Whites in SNCC
An Email Dialog

In response to a question, Bob Zellner of SNCC wrote:

February, 2003

One issue in the discussion [within SNCC] was the charge that white people had too much influence, the org. was in danger of being "taken over." My opinion was that white people had influence to the extent that they understood and supported the fact that SNCC was a black lead organization. I didn't buy the argument that whites had too much influence or sought to take over the organization.

Further, the whites did not initiate the move to become all black and since the outcome of the decision was in the hands of the black majority, it would be counter productive and improper for a few white votes to tip the balance in favor of keeping whites on staff. We could imagine the very vocal extreme nationalist attacking the black integrationist for winning with white support. Hence I abstained and other did as well on the basis that what ever decision was made, it was best made by the black staff members.

Finally, things are much clearer in hind sight. The fog of war kept us from seeing things as clearly as they now appear. It is ironic that SNCC sought its soul by becoming all black at the same time that Malcolm X was moving to a more inclusive, and I think a more revolutionary stance of working with revolutionary whites. Though all black in membership, the Panther Party was open about continuing to work with like minded whites.

So a combination of decisions and happenings conspired to throttle the future of SNCC. Opposition to the Vietnam War, support of Palestinian self-determination, ending interracial work, pulling out of grassroots southern community organizing, and abandoning nonviolent direct action, all spelled doom for the organization. Clay Carson asked a still unanswered question - giving up these last three tools, which had brought so many victories - what did the nationalists do and propose to take their places?

In struggle, Dr. Bob Zellner


In response to Bob's message, Kalamu ya Salaam wrote the following:

February, 2003

and how was an all-black panther party that continued to work with like minded whites different from the sncc staff decision to expel whites from sncc? i think most progressive people end up understanding we all should work together, the only question is how: under what conditions, through what types of organizational structures?

there is a tendency to elevate the panthers to cultural icons that is inconsistent with what was actually happening during the sixties and early seventies. there is also a tendency to overlook the internecine warfare that was characteristic of every revolutionary movement of the 20th century. there have always been deep fissures within our ranks, some times the splits were literally murderous. this phenomenon happened in every place there was revolutionary struggle. and in this regard the panthers were no different. to me the irony about all of this is that we continue to pit one side against the other. we all made mistakes. the question is where do we go from here.

the current peace movement offers hope that we can build coalitions around this single issue. if we are fortunate, while working within peace coalitions we will find people we can work with on other issues and thereby move forward.

what would be wonderful, as we move forward, is for there to be a history of movement mistakes--presented without sentimentality or favor. let us learn from the past. so how different is our movement in its splitting when compared to, for example anc/pac or zanu/zapu? it does not help to paint the panthers as sterling heroes and ignore the beatings, tortures and killings that went on within the panther ranks. nor to ignore the failed attempt of a panther/sncc coalition.

while i understand bob zellner probably did not mean to portray the panthers as saints, it still does very little good in the long run to use the example he used as though there was a reasonable option on the table that was rejected by the sncc staff of that period.

my personal coming of age realization in this regard was my attempt to understand what happened in grenada between maurice bishop and bernard coard. bishop was executed/assassinated. there was no race card played in that struggle. revolutionary movements have always been bloody movements and it does us all a disservice to suggest that we can make revolutionary change and not have internal discord. the history of revolution tells us otherwise.

perhaps the real question is revolution or reformation? despite all the faults suggested above and other faults, which i have not touched on, i still believe that ultimately we will need to make revolutionary change. but whether or not revolution becomes a reality, i do not want to romanticize the past or future of revolutionary struggle.

i close with a quote from my favorite revolutionary leader, amilcar cabral: mask no difficulties, tell no lies, claim no easy victories!

kalamu ya salaam


Also in response to Bob, Ed Dubinsky wrote:

February, 2003

During this period which, I think, culminated in the fall of 1965, the issue of Blacks and Whites in the movement was not just restricted to SNCC and the Black Panthers. I saw in two other contexts.

In Mississippi in 1964-65 I heard a lot of talk about the obvious fact that although for the most part the office work was being done by White peoploe and the field work was being done by Black people. Of course their were reasons (whites tended to have skills related to typing, mimeographing, talking on the phone, etc. and blacks tended to be better at talking to people who lived in Mississippi) and there may even have been some advantages to this kind of separation. But I think that, for the most part, we thought it was not a good thing. I don't recall that we did anything about it.

The other context was a small group that we formed in New Orleans called the New Orleans Community Organizers. We only had about 20-25 people and we only existed for a few years. But we did do some orgaizing in the 7th ward of New Orleans, ran a Freedom School and did some other things. The group was racially mixed. When the issue of separation in the movement was at its height in the fall of 1965, we discussed it at length. As a matter of policy we never voted, but worked for consensus. Everyone participated in the discussions and and the process of going from confusion and disagreement to consensus was both educational and uplifting. In the end we agreed that all of the whites should leave and try to form a separate group that tried to relate to issues in the white community --- including racism. We had a small treasury (from a grant from the Dreyfuss Foundation) which we decided to leave with the black members who would continue the group. It was all done amicably and we agreed to maintain close communication in our separate activities. The latter was not so dififcult to do as 7 key members of the group (3 Black and Four white) were living in the same house in most cases in twos (integrated racially and in gender) sleeping in the same bedroom (only Flukey, at that time, lived "alone"). I think that everyone involved agreed that we were doing the right thing.



Copyright © 2003, by the individual authors.


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