An Introduction to John O'Neal's
Work and SNCC

By Charlie Cobb, December 2023

It is unfortunate that consideration of the mid-twentieth century southern freedom movement almost always ignores its creativity in the arts. Poetry in particular accompanied movement politics. So, by way of introducing John O'Neal and this book I must introduce you to Black Art, particularly Black art as a part of Black political struggle.

I am African-American and our art has always been tied to our struggle. This is a centuries-old truth of Black life. Beauty, after all, is part of what helps you through despair, what reinforces resistance to oppression. And who can doubt that perhaps more than any other group in the United States the words of Black people have framed the ideas of freedom; and with word and song Black people have brought beauty into the struggle for it. How could this not be so? For we are haunted, wrote author and Professor Jan Carew some years ago, by "Ghosts in our blood."

So consider, for instance, these words of Sojourner Truth that continue to haunt me with their beauty and their relevance for today:

"I can remember when I was a little young girl, how my old mammy would sit out of doors in the evenings and look up at the stars and groan, and I would say, Mammy what makes you groan so?' And she would say, I am groaning to think of my poor children; they do not know where I be and I don't know where they be. I look up at the stars and they look up at the stars!'"

Is this not poetry although she is writing autobiographically of the slavery she remembered? To talk of slavery as you must discussing the Black world, Black life and the creative forces within it, is to also talk of the desire for freedom and freedom's struggle wherever and whenever you were born. As the old freedom song from the southern movement goes, "They say that freedom is a constant struggle."

Space does not permit a full exploration of this but I think the poet Eugene Redmond put the relevance for us today of understanding creativity in this manner as clearly as I have heard it stated:

"Class and race, seen vividly, and devastatingly during the reign of Hurricane Katrina and Rita remain central to the theory and fact of African- American struggle and art."

Or consider South African poet laureate Keroapetse "Willie" Kgositsile's take that embraces black life on both sides of the Atlantic:

".... There is only movement. Force. Creative power. The walk of a Sophiatown totsi or my Harlem brother on Lenox Avenue. Field Hollers. The blues. A Trane riff. Marvin Gaye or mbaganga. Anguished happiness. Creative power in whatever form it is released, moves like the dancer's muscles."

It is here within this tradition that we encounter John O'Neal and the importance of his work, some of which is found in the pages of this book. I am not going to summarize the book in this introduction, but am compelled to point out that an important part of what has shaped his artistry is the Free Southern Theater that emerged from the dynamic of Mississippi's freedom movement in 1963 and which was more than an effort to bring theater or performance to the South.

The theater continued a very old tradition of struggle and was a conscious and determined effort to push forward recognition of the legitimacy, strength, and voice of African-American life and experience. The fact that creativity defined the movement as much as protest is a point consistently missed by scholars and media analysts. But without understanding movement creativity which most often bubbled from the bottom up, understanding of the movement is at best incomplete.

And this, in fact, is something larger than "civil rights." As poet and Dillard University professor Jerry Ward once noted in conversation with literary critic Houston Baker: "In any literary history that we will write in the future, we will have to account for those writers and thinkers who were caught up in a very active way with SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). They moved across regions, and they were agents of cross fertilization."

John O'Neal who at the time of the Free Southern Theater's founding was a Mississippi-based SNCC field secretary, helped author the Theater's founding prospectus of principles and what you see in this statement is a reflection of the organizing tradition that defined the movement:

"Our fundamental objective is to stimulate creative and reflective thought among Negroes in Mississippi and other Southern states by the establishment of a legitimate theater, thereby providing the opportunity in the theater and the associated art forms. We theorize that within the Southern situation a theatrical form and style can be developed that is as unique to the Negro people as the origin of blues and jazz. A combination of art and social awareness can evolve into plays written for a Negro audience, which relate to the problems within the Negro himself, and within the Negro community."

The formality of the language does not obscure the fact that the newly formed theater was on an organizing mission. Its value was recognized and not only by southern movement. So one key point that helps introduce readers to the work contained in this book brings us to Jerry Ward's observation above of the cross fertilization that took place.

Indeed, while the southern movement was the cutting edge of direct challenge to a white supremacist order, it spread the conversation about social change not only across the South but across the nation as well. Charles Sherrod, SNCC's organizer in Southwest Georgia in the 1960s, gives us some insight into this conversation with words spoken to a reporter just after he had finished serving the 30 days of hard labor to which he had been sentenced in Rock Hill, South Carolina for protesting segregation.

"You get ideas in jail. You talk with other young people you have never seen. Right away you recognize each other. People like yourself, getting out of the past. We're up all night sharing creativity, planning action. You learn the truth in prison. You learn wholeness. You find out the difference between being dead and alive."

This conversation, washing over us North and South — not only about jail, but about words and music and a liberated Black existence in America — was being held by a whole generation of young Black folks, and carrying us to a new level of Black consciousness. This was a generational exchange of political and cultural ideas.

Junebug Jabbo Jones who appears in these pages emerged from a group of us working with SNCC who had come off the Howard University campus and had been heavily influenced by professor Sterling Brown, a master of the black folk idiom. He showed us the wisdom it contained and the power. We used it in our everyday life as SNCC organizers. Phrases that we passed among ourselves we gradually attributed to one figure. Thus Junebug. We were pleased that John chose to develop this into a series of performances, for as Junebug would put it: "Mr. Say ain't nothin', Mr. Do is the man."

It is within this emerging consciousness that we find the nexus between the Black Arts Movement and the southern freedom movement. Poet and activist Amiri Baraka speaking of this at the 2010 conference held at Shaw University to commemorate the 50th anniversary of SNCC's founding made an essential point about not only the Free Southern Theater or civil rights struggle, or the Black Arts Repertory theater in New York: "We had to change the conversation." And that is exactly what happened with words and music as well as with political ideas and stances. And few things were more important to this than the Free Southern Theater.


Copyright © Charlie Cobb

[Journalist and author Charlie Cobb is a former SNCC field secretary. John O'Neal's book of selected plays is titled Don't Start Me To Talking ... Plays of Struggle and Liberation. It was published by the Theater Communicatons Group in 2016.]


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