Originally published in
Arsnick: The Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee in Arkansas,
University of Arkansas Press.
Michael Simmons was a SNCC activist in Arkansas, Virginia, and
Georgia from 1965-1967.]
The historic oppression of black people was the central domestic issue facing the United States during my youth. The resulting civil rights movement began to capture the attention of all of Americans and many people around the world. As a young man I became a part of this movement, which shaped the rest of my life.
Growing up in Philadelphia with parents from South Carolina and Georgia, I was always aware that blacks in the South experienced a more virulent form of racism than their northern brothers and sisters. On family trips to visit relatives in the south, I experienced this reality first hand. This included everything from not being able to stop and eat while traveling to riding in the back of the bus. In addition to the legal code, there was an unspoken rule of deferential behavior towards whites that African Americans were expected to exhibit.
During my childhood in the fifties my two adult brothers, Nate and John — 15 and 17 years older than me — joined the Nation of Islam when Malcolm X was living in Philadelphia. He often visited my home. During my grade school years I can recall many intense discussions among my family and my parents' friends about Islam and Christianity and the plight of African Americans. Although I did not understand much of what was being discussed it nevertheless held my interest. The killing of Chicago teenager Emmett Till while he was visiting his family in Mississippi in 1955 was the first time that I began understand the significance of what was being discussed. Since I was familiar with southern summer vacations, I realized that this could have been me. Two years later I was shocked and angered by the violent reaction to the attempt to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Similarly, the extensive coverage of Malcolm X, the Student Nonviolent Committee (SNCC)-led struggle in Albany, Georgia, and the violence associated with James Meredith's attempt to integrate the University of Mississippi captured my attention during my high school years. It was during this period that I decided that I was going to become a full time civil rights activist.
As a 16 year old high school sophomore, I met Bill Crawford, an African American communist who owned a bookstore in Philadelphia. Bill had been in the movement since the 1940's. He had started his store by stocking it with books that many of his communist comrades had discarded during the anti-communist repression of Joe McCarthy. In the early sixties, finding books on black history was difficult to impossible and Bill's store was a gold mine. In addition, we had many conversations about Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Dubois, Ben Davis, and the communist party's history of working for black liberation. Bill's store had copies of Herbert Apetheker's History of Negro Slave Revolts and the first volume of the Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States. He gave me a copy of the book The Negro National Question by Harry Haywood which put forward a concept of a black nation that corresponded with the political teachings of Malcolm X. Subsequently, I got to know Max Stanford, founder of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM). Max was working on a national committee to support the struggle of Monroe North Carolina NAACP President Robert Williams, who had advocated armed self defense for the African American community. Discussions with Max about the Marcus Garvey movement and the writings of the black historian J.A Rodgers introduced me to the ideas of two of the 20th century's architects of Black Nationalism.
Building on Robert Williams's militant stance, the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP had elected new leadership in 1963. Challenging the historic middle class orientation of the NAACP, the new president, Cecil B. Moore, sought to transform the NAACP into a working class activist organization. The first public activity of this new leadership provided me with the opportunity to participate in my first demonstration at a school construction site near my home. The issue was employment discrimination in the building trades. The day before I joined the demonstration, there had been a violent confrontation with the police and Max was among the people beaten and arrested. For the first time I saw that violence toward civil rights activism was not limited to the south.
By the time of my high school graduation I was filled with many contradictory thoughts about the civil rights movement. On the one hand, the public narrative was in support of integration and the nonviolent philosophy of Martin Luther King. Yet my conversations on issues of Black Nationalism and armed self defense prevented me from adopting this narrative uncritically. This dilemma was heightened by the brutal behavior of the white community and the police in Birmingham, Alabama, and the assassination of Mississippi NAACP leader, Medger Evers. Closely following these debates, I began to feel that SNCC was the one organization that presented an organized structure that incorporated essential aspects of both trends.
SNCC first came to my attention during the civil rights movement in Albany, Georgia. A friend from Philadelphia, John Churchville, had been involved with the movement and shared with me the excitement of being on the frontlines. Later, I took note that SNCC leader John Lewis was forced to change his March on Washington speech because the leaders of March considered it "too militant". In 1964, my friend Dwight Williams, who later joined SNCC with me, and I went to Atlantic City to support the challenge of the SNCC-organized Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to the "official" Mississippi delegation. I witnessed the duplicity of the Democratic Party leadership as they forced the MFDP delegation to accept a compromise that only allowed the MFDP to take two seats. Significantly, I took note that the "leaders" of the civil rights movement justified this compromise as a "practical" solution.
The attack on black people in Selma, Alabama, known as Bloody Sunday, 7 March 1965, led Dwight and me, along with other Temple University students and professors, to organize a march of over 3000 people in Philadelphia in solidarity with the Selma Movement. The march went from Temple University to the City Hall of Philadelphia. This was the first time that I played a central role in an act of protest and it led to the formation of a student group that developed programs for the black community surrounding Temple University. This made me feel that I had "officially" joined the civil rights movement and I was determined to extend this involvement by joining SNCC during the summer.
During spring break in 1965, Dwight and I drove to Atlanta to visit the national SNCC office. We were warmly greeted and were housed by John Lewis. During the visit we met Jimmy Travis, a Mississippi SNCC veteran who had been shot in the head in 1963 during an assassination attempt on SNCC leader Bob Moses. During our brief stay Jimmy regaled us with stories of the movement. Upon finding out that we had planned to go to Mississippi, Jimmy encouraged us to bypass Mississippi and go to Arkansas SNCC. He felt that the 64 Atlantic City defeat had created a malaise in the Mississippi movement. He also said that there had been internal struggles over leadership with many white volunteers challenging the leadership structure of SNCC and demanding more say in the organization. Counterposing Mississippi with Arkansas, he said that Arkansas had an organized leadership structure with a more focused and disciplined project. Being enamored with Jimmy, we followed his advice.
Upon our return to Philadelphia we began the process of applying to join SNCC. This included filling out an application through the Philadelphia Friends of SNCC. One aspect of the process was to be interviewed by a white Temple University sociologist. I was very resentful of the fact that this white woman had the power to reject my application to join a black organization. During the interview I realized that she was trying to determine if I were an "angry black man". From my point of view, then and now, the only black person who should have been rejected from a movement to fight the oppression of black people was one who was not angry.
We left Philadelphia on 13 June for a 33 hour bus ride to Little Rock, Arkansas. Upon arrival we met other volunteers — black and white — from various states, including Oregon, California, Texas, Mass. and Mississippi. We remained in Little Rock for a week for an orientation that focused as much on personal safety as it did program. During the orientation week I got into an intense argument with a white woman volunteer. I had made the statement that I did not want to ride in a car alone with a white woman. I went on to say that if I did, I would not sit beside her. The volunteer chose to see the statement as a personal attack on her in particular and all white people in general rather than my concern for my — and her — personal security. It was one of the times that I experienced whites viewing a black point of view in terms of its impact on white people. This also occurred during the summer when, during a mass meeting, a volunteer objected to a person saying "white people" instead of "some white people".
After orientation, the volunteers were dispatched to various projects, with me going to West Helena and Dwight going to Pine Bluff. The Arkansas state project was co-directed by Arkansan Jim Jones and Bill Hansen, a white SNCC veteran from Ohio. The Helena project was directed by Howard Himmelbaum, a white New Yorker who had joined SNCC earlier in the spring. The project was made up of about 10 volunteers with equal racial diversity. The men lived in a "freedom" house while the women lived with families. The Helena project was mostly male.
The Helena project included the communities of Marvel and Elaine. Before coming to Arkansas, I had never heard about the pogrom in the African American community known as the Elaine Riots of 1919. It was amazing to me that an incident that had occurred nearly 50 years before still resonated in the community as a warning not to disturb the social order.
The work in these communities was focused on the elections of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Services (ASCS). This body had the power to set prices for crops grown in the respective counties and black farmers were often cheated by the ASCS board members. The main SNCC project activities were voter registration and voter education. The work included going door to door in the rural areas outside West Helena to try to get people to register to vote. This was a difficult process. Registering to vote had always been viewed as an act of defiance by whites and there was a history of violent white attacks on potential and actual black voters. Moreover, bogus administrative "rules" — such as demanding that black voters memorize the state constitution — were used to prevent black enfranchisement. Prior to the summer, SNCC had organized a community organization in West Helena and voter education was one of the continual activities during every mass meeting.
One of the most dynamic activities during the summer was the freedom school. It had over 100 children and young adults as regular attendees. The school had regular academic subjects along with African and African American history. As a northerner, it was shocking to me that after all of the armed federal efforts to integrate schools eight years earlier in Little Rock, children still were forced to attend segregated schools.
During the summer we had very little contact with non-SNCC white people and confined our activities to the West Helena black community. The segregated housing patterns meant that we seldom saw white people and security concerns prevented attempts to interact with whites. On one occasion we took a group of young people to the public swimming pool. The security guard at the gate stopped our group and called an official at the site to talk with us. We informed him of the law and that we were exercising our rights under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. During the exchange we noticed that people were leaving the building. When we finally got inside we realized that they had drained the pool and a few minutes later they told us that they were closed for repairs.
My one foray into Helena proved to be the most eventful experience of my time in Arkansas stretching from the summer into the fall. One Saturday, while driving a car usually driven by Bill Hansen, I went into Helena to get a part for a minor mechanical problem on the car. While the man behind the counter was helping me he happened to look outside at the car and said, "Ain't that Hansen's car?" As he spoke he began to reach under the counter. Almost immediately, other male customers began to converge around me. Sensing danger I bolted toward the door and jumped into the car. The counter man came to the door with a gun pointed at me. In a total panic, I leaned over practically lying on the passenger seat while starting the car and drove back to West Helena. After talking with my SNCC colleagues I went to make a report to the sheriff. The man who had pulled the gun had already reported the incident to the sheriff but claimed that I had created a ruckus in his store. I was arrested and charged with disturbing the peace and some other charges that I have since forgotten. I immediately made bail. At my trial I was convicted. I was given a 30 day suspended sentence and told to leave the county. Before I left the courthouse the man who had pulled the gun threatened to kill me.
Like most SNCC workers I had a very cynical view of the FBI. However my criticism was not that they collaborated against the movement but they did not do all that they could do to address injustice. With that in mind I contacted the Arkansas FBI office to make a report on the incident at the store and at the trial. I arranged to meet with an Agent Smart in Little Rock. During a meeting that lasted over two hours I found him to be respectful and sympathetic to my situation. He told me he would file the report but warned me that I should not get my hopes up and that he doubted if anything would be done. Nevertheless, he felt it was important to have a record of these incidents.
Later that summer another SNCC worker, Blanton Hall, and I were assigned to open up a SNCC office in Marianna, Arkansas, in neighboring Lee County. We did not have any contacts in Marianna when we arrived so one of our first meetings was with the local African American funeral director who was a "gate keeper" and crisis manger in the community. He helped me secure housing with an older woman. It was a shotgun house with no indoor plumbing. Although she was not overtly political we had many conversations about the history of the area. Marianna was segregated but blacks and whites interacted in the center of the city.
A few days later the funeral director informed us that the sheriff wanted to meet with us. We arranged to meet him at the funeral parlor. The sheriff proceeded to tell us how peaceful "his" town was and that there was no need for people like us. He went on to say that if some trouble started it would tax his human resources and he would have to deputize men, "off the soda trucks" who were not trained law enforcement officers. Therefore he could not be responsible for what they might do. This veiled threat was very clear to me
My month-long work in Marianna, in retrospect, was thoroughly compromised by my inexperience. While I developed good contacts I was never able to actually develop an organization or a viable program. Since the summer was coming to an end and most volunteers were leaving I was reassigned to West Helena.
At the end of the summer the community had a big party for all the volunteers. During the event I made the observation that the community was giving a special deference to the white volunteers. My reaction was not one of jealousy but anger over a sense of extreme gratefulness and subservience showed to the "good white folks" who "came to help us." None of the white volunteers seemed to think that there was anything wrong with the accolades that they were receiving and could not understand my anger. However, I viewed it as a continuation of the subservient behavior that I had seen displayed by my Southern relatives during my youth. The fact that it was being done voluntarily did not lessen the lack of dignity and self worth that it displayed.
When I had left Philadelphia in June, I had told friends and family that I would be going back to school in the fall but I knew that I had no intention of leaving SNCC. While I was home for a brief post-summer stay in Philadelphia in September, a full scale confrontation had developed in Forrest City, Arkansas over school desegregation. Students were boycotting classes and picketing the school board. Over 200 young people had been arrested and the SNCC worker Millard "Tex" Lowe was charged with some draconian law that would have kept him in jail into the next decade if he was convicted. Dwight and I rushed back to Arkansas to support the work.
Prior to the protest Cleve Sellers, Program Secretary for SNCC, and Julian Bond, Communication Secretary for SNCC, had visited Arkansas. The local authorities automatically assumed that they were responsible for the Forrest City protest and were looking for them. One night a group of SNCC workers were meeting in the SNCC office in Forrest City. One of the workers was a white woman. Late that night we heard an unmistakable knock on the door announcing the police, and we were told to open up and stand against the wall. Knowing the danger to black men being caught with a white woman, we immediately put the woman in a closet in the office before about 10 or more police entered. They did not have their guns drawn but they all had 5-cell flashlights and clubs in their hands. As we were lined up against the wall listening to threats on our life, I spotted my "friend" FBI Agent Smart. Excited, I said, "Agent Smart, I..." and he cut me off saying, "Shut up, you black sonofabitch!" I was shocked and stunned. My entire experience with Agent Smart was a lesson I have never forgotten.
During that summer I attended a SNCC Executive Committee Meeting in Atlanta with Hansen. I had also gone to a SNCC conference in Mississippi and a seminar at the Highlander Folk School in Knoxville, Tenn. All of these experiences made me feel that, though well organized and effective, Arkansas SNCC had minimum impact on the direction of the organization as a whole.
During his stay in Arkansas Cleve Sellers asked me if I wanted to become a campus traveler. The campus traveler program of SNCC was developed to organize SNCC chapters on southern college campuses and they needed an organizer in the states of Virginia and North Carolina. Although I felt guilty about leaving Arkansas I could not reject the offer. So by late October my nearly five month effort in Arkansas had come to an end.
My experience in Arkansas SNCC had a lasting impact on my future work in SNCC and the Movement in general. The most significant aspect of my post-Arkansas experience in SNCC was my participation in SNCC's Atlanta Project. Founded in February 1966 to support the electoral efforts of Julian Bond, the Project is known for its promulgation of the black power philosophy associated with Kwame Toure.
During this period I discovered The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon, which focused on how defensive violence played an essential role in the psychological liberation of the Algerian people. Going beyond the issue of violence, Fanon elaborated on the empowering impact that taking control of their lives had on the Algerian community. Reading Fanon helped me contextualize my experiences. I began to reflect on my recent past. Things like talking to a white sociologist as a prerequisite for joining SNCC, the views of many white 1964 volunteers about taking a leadership role in SNCC, and my experiences in Arkansas under a white project director, began to crystallize into a view that black control of the civil rights movement was an act of empowerment and capacitation. I began to realize that the process of liberation was as important as liberation itself. Indeed, if the black community felt that it owed its liberation to white people the fundamental problem of subservience to whites would not be addressed. It would only perpetuate a racist paternalism that was as destructive as the overt racism that we were fighting against.
Black Power changed the direction of SNCC and the entire civil rights movement. However, what became known as the black power movement has always been an aspect of the struggle of black people for justice and equality. Nevertheless, the dominant historical narrative about black power focuses on its impact on white people. Instead of viewing black power as an expression of self determination of the black community, black power is viewed as an act of defiance and disrespect by ungrateful, irrational blacks toward the largess of "good white folks". The failure to organize the white community seldom features in this narrative. The discourse on black power suggests that it restricted participation in the civil rights movement and it is not addressed as an attempt to expand the movement to the white community. Whites who took the view that if they could not work in the black community they would leave the movement are never critiqued for this myopic political position. Rather they are projected as victims of an extreme group of black nationalists who "infiltrated" the civil rights movement.
In trying to clarify the Atlanta Project's view of black power, we wrote The Atlanta Project's Black Consciousness Paper. The Paper was an attempt to clarify some of the issues raised by Black Power. We explained that, rather than being an attempt to "throw white people out of the movement"' black power was an effort to address the fundamental power imbalances between blacks and whites. In part, my understanding of this imbalance and support for Black Power was an outgrowth of my experiences in Arkansas SNCC.
My experiences in SNCC had a profound impact on my life. Going beyond civil rights, I became a human rights activist. This led me to refuse to be inducted into the US military resulting in a two-and-half year jail sentence. Since my SNCC experience, I have spent my life fighting against the oppression of people. These struggles have taken me to four continents. However, the lessons of building democratic grassroots organizations and providing the space for oppressed people to speak for themselves — lessons learned in SNCCcontinue to be the foci of all my efforts.
18 October, 2009
Copyright © Michael Simmons. 2009