[This presentation was recorded from a presentation at a SNCC conference or reunion in 1988. ]
I'm going to talk about historiography. I've worked with it a little bit over the past 10 years as I've been teaching and trying to think how to present the Movement to my students, as I've been a perennial graduate student and tried to keep up with some of the literature on the Movement. I want to talk about some of the problems and oversights that I see in the work that's been done. I hope this approach will provide a discussional framework for reading and learning and teaching about the Movement.
Before I go any further, I want to stress that my connection with this history is, obviously, deeply personal. I was 16 when I first became involved in Movement support activities in the North. I was 21 when I left Selma to return to Detroit. During those years movement activities either of a supportive nature or working in the South took up most of my time.
Like other people here, I can't think of any job or any activity that I've been involved with before or since that has played such an important role in shaping my life, both political1y and personally. I grew up in the Movement, it shaped my views, I married in the Movement, and now 25 years later, many of the people that I still feel closest to are Movement people.
This is a group of people that I know that when I've asked anybody for anything, a room, a place to stay, a meal, support, comfort — that I've always gotten back what I asked for and much more. And I have always found it difficult to put into words the bond of comradely love that I feel here. Beyond this, I feel another kind of personal interest in how this history is written; I have three children. And I have read interpretations that have made me cry, to think that my boys would be left with such ridiculous explanations of what it was that their mother and their father were doing in those days, and why it was that their parents decided to put their lives on the line in the early sixties.
That said, I'd like to title my presentation "How They Stood," or, "Not Seeing the Forest for Being Too Close Up on the Trees." "How they stood" is a quote from Amzie Moore, a tough, longtime Mississippi activist who stopped his work with the NAACP to support SNCC's first efforts in Mississippi.
When he was asked by Howell Raines to explain what it was about SNCC when compared with the other civil rights organizations that led him to make such a decision, Mr. Moore mentioned a number of things about SNCC people. He suggested that they were just regular everyday kind of folk. To quote him from My Soul Is Rested, "[These] kids wore blue jeans, and I used to have sleeping in my house six and eight and ten, twelve who had come. I bought lots of cheese and always we'd eat cheese and peaches, and sometimes would get spaghetti ... and make a huge tub of meatballs and spaghetti to fill everybody up. And this is how we were. ... They'd eat that without complaining." Similarly, when it came to meeting, "It wasn't a matter of meeting in the Masonic Order or office or at a church to do this. They met anywhere at any time." Mr. Moore further complimented us by describing us as a group of "strong, intelligent young people" who "always had a smile."
Another characteristic that he referred to a number of times was an orientation toward action. "They were moving," he noted, "always ready to try to do something, ... and certainly did not hesitate to get about the business for which they came." Also, Moore remarked that SNCC brought a notion of leadership as something broad-based and non-elitist. Quoting him again, "One great thing I think was introduced in the South with reference to SNCC's tactics was the business of organizing leadership. If eleven people went to jail this evening who the power structure considered leaders, tomorrow morning you had eleven more out there. And the next morning eleven more."
The thing that impressed Moore the most was the courage of these young people. Several times in his short recollection he pointed out how we seemed to have no fear of death. This is how he put it "I found that SNCC was for business, live or die, sink or swim, survive or perish."
In an effort to further emphasize this quality, Moore brought up the following image. "But when an individual stood at a courthouse like the courthouse in Greenwood and in Greenville, and watched tiny [SNCC] figures standing against a huge column, ... [against white] triggermen, and drivers and lookout men riding in automobiles with automatic guns. ..." At this point he stopped and exclaimed, " ow they stood. ..how gladly they got in the front of that line. ... and went to jail! It didn't seem to bother them." In this short description Amzie Moore went right to the heart of SNCC, capturing our spirit and our substance. His final quote is the essence of writing SNCC history; that is, describing how we stood at the front of the line or on the front lines during the civil rights struggle.
Unfortunately, we don't have much scholarship that does that with anything near the accuracy that Amzie Moore did some ten years ago. In fact, the current history, in spite of its tremendous good points, tends to distort and obscure our role.
Why? Let me suggest a number of reasons that center around assumptions about the Movement as a whole and youth in particular. To begin with, public discussion of this period has become dominated by the figure of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is presented as the creator, builder, and shaper of the Civil Rights Movement to the extent that we could easily believe it was the force of his presence that brought the Movement into being and his spirit that propelled it along. King and the Civil Rights Movement have become so interchangeable that many of the students who come into my classes have no idea that there was a Black student movement in the 1960s. And if they are interested, once they learn this and probe further, they will find a literature that either neglects or minimizes the role of young people in the Southern Civil Rights Movement.
The scholarly work reflects a public view, and focuses on King, and leaves students almost completely out of the picture. For example, David Garrow's book Protest at Selma is aptly subtitled, "Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Voting Rights Act of 1965." In this book, the continuous activism of the Selma students which Silas [Norman] referred to earlier, as well as the ongoing programs of SNCC, are relegated to an occasional mention of this particular activity or that specific arrest.
Similarly, when Aldon Morris discussed the origins of the Civil Rights Movement in The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement , he assumed, in his words, that SCLC was, and I quote, "the organizational center of the movement" and suggests that the charisma of King and his fellow SCLC ministers was indeed the major factor in mobilizing the southern Black community. In his introduction he does acknowledge that SNCC represented what he calls "another source of power," but then is quick to mention that SNCC's presence fostered inter-organizational tensions in Albany and Birmingham. Morris's further minimal treatment of SNCC in the book remains quite disparaging. SNCC was handicapped, he suggests, by its own ambivalence of having "adopted an anti-leadership and an anti-structure ideology at the outset," while at the same time feeling the need for leadership and coordination. He further derides what he believes to be SNCC's concept of leadership. He quotes James Bevel, saying that for the SNCC activist the slogan "Let the people decide," really meant, "his people, that agree with him." Morris then goes on to suggest that the inter-organizational conflict which he believes SNCC injected into the Albany Movement was the primary factor in the defeat of the Albany Movement. There's a biography of King by David Lewis, King: A Critical Biography, that has that same kind of interpretation of events in Albany.
I think Morris strikes his most serious blow at student activism with his analysis of the sit-ins in 70 cities in the two months following the February 1, 1960, Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-in. Finding that the news of these sit-ins was spread through established civil rights networks and that many of these sit-in groups met in SCLC churches or bore some connection to CORE organizers or the NAACP youth Council, he suggests that Howard Zinn's notion that the sit-ins represented independent collegiate actions has to be abandoned.
While it's really good that he stresses the tradition of activism in the Black community previous to the sixties, Morris goes a little bit further than saying that the students received tactical advice and support and bond money from adults. He suggests that really it was the adults who organized the students and put them into action. "In many instances," he states, "it was the adult leaders of the movement centers who organized the student protesters." And on this basis he concludes that SCLC was essential to the rise of the consistent, widespread, relentless activism of southern Black communities. Communities who refused to stop struggling in the face of all kinds of harassment, physical and economic, arrests, convictions, beatings, dogs, fire hoses, bombs, and bullets. When these communities went into motion and stayed in motion, everyone understood that the South had to make significant changes. If we understand that continuous activism and a serious level of commitment on the parts of hundreds of thousands of Black people across the South are what made change, then, in that context, we can understand the role of students in helping to make that change. We did serve in a vanguard role, setting the pace and then supporting continuous activism.
From 1953 to 1960, there was a bus boycott here and there and a number of national demonstrations. From February 1, 1960, onward, after the Greensboro sit-in, there was activity all the time, every day, everywhere. When the Freedom Rides seemed finished after two weeks and Diane Nash and the Nashville students stepped in, the students carried on the rides for three months. Through SNCC workers finding the courage to support a number of programs during this period, we supported the continuous activism that maintained and strengthened the Civil Rights Movement.
We don't have a book that even begins to describe the length and breadth of SNCC activities, but there were a, lot of them. In this conference you've heard of many of our activities. I want to look at those and more you haven't heard about: There were beachhead projects in Albany, Georgia, and Selma, Alabama, and Pine Bluff, Arkansas, that spread out into surrounding counties all during this period; an almost completely statewide program in Mississippi. There were sit-ins, marches, voter, registration activities, union organizing, co-op organizing, Freedom Schools, Free Southern Theaters, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the Lowndes County Black Panther Party, and on and on and on-an assortment of creative and continuous activities. All these carried out by a couple of hundred students who really brought nothing more, as [Charles] Sherrod has said, but our bodies and souls as our main resources to make social change. When I read these accounts I wondered how it was that we managed to maintain all these programs if we were so undisciplined and "floating" all over the place. To me, as Spock says, it "does not compute."
Let me bring this down to a personal level, and the whole issue of discipline. I know it took a lot of discipline for me just to be there, just to stay in Mississippi. To be there and then to go out and canvass and teach — that was a plus, that was in addition. My stint with the Movement was nowhere near as exciting as all these wonderful stories we've heard — and I know other people have said just the opposite — but I was scared. I was scared.
When I arrived in Mississippi there were white men riding by the office with guns hanging out the window. It took every bit of internal discipline I had not to bolt and run home. Then in addition to making the decision to stay, I remember thinking, "Well, maybe if I leave the office, go out and canvass, it'd be a little better." I joined George Greene and Stokely Carmichael going out to canvass plantations around Greenwood [Mississippi]. I thought since we were going on these places, technically where we would be trespassing — people could feel free to shoot you on sight — that we were going to quietly sneak into the plantations, stay near the car, and talk to people and move off. No. No, we got out of the car, walked far away, and George and Stokely were singing freedom songs at the top of their lungs. I did this for a couple of days and I went back to Bob Moses and asked, "Couldn't I please stay in the office with those people riding by?"
Also, some of the methods of operation that SNCC people and historians have criticized in SNCC were the things that I liked the most. I mean, the long discussions where people figured out 15 different ways to approach something and then looked at 25 possible significances to place on each approach. I've been to school a lot and I have never been in an environment that was as intellectually stimulating as SNCC. This fluidity and creativity along with the sense of trusting each other's judgment is exactly what made us strong as young people and able to do so many things. For example, someone from the Atlanta office called me up when I was an inexperienced 19-year-old and said, "You all have to canvass the Democratic Party in Michigan for support of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party." That's all they said, there weren't any instructions. We had never done this before. We had never done anything like this, yet it made sense to us and we did it.
In addition to supporting and generating continuous activism, students in the sixties set the pace in terms of commitment. We've heard that participation in the struggle was to be based on a willingness to go to jail and a willingness to risk life and limb. SNCC students did so in the sit-ins, again in the Freedom Rides, and again when we entered the rural southern communities of McComb, Mississippi and Albany, Georgia. You could search the history of civil rights activism in the previous 55 year period and you cannot find a national organization making struggle on this level a requirement for participation, a matter of national organizational policy. This is a big deal.
SNCC workers also, I think, heightened the struggle with their sense of immediacy, that now was the time to fight. We demonstrated this by the simple action of leaving school, leaving promising careers, stopping all other activities to work full time in the struggle. We didn't go back every other Sunday to keep up with the church in another city, or to take a part-time course to somehow continue our education. I remember one of [Chuck] McDew's frequently used lines that was that we were going to make more changes in the next five years than had been seen in the last fifty. I think it was that, just believing that and taking that as a reality, that made a significant difference in the nature of the Civil Rights Movement
We also changed the focus and direction of struggle by moving into the Black Belt Again, this represented a change, a significant change in civil rights strategy which to that point had been to emphasize the border and urban areas to win over the moderates and isolate the hard-core South. Jim Forman refers to this strategy in The Making of Black Revolutionaries when he talks about the difference between what the Taconic Foundation thought of voter registration and what SNCC did with it. In this context, when King entered Albany or SCLC developed a program for Selma, it represented that organization following SNCC, not just in organizational terms, but following SNCC's strategic lead.
Our move into the Black Belt heightened struggle by tapping the strength of these communities; first in the obvious sense that on the basis of numbers these areas had the greatest potential for political and organizational power. Then, there was also a broader sense that these communities, by virtue of their level of oppression, were composed of some fairly tough struggle-oriented people whose courage and determination, whose willingness to risk everything they had, whose refusal to quit, is in fact what propelled the Civil Rights Movement along — much more so than someone's charisma or some specific organization's presence in an area. As Kwame Toure says, "The people struggled and struggled and struggled." This is what made the Civil Rights Movement. These Black Belt communities were where we found families like the Harris family in Albany, Georgia, the Jackson family in Lowndes County, Alabama, people like Miss Hamer and Hartman Turnbow in the Mississippi Delta.
This link between SNCC and Black Belt communities needs to be examined from a number of angles, but before we do that, we're going to have to drop this notion — this myth — of the Black community's awakening in the fifties or sixties. You see that word in a lot of presentations, "awakening." The problem is that term suggests that before this point there was a totally quiescent, slumbering, and passive Black South. Common sense ought to tell us that the way that we saw these people struggle — and you've seen it now too, in the documentary "Eyes on the Prize" — facing dogs, bullets, bombs — you know that struggle was not some new skill that these people learned in a two-hour workshop on nonviolent direct action.
When you see these mass meetings and demonstrations, voter registration efforts, remember [that] nobody had to come. What we cannot do is tell or understand this history without recognizing that southern Black folk played an activist role in initiating and carrying out the civil rights struggle. Again, neither charisma nor "outside agitators" were key in creating this movement. I'm not saying that these factors didn't heighten the struggle. What disturbs me is if we posit a passive community then the prime movers in the struggle do become King or the group of activist civil rights organizations, SNCC, CORE, and SCLC. Presently, that's essentially the way histories of the struggle are being written. Then we miss all the local activism that preceded our efforts, and a lot of that was youth-based; and we also miss all the activities that took place in the hundreds of communities that were not initiated by civil rights organizations.
For example, the efforts of sharecroppers in Fayette and Haywood counties, Tennessee, to register in 1959 aren't mentioned anymore in the sequence of events from 1954 to 1960. Similarly, Danville, Virginia, and Cambridge, Maryland, also tend to be left out of later histories. As a result, we really can't even understand the March on Washington. Why was it that far more people showed up than the organizers anticipated? So many people came because they were part of hundreds, thousands of communities in action all across the country.
If we successively narrow movement history down to the history of civil rights organizations, that's only part of the story. With such a narrow view, we can't even understand what it was the national organizations were doing. If there is any one thing for which SNCC ought to be remembered it is that we had the good sense as college students to realize that we ought not to struggle just on our campuses but in our communities. And given the variety of communities that we could have entered, we chose to join with those hardest hit by racist oppression. And that we approached these communities in a manner appropriate to their experience with hard struggle.
It's in this context that our non-elitist notions of organization, of leadership, of democracy make sense. If you're preparing to join with a community that's ready to struggle on the highest level — and that's what we're talking about, people lose their jobs, get shot, their homes get burned and so forth, risk everything they have — of course you have to let the people decide what it is they're going to struggle for. This is not some confused, ambivalent, rebellious idealism but a common sense approach to organizing for serious struggle.
I think that nobody here would have gone up to Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer in Ruleville, Mississippi or Mr. John Jackson in Lowndes County [Alabama] or Amzie Moore in Cleveland, Mississippi, with some other approach, and if they had, I don't think there would have been a lot of response. We did just what we should have done when we met these people: we sat down and listened. And when we think on this level, we know it was not some sense of emotional bravado that led us into these communities but a rational understanding, conscious or unconscious, that these communities had what it took to wage a difficult and hard struggle. Sharecroppers in Fayette and Haywood had already demonstrated this. They were ready to do a lot more than boycott and sing. And it's to our credit that we created a focus and an approach that gave us the opportunity to struggle alongside such courageous and determined people, and in doing so support these communities' methods of hard struggle: the solid foundation of the Civil Rights Movement.
Now I think we should see the specific historical victory in Albany, Georgia. Here it was that a Black Belt community showed the level at which it was going to struggle for civil rights. When Albany, Georgia, citizens marched to the courthouse by the hundreds in 1961, they said, "We're going for broke. We're not worried about arrests. We're not worried about our jobs, and we really aren't worried about our lives." They were the first Black Belt community to launch a citywide protest in the sixties. They were the model. They created the mold on which the rest of the Civil Rights Movement was based. Their numbers and their seriousness served notice that the South could no longer maintain its system of racial oppression, because that's all there was to uphold it, the threat of arrest, of beatings, of economic reprisals and loss of life. When Albany, Georgia, citizens went to the courthouse, they announced that these threats weren't going to work anymore, and I can't see that as anything but a victory.
And as an aside, I hope when we later rest the interpretation of Albany as a defeat, we'll also get rid of the other notions of Chief Pritchett as a nonviolent person and, worse, as a smart man. I mean, there is something wrong with a history that makes Charles Sherrod's actions in Albany so difficult to understand that he has to constantly explain them and at the same time glorified Laurie Pritchett's actions as being not just reasonable, but smart and precocious.
So all I'm saying here is historians can get very confused when they get all caught up in the details of things and don't see the forest for the trees. All that was a talk about getting the proper perspective from which to view the success and failure of a movement.
Now I want to briefly address what I think is a confusion over what it was people were fighting for. One could easily leave the history with the impression that SNCC activists were motivated primarily by a kind of youthful emotionalism, an acting out, a rebelliousness against authority, and somehow they garnered a sense of pride from their activism, but at all times reflected a certain stubborn middle-class individualism.
Again, it's here that the context is lost. How can that be? How can you tell my children and everybody else's children that when their parents put everything they had on the line for their community's welfare, that they were acting out of individualism? There's no sense here. If we wanted to act out some kind of youthful problems with authority and flaunt rebelliousness, we didn't have to go to Mississippi. Whether we were white or Black or rich or poor, we could have stayed on our college campuses and smoked dope and worn flowers in our hair, which some people did do. When I read these kinds of interpretations, I want to borrow an expression from my kids and say, "Get real."
Second, there is this matter of goals. In describing SNCC's changing perspective from the liberal inside the system, to the radical maybe there's something fundamentally wrong with the system. There is this sense of at first struggling for very limited goals such as having a cup of coffee sitting down, and then the notion that these goals broadened into a fight for political rights, and then there was this glimpse of economic concern. Now, as I said, in a certain sense this may seem obviously true, but the problem is we can concentrate on the notion of ideological growth and miss the overall sense of the movement. From the beginning of the sixties' student activism there was a consistency and a depth to our goals which is the only thing that explains the consistently serious level on which we struggled from beginning to end. And to miss this is indeed to take the heart and soul out of the Civil Rights Movement. I've heard a number of SNCC veterans, after reading certain histories, commenting that somehow the most exciting period of their life has been made dull and prosaic in these works. And I think this is why; these histories do take the life out of the movement.
From the onset we acted with deeper goals in mind than having a cup of coffee sitting down. When the students formed the sit-in committees, they didn't call themselves Students Tired of Standing at Lunch Counters; they didn't even call themselves Students United to Build a Truly Integrated Society. The Greensboro A&T students called themselves the Student Executive Committee for Justice. The Atlanta students called themselves the Atlanta Committee on Appeal for Human Rights. And when we focused on political rights, we didn't form groups called Black Mississippians United for the Vote, or even Black Alabamians Fighting for Full Citizenship. No, we formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. And when we moved outside we didn't call it the Black Independent Political Party, we called it the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. And in so doing we didn't limit our sights to full citizenship or full political rights.
I've heard one SNCC veteran comment that when you see the image in "Eyes on the Prize" where the marching feet turn into the American flag, it's a little disturbing because this image suggests, as does a good deal of the literature, that the end goal of all that struggle was to be complete Americans. People don't put their lives on the line for a cup of coffee or even to get the right to vote. You know you didn't see all those women suffragettes constantly facing dogs, bullets, bombs. This level of commitment suggests that people were moving out of the most fundamental desires for freedom, justice, and equality, that is what we talked about, that is what we sang about from 1960 right on through 1968. Maybe we were singing "Freedom's Coming and It Won't Be Long" in 1960 and by 1965 we were singing "They Say That Freedom Is a Constant Struggle," but we were singing about freedom from start to finish, from beginning to end, and this was a fight for justice and freedom and we cannot understand it if we overlook this fact. It was something with great height and great depth.
We must keep a clear and broad perspective of the Movement as a whole, its nature, its overall significance and its major components. That's the only way that we can write an accurate history of those days. When we do that, obviously, SNCC and student activism will have to have a prominent role in that history. For the truth is no matter what we did before, no matter what we've done since, and really no matter whatever else we happened to be doing at the time, when the call came for people to stand at the front of the line in the fight for freedom, we answered. When a history is written that reflects our activities in that true light, our children will be moved like Amzie Moore to remark "How they stood." Then our children can understand why we chose to sing songs like, "We Are Soldiers in the Army."
When all is said and done, it shouldn't be left to history to give our children a sense of us, because we're still here. And given our past, we have every reason to keep struggling to make a more just and humane world. I hope all of us will be able to continue to testify with the verse from that song — "I'm so glad I'm a soldier and I have my hand on the freedom plow. One day I'll get old and can't fight anymore, but I'll stand here and fight on anyhow."
Brothers and sisters, fight on anyhow!
Copyright © Martha Prescod Norman. 1988