassadors of newly independent African nations coming into Washington, D.C. and suddenly being aware that they're not going to be treated no different than the Blacks in the United States. And finding this completely not in line with the idealistic image of what America was. But more interestingly is how the State Department tries to deal with it only to avoid embarrassment and not to look at the bigger picture of how you treat the people of this country, because it really is sort of not in line with the idealism of what this country aspires to be about. I'd like to know specifically if SNCC had any connections with student groups or Pan-Africa [groups] in the continent, or anywhere else for that matter.
Cobb: Later on, yes. Not at the start. Except to the extent that you encountered African students on historically Black colleges and universities. There were many African students at universities like Howard, or Fisk, and especially Tuskegee in Alabama. But if you mean contact in a political sense, I think that comes later. The African ambassadors' situation didn't trigger that kind of connection, perhaps because they were ambassadors. They were high level representatives of African countries.
I think that era — at the same time as the sit-in movement is erupting in the United States, African nations — really Black and Brown nations because it was more than just Africans, Asian nations too — are becoming independent. And as they're setting up embassies and facilities in both New York (in terms of the United Nations) and in Washington, D.C, they were being confronted with discrimination. They're traveling back and forth between New York, often by road, and they would stop at restaurants to seek something to eat, and service was refused. I recount a few of those stories in the book.
The Kennedy administration — which had very little interest in Civil Rights when they were elected — [their] response was not simply embarrassment. They saw this as a problem in terms of the Cold War, the whole [conflict with] the Soviet Union. I think that time probably feels distant today from young people, it's hard to get a sense of how big a factor that was in the political dynamic [of that era].
What [the Kennedys] were afraid of, of course, is that as representatives of these countries are turned away from restaurants — Malik Sow who was the Ambassador from Chad actually got beaten up — and the manager said, "Well, he looked just like an ordinary nigra to me." What they were afraid of was that the Soviet Union would use this racial discrimination for propaganda purposes. The Cold War is going on, and who's going to win the hearts and minds of Ghana, Nigeria, whatever.
That was what was driving [the Kennedy administration]. And they tried some really ridiculous — At one point, they created a special protocol division of the State Department, and they were trying to figure out how they could solve the problem of Africans without committing to the larger desegregation of Black people in the United States. Trying to figure out, how can we distinguish between the Africans and the Afro-Americans? And get the restaurants to say, "Well, if he's African, he can eat. But if he's Afro-American, he can't." [Laughter]
They were approaching the problem that way. It's a whole area that's worth studying, partly because it gives you some insight into Cold War politics and what the Kennedy administration was trying to do.
The context in which we meet African Liberation Movements, which is the other part of your question, is later. That begins to happen more around the mid-1960s, although there were people, like Jim Forman, who had gotten a Master's degree, I think, in African studies or maybe it was his undergraduate major. There were people who knew a lot more about Africa than we did, but I think for SNCC, it more or less begins with Harry Belafonte raising the money and organizing a SNCC delegation to tour Africa in Guinea, Ghana, in 1964. Although I should say that it was Forman, back in 1963, I think, who introduced the phrase "One Man One Vote" into our work. It was a slogan from the independence movement of what is now Zambia.
The Africa trip begins to mark the turnaround, because the SNCC people have conversations with Malcolm X who is in Africa at the same time. They're meeting African leaders and intellectuals including Black people from the states living in Africa — Ghana at that time hadn't yet been taken over by a military coup d'etat, and so they're meeting representatives of African Liberation Movements. And also in Kenya they're meeting people who struggled for the independence of that nation. So that builds into the organization both an awareness and a discussion of what's similar and what's dissimilar?
Because the Africans are interested in the Civil Rights struggle in the United States, and we're becoming interested in Africa in a way that we hadn't been a few years earlier — remember, this is the mid-'60s, so we're trying to figure out where to go next. And if you were young and Black in the middle 1960s, your attention naturally was going to gravitate towards Africa — a continent of new Black nations, and presumably, new ideas for Black folk. And if you were coming out of an organization like SNCC or CORE, your attention was quite naturally going to focus on African Liberation Movements or towards books like The Wretched of the Earth or towards a film like "The Battle of Algiers."
That's just a part of the process of our own development. Not everybody became Pan-Africanists in SNCC. Stokely represents one strand of evolution around the Pan-African idea, his Pan-African socialist idea. And although Stokely and I argued many times around this, I respect him because he went to live in Africa to try and implement it. You know, a lot of people just talk about it. He went there to live and spent the last 30-some-odd years of his life more or less in Africa.
People moved in other directions around the Pan-African idea too, being attracted to Julius Nyerere in Tanzania and Ujamaa. And the idea of not so much shaping — being involved politically in these countries — but working towards dipping into the Black American community for resources that could assist in the development of Tanzania and its Ujamaa policy. And you had support groups popping up around this time for Southern African Liberation Movements, and that's namely propaganda and fundraising and things like that. That's all from the middle '60s on into the '70s, on through the freedom of South Africa which occurs in the beginning of the '90s. But that's a huge, huge subject.
Jean: Excuse me, Charlie, can I interrupt? This is a book
signing too, and many of you haven't gotten your books yet or haven't
gotten them signed. So, let him take one more question. We're asking
Charlie to kind of abbreviate the response a little bit. But we're
hoping that you will stay, because we still intend to continue the
conversation, even as he's signing books, so please do stay. Some of
us haven't seen each other for a very long time. So stay, but we are
going to do just one more question.
Dennis Roberts: Many believed in wonderful things the Kennedys did, but they did some pretty terrible things too.
I worked in Albany, Georgia with a fabulous lawyer named C.B. King. There was a Black man named Charlie Ware who was almost murdered by the Sheriff in Baker County. It was so egregious that a criminal trial was held. Of course, the jury acquitted him in an hour and a half or so. One of the jurors was a man named Carl Smith, a white man who owned a grocery store in the ghetto, and he employed Blacks in the most menial positions, box boy and stuff like that. So the Albany Movement had been picketing him previously and went and picketed him right after the verdict.
Albany Georgia had three FBI agents who had to investigate all the lynchings and the terrorism directed against the Black community. But when this picket line took place, the [Federal] government projected it as a crime in that they were trying to punish a juror for his voting. They sent in something like — this is the Kennedys — sent in something like 72 FBI agents, but they couldn't get but three [agents] when Black people are being lynched. Seventy-two.
When the whole investigation was done, the only criminal charge they could bring out of it was that people "lied" to the Grand Jury. Now what the "lie" was, was that a woman named Elizabeth Holtzman — who some of you may know became a Congressperson and was very active in Watergate — she was a law student working with me at the time, and she conducted a meeting with these witnesses of these potential defendants to explain how the whole Grand Jury process worked. She was white, [and met with] six or seven Black men. As was the typical thing in those days when they were asked, "Didn't you meet with this white girl in C.B. King's office?" They were so afraid of hurting her reputation that they either "didn't remember," though it happened two days before, or they lied about it. And they were prosecuted, convicted, sentenced to two, three years. C.B. King finally won it on appeal in the 5th Circuit.
But that was the great Kennedy team. They did some horrible things as well as some of the good they did.
See Federal "Jury Tampering" Frameup in Albany GA for more information.]
Cobb: Well, they were bound to the Dixiecrats. I mean, this is the point I make — this is politics. Black people weren't important to them with respect to the Congress and what [the Kennedys] wanted from the Congress. [Georgia Senator] Herman Talmadge was more important in Georgia than [SNCC leader] Charlie Sherrod.
Thank you very much.