Miss Cohen was in SNCC from June 1963 through the early months of '65. She is a native of Indianapolis and a graduate of Brandeis. She is white.
Note: In 1966 it was still customary to use "girls" to refer to young women.
Cohen: After the summer of '64, SNCC decided to restructure itself. At a crucial meeting in Waveland, Mississippi, in November '64, it came out that a lot of people felt Forman and the national office in general were being too bureaucratic, too secretive, etc. Some resented his going with a white girl. There was a discussion of a proposal by Bob Moses and Casey Hayden to make the organization looser. Either Ivanhoe Donaldson or Courtland Cox spoke out in favor of a stronger, more centralized organization. At the Waveband meeting, because of the general unrest, the whole staff discussed matters that were usually only considered by the executive committee (12-20 members). There was a split, which blew up at the February staff meeting.
Some people on the staff had been robbed and they suspected other staff people. This precipitated a big discussion on SNCC as a community and the nature of obligations to others in the same community.
Stoper: Did SNCC change in its organizational structure or way of doing things and making decisions?
Cohen: When SNCC was very poor in the beginning, there was more equality between field and office. Field workers didn't like being assigned to the office. In the fall '64, some people in the office were getting $125/week. (It was the office people who decided about the distribution of money.) The people in the field really resented this. Jack Minnis found a new building, costing at least $100,000 and it was bought at a time when people in the field weren't being regularly paid.
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Cohen: Later on, Forman divided up his power, giving some to Ivanhoe, some to Cleve Sellers, some to Ruby Doris Smith.
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Stoper: What was SNCC's goal at the time you were in it?
Cohen: "To change the balance of power in the country so that Negroes could get rights in local places in the South. They wanted everything for themselves that whites have." What the Negro community wanted most was jobs, but SNCC couldn't help with that. What we did work for was better schools, better housing, paved roads, police protection, money.
Stoper: Did its goals change over time?
Cohen: The goals didn't change, only the means. At first SNCC tried to achieve its goals through integration; then they didn't. Another goal is human dignity, e.g. not being called "boy" or "nigger."
Stoper: How is SNCC's goal different from that of other organizations? What makes it unique?
Cohen: SNCC is different not in goals but in means. It is perhaps more interested in "participatory democracy," though we never used the term. We were interested primarily in community organization. We wanted to give the Negroes historical awareness and an awareness of the difference between their lives and the lives of others, and also an understanding of the political forces, of the effect on their lives of decisions made in Washington.
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Cohen: No white civil rights workers had been permitted in the state of Mississippi by SNCC before the middle of the summer of '63. Then two whites, Mike Miller and Dickie Frye, a Yale art student, were let in. Moses then allowed in Oscar Chase (who had a Yale law degree), Joanne Bowman (from Georgia), Casey Hayden and later, in October '63, myself. [Moses allowed me to come for a two week visit but made it clear I wasn't to stay. My return bus fare was stolen and I ended up staying and working in Meridian, Mississippi, on a CORE project.]
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Cohen: People in the field were afraid of reprisals when the whites pulled out after the summer of '64. They realized the whites hadn't really trained the locals to take over the movement. There was a real period of depression. At that point, SNCC's preference not to have whites as members greatly intensified. This preference, though, was of long standing. In the fall of '63, none of the Negroes on the staff liked the idea of the summer project, mainly because they didn't want whites. They felt whites created more danger (although we later learned that the FBI would give extra protection for white girls. For example, during the summer of'64, there were something like 13 bombings in McComb, Mississippi, before the white girls arrived and only two afterward - and these last two were solved.)
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Cohen: Most of the Negro staff didn't like whites from the start. As time passed this feeling grew stronger but at the same time less apparent because there were so many whites. A lot of pressure was brought to bear on overt interracial couples, but on the other hand many Negro men would secretly, or discreetly, be involved with white girls sexually. Whites were often made to feel they had to be especially tolerant of Negro males' behavior. There were Negroes in the Atlanta office, like Ruby Doris Smith and Sheslonia Johnson, who were really prejudiced. They gave a hard time to whites trying to obtain paychecks, a reply on the WATS line to the long-distance calls, etc.
The attitude to whites characteristic of black power was widespread all the time I was in SNCC, but not as open. People did say openly that blacks should occupy all the top positions - and also whites were frequently blamed for whatever went wrong.
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Cohen: At a meeting in Greenville, Mississippi, of the entire Mississippi staff (35-60 people) in November '63, it was decided not to have the summer project or any whites — but then [Bob] Moses, who came late to the meeting, came in and persuaded everyone the time had come to do something big. At that time the FDP had not yet been formed and there was a lot of discussion on whether to form an independent political party or a Negro branch of the Democratic Party (which is what the FDP actually was). The Freedom Vote had raised this problem. SNCC chose the latter as the most effective way to challenge the white Democratic Party.
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Cohen: At the Greenville meeting (November '63) Jesse Harris, a Negro, got upend said all he saw in the office was "a sea of strange white faces and it made him sick." The whites were all kept in the office because they couldn't be used in the field. Naturally, they started making decisions, and this created a lot of resentment.
Stoper: What were the crucial events in SNCC's history?
Cohen: I don't know. Bob [Moses] was the most important person [in Mississippi].
Stoper: What was the impact of the summer project on SNCC?
Cohen: It brought SNCC national attention, which in turn put pressure on the government to help. We had been suspicious of the government all along and our attitude didn't change much. President Kennedy did successfully put pressure on Senator Eastland to protect SNCC workers in his home area, the Delta. But in the Klan areas (McComb, Natchez, Neshoba County) there was no control. In the summer of '64, SNCC only sent whites to that area if they had specifically volunteered for it, and even then only after about three weeks. No white girls were sent until the end of the summer.
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Direct action vs. Voter Registration
Cohen: In the Deep South the tactic of direct action was mostly not used because the whites were too repressive. I'm talking about Mississippi mainly. Sherrod (in southwest Georgia) kept doing these things.
In Mississippi we involved parents by getting kids to come to Freedom Schools. We wanted to involve the parents so they could vote and form labor unions; the kids were too young to do these things and they couldn't even do street demonstrations. Instead we organized slowly and patiently by phases. In the first phase, when SNCC organizers went from house to house, people would not open their doors. In the second phase, they cautiously opened the doors and heard them out. In Phase 3, they would attend mass meetings; and finally, they would actually confront the white community e.g., by going to the courthouse to register [to vote]. Then nothing would happen and disillusionment would set in. This meant a return to phase 1, at which point SNCC had generally spent many months in the community and did not know what to do next. This pattern caused a lot of people to say that SNCC didn't have a program. A further problem was created by the difficulty of the local Negroes in getting used to working with white [civil rights workers].
Around the summer of '64, SNCC became famous enough so that most Negroes in the areas in which it worked had heard of it. This made it much easier to get started in organizing a community.
SNCC always enlisted the aid of local kids in doing the legwork to get the adults to go out and [try to register to] vote. On every project there was a lot of floundering and wasting time because the workers on the project did not know in advance exactly what they might accomplish.
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Cohen: Then Jesse Morris [This is a different Jesse, not the one mentioned above from the Greenville meeting] came to Mississippi and started talking about various federal programs that could be of help. During the summer of '64 a lot of people worked on designing programs in agriculture and education which could get federal money - but at that time the federal government never really came across.
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Cohen: The violence/nonviolence question was not [being] discussed any more by the summer of '63 when I worked in the Deep South for SNCC.
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Stoper: Discuss changes in SNCC's policy toward self-defense.
Cohen: There was a great anger against what had been done. All along, SNCC Negroes loved the idea that something could happen to hurt white people back. They fantasized and joked about it - about "not taking it any more," about renouncing nonviolence and having the white man turn back meekly.
Cohen: I heard in l963 from SNCC workers that there had once been a Negro gang which protected SNCC workers in Albany. Whether or not this was true, it appealed to SNCC as a story.
All the local Negroes (and of course the whites) were armed, as is the Southern custom. But SNCC's policy was to forbid its members to carry guns, unless they were locals, and this policy was obeyed. Bob Moses said you could be safer if it was know you weren't armed. SNCC policy: if you're a staffer, you don't carry weapons, but you don't ask the people you stay with not to carry weapons. There was a lot of discussion of borderline cases, e.g. should you use your host's weapons to protect his family if his home were attacked by hostile whites and he was not available to defend it?
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Stoper: What do you like and dislike most about SNCC?
Cohen: I liked: they equality of the members, the lack of hierarchy, the individual freedom. I was permitted to find out by experience that I couldn't organize a Negro Community in Mississippi myself.
[I disliked]: They overdid this black male thing. Guys who were less competent would run a project because they were the only black males available. The inequality of the pay.
* * *
Cohen: After the March on Washington (August '63) John Lewis and whoever else made the decisions with him to tone down SNCC's criticism of the federal government, were raked over the coals because the decision had been made without consulting [with the others in leadership] and was inconsistent with SNCC's general policy.
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Cohen: Another type of conflict within SNCC was created by feminism. There was a reaction by SNCC girls against the Southern (and general) belief that women either are incompetent and to be protected or should be. This conflicted with the habit of SNCC men, particularly Negroes, of aggressively asserting their masculinity.
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Stoper: Did the disagreements in SNCC fall along black-white, Northern-Southern, educated-uneducated lines?
Cohen: There was a lot of resentment against Northern kids with skills like setting up files, typing, letter-writing, making long-distance calls. This created friction.
The Southern kids had a general resentment of Northerners of both races, whom they regarded as naive, "unburned."
Copyright © Miriam Cohen Glickman. 1966
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