SNCC, Voter Registration & the Consequences
Remembrance of James Forman
From Trinity College SNCC Reunion, April 1988

Originally published in A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC, by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg

[Charles] Sherrod used to say, "If we could only find one person, the key is to find one more person other than yourself and then things will begin to roll." Diane Nash Bevel was responsible for the organization of a lot of us, including myself: she was directly responsible for all of the misfortunes in SNCC because she recruited me, so you just remember that. And then there's Mary King; she worked with Jimmy Carter, and that came about because registration worked and Bernard Lafayette and other people organized in Alabama and Sherrod in Georgia, and Mary King as the assistant to Julian Bond in the communications department was instrumental in the organization and election of James Carter as the President of the United States. And there are a couple of other people who are still trying to carry on, Joanne Grant and Dorothy Zellner. And there's Ralph Allen, who recruited Jack Chatfield. That's how the ripples are organized — one person takes up the responsibility and he gets another person involved.


Basically, as you know, in 1619 the first slaves came into the United States. Then the Civil War was fought, ending slavery. White people from all over the United States helped to fight in the Civil War, as did black people. During Reconstruction we had the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan was a terror organization then and it still is, and it began to terrorize black elected officials and drove a lot of them from office.

In 1890 the Mississippi legislature decided that they were going to take the vote from the poor white people — and I stress this — as well as the black people, and they were going to do this by passing a new state constitution with literacy laws and poll tax measures, primarily. Those were the two main ways that the vote was taken away. This meant that people didn't have a right to run for office, they didn't have a right to vote for elected officials. And it was not until 1955, when Rosa Parks sat down, that extralegal challenges began.

But it was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which developed extralegal tactics to their greatest degree. What we were saying was that we don't agree with these things; that these laws are unjust and that we should take direct action. And Sherrod was one of those individuals, Lafayette, and Julian; tremendous amounts of nonviolence training. And people decided that the [judicial] legal approach was not working. There are people who are oppressed, they can't vote, they can't sit down in public facilities. So we must do something extra.

We explored this question of nonviolent protest, and then that was carried on into voter registration. My own contribution started in Fayette County, Tennessee, when we were registering people to vote who were denied the right to vote there. There we met John Doar, who was a central figure to this. He was in charge of the Justice Department's Division of Civil Rights, as was Robert Owen who was another Justice Department official in Fayette County, and that relationship with Doar carried over into the activities of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Now, in one way we were pressured to do voter registration. Robert Kennedy felt that would be a safer method of protest and also it would not embarrass the United States government as much. Congressman Charles Diggs picked up on that and began to try to organize the student movement into voter registration. Well, during that time, I had been working in Fayette County and I knew that wouldn't be no contradiction. I knew that voter registration there probably would not work, and so at the Highlander meeting of August 1961, SNCC reorganized itself.

There was a staff of sixteen people. Charles Sherrod was into voter registration; Bernard Lafayette, myself, we were in direct action. The direct action people insisted that I should be the executive director of the organization. My position was one of unity, because I knew that regi&tering voters was direct action. I mean Fayette County was a horrendous experience. But the Justice Department under Robert Kennedy, or certainly Robert Kennedy himself, felt that students should go into voter registration, and that would be a safe method of protest.

I wasn't at Highlander, but it's my understanding that some people were objecting to that. I know in the direct action wing the concern was being expressed that we not be coopted by going into voter registration, that the movement through sit-ins and direct action had achieved a tremendous number of objectives. In voter registration, people were saying that we had to register voters, and I certainly agreed with both positions. But those were the main considerations in choosing that as our direction.

My concern was that the student movement not be coopted by the Justice Department. And I certainly felt that everything that we could do to try to keep the student movement moving, we should attempt to do. Those were the basic considerations; and of course, they made foundation grants possible. And this is one of the tragedies. The government can do a lot of things, the Justice Department can do a lot of things. A lot of voter registration money was made available through various foundations primarily because the administration wanted to register voters, there's no question about it, that's just a fact. And we attempted to get some of that money, but SNCC got very, very little money. A little money went to Southwest Georgia, $5,000 went to Mississippi, but most of that money went to these other organizations. But we were still registering voters, and we should not forget that.

The foundations and the Voter Education Project did not want us in the rural counties, which was our approach. They objected to our method of registering voters. They said they'd try to get us into the cities, where we could register larger numbers of people, and so we tried to explain to them the rationale for registering in the counties. We presented that proposal and we didn't compromise on that. We negotiated, we attempted to get some funds, but there was very, very little money that came as a result of the voter registration activities for SNCC.

This raises the question of relations with the federal government. Everybody has to understand that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee knew what it was doing. We were cooperating at various phases with the federal government. In Fayette County, before we went into voter registration, the United States government couldn't act, because there were no organizers, there was no field staff. In order for the Justice Department to file these voting-rights suits, it was necessary to have field people; that is, people who were willing to take people down to register to vote. It was only in that way that you could invoke the 1957 civil rights law which simply said — it wasn't much, but it was an opening — that the federal government had to protect people who were willing to register to vote and those people who were trying to help them to register to vote. And it was that law which we used all throughout the sixties in order to try to pressure the federal government to do what it was supposed to do and that is to protect people in the exercise of their right to vote.

My criticism was not of John Doar. I point out that it was primarily the Federal Bureau of Investigation which was refusing to carry out a federal law. Now this should be discussed in further detail, because remember that everything that we were doing in terms of voter registration was basically legal activity and that the federal government was supposed to protect us. It was not supposed to let anyone interfere with our lives, but, as I said, in order to do that, you had to have staff people.

In Greenwood, Mississippi, the Justice Department was insisting that we drop our opposition to the literacy laws, that it was in favor of a civil rights act but not for the clause that says drop the literacy laws; and this is how the demonstrations started in Greenwood. Our position was that we can't compromise on this question, that if you can register to vote in Illinois just by signing your name, or in New York, we have to have that same right in Mississippi. And so the thing to do is to start demonstrating, and that's how we started the demonstrations in Greenwood around this question of completely eliminating these literacy test laws.

Now, what I can best contribute is to talk about some of the effects of the voter registration and some of the consequences. The effects have been enormous. Julian Bond was an elected official, he was a SNCC field secretary, working on communications, he was on the Atlanta Committee on Appeal for Human Rights. Charles Sherrod is an elected official; Robert Mants, who worked in Southwest Georgia, became an elected official. John Jackson is the mayor of Whitehall, Alabama. These people are elected officials who were involved with the initial organization of voter registration. So just from that point of view, it's important.

What does that mean? It meant that we crushed, if you want to use that term, the 1890 decision of the Mississippi legislature. We were able through successful, sustained, organizational work to overturn something that had been a barbarism in the history of American society, that is, the denial of the right to vote. And that was codified in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

And a lot of that is directly related to the work of Bernard Lafayette. John Doar came up to me in 1965 at the time of the Selma to Montgomery march and said he was very, very sad. I said, "Whafs the matter?" He said, "I see all this publicity that Dr. King is getting behind the Selma to Montgomery march and I know it was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that came into Dallas County, that came into Selma, Alabama, and began to register voters and began to challenge this whole process and that this circuit court of appeals is going to hand down a decision within a week which will practically" — he didn't use the word revolutionize — "shatter this whole literacy test that the South wanted to impose."

Now, in 1964 the Civil Rights Act had a severe weakness; it did not completely eliminate the literacy requirement. But in 1965 the Voting Rights Act did eliminate the literacy requirements, and therefore a lot of people began to register to vote. And that's directly related to the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as well as allied groups. We're not trying to take away anything from other organizations, but the role of the heroic people in this organization and on this platform is usually not talked about, so I want to take an opportunity to say that

Now, I want to talk about some of the enormous negative consequences. The repression of people who associated with voter registration intensified. We have concrete proof of the introduction of the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency into the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to destroy the organization. Why? Because of the work that it had done, because of its efforts to register voters, primarily. Because when you register voters in the United States of America you're talking about changing power relationships. You're talking about taking the ability to control the tax dollar away from some people and giving it to other people, and that's an enormous reality in the lives of any people. And that's why the organization and all of its contributors have been undergoing severe repression since 1964, because the organization was successful. We have to understand that, and SNCC's members have to appreciate that, so that we're not confused about why all of us are going through this kind of turmoil, and why some people get recognition and other people don't. But that was never our concern because we were not just interested in registering voters, we were talking about a new world, changing values, changing the values of the people of the country, and we have to try to get back to that as much as we can.

Now, another consequence was that the government organized a lot of people. I have a book here by Elijah Muhammad called "Message to the Black Man in America" [1965]. (Elijah Muhammad's organization, the Nation of Islam, is being carried on today by Louis Farrakhan, not by Wallace Muhammad, who has broken with the ideology of his father. He has said that black supremacy is the worst thing in which they could have been trained, so he is not in accord with this positiofl expressed by Elijah Muhammad.) In this book — and we didn't know this at the time — Elijah Muhammad says to the world that if they're opposed to civil rights that the Nation of Islam will "take care" of the civil rights people. That didn't mean just the workers — myse1f, Bernard Lafayette, or Charles Sherrod — but it meant contributors, anybody for civil rights, as we interpreted it. Now, we didn't know that at the time, because we were interacting with the Nation of Islam and we would tell them, "We know that you're a religious group, but these laws are going to affect you; you're black and you're suffering from segregated laws, so don't worry." Had we known that this was the position of Elijah Muhammad, we probably would not have contacted him.

Now, this book didn't come out until 1965. But since that time there have been a lot of other things happening in the United States in terms of the consequences of our particular action and the actions of other people. People were talking about the revolutionary acts of the movement, and race war as a consequence. Race war got introduced as the consequence of a broad interracial civil rights movement which overturned hundreds of years of deprivation in the United States, certainly from 1891 up until 1964. AIl that has to be discussed.

There is a book by Don Lee, or Haki Madhubuti, after he came back from the Sixth Pan-African Congress in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1974, in which he said he was going to organize a race war. Well, we were opposed to race wars. You can see by the composition of people in SNCC that within its ranks that was not the reality of the organization.

Now, a lot of the white people who were in SNCC are still confused about a lot of things, and I'm not trying to cast any aspersions, but all of this is not the problem of black people in the organization. Because I talked to some organizers who were in the People's Republic of China, and they told me they came back to split the movement; they came back to organize the white people out of SNCC. And I explained to them that what you in fact did was to split the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and that's an objective fact; there's no way that you can look at this other than that.

And I also went to the People's Republic of China and said that some of us in the United States are opposed to race war; we've dedicated our lives to racial harmony, to a new world, and we want the People's Republic of China to know that we are opposed to race war and that we would consider any support for the race war ideology given by the People's Republic of China to any group in the United States to be something that is not in the best interests of all of the people of the world. And we discussed that the main answer we were given was that Mao Zedong was saying that Robert Williams, founder of the Revolutionary Action Movement, was the head of the black American nation in the United States of America. That has to be further discussed.

Now, in terms of some of the future projections, one of the things that we discussed in SNCC was how to handle Washington, D.C. The general strategy was get the right to vote in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, all the other southern states and then begin to concentrate our energies on Washington, D.C. Why? Because Washington, D.C., was controlled completely by the federal government and it's still controlled by the federal government. The budget of Washington, D.C. still has to be sent to Capitol Hill. And that regulation by the federal government has enormous consequences to people allover the world. Washington, D.C., is the capital of the nation, and a few people control it, so we're trying to change that. I think that if we're able to get statehood for the District of Columbia the basic objectives of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee will have been completed. Then the only thing left is the question of full equality in terms of employment for people of color and for women.

I've tried to discuss some of the effects and some of the consequences of voting rights efforts. The consequences were enormous, but we have to fight against the repression against everybody in the United States because the FBI does not hammer on just some of us.


The question of the Mississippi Summer Project keeps being debated, and there are some factors about it which should be discussed so that people can be very clear. There was a meeting in Greenville, Mississippi, in 1964 and a majority — or some part — of the Mississippi staff took the position that we should not have the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964. The project envisioned the organization of a lot of people from northern states and the organization of a lot of whites.

Bob Moses was the project director, and there was a lot of disagreement with the decision that was taken — I wasn't at the meeting — not to have the Summer Project. Plans had been made, and so forth. Moses came to Atlanta, to the Executive Committee of the organization, and he discussed this question, what were we going to do. He took the position in Greenville that he didn't want to be part of a racist organization. He considered a decision to exclude Mississippi Summer Project volunteers because of their race to be a racist position. And he explained this to the Executive Committee and we decided that the Summer Project should go forward. It was a unanimous position that it was in the best interests of everybody in the United States of America, the entire population, not just a few people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, for the project to take place.

Now, during the Summer Project, Bob Moses called me from where they were training volunteers in Oxford, Ohio, and said, "Look, Allen Dulles, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, would like to meet with some of us, with Guyot, myself, and you." I said, "Why do you want me involved? You're the Mississippi Summer Project director." He said, "Well, the staff at Oxford insisted that you be at the meeting because they felt that if you were not at the meeting that they would be sold out" And so I said okay, if that was the position of the staff, then I would come to the meeting.

We met in Mississippi. Allen Dulles said, "President Lyndon Baines Johnson wants to help the Mississippi Summer Project and he wants to know what it is he can do. He asked me to come out of retirement to meet with you and to give him some kind of assessment as to what he should do." So we discussed this problem of Mississippi, we discussed the historical terror. We discussed 1890, we discussed what had been happening with those literacy laws and what this was doing all across the South, not just in Mississippi. And how people did not have the right to vote. There weren't any elected black officials in Mississippi or across the South in 1964. So we said the thing for you to do is to tell the President of the United States — and we did all this in a very amiable fashion — to try to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an act which was to reverse seventy-five to eighty years of power-taking by the Mississippi legislature, of denying people their right to vote, of instituting segregated laws.

There were certain things that occurred in the Mississippi Summer Project. One of the things we decided to do was we said that every project director in Mississippi had to be black. And every summer volunteer who was interviewed had to answer the question, "Would you be willing to go to Mississippi and serve under a project director who was black?" And interviewers were instructed to pay very careful attention to that question, because that would determine perhaps more than anything else whether you should accept this person to work in the Summer Project in 1964. And every summer volunteer was asked that question.

There were certainly issues about initiative — I remember Dickie flowers in particular. I said, "What's the problem, Dickie?" He said, "I am the project director; I'm black. And one of the things that has happened is that a lot of the volunteers have come in and I have found myself saying I went to Morehouse when I know I didn't go to Morehouse." And I said, "That problem can be resolved. That problem occurs in every situation." There were other people who may have felt that their initiative was stifled.

In any situation there are going to be some excesses, some casualties, but we have to look at the overall good. We have a mayor of Vicksburg, we have other mayors all across the South that could not have come about without the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and we have to be very clear about this. We have to try to get over this feeling that some people's initiatives were crushed. This is no reflection on anyone. But there was an overall consideration that had to be analyzed. Even the sanctions on South Africa — how could we have passed sanctions on South Africa without having black officials? How could we be doing what we are doing in Mississippi?

Ruby Doris Robinson was instructed to go out and try to make every effort to recruit black people for the Summer Project. We made all sorts of efforts to do this so that people would not get the impression that there was an invasion of volunteers coming in who may not have been the same skin color as the majority of the people in Mississippi. The 1964 Civil Rights Act made it possible for black people to register to vote and for black officials to get elected. There are now over 7,000 black elected officials in the United States and in 1964 there were fewer than 500, and that is a tribute to every Mississippi summer volunteer and every member of their families regardless of their race.

And all the volunteers were not white. There is no need to be apologetic about this particular matter. People laid down their lives — there were people killed. The only people killed were not black; there were white people killed. The only people killed were not white people; there were black people killed. Everybody knew that that was probably imminent for all of us.

But there was an overall good. We can all nitpick. Let's look at Bob Moses. Where was Bob Moses and his position on whites after 1964? He went to Africa in 1964 and again in 1965. Right after the Summer Project the organization asked, how can we relate to the peace movement? We made a decision in our Executive Committee that Bob Moses and Courtland Cox were mandated to work with volunteers to try to develop a peace project that would include the volunteers so they would not be isolated if they did not feel that they had anything else to do in terms of civil rights. The Assembly of Unrepresented Peoples was led by Bob Moses. Then he said he's stopping all contact with whites; no more whites in the organization. My position was, "Where did you get this line?" He said he decided in Africa that SNCC would be better off with no whites in it and said, "I'm breaking off all contacts with white people." There are a lot of contradictions here, and I think we should debate it

See Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) for web links.

Copyright © James Forman. 1988

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