SNCC's Legacy
 — Curtis Muhammad
January 18, 2010

[Article sent out to the SNCC Listserve.]

Dear Friends on the SNCC list serve:

Several friends have pointed out that it is unclear to them who and what ISBO is, so before getting into the issues of this letter, we want to clarify.

The International School for Bottom-up Organizing (ISBO) is a new school, founded just over a year ago, which considers itself descended from SNCC. As will be mentioned below, its genesis was in New Orleans after Katrina. ISBO believes that the movement to create a new and egalitarian world must be led by the poorest and darkest among us. It currently exists in five countries and has its most active organizing projects in poor, African- descended communities in Jamaica and Colombia, led by ISBO-trained organizers from within those communities. Curtis Muhammad is part of ISBO's Organizer Training Collective that sends letters to this list. Communications from ISBO come from, and you can read and see more at International School for Bottom-up Organizing.

ISBO considers this discussion about the SNCC conference an important one, and, like the rest of its work, is documenting it for training purposes and to ensure an accurate record of this history for the use of future freedom fighters. This documentation we hope will help record history in a way that will make it hard for those in power at a later date to change that history to fit their agenda.

What Is the Legacy of SNCC?
How Can We Best Use the 50th Anniversary to Pass It to the Younger Generation?

Part One: Haiti, New Orleans and Bottom-up

ISBO teaches a SNCC-type meeting style we have dubbed the "People's Circle;" in such a meeting, made up mainly of people from the bottom, everyone sits in a circle, everyone has equal time to speak, and decisions are made by consensus (see: A people's circle today might begin with a prompt like: "Was the earthquake in Haiti simply a natural disaster?"

A group of poor black people in Jamaica or Colombia go very quickly to decrying the systematic impoverishment of Haiti by the US and Europe, the vicious racism of the press depiction of Haitians as savages, the long history of attacks on Haiti for its leadership in the overthrow of slavery in the Americas. They also immediately note the military invasion the US is conducting, and particularly note that US President Obama, a wolf in sheep's clothing, is directing the occupation. No one is surprised that (as recorded by the New York Times), airplanes carrying aid supplies could not get into the Port au Prince airport on the 14th and 15th because the US military was giving priority to landing its occupying forces at the cost of unknown thousands of lives lost during the delay.

These people from the bottom are aware, from their own lives, that the people on the bottom in Haiti of necessity organize themselves to take care of their own every day, not only during a disaster, that their spirit is one of selflessness and cooperation. They are also aware that the media will systematically lie and produce images and words to give the world the impression that poor, black Haitians are murderers and looters. They know this because the same things happen to them.

The poor black people formerly of New Orleans are familiar with this paradigm. Against all evidence, the US media similarly portrayed poor black folk in New Orleans as savage, dog-eat-dog looters, murderers and rapists. The voices of the people from the bottom were not heard in the national dialog. The rest of the country accepted the attempted genocide of 100,000 poor black folk in New Orleans as a "natural disaster," the same way the Haitian earthquake is accepted. The country accepted the permanent exile of black New Orleans.

Even the "movement" forces that came to New Orleans proved more concerned with pursuing their own self-serving agendas than with organizing and following the voice of those most impacted by the hurricane. It was precisely out of this experience that ISBO was born, and made its decision to center its organizing outside the US. With great pain and reluctance, Curtis Muhammad, long-time New Orleans resident and organizer, decided that the atmosphere for organizing folk on the bottom, which had been heralded in the early 60s by SNCC, has become so polluted by self-serving reformers, so saturated by internalized racism, that it was impossible for him organize successfully in the US.

ISBO's first two annual meetings were held in Caracas, Venezuela in October, 2008, and in rural Jamaica in August, 2009. They base themselves on the SNCC organizing model and feel they have a significant stake in the documentation of SNCC history, even though most have never set foot on US soil.

Part Two: How Did SNCC organize?

"Producing one warm body at the courthouse took a great deal of knocking on doors." Luvaughn Brown reported that on one day in August of 1962, a hundred people were contacted, ten agreed to go register, three actually showed up, and those three were frightened away from the courthouse by the sheriff." (Charles Payne, I've Got the Light of Freedom)

At the beginning, fear prevailed. After time, that began to change. When asked what made people eventually have the courage to register to vote, someone explained that they had watched the young SNCC organizers: every time they got knocked down, they got back up and kept on organizing.

Percy Larry of McComb put it this way: "Anytime a man come in my community and took the hardships that he took, if he was wrong, I better join with him anyway. He's ready to take a beating, [get] jailed, being bombed and get back on two feet . . . I'm ready to join that fellow, wherever he is, right or wrong." (Payne) Payne continues, "You don't, [Larry] explained, "have to understand everything about a man's politics to appreciate the `fullness' of a man. ... Organizers were in a situation in which their character was being continually assessed. Once they were judged to be worthwhile people, they and local people often entered into relationships in which each side called forth and reinforced the best in the other."

Bernice Johnson Reagan once described SNCC organizers in Mississippi this way: "We stood in the way of trouble and drew fire" so that the people could have safe space to develop the struggle."

"Bob Zellner once compared organizing to a juggling act — how many plates can you keep spinning at once? Organizers had to be morale boosters, teachers, welfare agents, transportation coordinators, canvassers, public speakers, negotiators, lawyers, all while communicating with people ranging form illiterate sharecroppers to well-off professionals and while enduring harassment from the agents of the law and listening with one ear for the threats of violence." (Payne)

Who were these organizers? In Mississippi and elsewhere, the great majority of them were young, black Mississippians who "came from backgrounds very much like those of the people they were trying to organize." (Payne)

This was what we in ISBO are now calling "bottom-up organizing." It is part of SNCC's legacy.

Part Two: Black Power

Black power was what those Mississippi organizers were producing. Power, courage and history-changing actions from the darkest and poorest, most illiterate, most despised people in the United States. Profound leadership from the black grassroots. Fannie Lou Hamer, whom the President of the United States had to mute by calling a press conference while she was speaking at the Democratic National Convention, because the sound of black power on her lips was so charismatic.

But the name "Black Power" came a bit later, and when it was voiced that way, it caused white flight, bitterness, and a rift and diversion in the radical movement that still reverberates today. The dehumanization and loathing toward poor black folk has proven an extremely effective tool for denying the genius, voice and leadership of the bottom.

*** "For years, Allison Ross rubbed in skin-lightening creams ... `to be more accepted in society.' After months ... her skin was not only fairer, it had become so thin that a touch would bruise her face." (NY Times, Jan. 16, 2010: "Creams Offering Lighter Skin May Bring Risks") ***

Black Power popularized the slogan "Black Is Beautiful." Where the inspiration at the courageous actions of sharecroppers resulted in the mass popularity of denim clothing, Black Power appealed to the self-respect and self-confidence of the poorest and darkest: in came Afro hair and clothing and pride in dark skin.

SNCC after "Black Power" inspired mass organizing in Northern cities and inspired poor black urban folk to stop tolerating racism even before they had time to organize themselves. SNCC spokespeople got on national TV to support their actions, and said "Burn, Baby, Burn!" and eradicate racism "by any means necessary." They "stood in the way of trouble and drew fire" so the people could have space to develop the struggle.

Revolution was on everyone's lips. The US government had to turn the 82nd Airborne from duty in Vietnam to put down black folk and the other poor folk they inspired in Detroit. COINTELPRO stepped in to silence the radical voices of SNCC, the Black Panther Party and others.

This is also part of SNCC's legacy.

Part Three: Training Organizers TODAY to Eradicate Racism, End Oppression, and Build a New and Egalitarian World.

How do we train organizers to do the juggling act Zellner described above? How do we encourage and support young people who are willing to stand "in the way of trouble and [draw] fire" and provide people at the bottom safe space to develop the struggle?

This is what Curtis Muhammad asked of the 50th Anniversary planning committee in response to the invitation to speak on panel: a space and time to train organizers in the SNCC tradition. He does not think the conference needs keynote speakers, and was NOT asking for time to make a speech, although clearly he was grateful to Diane Nash for offering that opportunity to him. Although he called those to whom one-hour speaking slots were being offered "big shots," for which perhaps it would be appropriate for him to apologize, he did nothing to warrant the unprincipled attacks on him that ensued from some planning committee members. They gave the impression that he was apprised of the plans for the conference and was disrespecting the process, even when they knew that those plans had not been shared with him or made public. He thought the conference needed present day organizing giving workshops on organizing, and offered to set those up. He is DISMAYED, as are we in ISBO, that a three-day meeting of SNCC is not about the business of teaching the SNCC methods of radical organizing to a new generation.

There is a strand of former SNCC members who see President Obama as the victorious end result of the heroic and memorable organizing of the 60's. This group wants to share that vision of history with young people so they can "commit to continuing efforts to make a better America" and "make meaningful contributions to finding solutions to problems in our society where the needs are the greatest. This, we believe, is our legacy." (letter from planning committee to potential panel participants)

There is another strand of former SNCC members who see things quite differently. They see untold numbers of black youth in prison and being shot down on the streets; black workers losing their jobs and homes; racism on the rise across the culture, from the demonization of black men as dangerous, criminal drug users and sexual predators, to the widespread and growing use of skin bleach, the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military invasion of Haiti: and a black President Obama presiding over all of it. Racism is not on the decline; Obama is not on our side. Organizing those on the bottom is as urgent now than at any time in history, if not more so.

This strand, which ISBO supports, wants to raise up a very different legacy of SNCC: the legacy of training young people to "stand in the way of trouble" and become a new generation of radical and revolutionary organizers.

It is very sad to think, as seems to be the case, that there will be no place or time for this in Raleigh this April.

Post Script

ISBO would like to express its appreciation for the courage and principles of Diane Nash and those others who have spoken up in defense of Curtis and the bottom-up, black-led organizing that SNCC was famous for.

"I had a sister
She was a soldier,
She had her hand on the freedom plow
She got so old that she couldn't stand up
She said, "I'll stand up and fight anyhow!

"We are soldiers
In the army,
We have to fight
Although we have to die
We gotta hold up the freedom banner
We gotta hold it up until we die!"

Copyright © 2010, Curtis Muhammad & ISBO collective


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