|Southwest Georgia||Decision Making in SNCC|
|SNCC and SCLC||Americus, GA|
|The Albany Movement||Whites in the Movement|
|Mississippi Summer Project, 1964||SNCC Purpose & Goals|
|Voter Registration in Southwest Georgia||SNCC Achievments|
|Changes in SNCC||Today|
|Role of Federal Government||SNCC Activists|
Emily: When did you first join SNCC?
Don: I first went down south during the summer of 1962. I had been working in New York and in New Jersey on civil rights projects, fund-raising, supportive kinds of things, rallies, speaking engagements, raising money.
Emily: Why were you attracted to SNCC rather than some other organization?
Don: Primarily because I knew a number of people in SNCC, knew them from various college meetings, campus conferences, these kinds of things. At that point I didn't see where any of the other groups were really doing anything outside of local protest groups in particular cities, in particular areas. No other national group was involved as extensively at that time.
Emily: What was SNCC doing then? What were its basic goals?
Don: At that time SNCC had two projects mainly; a voter registration program in McComb and the direct action program in Southwest Georgia. During that summer, however, I think we got involved in a couple of other counties in Mississippi, and in Southwest Georgia we were operating in three counties: Daugherty County, which was Albany, Terrell County and Lee County.
Emily: What was behind the various different kinds of activities? Did they all have a very similar ultimate goal? Voter registration? Direct action?
Don: Essentially the voter registration plan was that working to assist people to register and vote and encourage them to register and vote provided the broadest Constitutional protections for civil rights workers as well as those people who were actually engaging in registration and voting. The direct action campaign was testing the new ICC ruling, barring discrimination in interstate transport as well as the facilities: bus depots, train stations, so on.
[See Freedom Rides for background on the ICC ruling.]
Emily: What I was driving at is, did these two very different kinds of things, Voter registration and direct action, have the same end? How did it come that they were in the same organization? Were there two branches of the organization?
Don: There were two factions in SNCC at that time. One believed that attacking voter registration would bring the most meaningful gains, and another feeling that attacking the ICC ruling would bring the most gains. So essentially what happened — I guess Bob Moses went to Mississippi and that was ostensibly the voter registration program. [Charles] Sherrod came to Southwest Georgia. What in fact happened was almost the reverse. The Albany group got involved in bus station activity as well as voter registration in Terrell and Lee County, and the group in McComb did some — well, the first activities involved demonstrations in school, in a number of schools, as a matter of fact, in McComb.
[See Direct-Action or Voter Registration?, Voter Registration & Direct-Action in McComb, and Albany GA, Movement for background.]
Emily: Where were you working at this time?
Don: When I went down in the beginning of that summer  I went to Albany. Well, actually I went to Lee County and worked on voter registration. Matter of fact, most of the time I was in Lee County and for a while in Terrell County. I didn't get involved very much with anything that was going on in Albany. Martin King was down there that summer leading and participating in demonstrations and when there was a plan for a demonstration in Albany or there was going to be a mass meeting, generally the people in the counties would come into Albany and bring some of the county people into the mass meeting. But during the day our actual work was out in the counties talking to people in the fields.
Emily: What sorts of problems did you run into?
Don: The biggest difficulty in the counties was that both Lee and Terrell Counties are just completely rural, not even a hint of a town. I guess Leesburg, which is the county seat, must have a population of a couple of hundred but they're spread out. Dawson, county seat in Terrell County, had a few more but it was a much more hard-core [racist] county. Actually both counties then were hard-core. But the problem was just getting to people and transporting them to Leesburg so that they could attempt to register. The primary difficulty was transportation. The second difficulty was communication. The phones in both counties were party lines. More often than not there was a white somewhere on the party line and they were constantly listening in and calling up and intimidating people that they knew had been involved with us or with whom we had talked.
Emily: So you sort of had this double problem: the white intimidation plus the pure physical difficulties of getting to people.
Don: Right. They were very difficult counties to work because, as I said, they were both very, very hostile counties, in the first place. Terrell County has a long history of lynchings and murders, beatings and so forth. That summer the house we were staying in in Lee County was shot into a number of times. The house we stayed in at Terrell County was shot into four, five, six times. On one occasion people were hit. Workers were constantly being beaten as they traveled about in these rural areas. There was no protection at all offered by any officials. As a matter of fact, officials were the ones who were carrying out most of the intimidation. The sheriff in neighboring counties, one in particular, Sumter County where we eventually moved in about a year or so later, the sheriff used to come down and come into mass meetings, just generally intimidate people on back roads and things like that.
Emily: How did the program develop? How did you deal with this kind of thing as time passed?
Don: Well, the workers themselves lived in the communities in somebody's house so that at least in each county there was one central base of operation and this was a local person's house. If on occasion there were too many people for that one house, other people would offer their homes. Their friends would come by, we'd talk to them. ... We held weekly mass meetings at local churches. That was the summer, also, that three churches in Southwest Georgia were bombed.
Emily: How long did you work there in Southwest Georgia?
Don: Well, I worked in Southwest Georgia most of the time I was in SNCC. I worked in Mississippi for a while. I was in Alabama for a little while, but those were only periodic things, if there was a particular crisis or just a special project for a limited period of time. I worked in Southwest Georgia until I quit, which was March '65.
Emily: So you're really sort of well-qualified to tell me how it developed. Did it pick up momentum as it moved along? Did you try new types of techniques as time passed?
Don: Well, prior to June of '62 there had been only three people working in Southwest Georgia. Sherrod, Cordell Reagon and Charlie Jones. The summer of '62 maybe ten or fifteen students from the north — some from the north, some from the south — but several students came down, ten or fifteen. This increased the publicity of what was going on in Southwest Georgia from SNCC's point of view. People in their respective home towns and colleges heard about the Southwest Georgia project. Martin King was down there that summer and prior to that summer. That added greatly to the publicity.
Emily: SNCC welcomed King at that point?
Don: Yes, by and large.
Emily: Were there any sort of tensions between SNCC and SCLC?
Don: Well, there were a lot of tensions. There always were, I guess, but they certainly weren't on the magnitude that they have been more recently — as the split has been more recently. It didn't really affect the operations going on within the community at all. There were just tensions in terms of what to do, and when, and these were worked out.
Also, by the summer of '62 the Albany movement had solidified to the extent that probably it was the strongest local movement in the country at that time. William Anderson was president of the Albany movement. He was a local doctor. Slater King was vice president or at least an officer. He was a local real estate and insurance broker. C.B. King, the only black lawyer in Southwest Georgia, was involved. This was significant to the extent that not only was this movement encompassing professional people, not only was it strongly community-oriented and based, this was probably the one community at that time that had a lawyer right on the scene to involve himself to a hundred percent of his time of dealing with the local arrests, dealing with kids being thrown out of schools and whatever happened. This was significant to that extent.
Albany was significant also in that Albany State Teacher's College was there. The Albany State students actually were the first people to get involved in any action or activity in Albany. The students were the ones who first started attempting to desegregate the bus station. Prior to that summer also there were city-run buses in Albany that were segregated and it was a combination of Albany State students, and primarily the black domestic workers, the women, who put the city buses out of operation in Albany because they formed a car pool. Probably this was the foundation of the Albany movement, something very similar to the movement in Montgomery. That it came out of a bus boycott. That the foundations were developed through the organization of car pools to get these domestics to work and back every day. To the best of my knowledge the car pool is still operating. There still are no buses in Albany. The car pool is operating to a minimal extent. It's clearly not as strong as it was at one time. But there are no city buses.
Emily: What were the achievements of the Albany movement? ... Over all. Over the whole time it's been in existence. It didn't desegregate the buses. What did it do?
Don: I think the goals and therefore the achievements have changed over a four or five-year period. I think initially the goals were to desegregate the city buses, to desegregate public facilities and accommodations, to desegregate public schools, and voter registration. Although the gamut was probably as wide as you can go, the immediate goal in late '61, beginning of '62 was desegregate the buses. At this point I think the goals have changed to the extent that they are just to build up a strong community-wide organization that can meet, discuss, decide and ultimately act on problems and situations that are of interest and concern to the black community. This would go from block voting for a particular candidate and running their own candidates to establishing a black-owned bank, to acquiring real estate, to building up the economic strength of the community.
Emily: How would you evaluate the success in achieving both of these types of goals that you mentioned?
Don: Well, it's difficult to evaluate a community kind of organization because you can say if it didn't meet each and every one of its aforestated goals then it in some measure failed. I don't think this is necessarily true.
Emily: And if it met some you could say it succeeded?
Don: Yes, right. I think it has met some. It has failed in a great number, but the effort generally did a tremendous amount for the city of Albany, especially for the black citizens. I think the attitude of people, probably not the entire black community (and certainly not the entire white community), but their attitude toward whites has changed significantly.
Emily: In what way?
Don: The black community can and does, as a community and as individuals, respect themselves more. They are less frightened individually and community-wise of intimidation and retaliation from the white community. The white community at the same time is more respectful of the black community in terms of anything they do. At one time the pervasive attitude of most blacks in Albany, certainly a majority of them, was obviously nonviolent. I don't think that same attitude prevails today and if you want to measure it as a gain or an achievement, I don't know, but the white community is certainly more reluctant to engage in any sort of activities that would either bring harm or certainly be injurious to the black community. In the developmeru: of the whole Albany movement — I think the Albany movement is significant in a number of ways, also.
A lot of things grew out of the Albany movement. C.B. King ran for Congress in . I'm not sure whether at that time if we had started running black candidates across the board, people like Mrs. Boynton [in Selma Alabama], for example, although I guess some basic work had been done on Fannie Lou Hammers campaign in Mississippi. But this was certainly an important step for Southwest Georgia as a whole. In the campaign he ran, I think, fourth out of six candidates. Maybe there were twenty thousand votes. Maybe he got nine or eleven [thousand] or something like that, but I mean it was a fairly impressive number of votes compared to the situation, budget, just the whole total operation. Not only was this man trying to wage a campaign on practically no funds at all — all his work was volunteer, all his time was in addition to his practicing law. All of the people who worked on the campaign were volunteers. There wasn't one paid person on his so-called campaign staff. This was significant. After that, more and more blacks started to run for office in Albany itself; from outside of the Albany movement also.
Emily: I notice that most of the time you do mention Albany as the place where these gains were made, psychological gains and political gains. Does that imply that the more rural counties were less successful?
Don: Simply in terms of geography Albany is a city of maybe fifty, sixty thousand people and a center, if you want to call it that, in Southwest Georgia. There are two military bases. Immediately outside of Albany there's a state college. There's heavy industry in Albany. You had a C.B. King in Albany. You had a Slater King. You had a strong local organization with a nucleus of local people but also a nucleus of professional people who could add professional kinds of competence in terms of legal, real estate kinds of assistance. You had money people who could put up bonds, which was crucial. You also had college students. Even though at one time we tried to get away from having it the center of the Southwest Georgia project, it in fact always remained the central office in Southwest Georgia because it was central to just about every place we were working and the necessities to run any operation were there. SNCC had, and if it has any friends left, they probably will be in Albany, in Southwest Georgia.
Emily: Does SNCC now actually have a project there?
Don: I doubt it very much. I don't think they do.
Emily: Sherrod is still down there.
Don: Right. Right. Well, he's not in Albany. He's in Baker county. He's in Newton, which is thirty miles south, almost due south. But in Albany also in the last couple of years more and more blacks have been hired in the companies, large companies. A great deal of business, heavy industry is moving into the Albany area.
Emily: In decent jobs. Not just janitor and stuff?
Don: I wouldn't say decent jobs. Factory kind of jobs, assembly line, parts, small —
Emily: Jobs formerly held by white men, though?
Don: These industries are hiring people all the time now. I learned about a week ago that a couple of the factories, people in the factories have formed unions. About two weeks ago there was a big strike at Bob's Candy Company, which is a nationally known producer.
Emily: I never heard of it.
Don: Nobody else ever heard of it either.
Emily: If it's so nationally known. ..?
Don: It is. It is. They do a hell of a lot of business. So the whole labor aspect of it got hooked into Albany because of once again, a strong community organization in Albany. Also, growing out of the Albany movement and the civil rights — or not the Civil Rights Act but the Anti-Poverty Bill in '64 or whenever it was...
Emily: You think that some of this hiring of Negroes in these jobs has to do with the fact that Albany is now a united black community, is that what you're saying?
Don: Not so much hiring, but whereas ten years ago a Negro maybe working out at Bob's Candy Company. He gets fired for what he thinks is an unjust cause and he's just fIred and they get somebody else. Two years ago he gets fIred, he goes into C.B. King's office. C.B. King says, "Okay." He calls up somebody, the manager, supervisor of Bob's Candy Company and says, "We are ready to sue unless you give this man a hearing." Bob's Candy Company, not wanting to go through a potential suit or not wanting the Albany movement to request or the other people at Bob's Candy Company to organize and form a strike, will hear these grievances. Whereas, without this kind of community solidarity, this kind of pressure couldn't have been brought to bear. This kind of thing.
Similarly, if there was a particular situation involving the police or local government, they would be much more hesitant to act if at a trial, or at a hearing, or at a conference there were 800 people out in the street awaiting the decision of whatever the body was, than if nobody was there at all and there was no evidence that the community would be concerned one wayor the other. I think the power, latent or in fact, that was created by the formation and relative stable organization of the Albany movement contributed to a significant extent of change in Albany.
Emily: Do you remember how you and other people in the Albany movement felt about the Mississippi Summer Project at the time it was proposed?
Don: I tend to think that much of the planning that was done for that was done with people working in Mississippi and was brought up at an all-SNCC conference just for informational purposes or supportive purposes more than anything else.
Emily: How did you feel about it as it was actually taking place?
Don: I don't know. SNCC got to be so cumbersome around that time, cumbersome in terms of its size and its number of people, the number of places where we had projects, so that contact with other areas diminished. I would tend to think that most people got rather self-conscious about what they were doing themselves and not too much involved.
Emily: Did you feel neglected?
Don: Oh, there were constant complaints by people in Arkansas, people in Alabama, and people in Southwest Georgia that their areas were being neglected for Mississippi. At that time Mississippi could bring much more press and publicity than any of the other three areas could, or any other area: Danville [Virginia], Cambridge Maryland, and so forth. There was a lot of bitching and griping going on by the staff.
I think the problem was when they had the big summer project that had — l've forgotten the number — maybe a thousand, eight hundred, students going into Mississippi, it was damn near impossible to know anybody of that eight hundred, especially if you were working in another state. Therefore, you became somewhat detached from those people. They didn't know who the hell you were; you didn't know who they were. I tend to suspect that some of us, anyway, who had been around felt that these people didn't know what the hell they were doing and were about to botch things up, which many of them did. But I think the organization disintegrated a great deal that summer.
Emily: That summer?
Don: Yes, simply because when I first started working with SNCC, and when I first went south in the summer of '62, by the end of that summer [of '62] I knew every person on the staff of SNCC, knew them well.
Emily: How many people was that?
Don: Probably about 40 at that time. I knew them well enough to have some faith and confidence (or lack of same) in them in a crisis situation. Presuming I didn't have the faith and confidence in one person that I might have in another, I knew him well enough to know what his strengths were and that if I was calling on him in a situation which he could handle best or deal with, I could count on him or her entirely. Whereas, during the Mississippi Freedom Summer you could call maybe three, four, five different areas on the telephone one right after another and ask for anybody in that project and maybe you wouldn't know a name. We were calling from another state and may have been involved in SNCC for a year, two years.
Emily: What was the significance of that? Did that have a significance in the decision-making process of SNCC, you couldn't trust the other people who were going to make decisions?
Don: Well, it was significant, at least for Southwest Georgia, in a number of ways. Personally, from my own point of view, I think it helped our own project a great deal in that —
Emily: You probably had less money.
Don: Yes, than we needed. We certainly got a lot less attention than we wanted or thought we should have had. All of us — that is, all of the workers, "outside agitators" — were forced to develop for ourselves our own resources. In terms of transportation, we didn't have cars or the cars we had were broken or not enough, not adequate. We had to make our own contacts in terms of getting out news releases and news stories to the press. By and large we made our own decisions on where to go, that is, what counties to go into; what we were going to do in those counties. We sort of ran our own show. Personally, I think for me that was probably the most rewarding, or certainly among the most rewarding, periods of time that I was down there. This was while we were in Americus, or Americus was developing. Except for a couple of — Well, let's say that two or three months prior to the arrest of Ralph, John and myself —
Emily: Ralph who?'
Don: Ralph Allen, John Perdew and I, along with Daniels and Sally May of Americus were the first to start organizing in Sumter County. Our organization, the Sumter County Movement, was operating solely upon its own initiative, its own inspiration, its own ideas. It had no support whatsoever from SNCC. It had no outside assistance of any kind and I think that is why the developments up to the first part of August in Americus were practically — well, they were in fact unstoppable by the local authorities simply because all the power was in the hands of the local people. They were using their own resources, their own ideas entirely and there was nothing that could be cut off from the community that was vital to the movement. The only thing that was vital to the movement was the citizens of Americus and Sumter County.
Emily: Switching back to something we were talking about before, what was the purpose of the voter registration campaign in Southwest Georgia? Was there a real hope of being able to take over actual office or was there another purpose?
Don: You mean back as far as 62, '61?
Emily: Yes. Discuss the history of it. If the purpose has changed over time I'd like to hear about that.
Don: Well, I think that at that point, although we were talking about registering, the number of — In Lee County there were more blacks than whites eligible to vote. In Terrell County there were more blacks than whites eligible to vote. I think primarily we were thinking in terms more of controlling what happened in a county politically. That is, by using the vote to vote for a white — and I say this is probably what we were thinking — using the vote to vote for a white person that would take into account the wishes and concerns of blacks as well as whites, rather than the more recent concept of running a black slate, [for example], the Black Panther movement in Alabama.
Emily: Why is that so since you did have a majority? Why content yourself with that?
Don: Well, personally, I would say — and this is strictly a personal view of my own impression, we weren't sophisticated — I wasn't, anyway — to the point of political activity and political organization in this country. I don't think actually that we ever had the idea that we would register a majority in Lee County or Terrell County. We were aiming for the significant minority that could swing a vote. Possibly we were aiming for it, but it was subconscious in that the difficulties at that particular time and the handicaps under which we were operating were just too great to conceive of registering 2,000 people.
Emily: You were thinking mainly in terms of fIlling county offices or Congressional seats rather than statewide offices?
Don: I wouldn't even take in those seats. I think we were thinking more of things like sheriff, police chief, registrar, alderman or city council or what have you, rather than even statewide offices. Bear in mind that at this time we were operating literally on a shoestring. If somebody wanted to come north to fund-raise, that person probably would have to get out and sell SNCC buttons or sell the first record album that SNCC had and raise his carfare north. We weren't operating as SNCC has operated in the recent past in terms of some people having credit cards and expense accounts and people flying not only all over this country, but to other countries. Certainly nobody was flying.
Emily: I read somewhere that you made a trip to Africa with John Lewis.
Don: Right, that was in '64, later in the game. I guess the original concept of what we wanted to do in Southwest Georgia involved spreading out — and this goes back to something you asked before — spreading out from Albany, as once again the core or the central base in Southwest Georgia, into the surrounding counties. Up to February, '63 we were operating in just Lee County and Terrell County. In February, '63 we moved down into Sumter County, the county seat being Americus, and sometime after that — I guess it was when C.B. King ran for office — we moved out into the entire, I believe it's second Congressional District and we were operating at one point in twenty-two counties in that district. We had offices in Thomasville, and in Moultrie, in Cuthbert, Cordele, allover the place.
Emily: It's about as exotic to me as Samarkand.
Emily: Strange names. It strikes me that your political plan there had a certain consistency and it made a certain amount of sense. It seems strange that SNCC is still thinking very much on the county level in terms of county field organizations and that sort of thing, and yet at the same time SNCC's broader philosophy has changed so that it realizes now, or thinks now, that it's the broad institutional structures in American society, a very broad attitude, that has to be changed and attacked. Do you have any explanation for the inconsistency between SNCC's practical targets and its sort of long-range definition of its problem now?
Don: I would first of all venture to say that SNCC provided a significant education for a great number of the people involved in the movement. That is, people who were involved in the movement for two, three years. I would venture to guess that when most of us got involved we knew very, very little about community organization or probably nothing. We knew very little about the political institutions in this country. We knew very little about the development of political power or economic power in this country.
Don: But as far back as '61 and the early part of '62, all those people who were going into field operations, specifically into new field operations, there was maybe a three or four page sheet of questions about a community. Population; racial composition; percent; what is the main economic foundation of that city, of the county; what industries; what kind of resources in terms of the local community and the black community; is it significant Klan country; what is the historical background in attitudes of whites towards blacks? All this kind of thing.
Basically it would probably take two weeks to find out all that information, but by the time an individual got that information, he probably knew as much about the community when he or she began to work as anybody else there. Well, not as much, obviously, as somebody who had lived there all their life. I don't recall that this was done after the summer of '62, say. Students from the North, students from urban areas in the South went into communities that they knew nothing about. If they were just summer volunteers or summer workers, they left the community after three months knowing perhaps very little more than they knew when they came in. They knew ten people. They had been to mass meetings and they had seen a cop beat on some Negroes, but that may have been the extent of it. What I'm getting to is there was no preparation in terms of somebody doing any significant amount of work.
Similarly, there was very little mental preparation of the first students —
Emily: Why did it change? Why did SNCC's technique get worse, as you seem to imply?
Don: SNCC, being a dynamic and almost loose organizationally to its own destruction, as more and more people came onto the staff, as the organization itself became more wealthy, there wasn't, once again, the personal confidence and confrontation among individuals. There wasn't the communication, the sharing of information of what had gone on in Greenwood with people from Arkansas or Alabama. There wasn't that sort of a bond, a binding camaraderie between the individuals as much as there had been in the early days. Of course, when they first started out there were only sixteen people and subsequent to that maybe forty or fifty. In '62, even the early part of '63 —
Emily: Did this have something to do with the character of those people who were coming in?
Don: Well, yes. They were a very different kind of people. In '63, '64, civil rights work, voter registration work, became a fad for college students. And white college students came pouring out of all over the place just to be in the South for every possible reason. Although the very first group of SNCC students were there for every reason also, the danger was much more imminent than it was in '63, '64, '65 than now. Personal, physical confrontation with a bullet, with a club.
Emily: The danger was greater three years ago then now?
Don: Right. So I couldn't afford to work with somebody who didn't know at least as much as I knew about a community. I couldn't afford to send somebody out in a community to do a job, to involve themselves with other people who were basically putting their trust in us. Send a person out there who was going to misuse the trust of these people. When we had eight hundred kids going into Mississippi we didn't know who we could trust in the sense of trust their judgment and abilities or competence because there was no way to get to know eight hundred people — even though there was training before they went into the field. These kinds of things.
Emily: What was your attitude and the general attitude of people in your project toward the federal government? Again, if this changed over time I'd like to hear how it changed.
Don: Our contact with the federal government basically involved FBI agents. There was no respect for FBI agents simply because at that time, and probably it continues, agents are hired from a particular area to work in that area. In other words, they're hired to work in their local community. They may leave to be trained, but eventually a Georgia boy is going to end up being an FBI agent some place in Georgia. Further, that agent from Georgia will represent the ideas and the attitudes of people from Georgia from his local community, which was invariably racist. Other than that, our contacts were very little. The FBI gave us no support. Very often they did their best to work against us. They had close contact, of course, with local officials.
Emily: What significance did you attach to, or hope did you put in, federal laws of various kinds?
Don: I think it was just a constantly declining faith and belief that the federal government would or could — well, not could — but, really help. We all thought the federal government could do something if they wanted to, but there clearly was never an effort by them.
Emily: To what did you attribute their reluctance to help?
Don: Primarily I would say the attitudes of the local agents and their inability to view the situation objectively, or their unwillingness to want to judge the situation objectively. By and large all our contact with the government was FBI, and as I say, the longer somebody stayed there the less respect they had for the FBI generally, as well as the individual agents.
Emily: Were you by any chance in Atlantic City in August, '64?
Don: I wasn't.
Emily: What did you think of what happened there?
Don: I don't even remember. I think I was in jail at the time. One of those years I was in jail almost a whole year. The whole year, just sort of — So I couldn't even remember at this point what my thoughts were.
Emily: In general, the federal government?
Don: Once again, this, the whole Congressional challenge represented a tremendous split in the staff. That is, the Mississippi staff and the staff in other places, because once again this wasn't communicated and there wasn't adequate dialogue between the entire staff in terms of what they were doing, what the significance of it was. Not only to the staff, but once again, we didn't — that is people in other areas — because we didn't have the information from our staff so we couldn't communicate it to local people. So local people in Alabama knew there was something important and knew there was something everybody was involved in and we should be rooting for, let's say, but in terms of details and in terms of being able to interpret the significance of it, either our interpreting it to somebody else or somebody interpreting to us, it just never happened as far as I'm concerned.
Emily: In '64 and '65-winter and spring, there was a big controversy within SNCC over structure. Do you remember that?
Don: I was in Africa. Thank God. We went in August of '64 and we came back in December.
Emily: John Lewis and you were away all that time?
Don: Well, twelve of us went to Guinea. We were in Guinea a month and then everybody else came back the first of October and John and I stayed.
Emily: Did SNCC pay for that?
Don: Partially. Harry Belafonte raised some of the money and the Guinea government paid for part of it.
Emily: How come you went? How was that tied up with what else you were doing?
Don: SNCC had had some contact prior to that with a delegation of African officials traveling around the U.S, and we had met them and so forth in Atlanta. Harry Belafonte was doing a show, or gathering material for his own performances in Guinea, had met President Sekou Toure a couple times or something like that. They were talking about the civil rights movements. President Toure said it would be a good thing if we had some representatives from the civil rights movement here to talk to La Jeunesse, the youth movement in Guinea. So out of these discussions Harry suggested that some people from SNCC go over and meet, talk, learn and rest. So I think all the project directors went, as well as Forman and John.
Emily: You don't remember any of the controversy after you got back in December?
Don: No, because I didn't attend any of those meetings.
Emily: Did other people from the Southwest Georgia area attend them?
Don: I'm sure they did. What it was all about I really couldn't tell you. The question of who made decisions, and how, always was difficult for SNCC. Who makes decisions; how they're made; this kind of thing. I think staff members were feeling that although it was supposed to be an organization with no formal heads or figurehead, this wasn't in fact happening, and that the staff should be represented more. Prior to the time we left, I guess, we had formed a council or an executive committee or something like that and there were two people from Southwest Georgia on that. Three or four, five from Mississippi. Two from Arkansas. Two from Alabama. And transacted business in this way. Essentially it didn't do the job that was necessary. Well, the significant decisions probably were made on the local project level anyway, and never made when —
Emily: You never felt that decisions were being imposed on you from Atlanta?
Don: No, I didn't feel that way. I don't think, to tell you the truth, that too many people felt that way. There was a general overriding feeling that some people generally got their way or the idea that they propounded generally got approved by one means or another. But I don't think it was actually imposed as such. There was some feeling, however, in the local project in Southwest Georgia that ideas were imposed and I never found this out until...
Emily: By the local leadership?
Don: No, by the local staff. That ideas were being imposed — and this was in regard to C.B. King running for Congress in Southwest Georgia. I was project director at the time and I met with C.B. and local community people and we talked about it. I guess maybe fifteen of us from Albany decided that we were going to run C.B., and I thought it was a good idea and more or less said, "SNCC in Southwest Georgia will back him and support him a hundred percent." I'm sure I've forgotten how I presented it to the staff, but apparently — and this came out long after the campaign and the election was over — that a lot of people didn't go along with this. Not a lot, but some people in the staff didn't go along with this and they had some real disagreements in terms of wanting to work on the campaign and opinions as to whether we should be working on the campaign.
Emily: They felt that they would have chosen another candidate?
Don: Well, I don't think it was in terms of another candidate. I just don't think they wanted to work on —
Emily: What was their reason?
Don: Their reason probably was C.B. personally. Their own personal impression, attitudes toward and about C.B. I don't think, in fact I'm quite sure they could have come up with another candidate in place of C.B. I think what it amounted to was supporting C.B. to the extent that we did which was —
Emily: They weren't opposed to the idea of running a candidate?
Don: No. No. No, they were opposed to C.B. as the candidate. They were opposed probably, or my impression is, to the amount of time that we gave to his campaign which may have been seventy-five, eighty percent of our time during that period. This never came out in terms of the work we did. It came out in terms of a discussion months after the campaign.
Emily: Why did you leave SNCC? Was it for personal reasons?
Don: Well, I left I guess because I was tired, and I had evolved to the point where I felt it was a waste of time to be running candidates at that time in Albany and Americus, possibly in other counties. But we were running local people for city councilmen, sheriff or whatever, and they were getting crucified. I just didn't have the energy to put up with it anymore. I thought it was a waste of time. There was a local election in Albany and somebody was running for city council and maybe people got anxious about it and they went out and had posters and whatever, and I just sort of sat around and just couldn't get interested. The day of the election I just couldn't take anybody down. So it was time for me to go.
Emily: When was this? When you went into jail?
Don: Yes. In the summer of '63 five of us were arrested in Americus. We were in jail for about a hundred days, ninety days. When we came out of jail basically because of our own mistakes we hadn't developed the kind of organization that we should have, or we didn't provide the back-up that we should have, and the people in Atlanta fooled around. This is a time when we clearly didn't get the support we needed. Here was probably the significant issue to work with in Southwest Georgia, perhaps in the country at that time, and nobody touched it.
Emily: What was? What was the issue?
Don: The fact that you had five people in jail under a death penalty for a hundred days and nothing was ever developed around it. You had a tremendous community organization in Americus, but nobody from the other projects or Atlanta came in to provide any assistance, direction or significant support.
Emily: Why didn't they?
Don: For 150 reasons, none of which are important. This was Mississippi Freedom summer. It was March on Washington. So it was any thousand number of things. Most important, it was an organization that had grown insensitive to — it was an organization whose central administration could not administer a hundred or forty or twenty different places at the same time adequately.
Emily: Already by that summer of '63 they were that over-extended?
Don: There were too many people in the field versus too few people in Atlanta operating too inefficiently to adequately deal with everything we were doing. Americus is a shitty, terrible little town out in the middle of the country. Three, four, five thousand people. It's more than that, of course, but certainly they were in need of some support, if just moral support. As I said, just prior to going in jail was probably the most important, or one of the most important, parts of my involvement in Southwest Georgia because we didn't have money, we didn't have anything, but we developed this, literally, a machine in Americus.
What we didn't do is provide notes or some sort of documented material on what had gone on on a daily basis, who key people were, this kind of thing, so somebody coming in could sit down for two or three hours and be able to move with some efficiency. For instance, this first form that we filled out I told you about that was being filled out in '61, this wasn't done in Americus because we went into Americus in February '63. Okay, there was a prime need for it right then. There was a prime need for almost a log on what had happened from February to August, whenever we got arrested.
It was very interesting. The leaders of the movement fell into three segments. One was a very, very old deacon of the church. That's how he was known, as a matter of fact, as Deacon Evans. He lives way out in the country, not in the city of Americus. Now, he was president of the Sumter County movement. He was too old to go to jail, too old to really significantly involve and influence people and was more, not even the titular head because he didn't have the respect of the people in Americus. There was always some difficulty in bringing the people from the country together with the people in what was called the city. The reason for this was that the first people who were active in Sumter County were the rural people and this guy in particular, Deacon Evans. The mass meetings were formerly held out in the rural areas because no churches, nothing in Americus itself would give us a place to meet.
But eventually, as the movement gained momentum, we moved into Americus, cutting off a certain number of people in the rural areas. Deacon Evans, who had been the head ofit in the rural, came into the city but was not very well known, not respected certainly, and this caused somewhat of a problem. Another faction was the students. Obviously the activists, the people who did things, took the chances, took the risks, the people we were most closely involved with. All high school students, junior high school students, elementary students, for that matter. The third faction was once again a professional or middle class such as you had in Albany, but was represented by one family which has been running a funeral home in Americus for fifty years. They acquired a great deal of wealth and they provided the financial backing for the movement.
So you had these three forces sort of pulling against each other and when we were arrested in August we had just the embryo of a solid coalition of these three factors. We hadn't built it up to the point where it could survive alone, but at the same time we hadn't provided or given ourselves the insurance of including, let's say, a worker from Albany or a worker from some other area who could just sort of step right in there and take over. This was our mistake, primarily my mistake. A hundred days later it was just lost to a great degree. The county people after that were just almost totally out of the movement. The community participation was lost to the extent that it had been and you had the students and the Barnums really.
Emily: This funeral family?
Emily: Who was arrested with you?
Don: John Perdew, [Ralph Allen and Zev Aelony].
Emily: After that it never really picked up?
Don: Well, it picked up but certainly not ... It picked up again the summer of '65. SCLC came and then they had a tremendous demonstration. I think that was the first time in the history of the movement that a white had been shot and killed. A white guy was shot and killed, local Americus guy. He had been shot and killed by local Negroes. And they had massive demonstrations but nothing ever happened. By that time I was in New York. I was also in the hospital.
Emily: This white guy who was shot by local Negroes, was this a political thing?
Don: There was a demonstration going on and he shot into a car or something like that and there were whites riding through the Negro community shooting and so forth. He shot and the Negro shot back. He got killed and two guys got convicted of murder. C.B. defended them but they still got convicted.
Emily: Were they executed?
Emily: Were there many whites in the Albany movement?
Don: Yes. This was a significant difference in how the two original SNCC projects developed — not factions, groups. The first group that went to McComb and the other going to Southwest Georgia. Sherrod always, and still, firmly believes in integration as perhaps the important goal of the movement. He brought whites to work in the Deep South and in integrated teams. He was the first one to do this in SNCC. This was the summer of '62. The project was always significantly integrated, meaning perhaps ftfty/fifty. Sherrod left maybe the middle of '63 and until he came back down there this year, there were few whites. I only counted one or two whites on the staff while I was there.
Emily: So since mid-'63 the number of whites just kind of went down?
Don: Where it has increased in every other project. The Mississippi Summer Projects, Arkansas. Well, it increased and then it, of course, maybe '64, beginning of '65 they started cutting back again until whatever it is now.
Emily: What effect did this have, when Sherrod left and the whites left, also?
Don: Well, they didn't leave with Sherrod. They sort of —
Emily: Drifted out after him.
Don: They drifted out and we just didn't take any others in. I think the effect was no great effect in terms of our own work. We did the work. It's around that time, too, we began increasing the number of new counties we were going into. It made it immeasurably easier. I don't think it seriously hampered the operation.
We may have lost some publicity in the long run. It may have lost us some of the technical and skilled kind of things that happened in Mississippi that didn't happen elsewhere, i.e., development of credit unions, cooperatives, although this was done in Southwest Georgia. There was a domestic workers' union in Americus long before there was in any other place in SNCC. At one time they were talking about setting up a radio station in Mississippi and then they had all these radios in the cars. You know, these kinds of things where they got a student from MIT down to actually set up the radios, or they got a white student from some place else to set up the Southern Courier, maybe, from Harvard. You know, these kinds of technical things with these kids, and they recruited kids for these exact purposes.
Now, this was never the way it was gone about in Southwest Georgia. We just said, "We want white students to come down and work on voter registration in a black community, work on demonstrations in Cuthbert or whatever." It wasn't for the specific kind of task that ultimately they worked out in Mississippi, which I also think was a significant mistake on our part.
Emily: What was?
Don: Not getting specialists in a sense, people down to do specific kinds of things, to set up. Maybe some guy at Harvard is particularly skilled in setting up a union or doing research on this. John Perdew, for instance, who's white, his forte is research and while he was in Southwest Georgia, although he didn't come down to do that specifically, helped out the project a great deal by doing research that he just did personally.
Don: I became project director after Sherrod left. I differed with him in my view that integration was the ultimate goal. Well, at that point probably I didn't disagree with him on that. I disagreed with him that we should have integrated teams working wherever we worked simply to show that integration could work. I just didn't think it was necessary. It was eminenently more dangerous for everybody concerned. It became increasingly difficult to house white students in that local community. People would be much more inclined to house a black student than a white student. It decreased the pressure on them in a local community, whereas they could say that if somebody heard, if X is working at a factory and his boss heard that somebody was living with him that was a SNCC worker and he was black, he could say, "No, no. That's my cousin from Baltimore," or something like that. Whereas, he obviously couldn't say that if it was a white.
Emily: Did you conceive SNCC's ultimate goal as integration at this point?
Don: When I first went down I didn't. Coming from the North, my initial view was probably being able to sit at a lunch counter, a white lunch counter, sit in the front of the bus or whatever. I don't think I came down with a view or even developed a view initially of what SNCC's ultimate goal was. As I stayed, I viewed SNCC's goal, not so much as a lot of people, essentially to put ourselves out of business by registering everybody and forming all these local pockets of power, local community organizations, but one as developing a highly skilled cadre of community and political organizers that could go into almost any area and be skilled enough and be flexible enough to provide some support to either a local community group in terms of ideas, in terms of resources, in terms of basic organizational skills, or to develop this kind of organization and assist it until it could operate on its own.
Emily: And the purpose of the community group would be —
Don: To do whatever it wanted to do. See, once again you start getting into the philosophy of the thing. Are you coming in to tell people what they should be thinking or what they should be doing, or are you coming in and assisting them to do whatever they want to do? It seems to me although you can have an overall national or, as it were, general overriding philosophy, you can leave the actual decision-making and the selection of targets or whatever you in fact are going to do in the local area up to the local people.
Emily: Then these people wanted to do voter registration and that was why you went into a voter registration project? Is that a fair statement?
Don: Well, I couldn't say that in terms of Albany because: I wasn't there when they first went in. In terms of Americus and Sumter County, once again, the people wanted to become involved in the movement doing essentially whatever the people in Albany or wherever else a movement was going on, doing what they were doing.
Emily: The people in Americus just wanted to be part of the movement that was going on in other places?
Don: Right, and they knew voter registration was going on so they wanted to register to vote. I don't think for the most part they articulated that they wanted voter registration as such to get involved — well, the adults did, as a matter of fact — to get involved in elections and the electing of officers who would represent them. The kids, obviously they wanted to get into direct action, demonstrations and the logical step, an almost necessary step to direct action, is some field work, some experience, some idea of what they're doing and why and what kind of influence they're going to make and alternatives. So sort of deal with both ends.
Initially we went in there to work on voter registration, but developed ultimately into direct action demonstrating around public accommodations. But it took us six months to build up to the point where we felt that the kids were ready to get into direct action with the kind of responsibility that was going to be necessary in that area. Once again, an extremely hard-core area. Well, I think a great amount of our success was the fact that we had kids, high school, junior high school and some elementary kids. We had a thirteen-year-old girl stay in jail for as long as we did, for a hundred days, and we had kids staying in jail for periods of a month, two months, and some up to three, and some in jail for a month; out for two days; in jail for another month. This kind of thing. Of course, you can't prepare anybody actually for this kind of thing, but you can —
Emily: So a great amount of your success was, you started to say.
Don: Was the ability that the community wasn't split even more than it ultimately was by the fact — Albany or Americus had a great portion of its student community in jail, I would say, longer than most of the other areas in the country, longer than, let's say, Birmingham. Most of the kids in Birmingham were in jail a week, two weeks, three weeks at most. The average probably in Americus ranged around a month, a month-and-a-half. Now, for parents, all those families involved this meant some tremendous sacrifice, especially if they had two, three. Some people had two, three kids in jail at the same time. That was a success and what sustained effort —
I was in Americus this fall, in November, and although there wasn't any great organizing going on, there was a local election and there was a Negro up running for city council and there were people out on Sunday morning distributing leaflets. There were people talking in every church about the fact that election day was two days away and their car pools had been arranged, and this kind of thing. Something is happening. There are people working and there's just no kind of outside support now at all.
Emily: In general what do you think SNCC has achieved?
Don: That is broad, isn't it? What has it achieved? Oh, God, it's achieved so many things it's impossible. It's given countless communities vehicles, methods, resources of expression of content and discontent. It's given alternative courses of action. It's provided organizers, either outside or developed internal organizers, within those communities. It's certainly brought heretofore nonpolitical segments of the population to be much more politically aware, much more politically active than they had been.
It's forced national opinion and national concern — that's not right. Not national concern, but it's forced national opinion with other groups and other activities to pass some meaningful and some not very meaningful legislation. It's probably provided the basis and the forerunner of what is now called the New Left. It's forced a lot of moderates and liberals, white liberals, to face issues that they've been dodging before. To a certain extent an international dialogue has been better established with other student groups, with other organizations. Certainly SNCC has had a significant influence on the whole peace movement.
Emily: In what way?
Don: Well, by providing people, ideas. By the whole concept of the beloved community, although the beloved community probably is more of a Martin King type of concept. I think once again your activists have come out of SNCC, activists who may have been volunteers in SNCC for a summer or two and have turned up some place in the peace movement. Certainly SNCC influenced significant numbers of young, black and white — well, generally the pervasive kind of influence that Malcolm had on people right across the board in terms of their thinking about what this country is, what their responsibility is to it, what its responsibility is to them, perhaps as a group, as a race, as a segment of society as well as individuals. I'm sure I haven't touched on everything.
Emily: What are you doing now?
Don: Well, I work for an educational, I'm working with an educational firm in Boston.
... I was about to add, from the number of guys that were in SNCC from the beginning — not from the beginning but let's say fairly early in the game, '61, '62, early parts of '63 — if they've left the formal movement, if they've left an activist role in the movement, certainly if they're in professional or semi-professional kinds of positions now, some of the people have a fair amount of influence in certain kinds of things that they're doing now. Poverty programs, foundations, community development work, education.
Also, I think that a national dialogue has been established among students to a greater extent than existed, say, pre-'60. The ability of people in SNCC to travel around the country to speak and to organize on college campuses, to speak at college campuses was very important. Certainly one of the distinctions of this country and that of most other countries is that in just about every other country in the world the whole student population is a strong political voice and segment of the political institutions of that country and in this country it's not. But to a much greater degree than it was, say, in '58.
Emily: Yes, I agree. I've heard it suggested that that's a sign of strength in the American political system. That the students aren't particularly strong shows that it's stable. Students are strong in places where there is massive support among young, unstable elements of the population, especially where students might bring about a coup d'etat, that sort of thing. It means that we have old established leadership.
Don: Right. Well, it means that the leadership or the institutions in this country are more firmly established, are more firmly entrenched than in most other countries.
Emily: Do you think that SNCC in the course of its history has developed a new type of leadership, a new kind of person who's now a leader, new norms for leaders, perhaps?
Don: That is, is a Stokely Carmichael significantly different from a Charles McDew?
Emily: Yes, and in what way if so?
Emily: He's been in since the beginning, anyway, Stokely Carmichael.
Don: Well, vocal. No, I wouldn't say so. I think that the newer leaders, national leaders that is, are more vocal than were previous leaders. Vocal on things that others may have thought and may have been in-house kinds of ideas and concepts that have now just come out into the open.
Don: There was always a fairly strong [black] nationalist element in SNCC. It was sublimated. It was under the covers as such, but it was always there. There was a strong, vocal integrationist segment that isn't there now. The nonviolent and the anti-nonviolent element was certainly always there. This was just never articulated at all. I mean most people in SNCC I think admitted freely that they were nonviolent tactically at that moment for that particular occasion, but by and large I don't think the vast majority of the people in '61 were any more nonviolent than the people now.
Emily: You're talking about everybody, not just leaders?
Don: Yes, right. Yes. Let's say proportionately fifty, sixty, seventy percent of the forty people in '62 or '61 were anti-nonviolent and maybe it's up to eighty-five or ninety now. I haven't the slightest idea. I would tend to think it's pretty high, though.
Emily: Is there a different type of member now in other respects?
Don: My contact since '65 has been only with —
Emily: Say between '61 and '65 then.
Don: Oh, yes, certainly. I think by and large the people that came in pre-'63 were people who came in to devote a year minimum to their active, Southern involvement, let's say. Whereas, subsequent to that you had people coming in for two months or you had people coming into project — hop, so to speak, take a tour of the South. Work in one area for a month, work some place else for a month and then disappear.
Emily: That's an interesting point. Pre-'63 means pre beginning of '63?
Don: Yes, right.
Emily: Were they more likely to be Northerners in this later period?
Don: Oh, yes. Right.
Emily: That would account for their —
Don: I'm sure that the proportion of Northern students who went to Southwest Georgia the summer of 1962 went up and then increased throughout SNCC by '63. Northern students, white students increased.
Emily: How about the educational level of students?
Don: Once again, in '63 we were recruiting college students primarily. Prior to that we were recruiting perhaps drop-outs or young people out of work in local communities where we were working. We were recruiting even nonstudents. Mrs. Hamer, people in Albany who were forty, ftfty years old, or elementary school students. There's a set of girls in Albany who I guess their participation started maybe around the eighth grade or something like that and they worked all the way up. Some of them are in college now. Well, I guess they weren't in eighth grade, but they were young and every year they sort of stuck to it.
Emily: This change in the nature of the membership, what generalization would you make for that? What effect has it had?
Don: Well, once again, it's the same sort of debilitating affect on the entire organization in that you didn't know people. People didn't know you. There wasn't this camaraderie among people. There was much more reluctance in terms of calling up Joe from Harvard in Alabama and telling him to come over and assist in something in Albany than there would be in calling Hollis Watkins from McComb, Mississippi to come over and assist. Hollis being a real movement person, a local guy, a high school drop-out who returned to school ultimately. There probably would be no respect for Joe Harvard's ability to come in —
Emily: Must you pick on Harvard?
Don: Or, Mike MIT, to come over and in fact step into a situation, assess it quickly and be able to either step up in the middle of a mass meeting and move people or say what needs to be said, or suggest something important or get out and lead or assist or whatever in a demonstration. Whereas, as you bring Joe Harvard or Mike MIT over you're going to have to sit him down and go through a whole lot of training program with him and then hope that he may be able to talk to the community.
As I said, as more and more white students came in I think there was a growing, not quite nationalism, but anti-white feeling among black workers, and as more came in it sort of increased and they said, " he hell with it. I'll do it myself or it won't get done." This kind of thing. I think also, as college students came in, their concerns were not as single-minded, let's say, as a Southern black student or nonstudent or as a Southerner or perhaps even a Northern Negro, although generally Northern Negroes or blacks were classifted pretty close to a white in terms of competence, ability and judgment and so forth.
Emily: How about in terms of problems of organizing?
Don: Well, yes. Competence. Well, in terms of dealing with the community and that is, the community's view of him?
Emily: Yes, right.
Don: Well, that was almost individual but it generally amounted to his competence because the community was going to view him as he projected himself or herself But I would say generally the Northern students brought in many more concerns and weren't as narrow and focused in their view of civil rights as the Southern students.
Emily: Would you say they were more radical?
Don: No. I wouldn't classify it in terms of radical or moderate or conservative. I would classify them in terms of not only a concern for civil rights, but also peace and also civil liberties and also campus freedoms or intellectual freedom. You know, a broader spectrum of concern rather than whatever way we viewed civil rights, which was fairly narrow.
Emily: Is there some area that you still wanted to go in that you think I haven't covered — ?
Don: Not terribly. I would say also that the organization's dependency and respect for, and consideration of the ideas of people like [Howard] Zinn and Ella Baker and other adults, professional advisors as such, decreased significantly over the years. I think, once again, simply because of the size. Ella Baker is a one in ten thousand, one in a hundred thousand kind of person and just a tremendous person in terms of a resource and in terms of bouncing ideas off to assess direction and credibility and so forth. You just don't get to know a person like this and she's not around twenty-four hours a day and as more and more people came in, something like, "Who the hell is this old lady here?" which was one of the saddest kinds of things that I thought happened.
Zinn, also. People at SRC, Southern Regional Council in Atlanta, in various other places. In the early days we acted without a complete idea of the consequences or of how we're going to extricate ourselves. Then later on we began, as we tended to get money and tended as an affluent organization, when we had something to lose, started considering: "Well, can we afford to do X, Y and Z?" When we were in a position of having nothing we'd just go out and do it.
Emily: The fact that it had money was sort of a moderating sort of thing?
Don: Very much so. Many, many people, both inside and outside of SNCC have said that SNCC, its best organization, its best effort, its most successful periods were when it was flat broke or heavily in debt and, of course, later on, travel, credit cards, all this kind of stuff just got out of hand.
Emily: It's broke again, now. Maybe that's a good sign.
Don: I don't know. I think also SNCC never really utilized, sat down and fully utilized everybody's talent as much as it could have. I don't know whether it's doing that now. I would tend to think not. Basically, I think, the organization in '62, everybody was an idea; everybody had ideas; everybody had responsibility; everybody felt they were a significant and important part of the total network. I can remember — well, we had meetings like this all along, but I remember — one of the things that was amazing all the way through was the striving to be honest with ourselves and honest with the situation we were dealing with. You just can't do it as well with 300 people as you can with sixteen or twenty. People tend not to open up with 300 people in the room because you're talking to 280 people that you don't know. I guess that's about it.
Emily: Okay. Thank you.
Copyright © Don Harris and Emily Stoper. 1966