I am writing this letter to answer the question I sometimes see in your adolescent eyes. Usually your youthful amusement shines through, but the silent question is no less intense: "Who are you, Mom??" You wonder why all these books everywhere and what's with the long fiery political debates with friends. You marvel at my utter lack of regard for most government institutions. And you bewail to anybody who'll listen, even after we've returned from Grenada, "Only my mother would choose to move to a country with no television at all."
Well, the thing is, I am most notably a mother to you; but I am also a lot else: sister, aunt, niece, cousin, friend, lover, colleague. Still, the single most defining thing about me is this: I am a SNCC woman, come to maturity and womanhood in SNCC, in the fire of the southern freedom struggle, bathed in warm waters of collective and mutual trust and respect a committed and unrepentant progressive and activist. To understand this woman, you have to glimpse the people and the struggle that produced her, and the magic that binds us still.
Yes, a SNCC woman. For me, SNCC was always more than its individual parts, more even than its collective history. It was and still is a way of life, a lens to life, a way of rejecting certain attitudes and behaviors while applauding and promoting others. An enthusiasm for life's contradictions. A style and posture. An ATTITUDE.
Did we have attitude! Don't we even today! When you've spent your adolescence in the 1950s and watched children your own age being spat upon in Little Rock, when you've listened to the fervent prayers in your quiet Methodist church for the folks in Montgomery using their feet instead of the buses, when you've suffered months of nightmares because you've stolen a glimpse of the mutilated body of young Emmett Till in the JET magazine that all the adults were trying to hide from the children, when you have walked past three schools and halfway across the city to get to the closest grade school you're allowed into, then you are more than ready for ATTITUDE.
The opportunity to emphatically express that attitude came on February 1, 1960, with the Greensboro sit-ins. The student sit-in movement and the rapidity with which it spread to every black campus was a stunning surprise to everybody except to the members of my generation. After all, we were the young people who as children had watched and cringed as the South went wild, bombing black homes and churches, shutting down whole school districts. But we had also seen the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a real mass movement waged by ordinary black people. February r, 1960, was the dawn of a new decade for us, one in which we were determined to write our own chapter in the history of black resistance. Yes, although we dressed in Sunday church clothes to confront racism and arrest, we were ready to kick ass — nonviolently, of course.
I've always been grateful to SNCC, to SNCC people for saving my life, and to the freedom struggle for enriching my life in ways I am still discovering. When I ventured South in June 1964, I had just finished a master's degree at the University of Michigan and before that a brief stint as a Morgan State student in a filthy Baltimore jail. It was the news that Howard students were on their way to join our protest demonstrations that persuaded the city to release us and open the segregated theater. Can you imagine a theater sitting just two blocks away from a historically black college, refusing to admit us! So, by dint of demonstrations, jail, and countless strategy meetings on campus, I already considered myself a SNCC person. Still, I had to see the real thing the southern freedom struggle.
And I had to get there with my own resources. The first college graduate to emerge from two large clans in Baltimore, the Boyers and the Wileys, and now the first to hold a graduate degree, I couldn't very well borrow money from struggling relatives, especially not to go to the Deep South! Everybody thought I'd lost my mind just to consider going. The standard response from friends, family, and neighbors: "Well, Baltimore isn't exactly a picnic for our folks, nor Philadelphia or Washington or New York either." All true, of course, but it was in the Deep South where the Movement was on the move, and it kept calling me.
So when I was offered a position in the English department at Tuskegee Institute, I jumped at it. Without any idea how demanding and exciting the first months of teaching would be, I was on a plane to Alabama in early June. This was the same time that thousands of black and white students, activists of all stripes, were converging on Mississippi for the 1964 Freedom Summer. Well, I consoled myself, I'm at least nearby.
I soon discovered there was no need for consolation, that just a few miles away SNCC was already organizing in Alabama's Black Belt counties. Soon I was attending mass meetings in Selma. I was to see and be a part of SNCC at a different but no less intense stage of its history. Some consider Alabama the best stage of all, where the issue of power rose above the din of integration and nonviolence and even civil rights. No more petitioning, no more waiting for the liberals, white or black, to scatter a few crumbs, no more. Alabama was about taking power in those counties where black people were the majority.
Picture this, Cabral: It's my first SNCC meeting: We are in a small hotel room in Montgomery. I don't recall why I'm there, probably because nobody tells me to leave. In fact, no one pays the slightest attention to me, an entirely new face. The room is stiflingly hot and the tension is as thick as the cigarette smoke. Bodies are flung over every inch of space, weary bodies, just disembarked from groaning wrecks of cars that have sped up from Mississippi. The loud, angry argument finally reaches a crescendo and explodes into vivid, imaginative, totally insulting curses. I've never heard such abominable language, never imagined it. Faces frozen in anger, eyes flashing it's terrifying.
After a few hours of what looks to me like sheer pandemonium, a tall, slender guy rises slowly from the floor, stretches and mutters something I don't catch. Everybody bursts into hearty laughter and the meeting breaks up. Smiling faces descend the narrow stairs to the restaurant. Well, I just want to go home. These people are clearly nuts. I have just witnessed SNCC fighting it out with SNCC. I am both impressed and not.
But I had been very much impressed the day before when a dozen or so SNCC workers mysteriously showed up and sprang into action to guide and thereby protect a large student protest demonstration that I had helped to organize. It occurred less than a week after armed white Alabama state troopers had stopped the first Selma to Montgomery March by viciously attacking the marchers with clubs, tear gas, horses, and guns on what would henceforth be known as Bloody Sunday. Teachers and students from Tuskegee had organized to meet that march and fortify its ranks as it moved into Montgomery. Well, the bloodshed stopped those marchers, some injured so severely they had to be rushed to the hospital. In the best tradition of the freedom struggle, we at Tuskegee decided to keep our schedule, head straight for the state capitol in downtown Montgomery, and stand in for all those prevented from coming. "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round."
Now we are finally in Montgomery en masse, a thousand strong. Our long motorcade of buses and cars stops a few blocks from the capitol, the seat of the Confederacy. We've brought along a petition to Governor Wallace, essentially a demand for "Freedom NOW!" and we're determined to stay until he accepts it. Amid the general disarray of grabbing our signs and lining up for the march, SNCC workers appear to act as marshals. What a tremendous relief to see them! Dressed in denim overalls and thick combat boots, the SNCC workers yell out a crash course in nonviolent direct action as we're moving: what to expect, where to steer the march, when to cover our heads, how to go limp on arrest, how to ignore the armed state troopers when they threaten to charge, and how to hold the ranks when they actually do.
The worst moment for me comes late in the afternoon, when several squadrons of troopers on horseback move to a triangular attack position and threaten to charge if we don't leave. The SNCC people order all women on the ground, hands covering their heads. Mind you, some of those doing the ordering are themselves women, seasoned veterans of many civil rights battles. I feel both shock and relief at seeing them among the men.
Now, there is no question in my mind that the horses will charge, but this is an order I cannot follow. After all, these are my young students, whom I'd worked hard to get here. I'm the one who should be protecting them the young men as well as the women. Somebody points and yells at me to get down. As I'm trying to explain, somebody else throws me to the ground, where I lie terrified and helpless, surrounded by the sounds of snorting, stomping horses, and cursing armed white men.
Well, the police don't charge, that time; they don't charge us at all, though they repeatedly threaten to. But they don't let us into the capitol either, not even to advance up the tall steps leading to its doors. Anybody who leaves the demonstration to use a restroom or drink some water is not allowed back in, so we stop trying. Along with hundreds of students from Alabama State College stuck on the side streets and barred from coming any closer to us, we stay through the night, students from both campuses breaking out in freedom songs when it all gets unbearable.
Since we are surrounded and trapped, we're forced to either leave the demonstration permanently or stay and relieve our bladders right where we are. It's not a difficult decision for us; after all, was there ever a more appropriate place for a public pee-in? While we were trapped in the capitol, state and local police rampaged through the black community, breaking down doors, harassing and threatening everybody in sight. The next day, a furious Jim Forman would utter one of the more memorable and vivid quotes of the nonviolent Movement: "If we can't sit at the table, we'll knock the fucking legs off it!" Yes!
SNCC relished breaking the rules. It wasn't just that we broke them; we relished breaking them. In personal style and collective culture, we never met a rule we didn't try to break. Lord, was it fun! This wasn't adolescent rebellion; this was young adult revulsion at the white middle-class rules that governed all manner of conduct and cloaked the rampant hypocrisy that advanced the most repugnant practices, like segregation and slavery and genocide.
SNCC taught us to live with contradictions, even to savor them. For example, we risked our lives to win the vote while keenly aware that the same vote had done precious little for black people in the North. There we were, singing away our fear and rage as burly, racist cops beat our heads and loaded us into wagons heading for jails that would shortly ring with more defiant singing. There we were, debating nonviolence in the midst of the most violent region of the most violent society on the planet.
By the time I got to the South, SNCC was not "Student," former students having graduated to full-time field organizers, or "Nonviolent," at least not in the pacifist, philosophical sense. Many field organizers began to carry guns to defend themselves against the horrendous wave of terror in 1964. Self-defense was consistent with the common sense of the common folk we were helping to organize. As Malcolm X and the Deacons for Defense insisted, self-defense is a right and often a necessity. SNCC was also not a "Committee," but a hardened cadre of veterans of battles big and small.
Oh, yes, also gone were the Sunday church clothes of the student protest demonstrations and Freedom Rides. As SNCC had fanned out across the hard-core rural, racist South, the uniform of choice had changed to the overalls and denim worn by black sharecroppers, the people closest to all the venom and violence of the white South.
"Upping the ante" was a SNCC mantra. It meant increasing the pressure, broadening the resistance, driving the enemy wild, really. When white folks thought their mobs, beatings, burnings, and arrests would stop the Freedom Rides, SNCC sent wave after wave of riders, many targeting the trains and train stations as well as the buses! Never forget, Cabral, that segregation was a form of apartheid, written in law. We were in the forefront of fighting for "freedom," not, as the white media still insists, to sit beside a white person in a classroom or at a lunch counter. People do not risk injury and death for a hamburger.
The Freedom Movement was unstoppable. It was positively delicious knowing that nobody could stop it not the president of the United States, not the Congress, not the courts, not the FBI, not the black preachers or teachers, who warned us to go slow. The most any of them could do was delay a protest demonstration, but only until other students arrived to carry it on. And they always did arrive. Imagine the sense of power we felt!
Fueling this euphoria was the certainty that we were part of a worldwide movement of liberation. Algeria, Vietnam, Angola, Cuba, Guinea Bissau, Guatemala, Kenya, Mozambique, China all over the globe people were asserting their right to determine their own destinies, with arms if necessary. The year 1960 was such a pivotal year for African people everywhere: in the United States it ushered in the massive black student protest movement that would ignite the rest of the country; and it heralded the end of European colonialism in much of the African Diaspora. There was a sense of expectancy, of finally realizing dreams too long deferred. Like peoples the world over, we wanted to change the power relationships that governed the sense of ourselves and restricted the mobility, livelihoods, and aspirations of our black people here and everywhere.
But everywhere we looked, something, some law or practice or cherished tradition, was poised to shackle black people. The more we pushed, the more we understood that we weren't the only ones being shackled. Before the decade ended, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Chicanos were organizing and arming themselves. Students black and white were waging pitched battles in the streets and on the campuses to stop the American war on the Vietnamese people. Northern cities were smoldering. And women were organizing. What a time!
SNCC's irreverence was legendary. During the early part of the Vietnam War, with black soldiers already stationed on the front lines and therefore dying in disproportionate numbers, SNCC created and distributed an effective anti- war poster, a black-and-white drawing of Uncle Sam staring ominously out, forefinger pointed at the viewer. The caption: "Uncle Sam wants you Nigger!" SNCC speakers intoned, "No Vietnamese ever called me nigger," and "Hell, no! We won't go."
SNCC also taught us to keep on moving, to grab any opportunity to advance the Movement, to go where you were called, taking the knocks, the setbacks, and applying the lessons as you moved forward. Now, this could get a little hectic, if not downright chaotic. In retrospect there was a strong strain of anarchism, but we were too young to know much about anarchists and would probably have poked fun at them, too, had we known. We distrusted "isms" profoundly, since those very "isms" had gotten black people the world over so very little. We also resisted hierarchy and bureaucracy — two things we felt had frozen other organizations. Some would say we also fought discipline. So what?
Which brings me to the subject of women in SNCC a subject that historians and academicians now writing our history persistently get wrong, and, I think, deliberately so. I won't speak for others, but I can emphatically declare my own experience: I wish to high heaven I had found in my life before SNCC, or in the years since, the freedom I as a woman found there. That my gender should prevent me from a role in SNCC was unthinkable. By the time I got to the South, SNCC women were driving the cars and riding the mules, organizing the plantations and directing the field staff, writing the reports and mobilizing the northern campuses. How could it not be so? Ella Baker gathered and mentored us. Fannie Lou Hamer was one of our most eloquent spokespersons. And Ruby Doris Robinson would soon become SNCC's executive secretary. Yes, SNCC was the first and only time in my life that my gender was not a barrier to my aspirations. I'd love it for that, if for nothing else.
In the summer of 1965 I found myself at Julian Bond's desk, suddenly in charge of SNCC's national communications while Julian campaigned for a seat in the lily-white Georgia state legislature. I had never called a radio or television station in my life, much less given a live interview. I had never written a news article, or even a news release, but there I was, hammering them out for the media, the Student Voice, and for Friends of SNCC groups on northern campuses. Somebody please tell me what to do and how to do it! Whenever I felt overwhelmed, I thought of Julian, who was probably as disoriented in his new role as young campaigner/politician as I was there at his old cluttered desk.
The strange thing is, everybody knew that I didn't know what the hell I was doing! I don't remember my mistakes; I just know there had to have been a lot of them. But nobody said, "Oops, sorry, you're out of here." There was an expectation and a confidence that I would learn, and learn fast, just like everybody else; all of us were learning as we went. No matter what the role, work in SNCC was demanding: long hours, heroism, intensity, sincerity of commitment, madness of a sort. The sweetness was that acceptance into the group was immediate and genuine.
We1l, the articles got published and the radio news broadcasts went out to stations around the country. Wilson Brown, SNCC's genius printer, gave me a crash course on the new printing presses that were his joy. I knew before I returned to Tuskegee that someday I'd be a reporter, a career virtually closed to women in the mid 1960s, even more closed to black women!
Eighteen months later I was strolling confidently along the corridors of the United Nations, an international male enclave of privilege in those days. It tickled me to be walking those halls, though my purpose was dead serious. I was there to follow up Forman's efforts to win nongovernmental status at the U.N. Thanks to the West Indian and African diplomatic corps, we got it. SNCC thus became the first civil rights organization to have official NGO status at the United Nations and access to its invaluable documents, debates, and gatherings.
Do you get the picture yet, Cabral? We were determined to free ourselves from many prevailing prejudices. We didn't always succeed, but we tried and succeeded often. The attempt bound us closer. We were irreverent and we were passionate young men and women. This is important, because the combination of passion and irreverence is rare, in individuals and organizations alike.
SNCC people were passionate about the "local people," as we called them. Gentle, generous, and proud, these were the black men, women, and children who lived in the counties and on the plantations and who risked their lives to open their doors to us with no reward promised or expected. In Lowndes County, Greenwood, Selma, Hattiesburg, Lexington, and many other rural places, whole families of several generations welcomed, fed, and sustained us, marched and organized with the "young freedom fighters." Not one of those families was without a gun. Most had several, cleaned, loaded, and ready for use if needed.
I will always think of SNCC as a safe place. There we were, fighting against racism, defying the most cherished practices of the racist South, and standing up to its most horrendous violence, nobody daring to hope to reach the age of thirty. It was safe because it was a place to stretch, learn, and grow. There was no "line" to toe, no leaders to blindly follow, no ideology to mouth and proselytize, only freedom and struggle.
Of course, there was no end to disagreement, debate, or stomp-down, drag-out argument. That tense meeting I described earlier was the first of many. But the kind of brutal personal attack and humiliation I would witness in later political work, the terrible turf battles, tirades, and betrayals I saw in the North and West could not and did not take place inside SNCC. Thank God. As a result, after all these years SNCC people, white and black, feel close to each other, welcome one another, embrace as sisters and brothers. We know we are profoundly fortunate. Our bond is indeed magical.
Grief and tears are also part of SNCC's story, part of the freedom struggle itself. And these, too, bind us. We were facing entrenched, state-sanctioned terrorism, and despite all the heroism and youthfull bravado, we sometimes paid a very high price. Friends were maimed and killed. I wasn't always able to protect my students. One of them became the first black college student to be killed in the southern movement Sammy Younge Jr. A U.S. Navy veteran who had returned to college, Sammy quickly became one of the most active and dedicated of the crop of Tuskegee students who went out into the rural counties to organize.
And then there was Ralph Featherstone, a veteran of both Alabama and Mississippi and one of my dearest friends. "Feather," as we all knew him, was killed in a car bomb blast as he neared Cambridge, Maryland, the scene of earlier movement battles and the site where H. Rap Brown's trial was to open the following day. By then it was 1970, and the FBI's murderous COINTELPRO (counter inteliigence program) was in full force. Its publicly stated goal was to stop by any means the Black Liberation Struggle that had come out of the southern Freedom Movement. It largely succeeded.
So there you have it, Cabral, for now at least. These are some of the experiences that shape and influence the woman you know as Mom. Your very name comes from my involvement in SNCC. Where but in SNCC would I have learned about and studied Amilcar Cabral, the brilliant and courageous liberation fighter from Guinea Bissau Not in college, not in graduate school. Where but in the southern freedom struggle would my lifelong dedication to Pan- Africanism have been rooted? That's what I am trying to explain here: dedication to the struggle takes you to places, causes, and people you'd never have dreamed of. I hope you find your rightful place within our struggle and among the kinds of dedicated activists I found people with vision, courage, and respect for one another. The struggle continues. It must.
Copyright © Jean Wiley, 2010
[JEAN WILEY left the Deep South after two and a half years, but not the Movement. She continued the teacher-activist role she'd performed at Tuskegee, teaching at the University of the District of Columbia, the Center for Black Education in Washington, D.C., and later at the University of California at Berkeley. She was also an editor at the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta. Georgia. She then shifted to advocacy journalism and covered national and international news at Howard University's radio station, WHUR-FM, where she interviewed several visiting African and Caribbean heads of state and traveled to interview others across the African diaspora.
During the Movement, Wiley saw that ordinary people have transformative stories of personal, political. and spiritual significance. With this in mind, she founded Collage Literary Studio to help people write and publish the books inside them. She is also a member of Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement (www.crmvet.org), an informal organization dedicated to exploring and sharing with others the soul and power ofthe Movement. Wiley lives in Oakland and is writing a more complete memoir of her involvement in the freedom struggle.]
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