SNCC and the Beloved Coomunity
Direct Action vs Voter Registration
Moving on Mississippi
There are so many memories that come flooding back. One memory that I have was when some of us from the Orangeburg (SC) Movement for Civic Improvement — great names back then — went to Raleigh for the first meeting that was to become the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The meeting was called by SCLC. Ella Baker was the coordinator and the one who called us all together. In rural South Carolina we didn't know what this SCLC was about, but everybody we knew trusted Ella Baker and so they gave the okay to go.
We went to Raleigh and there were these very eloquent people from Nashville who understood the philosophy, who understood the reason behind it, who could talk about a redemptive community, and we knew in Orangeburg that we had been doing this nonviolent direct action strictly as a tactic and we learned so much. The Nashville people were very well versed. Jim Lawson, who is from my hometown, spent hours talking with us. But we still didn't have the grasp of the concept as well as people from Nashville did, and I have to say that that was a continuing sort of struggle within the organization: nonviolence as a tactic versus nonviolence as a way of life.
I remember when we left Shaw College in that initial conference and going back to South Carolina State and Orangeburg and talking to people about rehabilitating white folks, and I remember an old man said to me, "It's like rehabilitating housing. How you going to rehabilitate what ain't never been bilitated?" There were arguments that were constant about how can you make a moral appeal in the midst of an amoral society. Not immoral, mind you, amoral. A society that had never accepted us as full citizens and that was a constant.
We had a small office down in Atlanta and the arguments would go on forever. SNCC meetings went on for days. Days and nights. I remember at one point we even talked about splitting the office. We had two rooms. On one side we were going to say "Student Nonviolent" and there would be a dove with an olive branch in its beak, and on the other door, we'd have "Coordinating Committee" and there would be a fist. We seriously talked about those things.
As Mary [King] mentioned, there was nothing under the sun we did not consider worthy of talking about. And if you came to consensus on something, then you would do it. Many of us bear the scars today of meetings when somebody, after four nights of discussion, would say, "We ought to go down and make a citizen's arrest of the chief of police." And we'd do it. Or try to, and be whipped and put in jail. But through it all, through all of the arguments, philosophical differences, we called ourselves a beloved community. A band of brothers and sisters, a circle of trust, and we trusted that what we ultimately would do would be for the best of us and best for the movement
A lot of people don't realize when we finally made SNCC a working organization. We were in the beginning really just coordinating by collecting information. We decided that in order to keep it going, some people would have to drop out of school and work full time. I remember [Charles] Sherrod, Charlie Jones, myself, and several others decided one of the first things we had to do was make ourselves knowledgeable about the system we were going to deal with.
We raised money. The first time we raised money was to educate ourselves. We had a seminar in Nashville in 1961. We called it, "Understanding the Nature of Social Change." We brought in labor leaders, historians, psychiatrists, psychologists, people from the entertainment world. We brought in everybody who would talk to us about different aspects of the system that we were about to attack. I think that's important to understand, that once we decided we were going to make our move, we felt we were making it with the widest possible knowledge and information.
And, as I said, we talked about all sorts of things as being possible and desirable programs. We talked about taking over the NAACP. We said the NAACP was already organized. They had youth chapters. They had money. Lets take them over. I remember we went to the NAACP convention that year. We were going to try and get the votes to rule the NAACP. We talked about taking over the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We said Sherrod can speak as well as the Lord [Dr. King]. We ought to do that. These were serious considerations.
Years afterward, I used to sit down and laugh — Wow, we were really bold. SNCC was bad. And if we said we were going to do something, we would do it. Just wild things. Because we really didn't know exactly what we were going to do, but we knew we were going to change the face of America.
Another thing people don't realize generally: we said we were going to do this in five years. Back then Chairman Mao had his five-year plan for growth for China. We talked in terms of five years, for a couple of reasons. One, we felt that you only had five years to do it and we should then disband the organization. We talked about that. We said because if we go more than five years or if we go without an understanding or feeling that the organization would be disbanded, we will run the risk of becoming institutionalized and spending more time trying to perpetuate the institution than having the freedom to act and to do. So we talked about in five years, that's it
And we talked about what are we going to tell our parents about dropping out of school? You could placate them by saying that this is going to end at a specific time, five years. Then we're going back to school. And the other thing we said was that we would have to do it in five years because by the end of that time, you'd either be dead or crazy. That you could not bare your chest to that sword constantly without its taking its toll. We were very serious and gave great thought to that. We knew. We'd seen people burn out. It hadn't been five years and we were seeing already, in a very brief time, it was getting to you. It was getting to us all. So we set a time and then we set about to put together a plan on how we were going to act.
It's important to understand how we weren't always agreed on a nonviolent, direct [action] movement. The Highlander meeting in August of 1961 was a highlight of that, where there was a split and very heated discussion about whether or not we were going to continue direct action, that is, sit-ins and boycotting and the like, or also involve ourselves in voter registration. Ultimately, after four days up in those mountains where the beloved community nearly fell apart because everybody was arguing so passionately for what direction they felt SNCC should go in, we finally agreed that we would do both direct action and voter registration because we concluded that voter registration in Mississippi and Lowndes County, Alabama, was direct action.
I got into SNCC because I never quite adjusted. My father had the idea, as many black parents did, that you should have the black experience. You should go to a black school where you see black professionals. In Massillon, Ohio, there were maybe 3,000 black people. So when I was sent to South Carolina, to South Carolina State [College], I had never seen segregated anything. And I just could not adjust. By the time I went home for Christmas, I had been arrested three times.
The first time was in Sumter, South Carolina; a group of guys had been stopped by the police. I was driving, and the police pulled us over and I said, "What's the problem?" And the cop said, "Where are you from?" I said, "Ohio, why?" He said, "They never taught you to say 'yes sir,' 'no sir,' up there?" I said something like, "Man, you must be jiving me."
And that's when I tipped from observer to activist, because he broke my jaw. He hit me with his night stick and broke my jaw. I tried to fight back and was beaten bloody. One of the things that I kept thinking as I was being beaten was not so much about these two cops that were beating me but the four other fellows who were standing there watching me being beaten and not helping, and I was saying, " 'm gonna kick your ass, everyone of you." I could not understand why they would do that, why they wouldn't help.
I understood later, but that night, I was beaten, my jaw was broken, I was put in jail. And when they got me out, bailed me out, I was put on a train to go back to South Carolina State, still with bloody clothes on. This guy says, "Get on back to the colored car." I had never been on a train before. I'd been driven to the South by my parents. I had never been on any public accommodations, and I said, "I'm not going to ride back there with caskets and dogs and all that sort of stuff. I paid my ticket, I'm riding in the regular car." And I was back in jail.
And I was calling my parents, saying, "Get me out of here. These people are crazy. I'm not going to stay." We agreed that I'd have to stay for the end of the semester, which fortunately ended in February.
And before that time, a group of people came and said, "Would you join us in this movement we're going to start?" And I said, "It's your problem. You all going to put up with what these white folks do, that's your problem. I'm getting out"
And as many of you know, I was reading the Talmud, and there's a part that says, "If I'm not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself only, what am I? If not now, when?" I gave that a lot of thought and decided, I cannot only be for myself, I cannot only just fight for my own dignity. I'm having to deal with this now, because my father didn't deal with it back then. My children will have to deal with it later, so I might as well do it now. And that was when I made the commitment.
There were all these ridiculous charges that were made at the time about outsiders and communists too. The first time I ever heard the charge of outside agitators coming in to foment dissent, if I could have turned red, I would have. I said,
"Look, Governor Hollings, I will not stand here and have you insult my intelligence and insult our intelligence to suggest that we are so dumb that we have to wait for somebody to come 10,000 miles to tell us that you, the government, and every social institution in the state has their foot on our neck. It is an insult to our intelligence to say that the black people of this area do not know that they are being exploited and wronged. It is not an outside group that is agitating, although the agitation gets the wash clean. The thoughts are from people from here."
And the whole thing about northerners — we used to say that it's a mistake to think that when state troops or the local police start cracking heads, they'll say, "Show me your license and if your license says Connecticut or Illinois, we'll sit you over there and we won't beat you." Once you joined yourself to the struggle, it made no difference where you came from. We faced a common enemy and a common problem. It made no difference that you spoke with an accent that was from New York or Chicago; you faced a common battle.
We talked about it in the early days; it was necessary to have whites, because (1) we did not want to get into a movement that was going to polarize us and (2) we were concerned about the type of society we would create after this was all over.
And we used to take the position toward communists that if you do this, you can get over. Here's what you do, Sport. You know we believe in your moral commitment, we believe in your political analysis. Put your body where your thoughts and passions are. Bring your body down here with us and if you can, in Lowndes County or Augusta, sit out there and discuss the Communist Manifesto and get these people to organize around it, fine. But the important thing is that if you are prepared to bring your ideas, we're prepared to let you try them out. But you have to come down there with us. So I don't think in the early days there was any fear or concern about northerners coming down. We needed all the help we could ever get.
We decided at the Highlander meeting in 1961 that we would have a program. We called it Project MOM: Move On Mississippi. We were going to move on Mississippi, in direct action and political education and voter registration.
And with those thoughts we headed to McComb. I remember when we first went to Mississippi, Sherrod was in the car, myself, Charlie Jones, and we stopped at the border and there was a big sign that said, "The Knights of the Ku KIux KIan welcome you to Mississippi," and we grew silent and we all were very afraid. And we knew that we were about to walk into the heart of the beast. With the memory of Emmett Till's bloated body still fresh in our minds — everybody at the time knew where they were when they saw the pictures of Emmett Till's body. We knew what it was like in Greenwood and to further underscore what we were walking into, we stopped for gas and Sherrod foolishly went to the bathroom. As I recall, the owner escorted him out with a pistol. And we felt we are here... we are in Mississippi. We are in the heart of the beast.
When you made a move on Mississippi, one of the things you had to do was come to grips with your own mortality. It was a clear understanding that this ain't fun and games. This is not going to be big demonstrations with lots of television cameras with people around watching. When we went to McComb and when we went on those highways in the middle of the night and it was dark and you were frightened, you had to think that you would never live to see your home again. And once you dealt with that, it was a very freeing sort of situation.
I remember I dealt with it in McComb the day they beat Bob Zellner up. We had a demonstration. It was October of 1961. There we were down in Mississippi educating people to vote. Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes, high school students, Brenda Travis, were asking us, "Do we have the right to go to the train station?" We say sure. So they went. They were arrested. Kicked out of school.
The other kids said that they had to support them. Went on a march. We went along with them, and we were arrested. And I remember the police and the mob were beating Bob Zellner, because Moses and I tried to cover him. And later they took us down to a cell in the basement. And we didn't know what was happening. That was one of the first times I thought that Bob was dead. One of several times I thought that they had killed him. They would come and take you out of the cells, one by one. Take you upstairs. And we'd all say good-bye to each other.
And I remember being taken out of the cell in McComb, and taken upstairs and I was sitting on this bench, thinking, "What am I doing here? I don't want to die. Is this really going to make a difference? Maybe I did the wrong thing? I hope I can be courageous when they do this."
And as I was sitting there — there were about two hundred white men in the hall in McComb. I suddenly snapped out of my thoughts because there was somebody hitting me with a rope, slapping me across the face and saying, "You son of a bitch, you son of a bitch... you'll never marry my daughter, you'll never marry my daughter."
And I thought, "Oh, man. These people are really serious. This man is prepared to hit me with a rope, is prepared to kill me about somebody I have never known who probably isn't my type and they will kill me." And at that moment, I thought, these people have been so corrupted by their own beliefs that they are sick and I too; we all have an obligation to make them well. As well as ourselves. And after that point, I was really never afraid to face dying in the South again. Sort of freed me up. That was good because that very next day, they arrested most of our people. Most of the SNCC people.
We were all down there on this big Move On Mississippi project, and we decided we had to leave McComb but we had to leave a symbolic presence. We worked by consensus. The consensus was, "You're the chairman, it would be best if we leave the head of the organization there." I stayed. Everybody else left. And I remember going to the SNCC office the next morning, and there was a big sign that said, "SNCC Done Snuck." I took the sign down and sat in front of that little grocery store in Burgland where we had the office and said we were open for business, and we were registering voters.
It was always very important to us that we not give people the sense that we had deserted them. The night the kids were killed — Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney — the first thing we did was send field workers back to Mississippi. And I can remember driving with Dorie Ladner and George Greene back to Natchez and how that felt, how good it felt that we left something behind. For years I felt that we failed. But now I really believe that we overcame a lot of things.
Copyright © Chuck McDew. 1988