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SNCC: The Battle-Scarred Youngsters
by Howard Zinn
Originally published in The Nation, October 5,
See Mississippi Voter
Registration Greenwood for background & more
See also Greenwood MS
Movement for web links.
A report from the front lines of the civil rights battle in Greenwood,
Mississippi — a very dangerous place to be.
Having just spent a little time in Greenwood, Miss., I felt a certain
air of unreality about the March on Washington. The grandiose speeches,
the array of movie stars, the big names dropped and bounced several
times, the sheer impress of numbers — all added up,
technically, to an occasion that one describes as "thrilling." And it
must have been so to participants and to the millions who watched on
television. Still, while swept up in the spirit myself, I wondered if,
to the Negro citizen of Greenwood, Itta Bena and Ruleville; of Albany,
Americus and Dawson; of Selma, Gadsden and Birmingham; of Danville and
other places, it may not have seemed the most Gargantuan and best
organized of irrelevancies.
There was one relevant moment in the day's events at Washington: that
was when the youngest speaker on the platform, John Lewis, chairman of
the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, lashed out in anger, not
only at the Dixiecrats, but at the Kennedy Administration, which had
been successful up to that moment in directing the indignation of
200,000 people at everyone but itself.
The depth of Lewis' feeling and the direction of his attack may have
baffled Northern liberals, mollified recently by the Administration's
new Civil Rights Bill, by its bold words and by the President's
endorsement of the great March. But John Lewis knew, because the young
SNCC workers in his organization are on the front lines of the conflict,
that while the President and the Attorney General speak loud in
Washington, their voices are scarcely whispers in the towns and the
hamlets of the Black Belt.
Greenwood, Miss., just before the March, revealed in its own quiet way
how the Deep South remains essentially untouched by resonant speeches in
the national capital.
Surrounded by cotton plantations, Greenwood overlooks the Delta from a
vantage point in west-central Mississippi. It is the headquarters for
the Voter Registration Project, in which all the major civil rights
organizations cooperate, and whose working force is supplied mainly by
the youngsters of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
(SNCC — affectionately called SNICK). It is the seat of
Leflore County, where Negroes are 65 per cent of the population and half
the Negro families have an income less than $27 a week. Almost no
Negroes vote, and attempts of the past year to register Negroes have
been met with torch, shotgun and a dozen varieties of official
brutality, intimidation and subterfuge.
The SNICK "office" in Greenwood is like a front company headquarters
during wartime. As I came in one evening last August, having driven from
Memphis, I was greeted by Annelle Ponder, whose younger sister I taught
at Spelman College in Atlanta, and whose path has crossed mine several
times in the last few hectic years. The Ponder girls are all tall,
black-skinned and beautiful. Annelle has been in Greenwood this past
year handling the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's part of the
voter registration project. She is quiet and courageous. She has been
beaten by police in Winona, Miss. When friends went to the jail one day,
they found her sitting there, her face swollen and marked, barely able
to speak. She looked up at them, and just managed to whisper one word:
With Annelle at headquarters were a bunch of the SNICK kids. One of them
came forward to shake hands and we recognized each
other — it was Stokely Carmichael, a tall, slender
philosophy student at Howard University, born in the West Indies and
reared in the sit-in movement. We had met in Albany, Ga., during the
first outburst of trouble there in December, 1961.
What was on for the evening? A mass meeting at one of the Negro
churches. And then a party at the home of one of the girls.
They showed my wife and me around the building: on 'the first floor, a
big jumbled room for meetings, with a long table in the
center — this was the dining room, too, for whatever
voter registration workers were around when mealtime
came — and a small kitchen to the side, where Mrs.
Johnson cooked the meals. Upstairs were cubicles serving as offices, and
a large area with two iron cots in a corner, for travelers in the
movement. Cartons of books were on the floor; they had been donated by a
Northern college, and were soon to go on new pine bookshelves.
At the church meeting, middle-aged Negroes who had lived forty and fifty
years in the Delta without shaking a white person's hand came up to
shake hands and say hello. Greenwood has this past year been going
through that tense, hopeful process begun recently in many communities
of the Deep South — the first contact on an equal basis
with white people; an awakening to the possibility of genuine
brotherhood. These first white friends have been college students from
New England, or ministers from the Middle West, or just interested
people passing through — rather than local whites. But
it is a start. And among the SNICK youngsters manning battle posts in
the Black Belt have been young white Southerners: Bob Zellner from
Alabama, Sandra Hayden from Texas. It is a beginning, and credit belongs
mostly to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for blasting
open in various parts of the Deep South the first pockets of equal
For Southern whites, watching at the edge of these pockets, it is a
painful but inexorable educational process. The first reactions to the
sight of Negroes and whites in friendly contact are outrage, fury, often
violence. But repetition of the vision dulls the reflex and there
begins, not acceptance yet, but at least hesitancy.
Perhaps Greenwood police this past year have begun to move into the
second stage. When a police car stopped my wife and me as we were
driving away from the SNICK party, they seemed at least a little
accustomed to the idea. They flashed their lights again and again into
our faces and into the car, and cast looks at the house where the lights
were on and the noise of the party could still be heard. They spent some
time examining identification papers and then (unlike a previous similar
experience in Atlanta, where my companion was a Negro and we were
arrested) muttered for us to move on.
The next afternoon, a race against time began among the SNICK workers in
the Greenwood office. Thirteen youngsters were in Parchman state prison
farm, and had been there for two months. Forty-five other
Negroes — men and women of all
ages — had been on the county prison farm, also for two
months. All of them had been arrested in June on charges of "breach of
the peace." After much legal delay, release was at hand. A young lawyer,
representing the National Council of Churches, had come to Greenwood
with bond money for these 58 people. But it turned out that information
supplied him by local officials, and transcribed on the bonds, was full
of errors, and the county attorney would not accept the bonds. If the
transaction could not be completed by that Friday afternoon, the
prisoners would have to spend another weekend in jail.
The proper information was quickly compiled, and all available
typewriters and people who could type were assembled in the Voter
Registration Project office. The new data were typed in. The papers were
taken to the sheriff. Just before dusk on Friday the 58 emerged.
The headquarters that night had the eerie quality of a field hospital
after a battle. Youngsters out of jail — sixteen and
seventeen years old — were sprawled here and there. Two
of them lay on the narrow cots upstairs while a few of the SNICK girls
dabbed their eyes with boric acid solutions; some dietary deficiency in
jail had affected their eyes. One boy nursed an infected hand. Another
boy's foot was swollen; he had started to lose feeling in it while in
"the hot box" at Parchman, and had stamped on it desperately again and
again to restore circulation. Medical attention was refused them in
prison. The cold newspaper reports of the past few years about people
arrested in various parts of the Deep South for demonstrating have never
conveyed the reality of a Black Belt jail.
Three SNICK youngsters, with a tape recorder on the broken-down table
near us, told about their arrest, and about life at Parchman.
The first was Willie Rogers:
... it was twenty minutes to one when the chief came out of his car
and across the street in front of the courthouse. It was June
25th — Tuesday. The chief said, "I'm askin' you-all to
move on." "We said that we were up there to get our folks registered."
So he said, "I'm askin' you-all to move on, you're crowdin' the
sidewalk" — the sidewalk was clear. We walked up to the
courthouse steps so as not to block the sidewalk. He said, "I'm askin'
you to leave now." We said we came to get them registered and soon as
they registered we would leave. So he started placing us under
arrest — one by one.
We stayed in jail about two hours before trial came off, and the judge
sentenced us to four months and $200 fine for refusing to move on, and
about an hour later they came and took us to the penal farm, which we
stayed out on the penal farm about a week and worked. ... Tuesday,
without us knowing they had sentenced us to Mississippi State
Penitentiary, Parchman, Mississippi. ...
Two boys named John Hanley and Arthur Jackson and I — he
put us in the hot box. We stayed in the hot box two nights. It's about
five foot nine inches square, which they call it the hot box. Long as
they don't turn the heat on — with three in there you
can make it. There's no openings for light or air there was a little
crack under the door, but you couldn't see your hand before your face
less you get down on your knees. When they got ready to feed you they
band the tray through a little door which they
close — and then you can't eat unless you get down on
your knees by the light comin' in the door — then you
can see how to eat. And they had a little round hole in the floor which
was a commode — about as big around as a six pound
After we stayed in there those two nights, the sergeant started pickin'
at me: "You're the lyingest nigger in Greenwood, aren't you?" I told him
no, I didn't lie, which I had, because I didn't tell him nothing about
the movement in Greenwood. ... The last night he decided to take our
T-shirts and things — so we decided not to wear no
underwear. So he decided to open all the windows and turn on the fans,
and the beds that we were sleepin' on, they didn't have no tick or
nothing, just metal, and had round holes in it. So last night I didn't
sleep — I stayed up all night and all day today and he
came in right after lunch and MacArthur Cotton and I, we weren't saying
anything, and, the guards came around and handcuffed us to the bar.
... I'm seventeen.
... My name is Jesse James Glover. I live in Itta Bena, Mississippi. I
was arrested at the courthouse in Greenwood — charged
for likewise, not movin' on. Some of the older people with us, they
moved on. But we didn't think it expedient to move, because the
courthouse is a public place. So we stayed. ...
We had a trial next morning. We didn't have a lawyer ... We stayed at
the county farm four days. We dug ditches in the white part of town. We
decided among ourselves we weren't going to work or eat any more because
we were afraid of being shot from a car passing the road or by one of
the guards, because we were all working with SNICK. We didn't eat for
two days, neither worked, then they came to take us to Parchman. There
was about 25-30 policemen outside with guns and blackjacks and things
standing around the bus when we came out — we all put
our hands behind our heads and they searched us all, put us on the bus.
So we left.
... We stayed there a week and then I took sick. He didn't let me see a
doctor. That's the man in charge. They call him "sergeant." We ate twice
a day. At night they put the fan on and it was cold. We were sleepin' on
a steel bunk with 44 holes in it. ... A week later I was put in a place
called the hot box. I stayed in this hot box two days and a half. I was
put in because Freddie Harris and Lawrence Guyot and I was whisperin' to
each other. Another week I was put in the hot box again. I stayed there
four days. About half a week later he said some lice had gotten in the
place, so he cut all our hair and gave us some blue ointment and put
fourteen of us in a cell — two beds for fourteen of us.
We stayed there all night.
About another week, I got put into this hot box again he said we were
talkin'. He put nine of us in this box — it's about six
by six. Nine of us we couldn't lie down . ... Three or four more days
they began to take our T-shirts and cut our food in
half — so we gave our shorts back because we said what
good are shorts without T-shirts. So they put us back in the cell,
without our shorts, and turned of the fan again. We were naked. It was
... The next day he put thirteen of us in the hole, this six by six
hole. We were making it okay about 30 minutes with the fan
off — breathing in this oxygen, lettin' out this carbon
dioxide — and the air was evaporating on top of the
building, and it got so hot the water was falling off the top of the
building all around the sides like it was raining. One boy was taken
sick in the box. They took the sick boy out — they
didn't take him to a doctor — they put him in a cell for
He let us out of the hot box that morning, back in the cell. We told
everyone to keep quiet because we didn't want to get in the hot box
again — it might cause a death in the hot box. So we all
was quiet for a long time. Then a few fellows were talking to each
other. He came down and told Lawrence Guyot, I'm going to put these
niggers up to this damn bar if I hear any of this
racket — so they hung MacArthur Cotton, Arthur Jackson,
and Willie Rogers on the bars — MacArthur was singin'
some Freedom songs.
... Altogether, I was thirteen days in the hot box.
... How did I get in the movement? I was at a mass meeting in Itta
Bena. I'd been walkin' and canvassin' on my own. Bob Moses asked me, did
I want to work with SNICK. I told him yes. So from then on I been
working. Monday I'm startin' school, but in the evening in Itta Bena I'm
going to get young people to work with me
canvassing — teach the old people how to fill out the
forms — try to get my town moving.
... My name is Fred Harris. He came around and said, you gonna move?
you gonna move? And he frightened the old people. And when we didn't
move he arrested us.
... I stayed in the hole four days. In all I spent 160 hours in the
hole — the hot box that is. He told me next time he
found paper on the floor in my cell he would hang me up by my arms and
my legs. And about a week after, that I asked to see the doctor, and he
told me, yes, when I die. I'm seventeen. I'll be starting school Monday.
I got involved with the movement back in 1960, when SNICK came up. I was
fourteen then. Sam Block was talking to me about the movement. I told
him, yes, I'd be glad to help, and I started from there on. ... At first
my mother didn't want me to be in it. Then she realized it would be best
for her and for me If I were in the movement, so she told me I could go
ahead and work in the movement.
While the returned prisoners took turns lying on the bunks, SNICK
workers were being delivered to different parts of the Negro section of
Greenwood to announce a mass meeting that night to welcome the prisoners
back home. You find, roughly, three kinds of SNICK workers in a place
like Greenwood: two or three regular staff members, who make $10 or $20
a week in those weeks when there is money; ten to fifteen students from
various parts of the country who have left school temporarily to work
with SNICK, and who subsist on $5 or $10 perhaps every other week;
indeterminate numbers of young people from the town and the surrounding
countryside, who volunteer their time, risk their lives and their
liberty, and get an occasional meal at headquarters.
I sat in on the staff meeting next morning, held in the large main room.
In one corner was a boiler, in another a rubbish can. On the walls were
a map of the City of Greenwood, newspaper clippings on civil rights,
photos of Pete Seeger when he was in Greenwood, photos of Jim Forman
(executive secretary of SNICK). Scattered around were two typewriters,
some broken chairs, books and newspapers and a big pot for Kool-aid.
But if poverty showed in the material possessions at SNICK headquarters,
the human resources were something else. Chairing the meeting was Bob
Moses, the quiet fighter in charge of the Voter Registration Project, a
veteran by now of Mississippi violence and nonviolence. Here was Sam
Block, silent, thin, dark, his home deep in the Delta, who did the early
reconnaissance for SNICK in the area and almost lost his life for it.
Here was Willie Peacock, also from Mississippi, another SNICK veteran.
Annelle Ponder was here, representing SCLC (Martin Luther King's group);
Martha Prescod, a slender college student from the North; Stokely
Carmichael, the fiery young man from Howard; Jean Wheeler, a smiling
coed, also from Howard. Here too was a former star student of mine at
Spelman College — her home a little town in South
Carolina — now just graduated from Yale Law School:
Marian Wright. With her, was another graduate from Yale, a young white
fellow named Oscar Chase. (Chase recently wrote a valuable legal paper
which shows how the federal government, by bold, imaginative use of the
injunction, could fulfill its responsibility to protect the
constitutional rights of Negroes in the Deep South,) In the room also
was another of the increasing number of white college students in this
essentially Negro-led movement — a California sociology
major named Mike Miller, who has done impressive research on civil
rights matters. And five of the youngsters just out of Parchman jail
That afternoon we drove in two cars to Itta Bena, a feudal cotton
village outside Greenwood, where Negroes came off the land to meet in a
dilapidated little church, welcome back the Parchman prisoners, and sing
freedom songs with an overpowering spirit. One of the returned prisoners
was Mother Perkins, fragile and small, 75 years old, who had just spent,
like the rest, two months on the county prison farm for wanting to
Cars filled with white men rumbled by along the road that passed by the
church door, but the meeting and the singing went on. Anyone who felt
the urge got up and spoke. An old man rose on his cane and said. "All
these years, going along behind my plow, I thought some day things would
change But I never dreamed I'd see it now."
Bob Moses told them that Negroes — and
whites — were without jobs in all the big cities of the
nation, that they could not run away any more from the Delta to Chicago
and Detroit, that they must stay and wrench from the State of
Mississippi what they deserved as human beings. Marian Wright told them
a fable about an eagle that for a long time was told it was a chicken
and believed it. Stokely Carmichael reminded them that while the Lord
might be on their side, they would have to secure their rights by their
own intense efforts. Meanwhile, the automobiles kept passing on the road
The crushing conclusion that comes out of Greenwood,
Miss — and Selma, Ala., and Danville, Va., and Americus,
Ga. — is that the federal government is but a shadow in
the hard-rock places of the Deep South. Standing at the foot of the
Lincoln Memorial, John Lewis turned his wrath, not at the easy target,
the Dixiecrats, but against the Administration. "It is the federal
government that indicted nine of our people in Albany." The Democratic
Party, Lewis made clear, cannot be treated as a savior as. long as it
lives with Eastland, nor can the Republicans, harboring Goldwater. "What
political leader can stand up and say his party is the party of
freedom?" And then, the most dangerous question one can ask in a country
boasting of its two-party system; "Where is our party?"
To many, the March had been presented as a gigantic lobby for the
Administration's Civil Rights Bill, but Lewis pointed quickly,
unerringly, to the weaknesses in the bill. Furthermore, by sponsoring a
new civil rights bill, the Administration had skillfully turned
attention to Congress, and deflected the erratic spotlight of the civil
rights movement from possibly focusing on inadequacies of the Executive.
The straight, crass fact at which John Lewis was aiming is this: the
national government, without any, new legislation, has the power to
protect Negro voters and demonstrators from policemen's clubs, hoses and
jails and it has not used that power.
Despite the welcome new words of concern by the Kennedy Administration,
despite several dozen suits filed by the Justice Department in voting
cases, the Negro in the Deep South still stands alone and unprotected as
he tries to eat in a bus terminal, register to vote, or hand out a
leaflet on a street corner. The right to vote, and freedom of
expression, are not in themselves solutions to the fundamental problem,
which is a rearranging of economic and political power in the South. But
they are prerequisites to that rearrangement.
There is a constitutional rock to which the Executive branch can tie its
lines and then smash, with all the power at its command, every Wallace,
every Barnett, every Chief Pritchett, every Commander Lingo, every Bull
Connor, who ever begins to lift a billy club at an American citizen
exercising his constitutional rights. That is the Supreme Court's
statement in the Debs case of 1895: "The entire strength of the nation
may be used to enforce in any part of the land the full and free
exercise of all national powers and the security of all rights entrusted
by the Constitution to its care."
But to act on that dictum calls for certain traits which the
Administration has thus far not shown: imaginativeness in the use of the
courts; boldness in the exercise of Executive power; the courage to set
new precedents in federal relations; the willingness to bypass Congress
on an issue about which Congress spoke its mind in
1866 — when it passed the Fourteenth Amendment.
Above all, it means changing to the offensive. Up to now the
Administration has simply reacted to every racial crisis. Southern
officials have thrown thousands of people into jail, and then put the
burden on the civil rights movement to get them out. The national
government needs to act, and then put the burden on Southern
segregationists to re voke the action; let them wrestle with courts,
raise money for trial, plead for toleration.
The "equal protection" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme
Court's statement in the Debs case, the declaration of Section 242 of
the U.S. penal code that any official who deprives a person of his
constitutional rights has committed a federal crime; these are the
already existing legal bases for Executive action. That action requires,
first, stationing all over the south hundreds of federal agents
(replacing the F.B.I., which is incompetent in the field of civil
rights) to protect the constitutional rights of Negroes. These agents
would have the specific assignment, and the authority granted by the
President, to jail any local official who violates the Constitution.
At the same time, the President must begin filling — as
he has failed to do so far — the federal judgeships of
the Deep South with persons committed to the principle of equality,
regardless of the wishes of the region's Senators. Among the outworn
political institutions of this nation is that of "Senatorial courtesy,"
which requires Kennedy to consult Eastland in the appointment of a
federal judge in Mississippi, Talmadge and Russell in Georgia, The
shattering of precedent can start here. Then, a combination of quick
acting federal agents and determined judges can begin to rivet into the
mind of the Deep South, and into the mind of the nation, not that
Negroes are equal (that will take time), but that if they are not
treated equally the consequences will be swift and harsh. When ten CORE
and SNCC people, white and Negro, walked into Alabama to try to
establish what Bill Moore, at the cost of his life, had failed to
establish — the right to walk safely on a public
highway — a cordon of federal marshals should have
surrounded them. And when Alabama Safety Director Al Lingo showed up
with his electric prod poles and guns, he should have been taken
immediately into federal custody.
The burden of legal proof needs to be borne by the segregationists, and
this has not yet been done. Any good lawyer knows that the advantage is
in the hands of the man who moves first, that delay and bureaucracy and
legal complications all work against those who are trying to undo an
action. Yet the civil rights movement, which cannot help it, and the
Justice Department, which can, have been on the defensive.
The needed initiative is not likely to come from a government whose
dedication to racial equality is as circumspect as that of the Kennedy
brothers. It took a series of explosive crises throughout the nation to
force from them words of moral concern that became part of the
Constitution a hundred years ago. It took something close to a
revolution to bring forth a moderate civil rights bill, which will be
further moderated by Congress, and by segregationist federal judges, and
by a cautious Justice Department.
Basic changes are needed in the social structure of the nation before
meaningful racial equality can be established. But in the Deep South, a
prerequisite for such changes is the establishment of the right to vote,
to organize, to speak, write and assemble freely and without fear of
violence. That requires a radical new use of initiative and power by the
national government. And because the
Administration — and inherently, any
administration — lacks the internal motivation for such
a seizure of initiative, it will have to be prodded by the increased use
of nonviolent direct action.
Right now, those who see this most clearly, feel it most intensely, and
are best prepared to move on it, are the young people in the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Copyright © Howard Zinn, 1963.