Oral History/Interview Jane Stembridge

Interviewed by Emily Stoper 1966 or 1967

Originally published in The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, by Emily Stoper.
1968 Harvard University dissertation, 1989 by Carlson Publishing.

SNCC: Structure
Whites in SNCC
Blacks in SNCC
SNCC: Leadership    
SNCC: Early Days
Voter Registration & Direct Action
SNCC & Grassroots Organizing
Politics and Elections
An Organization of Organizers
Mississippi Summer Project

SNCC: Goals

Emily: What were SNCC's goals when you were a member?

Jane: I think the goals were for a long time changing, and actually, not too long before I left SNCC officially — I stayed on in Mississippi to work — but when I left SNCC in '64 the goals were just beginning to be formulated. Still, stated, I think, in fairly vague terms: organizing grass roots, people organizing Negroes in America, registering to vote, economic freedom, slogans, without a specific program on the whole. However, in local communities, in individual communities where SNCC workers had gone, programs had developed. People really knew what they were doing. Local people had taken over the leadership, and this was true in many areas all over Mississippi, and some in Georgia and Alabama. It seems to me SNCC as an organization, though, still did not have specific goals and still talked in fairly vague and general terms.

Emily: Did goals get clearer and clearer over time starting from the beginning and it sort of continued?

Jane: On the part of the field staff and the people who really were digging in and staying in local communities, goals became clearer and clearer, more and more specific, less and less broad. One of the problems with SNCC having goals as an organization was a conflict between people who did work in the field and who were in touch with specific every-day problems on a local level and people who of necessity had to run the office and do the administration of the office in Atlanta and elsewhere.

Emily: They saw the purpose of the organization in very different terms?

Jane: I think so, and I think this is why it took so long and perhaps SNCC is now just beginning to state goals, SNCC as an organization, to really state goals.

Emily: Could you expound more on this business of the field and the office and the different views of the organization?

Jane: The office staff exists primarily to keep the staff in the field there. They had to raise funds, publicity to protect us, especially cases like the Mississippi Freedom Summer [1964] when so many hundreds of students came down there.

Emily: But they saw SNCC's purposes as different than the field staff saw SNCC's purposes?

Jane: I think so. I think when you're in the office, when you're doing this kind of work all day, you tend to want to maintain the organization as such.

You're oriented toward the survival of SNCC as an organization, almost as an end in itself. Not really, but you can very easily get trapped in this and I think a number of people did, who — sometimes through no fault of their own — were confined to the Atlanta area, say, or the New York area.

The field staff seemed much more in touch with what was essential, what we really wanted to do, which was to help local Southern Negroes develop leadership, state their problems, begin to try and do something about their problems, jobs, political involvement and so forth. The field staff saw itself as playing a very crucial — but temporary role — in this whole thing. Go into a community. As soon as local leadership begins to emerge, get out of the community so that that leadership will take hold and people will not continue to turn to you for guidance. You work yourself out of a job rather than trying to maintain yourself in a position or your organization. It doesn't matter if you go in and call yourself a SNCC worker or a CORE worker or just a person who's there. That wasn't the important thing. This is really the opposite of what you get from Atlanta. Not just there, from any of the offices where people really aren't in touch with local problems very much. You get a desire to maintain the organization, wear the uniform, wear the buttons.

Emily: Did this translate itself into different views or areas of controversy inside SNCC?

Jane: A great deal of controversy over this issue and it took a long time for us to understand what was happening. We got all tied up in personality conflicts within the organization, when I think really what was happening was simply two sets of people doing two very different jobs, both jobs being important and failing to say, "Look, we're doing two different jobs. Both jobs are important and therefore we're going to have this conflict if we don't constantly talk about the fact that we're doing these two different jobs." Failure to recognize that, getting into personality battles and so on.

SNCC: Structure

Emily: Did this take the form of a conflict over the structure of the organization?

Jane: Yes.

Emily: Could you talk about that?

Jane: Well, it happened gradually. It came to a head in '64. The field staff — and again I generally say field staff because there were people working who differ from this point of view — but over all, the field staff felt that there should be a very loose structure, that there was a bottleneck in the organization, that money, cars, whatever the field staff needed, was getting tied up in the organization. That in order to really do the job so that they could work in the field and be what we said we wanted to be, which was a group of organizers, again, working ourselves out of a job. Not an organization that needed to perpetuate itself.

So people who had been holding the job of chairman and this and that and the other ought to move out, ought to let somebody else be trained for this kind of leadership. Why did they need to stay in these jobs? This seems to be the opposite of what we're really saying to people. So various proposals were made for alternate structures, a revolving structure, a revolving directorate which would travel to the field, have much more contact with the field so that this gap between the office and the field would narrow. Training young local Negroes for these jobs within the organization.

The proposals were made. There was never an open confrontation of the issues. There was enough fear in enough people to prevent this from happening. People who had jobs wanted to hold onto those jobs for one reason or another, and people who had jobs were convinced — or so they said — this was the best structure. They weren't always personally afraid to give up the job, but they were convinced that this was the only way to structure the organization, honestly. But the insecurity and the personal needs got in the way so that we never really faced the issues, and finally there had to be a coup and we would just take over and structure it the way — 

Emily: What was this coup?

Jane: People who came up through the field and whose whole orientation was that of the organizer finally declared themselves directors in leadership of SNCC and that in the future they would make the policy.

Emily: Who do you have in mind? What people?

Jane: Well, I was in Mississippi when the change in structure came and I'm not sure who said what at all. I'd prefer to say simply that those people who had come up through hard work in the field and who really knew what the local people wanted got tired of ...

There's another point to be made on the change in leadership. It's not simply desire for a looser structure, different goals in terms of being more closely tied to what local people wanted. It was also a rise of militancy among the field people. They felt that SNCC was not being hard-nosed enough, was not really saying what it was after, which was helping the Negro in America to become free politically and economically and have some power. It was power that was going to bring this freedom. It was not prayer, they felt, and it was not continuing the way we had been continuing. It was not going slow, certainly. It was power.

This is the line you get from SNCC now and when these people — and I say these people because I really don't know who all figured in the change in leadership — when they did take over then SNCC began, I think for the first time, to have unifying goals and to state them in that way: give the black man power; enable the black man to get power, or take power.

Whites in SNCC

Along with this, of course, was disillusionment of the white kids who were working with SNCC. They had felt for quite a while confused about their role in the movement and in SNCC specifically. They began to get hurt, angry and either to leave or to be asked to leave so that SNCC now has very few if any — I really can't say — white people on the staff.

Emily: That sort of brings up my next question, which is: There was conflict between the loose structure people and the tighter structure people. There tended to be a division between the field and the office. Were there other divisions that were characteristic, like whites on one side and blacks on the other? People from Mississippi versus people from Southwest Georgia?

Jane: No, it didn't break down according to states in any significant way. Mississippi people were probably more vocal on the issue of loose structure. That's only because more Mississippi people were there. We had done more work in Mississippi. I think the Southwest Georgia people and the Alabama people would have taken the same line. Mississippi seemed to make itself heard more. Most of the white people who were with SNCC at that time and who had been for quite a while were advocates of loose structure. It's not true that most ...

Emily: Does that imply that they were all the time more militant — which went along with loose structure?

Jane: They said so. I think what's really true is that they were perhaps angry for all kinds of reasons, angry people. Beautiful people but very angry and I'm not sure angry about race. I've seen white Northern upper middle class kids at a rally in which someone is advocating black power and saying "Down with the white man, I've seen these white kids clapping. They can't mean it. They're white. They do mean it in the sense that they hate themselves. They wish they weren't white. They're trying to be black. There's been a lot of that.

I think the white kids were definitely militant and very, very dissatisfied with the whole progress of the society. From the war in Vietnam to the conditions of the Negroes in this country. I don't think they were any more militant on race than the people in the Atlanta office. That's what I'm saying. I think that would be very unreal. But more revolutionary because they're interested in more issues. They're not just interested in race. More angry about more things, but less angry about race because they're not Negroes. They can't be as angry. They haven't been treated — I'm sure I'm as angry as Jim Forman. I'm not now. I'm sure that when I was in Mississippi I was as angry as Forman. Not about race.

Emily: Did the white students come from radical backgrounds whereas the Negroes didn't?

Jane: Not a lot of the white students came from radical backgrounds. Most of the white students came from middle class backgrounds. Most of the Negro students did not.

Blacks in SNCC

Emily: How about the Negro college students?

Jane: No. Most of the Negro college students, at least from the South, were first-generation college students. Their parents were still farming, sharecropping and barely able to keep those kids in college. This was true of Southern Negro kids, at least.

Emily: I was going to ask: were SNCC Negroes predominantly Southern? SNCC staff, not local Negroes.

Jane: SNCC staff, right, but the thought that went into the organization, the decisions that were made, were made I would say mostly by Northern Negroes.

Emily: Did that create a problem?

Jane: I think so. I think there was a different kind of anger. I think there's much more anger in the Northern Negro. I'm by no means saying that Southern Negroes are happy. But I've gotten the feeling at times that Northern Negroes had to convince Southern Negroes that they were in fact angry, which is a very kind of way-out statement to make. But I've gotten that feeling very strongly at times. And that the role of the SNCC organizer was to convince Negroes that they were angry, first.

Emily: Was there some resentment by Southern Negroes in SNCC of Northern Negroes taking over?

Jane: There was resentment from uneducated and less educated people about more educated people taking over, more competent people. They always do that. That's the same old thing. What's new about this organization: "Let him do it. He can do it." They didn't say "North-South." It was a question of education, skills, how articulate a person was.

Emily: Did the less educated ones tend to be loose structurally?

Jane: I'm not sure that there was any correlation. There were a number of young Southern Negroes on the SNCC staff, say high school or a little college background, who tended to be in favor of tight structure, who wanted positions, titles, identity, never having had any. Who saw the organization as something that should last in and of itself. It was the first thing with which they identified, the first thing that gave them the feeling of importance. I don't think that all of the Southern Negro kids wanted a tight structure. Many of them had a much better idea of what was more important, what we really wanted to do.

SNCC: Leadership

Emily: What did SNCC people look for in their leaders?

Jane: I think the first thing was "What's this guy been through? Has he really been there? Does he really know what he's talking about?" His jail record; where he's worked; what he's been through; what gives him a right to speak, much more than where he went to school, what he studied, where he comes from.

Emily: How about his intelligence?

Jane: I don't think that was particularly relevant.

Emily: That kind of builds in militancy.

Jane: It was a hero cult kind of thing. Now, when you say "the SNCC staff looked for what kind of leader?" there were a lot of people in SNCC who wanted this kind of leader. There were other people who did look for a sensitive, intelligent teacher. The tremendous influence that Bob Parris [Bob Moses] had, who is very, very intelligent and very sensitive. He was a teacher to most people in SNCC.

Emily: What sorts of SNCC people looked for the more sensitive and intelligent type?

Jane: Most of the white kids looked for that kind of leader. Southerners. I would say all the white Southerners. I would say all the white Southern kids looked for that kind of leader and maybe it's simply because we white Southern kids couldn't take the militancy. We wanted somebody gentle. But I think there's much more to it than that.

Emily: What about Negro Southerners?

Jane: Well, some turned to Bob for their leadership. Others turned to people who seemed more militant, who talked louder, who seemed to talk with more anger in their voices, who perhaps were more angry than Bob. A kind of get-up-and-go kind of person. "This is what we're going to do. Let's go and do it now." Whereas, Bob would outline much more basic long-range crucial goals. They were harder for some of the young Southern Negroes to grasp, to really feel that if we do this we're doing anything. We want to get out and demonstrate. We want to get out and act right now. Not that Bob was opposed to that, but just that he saw things in the long range.

SNCC: Early Days

Emily: You were with SNCC right from the beginning. You were at the Raleigh conference. What was SNCC's goal then? What goals were stated?

Jane: Well, there was a statement of policy which was written by Jim Lawson. He was one of the people who helped. He and Miss Ella Baker helped get that conference off the ground. I can't quote that, but it was love and brotherhood, freedom, justice — abstract. It was much more what Dr. King has stated as the goals of the Negro movement. " I have a dream ..." kind of thing. A dream of brotherhood.

Emily: You were a SNCC office secretary. Was that like Executive Secretary?

Jane: Not really. I was not on the coordinating committee. I carried out the wishes of the coordinating committee. In other words, I didn't have a vote on policy. Of course, in those days we all sat in together and there was a very loose structure and we came up with policy the best way we could, but it's not the same as Executive Secretary. The job was small. There wasn't that much to do. Newsletter, typing, trying to get people in touch with each other. But I did not speak for SNCC like Forman as Executive Secretary did.

Emily: You were in a sense involved in SNCC's day-to-day activity as office secretary?

Jane: Right.

Emily: How did the program begin to take shape? How did it work out?

Jane: Well, we didn't have a program. There was a coordinating committee made up of a representative from each Southern state and Washington D.C.

Emily: How were they chosen?

Jane: They were chosen at the Raleigh conference. These people were usually in jail or just out of jail. First we would try and keep those people in touch with each other. This is when the sit-ins were breaking out everywhere. As soon as a sit-in would break out, the SNCC office would try to get in touch with somebody who had been involved and give them moral support, try to get them to write to us, send them a newsletter. Say "The people in Tallahassee are also doing this. These are the names of the people in Tallahassee," and also, the first three months, simply work toward a big conference which we held in the fall of '60.

That was a decision at that Raleigh conference to set up a temporary coordinating committee; the main purpose of this committee is to hold a conference in October which will try to get all these people together. It wasn't until October that anything like the goals or the program really, or even a permanent committee took shape.

Emily: SNCC did have a program starting in October?

Jane: Well, a program in still a very loose sense, and for the following year the main thing SNCC would do is; one, try and keep Southern Negro kids, college kids who were demonstrating, in touch with each other, try to keep the thing going; and the other big job was to try to get the word to the North and West so that we could get some kind of financial help for these kids who were being kicked out of school or this and that, losing their jobs. Money for court cases; money for bail, all this.

And to get people moving behind this thing because there was tremendous brutality throughout the country, because there was no coverage in the South to amount to anything. Maybe the Atlanta Constitution, but outside that, very little press. To act as an information agency. People were writing us from Seattle and God knows where. "What's happening? What can we do?" These letters said, "Please let us know. Can we send this or that or the other?" Somebody had to watch those letters and try and get all these people who cared about the thing in touch with each other.

Voter Registration & Direct Action

Emily: When did SNCC move out from being involved just strictly with the sit-in movement?

Jane: Well, really when Bob went into Mississippi, which was early, that summer of '60. He went to find kids who would come to this October conference. We had one or two names that we got from SCLC, Negro ministers and what not in Mississippi, but in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama we just didn't have any names of students and nothing had happened, really. No demonstrations outside of the attempt to integrate the University of Alabama. So Bob went to find these kids and talk to them.

While he was there, local people in Southwest Mississippi, first of all, asked him to give them some help in trying to start a voter registration campaign. So he came back feeling that we should do that, we should help people start a voter registration campaign, at least there. SNCC did decide to do this and out of this, of course, we got involved in politics, specifically in getting out the votes.

There was conflict in SNCC about whether or not we should go into voter registration. My understanding of the conflict is those people who did not want to go into voter registration wanted to continue direct action demonstrations aimed at desegregating buses, lunch counters, this sort of thing. They wanted to because they felt we were making a bigger impact that way. We would get lost if we went down in these little counties and tried to start the vote. They felt that the vote is meaningless in this country, there's nobody to vote for. All candidates are the same, essentially. I think also, at least with some people, for the first time they had found a way to vent their anger and their fear and their frustration, by marching, by sitting in, even by going to jail. This was important, and to turn away from this right at the height of it was terribly hard for some people to do or to even conceive of doing.

Emily: Was this really the height of it, though? Wasn't it sort of down at that point?

Jane: Well, it was not the height of it, but there was still considerable momentum. Those who wanted to go into voter registration felt that in order to continue direct action demonstrations it would require a great deal of energy to whoop it up again, as it were, to keep the thing going. I don't think that's the main reason we went into voter registration. Plus the people who wanted to go into voter registration were more politically oriented in the first place, wanted to get into politics, thought this was the way to do it. Also, we had been asked by local Negroes to do this, and after all, why did we exist except to do what these people asked us to do.

Emily: Did you tend to favor voter registration?

Jane: Yes, I did. Although, I have real questions — and these questions are much larger now than they were then — as to what the vote is worth. Also, I'm not political, but in the issue there, I was for voter registration, yes.

Emily: Who were the people who weren't?

Jane: I think most of the Southern Negroes wanted to continue the demonstrations and direct action. These were the kids who had never been allowed to eat in Woolworths and so on. This was something very real.

Emily: What significance did the Freedom Rides have for SNCC?

Jane: What do you mean what significance?

Emily: How did it affect the organization? What course did it take?

Jane: I don't think it affected SNCC as an organization except the idea of people coming from the North or coming from outside the South to do something in the South, which happened again and again in SNCC.

Emily: Was that the first time that happened?

Jane: Yes. The Selma march, the call goes out for people to come. This has been an important part of SNCC programs. Of course, a lot of publicity was focused on the South because of the Freedom Rides, but as an event or as a technique I don't think it had much influence on SNCC's later goals.

Emily: How did SNCC's voter registration program work out in practice?

Jane: Well, it didn't. I mean these people weren't allowed to register to vote, or just a handful of them. Trying to get people to register to vote — I mean the program failed.

Emily: It went on for several years, though, didn't it?

Jane: Right. It failed in the sense people did not get registered to vote. It did focus attention and eventually brought some pressure on the Southern states and some federal presence there so that now in some counties, even in Mississippi, Negroes can register to vote. But as far as putting masses of Negroes on the books, no, which is what it would take to change anything, anyway. We had mock elections and our own freedom registration books and our own candidates, a protest election because we couldn't get registered. The price that was paid in loss of jobs and violence and ...

SNCC & Grassroots Organizing

Emily: Do you remember any specific programs where SNCC would go first?

Jane: Well, first in Mississippi. Let me see. Trying to work in three countries, Pike, Amite and Walthall County. The first request for help came from Amite County. Bob went down and some of the local Negro kids worked with him. The violence was so extreme in those counties that the local people and Bob, SNCC, finally decided that they would move out for a while and come back. So then we went to the Mississippi Delta and pooled together everybody who had been spread across these three southwest counties together and moved into Greenwood and Leflore County and worked out from there.

Emily: Did that work out any better than McComb?

Jane: Yes.

Emily: How were they different?

Jane: Well, it was different in that in Southwest Mississippi initially they had one person trying to work Walthall, another person in Amite and another person in Pike or just a few people. Whereas, when they moved into Greenwood, they all worked out of Greenwood and they didn't try to work such a large area. And it's different. I mean they learned what they were up against, what kind of violence to expect.

Emily: Did they change their tactics?

Jane: They were more careful. That's the main change. I mean there's really just one way to do this, which is talk to people, and listen to people, and talk to people, and listen to people. At least at that stage of the game, that's the only way to do it. It was done the same in both places, but it was done with more caution, more slowly, I guess, as a result, out of Greenwood.

Emily: Basically the same kind of strategy. What about Albany? Was that different from the Mississippi project in any important way?

Jane: I don't think so. I think wherever SNCC worked in the field in those days the pattern was pretty much the same. A person goes in and finds a place to live and begins to listen to people and talk to people and find local young people or older people who can talk with him and gradually talk instead of him and take over the thing.

Politics and Elections

Emily: What led to SNCC actually going into the voting process and the electoral process, running candidates themselves?

Jane: Well, running candidates of its own because there were no candidates to vote for. I mean none who were going to help the Negroes at all. In fact, the candidates were all racist, at least in Mississippi.

Emily: Do you remember how that got started?

Jane: Well, Mississippi started it first of all with a protest election, a mock election in which we ran Dr. Aaron Henry for Governor of Mississippi and Ed King for Lieutenant Governor. Then out of that the decision to really try and run your own candidates within the accepted or official, what have you, structure.

Emily: How did the MFDP come about?

Jane: It came out of the same feeling that there's no candidates for which we can vote, there's no party to which we can belong. What's the difference between the Democratic Party and Republican Party in Mississippi, or in the South, or in the country as far as that goes? Eventually the only way Mississippi Negroes can do anything is just to form their own party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and then out of that gradually the feeling on the part of most of these people, the only way the whole country can change politically is if there's a third party.

An Organization of Organizers

Emily: What do you think were the most important events or developments?

Jane: Well, there were some events and there were some just kind of ideas that I think were crucial. Certainly one of the most important events was the trip to Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana that Bob took. Out of that came the first discussion of going into voter registration, which is really to say going into becoming political. That's what that meant for SNCC initially. Not to say SNCC wouldn't have done that whether they did voter registration or not, but that is how it got into it. Also, out of that the ...

Really, out of that trip and the requests that came out of those Southwest Mississippi counties and our trying to meet those requests, the concept of SNCC as a group of organizers to go to an area on request to do a specific job and then work themselves out of that job. This is a crucial, I think, idea that came out of that, those early days, and wasn't verbalized until very late. In fact, probably just a year and a half ago SNCC people said what we really are is a group of organizers.

But this nevertheless was the trend in SNCC, beginning with when Bob went in there. Also, the necessity of a central office much more than office secretary and a newsletter. The violence. The need for funds, all these things, and then after that the development of a real administrative staff which changed a lot of things about SNCC, raised a lot of problems, the whole question of structure, but it was necessary. If Jim Forman hadn't been on the phone when those guys were down in those counties in Southwest Mississippi there was no way they would have ever come out of those counties at all. So the role of a central office, communications, press, all these things.

I think, third, a willingness in those days to at least try and work and have an integrated staff. Very early in the game a lot of the Negro kids in SNCC were dubious about this, were ill at ease, were resentful and some felt "this won't work," had nothing against whites, but for what we were trying to do we can't have whites in this organization practically. But in those early days very little — I mean we had a job to do and it didn't really matter if you were white or not if you were willing to...

Emily: How about how SNCC's policy of nonviolence developed?

Jane: Well, it was always a tactic. It was never for SNCC. That is to say for most people in SNCC. That's what I guess I mean by SNCC. It was never a philosophy of life or a way of life. I think people felt that it was. Some people outside, maybe some people inside, felt that it was because that's the way the statement of purpose was stated. Jim Lawson wrote that statement of purpose and I don't think SNCC people really thought in terms of love and reconciliation.


Emily: That reminds me of another question. SNCC's first conference was sponsored by SCLC and it was sort of the student wing of SCLC, or I think SNCC was thought of that way by SCLC. Why did SNCC go away from SCLC? What were the biggest areas of conflict?

Jane: Well, I think there were people in SCLC who hoped that would be how SNCC would view itself. No question that SCLC wanted to be regarded as the parent of the kids who were going sitting-in, doing all this. SCLC was able to use that to raise funds for the Southern students. Also, there were people like Ella Baker and others who didn't see that this was necessary, who felt that the students knew what they wanted to do and could do it. That they didn't have to be a part of an organization. You know, call them what you want to call them, but that wasn't important, how they were tied to SCLC.

Emily: That has a fund-raising advantage.

Jane: Right. SNCC people didn't talk the same language that SCLC talked, which is to say they didn't have the same things in mind.

Emily: Could you expound on that?

Jane: I don't think SNCC people, even in the early days, were interested in brotherhood, in reconciliation, in integration. SNCC has not changed radically, taking the position of Black Power. I think SNCC wanted desegregation, they wanted Negro rights, they wanted to go to Woolworth's and eat, but they simply didn't say the same things that Dr. King has said and I don't think they wanted the same things that he seems to want. They also were in a bigger hurry than SCLC. They were also alienated by SCLC's big office and office staff and all the red tape and the same old kind of organization, bureaucracy thing, that stayed in Atlanta and really didn't have much contact with the grass roots, or so it seemed then and still does, really. That this is just another Negro organization, is what they would say. Very cynical about it and just really didn't want to have anything to do with it.

Emily: Did SNCC think of itself as a democratic organization?

Jane: Yes. Also, SCLC wanted to make some decisions that SNCC really felt that they didn't have the right to make. Like who was going to speak at our meetings and this sort of thing. SCLC was helping us to raise money. We didn't have anything. I mean we used their stamps and their envelopes and their everything else. The first newsletter was run off on SCLC paper. We didn't have a dime. So we were dependent on them, but then in turn they wanted to say, "Well, this person can't speak at your conference because he's a communist," or "He's going to cause you all kinds of problems" and try and control them. Well, SNCC was never the student wing of SCLC, never wanted to be. Within a few months it was clear that the organizations were doing two entirely different things and they'd never get together, probably. Unfortunately, in some ways, but nonetheless.

Emily: Where did SNCC turn for funds then?

Jane: Turned to the North, started fund-raising, college campuses and all the individual people who were writing to us. There was no systematic program of fund-raising in those days, but just whatever contacts we had we explored them on our own.

Emily: Is that still true that they are going to the North on college campuses?

Jane: Right.

Emily: You were talking about the big developments in those first few years. Do you have any more about that~

Jane: Well, I think the concept of the organizer and the move into the political sphere were the really significant things. And the decision on the part of the white kids who were involved with the movement to be involved with the movement as a Negro movement and not really at that time try and get out and organize whites, was a crucial decision. Some people felt then that the white kids ought to be organizing whites and trying to get the two things together. I mean it was pointless, I think, to really talk about it because the white kids weren't ready and I think most of them stayed in SNCC in order to learn from SNCC and learn from Negro kids in the movement how the thing can be done, and now some of the white kids are trying to organize whites.

Emily: Did people talk about that much?

Jane: Not really.

Mississippi Summer Project

Emily: Skipping back to about where we were before in '63, do you remember how the decision to have the '64 summer project was made?

Jane: Yes. This is an oversimplification but it went something like this. All right, here's Mississippi. We've been down here three years and we have gotten nowhere. The only way Mississippi is going to change is if there's a lot of pressure from outside and it just cracks this damn wall, and the only force that can exert that much pressure is the federal government. The federal government is not going to move until certain people get hurt. They're not going to move because Negroes are getting killed. They never have. And they're not going to move because white beatniks that have joined up with the Negroes are getting killed because they're weirdos. So it's got to be a respectable, important somebody and it's got to be a lot of those somebodys, probably.

So there are two ideas: it's got to be somebody and it's got to be a lot of people, but not a lot of Negroes because that doesn't matter. So what are we going to do but settle on this move in Mississippi. We're going to get a lot of kids to come down here. We're going to have a statewide voter registration program, Freedom Schools, whatever, going this summer and we'll recruit those students and we'll screen them and we'll try to get kids who can take it and we'll be careful, and somebody's going to get killed, probably, just because if that many people come to do that kind of thing somebody's sure to get killed. But we've been being killed for all these years and maybe some more people have to die so that a lot of people don't have to die, kind of thing, in the future.

It was a very, very, very hard decision to make to issue the call for kids to come down and risk their lives. We also had questions about — very real questions which proved to be true — about kids coming down who were well educated and white who would simply reinforce the same old thing. They're going to be able to type. They're going to be able to teach. They're going to be able to do all these things. How are we going to develop local leadership among the Negroes if we keep bringing in these educated white kids? It was finally decided that we had to try it. We had to get some kind of attention focused on the state and if focused on that state, then hopefully focused on the other Southern states. So that decision was made in November to go ahead and make plans for such a project.

Emily: What did the people who didn't want the project say?

Jane: Well, at the conclusion of that week-end meeting I don't believe there was anyone there who was still strongly opposed to that, because we did talk about it and we ironed it out, and everybody had questions about it. But I think the general feeling at the end of the meeting was that this was what we had to do. We still had a lot of questions about it.

Emily: What effect did the summer of '64 have on SNCC?

Jane: Well, it did focus some attention on the state of Mississippi. People did get killed. It did reinforce the old ideas. It did put the cap on the development of local leadership to some extent. This varied from project to project, depending on what kind of white kids had come in there and what kind of local people were there to begin with. Most of the white kids tried to be sensitive to this kind of thing; some of them were not sensitive to it. But it did impede that. I think the biggest lesson SNCC learned from it was that you can't bring in white kids to help develop Negro leadership. It's an impossibility. I think that's true, too. And it was after the summer project that I learned that I could not help develop Negro leadership because I was white. There was no other reason. Because I would go in and talk to Mrs. Brown about registering to vote and why she should and so on and she would say, "Yes, ma'am. I will," and if she did that would be why she did. I mean as far as really talking about it, really understanding it, no.

Emily: After the summer a bunch of white people stayed on. About how many were there?

Jane: Of the volunteers? The people who came down?

Emily: Yes, the volunteers.

Jane: I don't have any idea how many people really stayed. I'll say thirty or so who stayed any significant time. I think some stayed possibly a semester. Dropped out for the semester, intended to stay for the semester and stayed a week or a month or so, but people who really stayed a year and dug into one community, there weren't that many. Twenty or thirty maybe, if that many. They didn't all stay in Mississippi, but stayed in the south, stayed in the movement.

Emily: Was that group connected with the dispute over structure that we talked about before; did their presence affect it?

Jane: Do you mean did it have anything to do with the fact that the debate arose, or how did they figure in the debate? What's your question?

Emily: What role did they play in that debate?

Jane: Well, they advocated a looser structure, I think, on the whole, but these kids did not play as important a role in the debate as the white kids who had been with SNCC much longer, before the project. There were a half dozen, say, white kids who had been with SNCC for quite a long time who were very vocal about structure, who submitted proposals for alternate structures, this kind of thing. Gave a lot of thought to it, in other words. But these were people who had been out. Mendy Samstein and Casey Hayden. People who had been there for quite a while.

Emily: Yourself?

Jane: I did not go with the first conference on structure. I was still in the state, but I was writing and I was pretty much out of it. I was for a rotating loose structure, but I was not on SNCC staff then. I didn't go to the meeting. Mary King, Casey Hayden, Mendy Samstein.

Copyright © Jane Stembridge and Emily Stoper, 1966.

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