As told to the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the student-led sit-ins of 1960, the rise of youth-led activism, and the founding of SNCC. Main library, San Francisco, March 27, 2010.]
I was in the northern student novement at Berkeley in 1957 and '58 when SLATE was founded, a multi-issue University of California student political party, and I was actually its first chairman. In 1962, the SLATE summer conference was held in the Santa Cruz Mountains at a retreat center there, and our guest — the theme of it was the Negro in America — and our guest was Chuck McDew, then chairman of SNCC. He stayed at my house in Berkeley while he was out here in the Bay Area and asked me to become the SNCC Bay Area Representative which I did from mid-1962 until the end of 1966. But after hearing the stories about what was going on in the South, I couldn't continue working here without going South, so when Sam Block was out in December of '62 I asked him if it would be OK if I came to work in Greenwood, and he said: "Yeah, sure, come on down. Come down this summer."
So in the summer of 1963, the July 4th weekend there was the first Delta Folk Jubilee. It was held on the farm of Laura Magee. You've heard about the Magee family. This courageous woman owned her own place. So Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Theo Bikel, and SNCC's Freedom Singers all sang there.
I thought I was going to stay. And Dick Frye was going to stay also. But Bob Moses had serious doubts about the wisdom of [white activists working for SNCC in the Mississippi Delta], so he, Sam Block, and Jim Forman huddled off in a corner. They argued for awhile about who was going to do what, and finally Bob was persuaded — I think by Sam, because Sam was the local guy in charge of the Greenwood office — that this was the time to have a couple of white guys. We were kind of going to be the test cases of whether you could integrate the Movement in the Delta the other way, having permanent white workers working with the Movement in the Delta.
Well, we weren't there very long when the two of us got picked up by a cop, a white cop in Greenwood, and took us to the little two-story jail house. And as we were walking into the door, he yelled upstairs through the bars where the white prisoners were: "Got me some nigger lovers here, boys." And so as we stood at the booking desk in that jail we were kind of shaking with fear, if the truth be told, because we expected to get a bad beating in that jail. So here we were, standing at the booking desk, and the cop had gone into Chief Larry's office, and we could hear there was an argument going on. We didn't exactly know what was being argued about, but the minutes went on, and it seemed like an eternity. It was probably no more than five or ten minutes.
The cop comes back out, and he says: "Get back in the car, boys." Now we're in the car and even more frightened, because who knows where they're taking us. We're not very far from where Emmett Till had been so brutally murdered. And all of a sudden, we're back in the Black community, and the cop points to a school, and he says: "You boys see that school? We built that school for our Nigrahs." Now, it's not 'niggers,' it's 'Nigrahs' now. So he's changing his tone towards us. We haven't the vaguest idea what is happening here. The next thing, he points to a recreation center. He makes the same little pitch, and then all of a sudden we're back at the Freedom House.
We walk in, and there's the whole staff there and everybody bursts into applause and there's great laughter. And we said: "What is so funny?" Well, Sam Block had called the Chief, Chief Larry. And this was the unique thing about this Southern experience, while there was this conflict, bitter conflict going on, there were these relationships between Black and white people that a Northerner had no way of understanding. Sam had called the Chief, and he had said: "Chief, don't mess with those boys. They know the Governor of California." [Laughing]
Which was totally untrue, but that's what they had been arguing about while we were waiting there at the booking desk, and that's what decided, for them, that they'd better not fool around with us. And they brought us back. The cop, as he dropped us off, said: "You have to get out of town in the next 24 hours, because you're guilty of co- habitation of the races."
Well, we didn't leave, and a few weeks later I went to a mass meeting in Ruleville — you all know that Ruleville was the home of Fannie Lou Hamer. There were maybe 20, 30 people, but we called that a mass meeting in those days. And at this mass meeting, an old Black man got up, and as he spoke he put an arm up like this, and he started moving it. And he said: "You know — his voice was trembling — they call you Freedom Riders 'outside agitators.' I got an old style washing machine in my home. It has a thing at the top; it goes back and forth like this." He pointed to his arm. He said: "You know what that thing is called? It's called an agitator. You know what that agitator does? It gets the dirt out." [Laughing]
So I was always proud from then on to be called an agitator. I came back to the Bay Area, and SNCC out here — I kind of got a license from Atlanta to engage in local organizing because we were doing very well in our recruiting of volunteers and political pressure and raising funds for the South.
There's a part that not too many people know, but Marshall Ganz [who worked here with Friends of SNCC] became a major figure in the Farm Workers Union. Well, that began as an exchange program with SNCC and the Farm Workers Union, which was talked about in Delano [California] with representatives from the Farm Workers Union. And from SNCC, Bob Moses, Ivanhoe Donaldson, and I don't remember the other person there, and Terry Cannon and I, we worked that out in Delano, and Marshall who had grown up in Bakersfield, the son of a rabbi, got intrigued with the idea. And he became one of the two exchange people. He then became, for 15 years, an active organizer and Executive Board member of the union.
Here in San Francisco, as a SNCC field secretary, I was responsible for organizing a thing called Freedom House in the Western Addition which was a center of the fight against urban renewal in San Francisco. And so SNCC played a role not only in the Deep South but in strengthening the Farm Workers Union and in fighting urban renewal here. I was at the last meeting where there were still any whites in SNCC at Peg Leg Bates, in the Catskills. I was on my way to going to work for Saul Alinskey as a community organizer in Kansas City, Missouri, and I've been doing it ever since.
The SNCC imprint in my life has been indelible.
Copyright © Mike Miller, 2010
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