In 1963 SNCC, based in Atlanta, was expanding. Without a membership base, it needed to develop sources of support and funds in other parts of the country. Joanne Grant was asked by James Forman to take the lead in setting up a NY office. The non-staff Friends of SNCC groups were to be supervised from the national office by Betty Garman Robinson and Dinky Romilly.
I first came in contact with SNCC after spending a day packing clothes to be sent south to help in communities involved in the civil rights movement. I wanted to do more and was directed to SNCC's NY office at 5 Beekman Street, near City Hall in Manhattan. The office was a tiny room in the attic space rented by the War Resisters League. It was June 1963, I was sixteen, and it was my first political work. I found a growing organization, happy for volunteers.
Bill Mahoney directed the office. Also there were Shai Holsaert, Eve Osman, and Dee Wolfe. These people embodied an ethos common in SNCC. If you wanted to do a job, and thought you could, they gave you the chance. There was help and guidance if you needed it, but there was a lot to do, and the movement was growing by people stepping up to do the work.
An important event that summer was a demonstration outside the NY office of Dan River Mills, a large employer in Danville, VA. The hope was that national pressure would force the company to help settle with demonstrators in town. The demo was co-sponsored by trade unions in NYC. Stuffing envelopes and answering the phone, I took a call from WLIB, a local radio station in Harlem. They wanted an interview; I cupped the mouthpiece and told Shai, who said 'you know the issue, you do it'. I then became Mr. Alan Reich, spokesman for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, newly confident, and supported by a staff member who knew how to organize.
In support of the people in Danville, and those in Greenville, Mississippi, who had organized a boycott of local stores, the office was coordinating the collection of food and clothing, Food for Freedom, to be sent as soon as we could fill a boxcar up. We had a storefront on East 1st with what had already had been collected, but the work had stalled.
I volunteered to finish the project, and after a lecture about the size of the task, Bill shrugged and gave me the job. Student volunteers canvassed housing developments for food donations. We coordinated with several groups in New England for clothing donations, raised some money, and by September we had a boxcar ready to go to the two cities. We continued this work into l964, canvassing Penn South, Ebbets Field and other sympathetic local housing developments. Trucks would pick up the donations. In the fall of 1963 the office moved to a large room in the office of the ACLU at 156 Fifth Avenue. The new co-directors were James Monsonis and Julia Prettyman. Fund raising, education and organizing were ramped up. There was a co-sponsored event at Carnegie Hall with Frank Sinatra, Mahalia Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne and the Freedom Singers.
I formed the HS Friends of SNCC in the fall of 1963, under Julie and Jim's supervision. We met in the conference room of ACLU every week or two on Friday evenings. A typical meeting might have 20 to 30 students and would have a short speech by a visiting staff member, like Bob Moses or Ella Baker, followed by a discussion. Jim would then bring in envelopes and leaflets for a mailing. Fannie Lou Hamer visited, told her story, and led us in song. Eventually we connected with over 30 high schools. A few were progressive private schools, but most were public schools. By spring of 1964, we began to meet in the basement of Duane Methodist Church on 13th Street. The meetings now had representatives from schools who held local meetings at their campuses and homes. The group was led by myself, Martha Kransdorf, Mark (Rudy) Scott, and Ted Gold. Other people involved were Kenny Kessler, Eric Lessinger, Teloca Mclinn, Dominique Des Anges. The group lasted through l965, later led by Mickey Weintraub, Adele Jones and Karen Smith. Other members that year were Dick Montgomery, Stephanie Craig, Mark Seigeltuch.
Also in the fall of l963, James Forman formed the Steering Committee of the NY office. Members included Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez, Mike Standard, and Joanne Grant. Jim saw what we were doing and invited me, age 16, onto the steering committee of the NY office to represent the HS group. I know it must seem like a small gesture, but it was greatly empowering. At their best, political groups accept all help without judgment and in doing so teach the values needed for a new world. I think part of Jim's power as a leader was to pass that lesson on.
There were restrictions on the activities of the Friends groups. Although free to find our own ways to support SNCC, we could not use our name in local issues. The NYC school boycott and the World Fair demos were not endorsed by the NY office, lest it compromise the organization.
By spring, there was a new, large office at 100 Fifth Avenue. Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez was the director. Other staff members were Marion Barry, Carol Rogoff and Mary Britting. Eve Osman returned. Fund raising increased dramatically. There was outside help with a large direct mail campaign, Lucille Perlman directing, with the student groups stuffing and opening the envelopes. Celebrities like Shelley Winters and Alan Alda, and journalists like Jack Newfield were courted. There was support work for Freedom Summer, including lobbying, the Parents' Group to support volunteers in the South, and buses to Atlantic City for vigils in support of MFDP's challenge to the seating of the Mississippi delegation at the Democratic Convention. Field staff, like Ivanhoe Donaldson and Lafayette Surney, were always in and out of the office, combining speaking dates and R&R. Passage of the Civil Rights Act was a priority. The photography book, "The Movement," edited by Elizabeth Sutherland was published and used as a fund raiser. At its peak the NY office raised 75% of the SNCC budget.
In spite of the high handed and cowardly treatment of the MFDP by the Democrats, the civil rights movement worked for Johnson's reelection. Winter brought more speaking engagements arranged by the NY office. John Lewis spoke to a standing room only crowd at CCNY. In order to bring attention to the FBI's failure to enforce the new civil rights laws, college students, working with the office, organized a march that ended at a picket line outside the FBI's NY office, a location not normally publicized.
In late fall of l964 a group of teenagers from the Freedom House in McComb, Mississippi visited New York. They were hosted by The HS Friends group, visited Harlem, and engaged in discussions. In April, 1965 a group of HS students led by Carol Rogoff visited McComb and helped the local COFO office.
Winter and spring of 1965 were especially busy. There were two big fund raising events. There was a star packed event at Town Hall, organized by an outside group that cost a lot but made a lot. The Hunter College friends, Lucy Dickman and Martha Kransdorf leading, produced a concert at their auditorium with Pete Seeger and The Freedom Voices, which cost nothing and made a lot of money. "Salt of the Earth," released from its blacklisting, had its theatrical debut as a benefit for SNCC.
The first direct civil disobedience in NYC came with a call to support the marchers in Selma. We were asked to harass the Justice Department by picketing, blocking doors and sitting in at their Centre Street offices. This was to be coordinated with other Friends groups and offices across the country, with the goal of focusing national attention on the second march. The actions occurred daily until the marchers reached Montgomery. In March 1965, the NY Office was asked to organize, with SDS, an anti-apartheid demonstration on the fifth anniversary of the Sharpville Massacre. Liz explained that the national office wanted to begin to take up other issues and we were to start with a campaign against Chase Manhattan Bank, demanding it divest itself of the bonds it supplied to South Africa. Mickey Weintraub and I represented the NY Office and with important help from Bayard Rustin, a large demo was held outside Chase's building in lower Manhattan. Many were arrested in a sit-in in front of the doors.
June brought support for the second freedom summer and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. I joined some current and former staff in going to Jackson, Mississippi to march against local anti-demonstration laws. Later, we went to Hattisburg for orientation, then to COFO projects around the state. I went to Meridian.
The Jackson marches produced mass arrests. To support and publicize the event, the NY Office repeated the demonstrations outside the Federal Building in Foley Square. There were arrests and some press coverage.
The HS group canvassed Rochdale Village, a large integrated housing development, over two weekends and raised a lot of money. In the fall Liz edited and published a calendar featuring photographs from the movement to be sold as a fund raiser. As SNCC grew, Eve Osman recruited her good friend, Lucille Perlman to join the volunteers. Lucille was in charge of the contribution mailing list in 1965. But then in mid 1965, when the need for zip codes was introduced, it was made more complicated and tedious. She supervised the young volunteers, some high school students, to look up zip codes for the entire mailing list and send them to the printer to have them added to the existing list of addresses.
Lucille was there when Stokely Carmichael called a meeting of the NY office staff and volunteers in late 1965. He explained that SNCC was changing and that there was no place for white people in the SNCC office. She remembers confusion and hurt from the group, who had worked together successfully for some time. No one was asked to train their replacements.
By the fall of 1965, SNCC and the movement were evolving. Ivanhoe Donaldson took over as director of the NY office. We were urged to organize in our own communities around our own issues, and many of the friends of SNCC moved on.
I've written about this time, encouraged by some of the personal accounts in "Hands on the Freedom Plow," about the support work done for SNCC. I realize I have left out many names and stories, but I hope others will aid in revising and adding to my account.
Copyright © Alan Reich. 2011
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the information and stories contained in the interview belongs to Alan Reich.