Letter to Young Radicals
 — Curtis Muhammad
January 6, 2010

[Letter sent out to the SNCC Listserve.]

TO: Young radicals everywhere (and older ones too!)
FR: The organizing trainers' collective of the International School for Bottom Up Organizing
REF: 50th Anniversary meeting of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee)
(NOTE: Our communications always collectively developed and written.)

This is a letter to the young radicals who are trying to find direction for rebuilding a movement in the US to create a just and equal world, and who respect, admire and want to learn from the experience of the 1960s radicals in SNCC who set out to eradicate racism and change the world. We encourage you to attend the SNCC 50th anniversary commemorative meeting in North Carolina this April.

Right now, as you read this letter, there is a determined campaign to distort the true story of what SNCC did and stood for and how it changed history. You need to know this so you are not misled. You need to know this because the true story of SNCC contains lessons for present-day organizing we cannot do without.

Early SNCC organizers in places like Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas were guided by elders in the community who had been struggling against racism in the previous decades. This tradition of bottom-up struggle against racism had unbroken roots going back to the days of slavery and slave rebellions, the Underground Railroad and maroon communities of escaped slaves. It moved through the amazing experiences of free, collective living led by former slaves during the Reconstruction after the Civil War. It remained alive in ongoing resistance to Jim Crow and various strategies for self-sustenance that kept black folk strong, united and proud against all the vicious physical and psychic oppression surrounding them.

The early SNCC organizers had and promoted a deep respect for the genius of the people themselves, though they might seem powerless, though they might not be able to read and write. This respect and confidence was borne out in the massive struggles of the early 60s for the right to vote, in which thousands of those same "powerless," "illiterate" black sharecroppers overturned Jim Crow.

Unlike most other civil rights groups and so-called leaders, SNCC took a bottom-up approach to organizing. It was guided by the leadership of women such as Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Ruby Doris, Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, Victoria Gray, Annell Ponder, Aylene Quinn, and many others throughout the black-belt South (many who these writers can't name because our experience was in Mississippi). These profound women taught a humble, relationship-building, persistent organizing method. SNCC was about knocking on doors, talking for hours with individuals, conducting classes on reading, writing and politics. SNCC staff members met in interminable meetings, often all night, to achieve the consensus necessary to move forward. White volunteers to SNCC dedicated themselves to serving the poor black folk they lived among and following the leadership of black local people and black SNCC field secretaries. People came to trust and rely on SNCC because every time SNCC folk were knocked down, they stood back up and kept on going. They trusted SNCC because SNCC wasn't about some charismatic leader arriving with fanfare to give an inspirational speech and leaving just as fast. It was about young people who lived with them, ate with them, slept with them, faced the Klan alongside them and devoted their lives to them. It was about young people who refused to buckle under either to lynching or to various tactics to buy them off or turn them aside. In the middle 60s, the organizing of the South surged into the North in the form of the Black Power movement. Rebellions erupted in the major cities. The Black Panther party and other organizations germinated and grew. The student movement against the Vietnam War was initiated in large part by white youth who had volunteered with SNCC in the South. SDS adopted the organizing methods of SNCC and worked tirelessly for years knocking on doors in dormitories, staying up long hours talking and meeting, and finally bursting into actions that galvanized the whole country and helped end that war. Soldiers who came out of the black struggles mounted mutinies inside Vietnam itself until the US military was crippled in its ability to conduct the war. The power elite and its government feared outright revolution and began extraordinary measures to derail the movement.

The patient, persistent, humble and bottom-up organizing method of early SNCC was the genesis of much of this mass eruption. SNCC effected international struggles, both directly - by being invited to meetings and planning sessions in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere - and indirectly by the spread of the mass movements generated out of the Southern black struggle.

As youth who despair at the state of the country and the world today, and are seeking ways to build a new movement, you well know that the struggle SNCC helped start is far from over. You know that electing a black president has not eradicated racism, police terror, the cradle-to- prison pipeline, unemployment or war. It has not made men and women equal collaborators; it has not saved the world from ecological destruction.

Only the people themselves have the power to save themselves and the earth. As the early SNCC mentors taught, the role of the organizer is to organize the people to lead themselves. It is not flashy work; it is a persistent daily grind based on humility, love and belief in the genius of the people.

This is the work the International School for Bottom-up Organizing is teaching, and the kind of organizing ISBO is doing in the Americas: a direct descendant of SNCC.

However, SNCC field workers moved in many different directions after the 60s; not all of them continued organizing. The US government made a concerted and successful campaign to destroy the militancy and organizations of the 60s. COINTELPRO, which was a counter-intelligence program of the government, targeted, murdered and forced into exile many of the most revolutionary black leaders. Meanwhile, the temptations of political influence seduced others into going to work for the very government that they had previously struggled against, opting for trying to change the world from the top down rather than the bottom up. Still others simply went back to living life, pursuing careers, and tried in their own ways to continue to fight racism and oppression within whatever sphere they were in. The government also bought off or infiltrated and led astray most white-led radical/revolutionary organizations coming out of the SNCC experience and the 60s.

A number of SNCC staff members became successful politicians, worked within government policy institutes, worked for the State Department in ambassadorial positions, became heads of institutions or highly respected professionals within the status quo. It is this group that has the most influence on the current interpretations of what SNCC was.

Of course, the system's normal methods of rewriting history also exist. Many books have been written that manage to hide the true essence of SNCC. Hollywood has produced movies in which the FBI appears to be the heroes of the civil rights movement. Even now, Spike Lee is producing a major film focusing on the first white SNCC field secretary. Where are the books and movies about the sharecroppers who risked and lost their lives in the struggle? Where are the movies about the daily door- knocking, the sleeping on floors, the freedom houses where young, mainly black organizers struggled with overcoming racism and sexism and experimented in creating free and equal relationships, the living on $10 a week, the non-dramatic, persistent, hard, dirty work it took and takes to really organize a movement?

But we can expect the government and the racist system to distort history in their own interest, to bury the knowledge necessary to continue the struggle. What is particularly galling is that many former SNCC members, who have made their peace with the US government (particularly its current leadership), are distorting that history, too.

The upcoming 50th anniversary celebration of SNCC, planned for this April, is an example. Many of the keynote speakers are present or former government officials. The committee to organize and plan the event is self-selected and top down: a complete reversal of SNCC principles. Far from a humble opportunity for serving and lifting up the genius of the most oppressed, this conference treats SNCC as dead history, a subject of academic interest and nostalgia. Where are the workshops on current organizing? Where is the training of organizers? Where is the laying bare the current oppression of black America, which in many ways is deeper, more violent and more intense than it was when SNCC was working in the South?

Without these — without the SNCC spirit of bottom up and black leadership — this conference will be a travesty, a distortion, a lie.

We call on young people who want to walk in the shoes of SNCC to do their own investigation. Read books like Charles Payne's I've Got the Light of Freedom. Interview SNCC field workers who are still organizing the people on the bottom, still carrying on the SNCC principles. Learn about people like Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Ruby Doris and Fannie Lou Hamer. Attend organizing training through the International School for Bottom-up Organizing, led by former SNCC members who are still actively organizing. Go into the community, find the people with the darkest skin and least resources (these are one and the same worldwide!) and ask them what they would have you do. Bring them together to meet and discuss what they need, based on principles of equality.

But don't think of SNCC and the Southern organizing as a dead tradition for a long-past world. Don't imagine that the struggle was won while right now black men are being shot down in the street, black babies are dying from lack of medical care, schools are falling apart, young people are being sent to die to protect oil pipelines and profits in the Middle East and Afghanistan, while poor people are homeless and jobless and hungry inside the richest country in the world, while the rich and powerful pollute and destroy the earth. Don't think that electing Obama is the beginning of a new world. Only the people themselves, led by those most oppressed and despised, the poorest and darkest, can create a free, just and equal world. If you want a new world, become an organizer who serves the people.

Thank you for reading this.

The ISBO organizing trainers' collective

Copyright © 2010, Curtis Muhammad & ISBO collective


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