Remembrance of SNCC, Selma, and Alabama
Silas Norman
From Trinity College SNCC Reunion, April 1988

Originally published in A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC, by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg

There is a song called Ordinary People:

"God uses people, ordinary people,
like you and like me, to do His will,
no matter if you give Him your all,
no matter how small your all may be,
little becomes much when you place it in the Master's hand.
The story of SNCC and the story of Selma is a story of ordinary people. And if there is anything that we need to remember, it is that thousands of ordinary people made this movement.

There's been some talk here about connectedness, and I want to talk a little bit about connectedness. Connie Curry was at Paine College where I went to undergraduate school. She was a representative of the National Student Association during a conference which we used to have annually in the spring. It was an unusual thing for Georgia, but there were white students from all of the schools around Georgia as well as black students coming to the Methodist school that I attended for the spring conference.

And during that conference — it was the early days of the sit-ins — we decided on that Saturday afternoon that we would give them a new experience. We took young southern white students and young southern black students on a demonstration downtown. This was a new experience for them. Let us just say that their parents went crazy. By Saturday evening, Sunday morning, many of the parents of the young white students from around the state came to pick them up. We were criticized and applauded alternately about our involvement in that activity, but that was our way of saying we understand some of what is going on in the South, and we were taking steps, organizing in ways we thought we needed to organize to deal with the problem.

I'm the first of five living children of working parents in Augusta, Georgia. The connectedness doesn't just start there. Augusta, Georgia, has a rich legacy; some of the significant personages in black history lived and moved there. At Paine College during that time we knew about Mr. [James] Lawson in Nashville, some other personages like Harry Ashmore, a white activist and journalist in the South. We were influenced by the Atlanta Committee on Appeal for Human Rights very profoundly. I got to go to Atlanta as a leader and meet Benjamin Brown, who was a contemporary of Julian Bond, and to meet Ruby Doris [Robinson] and others. And later when I would go to graduate school in Atlanta, at Atlanta University, we would be in the same class. In fact, Tom Gaither from CORE and I were in the same biology program. We learned much more about each other's history at that time. So the history and the connectedness were very important. I was vice president of the state of Georgia youth and college chapters of the NAACP, a very, very supportive organization to us in those early days.

I left Atlanta University and went to the University of Wisconsin and became president of the Student Council on Civil Rights. I got connected with other activists at the University of Wisconsin. If you know anything about the University of Wisconsin, you know that there were student activists there of many persuasions. I remember being called into the dean of students' office, and he explained to me that being from Georgia, perhaps I didn't understand that I was associating with the wrong people. It was from that place that I was recruited by Mary Varela — now Maria Varela — to participate in the Selma literacy project. This was in the summer of 1964. I'm not sure how Mary found me, but through that connectedness, through her knowledge of people at the University of Wisconsin, I was recruited to the Selma literacy project.

I had considered going to the Mississippi Freedom Summer. Ivanhoe Donaldson and the Freedom Singers had come to the University of Wisconsin; the Freedom Singers were late and Ivanhoe Donaldson talked for about two hours, and I knew at that moment that I had to go back home and I had to follow Ivanhoe. And so I was going to the Mississippi Freedom Summer, but then Mary Varela recruited me for the Selma literacy project.

I, along with James Wiley from Gary, Indiana, Carol Lawson from New York, and Karen House from Washington, D.C., made up that project. Bernard Lafayette has told you about what was happening in Selma up unti1 1963. At the time we arrived in Selma, Selma was under what they called the injunction. There was an injunction against mass meetings, against voter registration action — against anything — so at the time we arrived in Selma we were supposed to be undercover, because there were not supposed to be any gatherings.

We lived and worked in the Good Samaritan Mission, a Catholic mission there where the priests and the nuns lived; that's where our offices were. Mary lived in the white community and we lived in the black community, because we didn't want anybody to know what we were doing. And our meetings at the black churches, in the homes of the people of Selma, were supposed to be secret. We were told very specifically that in order to do our jobs, we couldn't be in jail. And Mary made it very clear that we would stay clear of the SNCC people, because if we got involved with the SNCC staff we'd be in jail and we couldn't do the literacy project and it was important for us to do the literacy project.

We must have lasted about two, two-and-a-half weeks, because on July the 2nd, 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed and we heard on that day that some of the old SNCC staff was down at the office, which happened to be across the street from the jail, cleaning it up and getting ready to move into action again.

We decided during lunch that in spite of Mary's warnings that we would go down to the SNCC office and we'd help them clean up. However, on the way to the SNCC office we decided since the Public Accommodations Act had been passed — part of the Civil Rights Act — that we would stop at a place called the Thirsty Boy, a white drive-in restaurant. At first we decided we'd drive in and we said, "No, we don't want to drive in, we'll park across the street." So we parked across the street and we went into the Thirsty Boy. We went up to the counter; they wouldn't serve us. So we decided, well, we'll sit down.

That's when I met Jim Clark — the sheriff of Dallas County, Jim Clark. I will never forget, I was facing the door; he entered without a word, accompanied by a number of other white men in various kinds of uniforms. It seemed like a nurnber of cars pulled up out there. He didn't say a word. He walked over to me, and that was my first experience with cattle prods, and let me tell you, it worked. I was trying to decide which car to get in, not whether we were going to jail. That afternoon, after people heard about our arrest, the demonstrations started again in earnest.

Now you need to know that the staff in Alabama, before the influx of other SNCC staff from Mississippi and Georgia, was made up primarily of people from Alabama, primarily of people from Selma. I won't forget some of the names; high school students from Hudson High School who had been in the vanguard of that movement. People like Terry Shaw, Cleo Hobbs, the Roberts brothers — Willie C. and Charle — Betty Fikes, Eugene Pritchett, Avery Williams, Sammy Williams, James Austin: any number of persons were responsible for organizing that movement. And it was the indigenous staff that was in the office on the day that we got arrested. They decided after we were arrested that they would then go to the [segregated] movies in downtown Selma. For the next eleven days, as we sat in the Dallas County jail, hundreds of people filled the jails. About eleven days later we were released on bond, which had been sent down from the North and through the many other channels that SNCC usually used. That was the reopening of the movement to some extent — it was the summer of 1964.

At that time I was not a SNCC staff member, I was on the Selma Literacy Project. I was supposed to be underground, but our cover had been blown. So Mary Varela introduced me to Jim Forman, and he allowed me to join the SNCC staff in Selma. The first project director who returned after then, the return of action, was John Love. And at that time, in the fall of 1964, our actions consisted of getting ready to move in mass action again. What we would do, since we were still sort of undercover: the SNCC workers would go out to homes of members in the wards, in the various parts of the city, who would allow us to come. They would invite in their neighbors, and we would go into the homes and talk about voter registration. We started to get ourselves ready to move into action again. We felt that it was very important that we were knowledgeable and prepared because we were going to move to break an injunction and we were going to once again incur the wrath of Jim Clark and his cronies.

We continued to involve ourselves in that way. Also, you must understand that one of the active organizations in the community was the Dallas County Voters League. That is the organization to which Mrs. Amelia Boynton, who has been mentioned earlier, was a part. Her husband had been a part before he died in 1963; later councilmen like Reverend Reese, Mrs. Foster, other very active community persons were in the Dallas County Voters League. The Dallas County Voters League decided sometime in the fall of 1964 that they wanted to invite in Dr. King to spark the movement. And so in January of 1965, in the midst of our preparation to move again, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was invited to Selma. Needless to say, there were a lot of discussions and philosophical and procedural differences with the organization, but that was mediated by the fact that by then Diane Nash Bevel, who had originally been in SNCC, then worked for SCLC; James Bevel, who worked for SCLC, had previously been a SNCC organizer; Bernard Lafayette who had previously been in SNCC, by then was in SCLC, and those individuals helped us to bridge the gap.

So immediately we got together and we decided that we would work together in Selma, in terms of organizing in the wards. We assigned an SCLC person and a SNCC person to each ward. For the ward meetings, we would go to the meetings together and we would essentially try to check each other and try to make sure that we were all working in the same direction.

People have been talking about grass-roots organizing. We felt that that meant we had to be in the communities, living with people the way they were. We had to be with them. Large demonstrations were not necessarily productive; the hard work of organizing was sitting in those small groups and preparing to move in effective ways.

So for example, there was some disagreement over the march to Montgomery in March of 1965. In fact, SNCC voted not to participate in the march from Selma to Montgomery, but as always, there were individuals in SNCC who participated in that march because we had freedom of conscience, and people were free to participate in any way they wished. So there were members from SNCC who participated in the first march on Montgomery. You will remember the pictures, you will remember seeing Hosea Williams from SCLC, you will remember seeing a picture of John Lewis with a knapsack on his back going down under the batons of the state troopers.

At that time, after that incident, I decided that I could no longer sit back and philosophically be opposed to participating in the march. On the second march on Montgomery, I emptied my pockets and I prepared to offer my body as a living sacrifice. We started the march across the bridge for the second time and as we got to the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers lined up on every side. I noticed they were not moving toward us, and I will remember that Dr. King — he was a row or two behind me — said, "Let us pray." We prayed. And then the march proceeded to turn around.

Well, Jim Forman was close to me, we were all sort of baffled. Jim was saying, "What's going on, let's go ahead," and as we turned around and headed back across the bridge, there were hundreds of people behind us asking, "What's going on, what's happening?" We had no idea. We were to discover later that there had been some agreements with Robert Kennedy, with the government, that that march was not to proceed. Personally, I did not participate in that march again. I felt that we had been betrayed, and I no longer wanted to participate in that I felt that I could best spend my energies working with people in the movement in small groups in Selma.

Now, about that time, SNCC staff had started to arrive to support us from the Mississippi staff, from the Georgia staff. When I first arrived in Selma, one broken-down Jeep was the vehicle. By that time we had one car. SNCC members will remember that we used Plymouths with radios in them, large antennas. Hollis Watkins had painted these hands on the side of his car. One day I looked up and Cynthia Washington and a number of other people had come over from Mississippi and Georgia to support us. The sight of these eight to ten Plymouths coming in front of Brown Chapel was quite a sight to see. At that point we were deciding what we were going to do in Alabama. We decided that it was not productive for us to fight with SCLC. So members of the staff then decided to move out; we decided to move to places where we decided they would not come.

Accordingly, there were members of the staff here who moved out to Wilcox County; Cynthia Washington went to head the project in Greene County; Annie Pearl Avery went to head a project in another town — I can't remember — in Hale County; and then finally there were staff members who went to Lowndes County: Courtland Cox, Stokely Carmichael, Bob Mants, Judy Richardson, Ruth Howard, Jennifer Lawson. There are many other names, but that's the way we got to Lowndes County. The decision was that Lowndes County was so bad that nobody would come in there showcasing, that it was only going to be serious work there, and so we would not be bothered and would not be in conflict. So we decided to decentralize the movement.

In Selma, as elsewhere, staff members had an opportunity to devise any projects they wished. The basic project, of course, was voter registration, but later as we began to move in Selma, some folks had started a unionizing project, and so we decided to unionize the Coca-Cola Company in Selma. And so in the midst of all of this there was union organizing going on at the Coca-Cola plant, there was the voter registration and some of the other things.

Copyright © Silas Norman. 1988

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