I was a young naive, idealistic upper middle class white girl when I went as an exchange student to Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia in 1964. I did not come from a politically active family and had only begun to participate in social justice activities at college. At Spelman I learned that racism was more than a feeling that some white people thought they were better than others. I learned that racism and white supremacy was explicitly structured into southern society. (Later I would learn that racism was structured in less overt ways in the North.)
As I began to learn about the history of slavery and the subsequent subjugation and terrorism that ruled the lives of African Americans, I felt tremendous shame for what white people — my people — had done and were continuing to do. I also began to see the ways racism and white supremacy manifested in me. Key was my having to face my ignorance and arrogance. I had been taught that coming from a highly respected white college somehow made me more intelligent and capable than others. That was clearly not true.
I was fortunate to be supported in my efforts to change. There were Black students who treated me with respect and helped me to begin the painful process of changing. Some became friends; others simply told me the truth about what they thought and felt. For example, I took a sociology class at Morehouse, a Black men's college where Spelman students were able to take classes. During a discussion on racism a student said he hated all white people.
I spoke up, saying "But I don't feel that way." The student answered that how I felt was irrelevant to the racist structure of society. Yet no one — not that student or any other — made me, the only white person in the room, feel unwanted or attacked during this discussion of anger and hatred towards whites. I've never forgotten that day.
I participated with other students and SNCC in demonstrations against segregated restaurants and in support of those who'd been arrested and were in jail. I took a seminar on nonviolence with Staughton Lynd, who would become director of the freedom schools in Mississippi that summer. He recruited a number of us to be freedom school teachers. Going to Mississippi deepened my understanding, challenged me to become even more of who I could be, and gave me the opportunity to learn so much from SNCC and the local people who were standing up against terrorism and demanding equal rights.
Over the years I've come to appreciate how much support I have received from Black and white Movement people as I continued to learn and teach about white supremacy and racism. This support has continued to this day. I also learned that practice — what people did — was key. That is, it is easy to come up with ideas, but they have to be acted upon in order to see their validity. Not only was this true in terms of actions, it was also true in terms of how we treated one another within the Movement. To build a society based on mutual respect, justice and equality requires we treat others with honesty and compassion so we can create community with one another.
In the Southern Freedom Movement singing freedom songs created a sense of unity and oneness among us that helped me transcend my sense of isolation when I felt such shame for what white people were doing. SNCC's 1964 spring conference has remained a profound moment. The poem below is my attempt to share that experience with others.
Copyright © Chude Allen
Raw video version
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.]
Atlanta, 1964, Easter weekend.
The room is packed; people are hugging each other and laughing. I can see how happy they are to see each other. I am at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's Spring Conference. I've come to the conference because I want to volunteer for the Mississippi Summer Project. SNCC is recruiting students to go to Mississippi, to work in voter registration and in Freedom Schools. I am here to learn more about Mississippi.
People are coming onto the stage. They are men and women, former and current members of the Freedom Singers. They lead us in singing.
Then one of them shouts: What do you want?
We yell: Freedom!
When do you want it?
What do you want?
When do you want it?
The room goes wild! We are clapping; we are stomping out feet. We are yelling: "Freedom! Now!"
The room quiets. The chairman of SNCC comes to the podium. It is John Lewis. "Ladies and gentlemen, honored guests and my fellow warriors for freedom," he begins. "It is the hope of all of us that this conference will have some deep meaning for each of you."
It is the fourth spring conference of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and John reminds us of SNCC's founding in Raleigh, SC in 1961 and of the freedom rides, sit-ins and community struggles that have taken place.
Then he turns to Mississippi, and begins to talk about conditions in Mississippi, people who've been killed. He talks about the Congressmen and Senators. In 1964, all but one of the Representatives and Senators from Mississippi have been in Washington for 20 years. That one has only been in Congress for 16 years. Since Congressmen get power on committees according to how long they have been in Congress, Mississippi Congressmen are some of the most powerful people in Washington.
John reads descriptions of two lynchings that happened earlier in this century. Both occurred in Senator Eastland's district. In the first, it is Senator Eastland's father who leads the mob and determines how the couple — a man and a woman — will be tortured and then murdered. The mob cut out chunks of flesh with a corkscrew before burning the man and woman.
He then goes on to read of a lynching that happened less than 20 miles from Senator Eastland's home. The mob burns this man slowly. It is horrible. The whites are so cruel. They are so sick. They cut off pieces of the man for souvenirs. Most do it after he dies, but one cuts off his ears while he is still alive.
My mother and father believe ours is a good country, yet I am sitting here listening to how Senator Eastland's father was a murderer. He was never tried or punished for the torture and lynching of that man and woman. I am hearing that Senator Eastland did nothing about other lynchings. I am hearing that Senator Eastland is Chairman of the Judiciary Committee and probably the single most powerful person in Washington. How can this be a good country if this man, given what he represents, is a leader of our government?
I can barely hear John as he continues. I am overwhelmed with the horror. I knew there were lynchings, but I had never heard that women were lynched as well as men. I didn't know people were cut up before being hung or burned. I didn't know that white people took chunks of flesh as souvenirs.
I feel alone, so alone. I look down at my white hands.
Then as John finishes his talk, I hear him say: "Today, in 1964, in the State of Mississippi, you have a Negro voting population of more than 400,000. If they could vote, Senators Eastland, Stennis, and their counterparts in the House would be put out to pasture, and the biggest roadblock in the way of progressive legislation would be removed." That, I think, would be worth dying for.
The Freedom Singers come back on stage, and we begin singing. We sing songs of freedom and struggle. We sing of courage and hope. We sing all the rest of the night. When we sing SNCC's theme song, "We Shall Overcome," we stand clasping hands, singing and swaying back and forth to the music. We are one living, breathing, hopeful group of men and women.
When we sing the verse, "Black and White Together," we sing: [Singing] "Black and white together, black and white together, black and white together now!" And we raise our hands above our heads, and I look and see there are brown and black and white hands clasped together!
I am no longer alone!
Copyright © Chude Allen, 2010
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