Liz is Betita: A SNCC Memory
Betita Martinez

[As told to the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the student-led sit-ins of 1960, the rise of youth-led activism, and the founding of SNCC. Main library, San Francisco, March 27, 2010.]
Thank you for the introduction, but I have to add one thing. I was working with SNCC in the early 1960's and at that time I had a totally different name: Elizabeth Sutherland. They called me "Liz." So...Betita? Who's that? Some sort of Mexican or something. Oh well, nobody knew!

My father had come from Mexico City, and his father from the southern state of Oaxaca on the coast, and that was an area where many, many African slaves had been landed hundreds of years before. And they mixed with other folks over the years, and so my father, by the time he came to the United States during the Mexican Revolution, was just as dark as any old "darkie", so to speak. And so we had a hard time at first, because we were living in Washington, D.C., and the racism along there at the time was very, very strict. Ohhhh, you better believe it.

And so I started learning things about black and white, and everything else, and it was a harsh lesson, I'm sure you know that. For example, the little girl next door, living in the house next door, was not allowed to play with me, because her family was white, and they took one look at me and my inter-racial family and they said: "No way, Jose." So that was kind of a little lesson to start right off with, so I'm particularly happy to say that not too many years later I decided I'm going to go to SNCC.

I loved being a SNCCer. There were two SNCC people from my background in the organization. One was a woman named Maria Varela, and she now lives in Albuquerque, and me. We were the only two — "Chicanos" was the name we called ourselves — short for Mexican-American. And that's what we were. Well, we tried to go around explaining "Chicanos" to all the people who only knew black and white, which was understandable ignorance, but we had a hard time.

But anyway, believe me, my father came to this country in 1917 from Mexico at the height of the revolution there, full of revolutionary ideas, which I learned. Oh boy, I'm ready to go. So I had to join something. SNCC was it. So in 1960-61, I began to hear about SNCC. I said: "That sounds pretty good." And that's what I joined not long after. And it was a wonderful experience, and I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about it, but just to say that it was a tremendous learning experience for me, beginning a lesson in the nature of racism in the United States, and I began to figure out, after awhile, that there was racism against Mexican people too. Hmm, what are we going to do? We have to have a revolution, right? [Laughing]

So I just want to say I'm very glad to be here today with all these folks and talking about some lessons from the past. And I've asked a friend of mine to come and read a paragraph from a book that I helped to write. This is one of the few good things I did in my work with SNCC. James Foreman, who was Executive Secretary of SNCC and became a very good friend of mine, he got convinced to write a book about his life. And so he, and his wife, and I went off to an island in Puerto Rico to help him write his book, because I was an editor. Anyway, out came the book, and it's called The Making of Black Revolutionaries. So rather than me saying any more today and taking any more of your time, I asked my friend, Nancy, to read a short excerpt from the book that James Foreman wrote, with my assistance, in Puerto Rico. So, Nancy, go for it.

Nancy: So I was complaining to Betita about my life in non-profits and how much drama non-profits are, and so she made me read about SNCC and how there was no profit, and there was no money, and that people made do with nothing. And so she shut me up about my complaining about the suffering of the non-profits that I'm working with, and how their funding isn't really that important, by making me read this:

SNCC recognized that we had to build a people's movement. We had to develop leadership outside of our own, to carry forward the struggle, whether or not we in SNCC were around, whether or not SNCC itself was around. For some people, this idea meant that we, in SNCC, were supposed to work ourselves out of business. For if we were successful in developing a mass consciousness and producing many leaders, then the importance of our own particular role became more and more minimalized. While agreeing completely with these ultimate goals — 

Actually, the rest of it is not that important, but the important part I think was that they knew that it wasn't about making money to have a job that would pay a good salary to work at an organization that would take care of them, but it was about organizing themselves out of business. And so I think it's really relevant to young people who are working in non-profits and organizations right now. [Applause]


[Note: Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez was the Coordinator for the SNCC's New York City office, and the editor of two seminal books: The Movement and Letters From Mississippi.]

Copyright © Betita Martinez, 2010

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