I was inspired by the sit-in movement that began in February, 1960. Then having arranged with the Oberlin Review student newspaper to write about the forthcoming meeting and my experiences, I traveled to Raleigh, NC in early April where I attended/participated in the formation meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as, in effect, an informal Oberlin College student representative. The meeting took place at Shaw University, where we were housed in dorm rooms. Apart from the discussions and planning for coordination of the sit-in movement — by then spreading rapidly — on Saturday we picketed a Woolworth s store downtown. There was a revolving picket line, which drew a large crowd, and I was attacked by an angry young white man who was observing and hurling epithets, especially at me, as I was the only white person marching in the line. This attack was reported on national radio news.
On Sunday morning four of us (including Charles F. McDew of Orangeburg, SC, who the following year became chairman of SNCC and led nonviolent organizing, demonstrations, voter registration, and alternative schools from South Carolina State University and throughout the South), went to a downtown Baptist Church in an attempt to attend services. We were met on the steps by elders of the church who turned us away, denying us admittance to the services.
I don't remember details about the discussions themselves except that they were focused on widening the circles of nonviolent protest, making sure that everything was as well coordinated as possible and nonviolent strategies preserved at all times, and working everywhere and in every possible nonviolent way toward eliminating segregation. Attendees included organizer Ella Baker of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), McDew, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, Julian Bond, Marion Barry, James Lawson, James Forman and other young leaders who rose to prominence during the protests that were taking place across the south; representatives from the Congress of Racial Equality, Fellowship of Reconciliation, National Student Association, and Students for a Democratic Society were among those who attended. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the meeting. Folk singer Guy Carawan led the group of attendees in singing We Shall Overcome.
Over the next several weeks I wrote three articles for the Oberlin Review in April-June 1960, describing and reflecting on my experiences at the meeting and traveling in the south where "whites only" and "colored" signs and the racists and segregationist attitudes and structures they represented — were everywhere prevalent. (I have since lost copies of these articles, and I m hoping that a project now underway at Oberlin will recapture them from old microfilm.)
I was raised in southwest Los Angeles where in the 1950's it was a transitional community of mixed races in which crosses could be, and were, burned on residents lawns. My father, a Presbyterian minister from a church in Cincinnati, Ohio, had come to California to head the college student division of the YMCA in the western states. He was committed to a liberal, activist version of Christianity that emphasized social and economic justice and his heroes included Howard Thurman and James Farmer, among other leaders I met and was inspired by as a young man growing up.
Nothing seemed more insanely unjust and destructive, or more important to eliminate, than racism. In graduate school, expanding my interest in racism to include colonialism and the struggles of newly independent states that came into existence in the 1950's and 60's, I specialized in the history of Africa, learned Swahili and did Ph.D. research in East Africa, wrote a book Uhuru in Tanzania: The Politics of Participation published by Cambridge University Press.
In my first job at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations I worked with my superior in the State Department, Donald McHenry (later U.S. Ambassador to the UN) to assure that our government strictly interpreted and applied the then minimal international sanctions on South Africa. In the 1960's and early 1970;s I allied myself with the American Committee on Africa and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and spoke on college campuses in favor of divestment. After the assassinations of 1968, I left the State Department to work for New York City Mayor John Lindsay in leading a community organizing and development program based in South Jamaica, Queens.
After election to the U.S. Congress from New Jersey, I worked in the 1970's to preserve sanctions against the Smith and Muzorewa regimes in Southern Rhodesia, presented the Stevie Wonder Humanitarian Award to Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko's sister after Biko was killed by the South African police, set up the bipartisan Congressional Ad Hoc Monitoring Group on South Africa to chart the plight of political prisoners and bring pressure on the apartheid government there, and authored the first restrictive U.S. legislation against South Africa forbidding OPIC from supporting provision of equipment or materials by U.S. companies to the defense and other ministries of the South African government that could be used to assist repression.
In South Africa in 1978 after a conference I attended on the future of South Africa (sponsored by the World Peace Foundation in Boston and the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg), I met with Winnie Mandela who was under house arrest, with the Drs. Motlana and other ANC leaders in Soweto and elsewhere, with the Black Writers Union, with lawyers for political prisoners, and at a press conference before leaving the country described the regime as founded on racism and maintained by terror. In Congress I was proud to be considered by some an honorary member of the Black Caucus; and I was proud that a Congressional colleague from that time, Andrew Young, came to New Jersey to campaign for me when I ran for the U.S. Senate in 1982.