[Ella Baker is a middle-aged woman, a graduate of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. She has worked for the NAACP and SCLC and it was she who called the conference at which SNCC was founded. She was a strong influence over it in its early years. — Emily Stoper.]
Stoper: What is the basic goal of SNCC?
Baker: To change society so that the have-nots can share in it.
Stoper: Could you discuss in detail SNCC's move from the sit-ins to other things?
Baker: In the early days, there was little communication, except on a highly personal basis, as between friends and relatives, in the sit-in movement. I had originally thought of pulling together 120-125 sit-in leaders for a leadership training conference — but the rate of spread of the sit-ins was so rapid and the response so electrifying, both North and South, that the meeting ended up with 300 people. Many colleges sent representatives; there was a great thrust of human desire and effort.
The first sit-in took place February 1, 1960; the meeting in Raleigh was around April 17, 1960, for three days. Nineteen colleges above the Mason-Dixon Line sent representatives, most of them white. There were so many Northerners that at the meeting it was decided that Northerners could not participate in decision-making. This decision was made sort of by mutual agreement after discussion, because the Northerners recognized that the thrust of the action came from the South. They had been drawn magnetically to the movement because of their great admiration for the wonderful, brave Southerners. The Southerners wanted it that way, at that meeting, because of the divergent levels of political thinking both within the Northern group and between the North and the politically sophisticated Deep South. (There were many representatives from Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, although only token representation from Mississippi.) There was an outstanding leadership group from Nashville. It was a basic insecurity that caused the South to keep the North out of decision-making. The North and South used different terminology, had trouble communicating. This has cropped up again in SNCC. It became more subdued in the summer of '64 when there was a real program to be carried out.
Stoper: What else was decided on at the meeting?
Baker: That the coordinating group (SNCC) was not to be part of any other organization. Some tried to make it the student arm of SCLC, which had put up the few dollars to hold the meeting. They decided that it was too early to fix the structure of the organization, but the feeling was that it ought to be independent from adults.
Baker: Moreover, some of those who took part (I realize in retrospect) saw a basic difference in the role of leadership in the two organizations. In SCLC, the organization revolved around King; in SNCC, the leadership was group-centered (although I may have had some influence). Southern members of the movement were somewhat in awe of each other. There was a feeling that it was the "dawn of a new era," that something new and great was happening and that only they could chart the course of history. A strong equalitarian philosophy prevailed. There was a belief you could just go into an area and organize if you had had no leadership experience.
SNCC rejected the idea of a God-sent leader. A basic goal was to make it unnecessary for the people to depend on a leader, for them to be strong themselves. SNCC hoped to spread into a big movement, to develop leadership from among the people. At first it had a rotating chairmanship, for periods of about two months. Marion Barry was the first chairman. He was selected at the Raleigh meeting as temporary chairman with no opposition. This was in deference to the role of the Nashville movement, of which he was a leader. (Nashville had already had mass arrests after which the demonstrators had decided to stay in jail.) Marion had already demonstrated his capacity both to suffer and to confront the white man. He was seen as a real martyr. The Nashville group brought with it the influence of the Reverend James Lawson, who believed in nonviolence as a religious principle.
A continuations committee of two representatives from each state was chosen. It met in Atlanta once a month from April to August 1960. Then in Atlanta in October there was another general meeting at which SNCC was chosen as the name and Barry was retained as chairman. The next chairman, elected in '61, was Chuck McDew, who served for two years and was succeeded by John Lewis.
Stoper: How did the office of executive secretary evolve?
Baker: Jane Stembridge was then studying at Union Theological Seminary and she expressed to Rev. Shuttlesworth (of SCLC) her special interest. In June she became the "office secretary'' and was accepted as such by the Continuations Committee. Many of the Southern students lacked certain kinds of experience, e.g., of conducting a meeting. Jane (who was white) could type, write, etc. Her first job was to prepare, with me, a statement for the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Barry, with Bernard Lee, went to the Democratic Convention in California to deliver it. The simplicity of their presentation had its impact. Several papers in Tennessee (where Marion came from) carried stories.
At the October meeting, Jane asked to be relieved because certain things did not please her. Anyway, Southerners were no longer worried about competition for their leadership roles from people with greater skills, and then Jane had had no actual experience with confronting the enemy in the field. Ed King of Kentucky, who had been working in the office, took over then and stayed till the 'following spring. It may have been he who first had the title executive secretary. The office was in Atlanta right from the start.
Stoper: What were the powers of the executive secretary?
Baker: From the beginning, executive secretaries were the ones who spoke to the press. Jim Forman took over in fall '61, and the office under him acquired more powers because of his background. He is an excellent strategist under pressure. He was effective and therefore people deferred to him. There was no obvious period of resentment against him.
Stoper: What is SNCC's basic goal, that makes it unique?
Baker: The NAACP, Urban League, etc., do not change society, they want to get in. It's a combination of concern with the black goal for itself and, beyond that, with the whole society, because this is the acid test of whether the outs can get in and share in equality and worth. By worth, I mean creativity, a contribution to society. SNCC defmes itself in terms of the blacks but is concerned with all excluded people.
Stoper: Has there been a change in SNCC's goal over time?
Baker: During the sit-in movement, we were concerned with segregation of public accommodations. But even then we recognized that that was only a surface goal. These obvious "irritants" had to be removed first; this was natural. Some people probably thought this in itself would change race relations; others saw deeper.
Stoper: Would you tell in detail how SNCC's policy changed after the sit-ins?
Baker: From the start, there were those who knew sitting-in would not bring basic changes. Youngsters who had not thought it through had not bargained with the intractable resistance of the power structure. The notion of "appeals to the conscience" assumed that there is a conscience, and after a while the question began to be raised, is there a conscience?
Students, because they were most out front in the movement, began to see this and its political connotations. People began asking who really controlled things. The realization arose in Georgia that the rural areas had control because of the county unit system and that change had to be in the direction of political action.
The NAACP had long been conducting voter action through the courts. In the process of internal communications, the question of the vote arose. SNCC people began to go to Washington to talk to the attorney general, at first about Interstate Commerce [Commission rulings]. [Attorney General Robert] Kennedy tried to sell them on the idea of voter registration. Jenkins, McDew, Jones were in on this.
Some people in SNCC thought voter registration was it; others liked the nonviolent resistance effort and feared that it would be sacrificed to voter registration. It was later decided that you couldn't possibly have voter registration without demonstrations, as Sherrod believed and said from the first.
Baker: At the Highlander Folk School meeting, some people felt Jenkins, McDew and Jones were setting themselves apart as those "in the know" because they were in contact with the Attorney General. Marion Barry, Diane Nash, James Bevel and the Nashville group in general were zealously supporting the nonviolent philosophy and resisting changes. Basically, they felt involvement in voter registration would end the demonstrations and cause involvement in the political machine.
At that meeting the decision was made to go into the hard-core areas under [white] minority rule. Diane Nash actually proposed there that SNCC split into two organizations. I opposed the split as serving the purpose of the enemy. It would have been tragic to have two organizations at a time when we could barely maintain one. Some of the adults thought that those who wanted voter registration were being Machiavellian.
A director of voter registration (Charles Jones) and a director of nonviolent direct action (Diane Nash) were chosen. She then approached Forman to become executive secretary, because she thought she could trust him to be impartial in the office. (They even approached me for this, but I thought it should remain in the hands of the youngsters.)
Baker: In the development of the program, it became obvious there was no irreconcilable difference between the two tactics. Charles Jones and Diane Nash agreed a few months afterward that there was no more need for separate chairmen. All later clashes within SNCC were of a more local nature; this was the only time the organization was split.
Baker: Even on the issue of nonviolence versus self-defense there was never such an open split. This issue came up in connection with the preparations for the summer of '64 and was never really discussed before. Then there were discussions in executive committee meetings over such questions as what a SNCC man should do if a man he lives with wants to defend his home with a gun. But no edict came down, and therefore this decision was left to individuals.
Stoper: What were other sources of disagreement?
Baker: None, really, It was a pretty unified organization up to the summer of '64.
Stoper: What about the issue of whether or not to have the summer of '64?
Baker: In January '64, there was a big demonstration in Hattiesburg, where it first came out that there was a lot of feeling in the Mississippi staff of not wanting Northerners to come to Mississippi. Bob Moses was in jail at the time, but Jim Forman carried the ball at the meeting in favor of the summer, and it was agreed to. This was in January '64.
Stoper: What were the reasons for disagreement about the summer?
Baker: One reason was a doubt that Northerners could fit into the policy of developing local leadership (or maybe this was a rationale developed after the summer). There was some element of protection of your own leadership position. During the Freedom Vote, there had been some experience of Northerners who came down for a couple ofdays and seemed to be "taking over."
Stoper: How were whites in SNCC dealt with before the summer of '64?
Baker: It was not a major problem. Anybody who wanted to help was welcomed. After '64 the problem arose not in terms of whites but in terms of the right of the individual to make his own decisions in SNCC (this was Freedom High).
At a staff meeting in November '64, the issue of structure versus non- structure arose. Some wanted structure; others thought the real genius of SNCC was in the scope given to the original organizer. Some people said nobody should ever be fired. I thought this was unrealistic, that people were thinking in terms of a small closed society. It was a tragedy ... people finding their personal need was not SNCC's purpose.
Old radicals have a saying: "You can't make the new world and live in it too." The young people in SNCC wanted to live in it too. This was all part of a general thing about young people not conforming. At first we dressed in work clothes in order to identify with those with whom we were working, but later this became a part of our right to identity.
Stoper: Was the Freedom High connected with the white-black problem?
Baker: I'm not sure. I think maybe it was — because there were more whites in Freedom High, especially whites who felt their talents hadn't been well used, for reasons of their philosophy or their psychological problems. In those days, resentment against whites came not from black nationalism but from a feeling that it was the whites who brought in these ideas (Freedom High) and who perhaps had trouble accepting leadership.
Baker: Freedom High was an effort to develop a nucleus of the "pure" in which you could disregard the outside world.
Stoper: Would you discuss the impact on SNCC of the '64 Democratic Convention?
Baker: Some people had been tremendously optimistic; others weren't at all surprised at the outcome. Moses was among the more hopeful ones. I myself had never expected that we'd be seated. The fact that the liberals and most of the black civil rights leadership were committed first to electing Johnson was crucial. The delegates acted on nothing important. Even though they sympathized with SNCC as people, they were capable of being maneuvered by politicians.
But it wasn't the convention that caused SNCC to lose a lot of its vigor. It was the exhaustion after the summer and then the Freedom High conflict. Too much (i.e. the assimilation of hundreds of whites and the convention challenge) had been attempted in too short a time.
Stoper: Is there anything you'd like to add?
Baker: SNCC has played the role of gadfly — partly consciously, partly because of circumstances. By irking people and by getting down to basic issues, it has done this. Its members are not yet ready to give up this role. They understand the need for someone to keep pointing out the difference between rhetoric and reality — and also the importance of changing society, not just adding a few more people to it.
Stoper: In what way has SNCC fallen short of its goals?
Baker: It has not been successful in developing basic leadership in Mississippi, Alabama, Southwest Georgia. Its greatest difficulty has been in reconciling its genius for individual expression with the political necessity for organizational discipline. I myself approve of group discipline in general. The trend is more toward discipline, because the members of SNCC are a smaller and smaller band. This is because SNCC is no longer "the thing'' and the civil rights movement in general is no longer "the thing."
Baker: An important part of SNCC's impact has been on its individual members, who later continue the work in other ways, through other groups.
Copyright © Ella Baker and Emily Stoper. 1968.