A concept paper about and for veterans of the 1960s Southern Civil Rights Movement
For a generation of social activists, the 1960s was a formative period. It was the time of the civil rights movement, the anti- war movement, the strong emergence of the women's movement, the rapid growth of the environmental movement and other movements for social, environmental and economic justice.
Within that period, a relatively small group of people became the full-time organizers and support staff for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee --"Snick" as it was called. At its peak, there were no more than 225 full-time "field secretaries" working for SNCC. SNCC emerged from the sit-ins and freedom rides that were initiated by African-American students in 1960 and 1961. In 1962, a small group of these students left their studies and began full-time work as community organizers in the "black belt" counties of the Deep South with a focus on registering African-Americans to vote . SNCC restructured itself. The full-time workers were also the members of the organization, electing its leaders and making its policies. From work initiated by SNCC came the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), the Mississippi Summer Project, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization and many other initiatives for justice in the South.
In 1955, before the student movement began, perhaps the most important break with the South's legacy of racism took place. In Montgomery, AL, a bus boycott was launched, first by a black women's organization then by a united group of African-American ministers and their churches under the leadership of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. In other cities of the South, similar clergy- led efforts began, though none became as well organized or as well known as the one in Montgomery. From these beginnings came the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and within SCLC the rise of King as first a national then international leader for human rights. SCLC was best known for the major demonstrations it organized, but it also had full-time field staff engaged in voter registration, community organizing, citizenship and voter education, economic development and related activities.
The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) was initiated under the umbrella of the pacifist organization Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and sought to apply the nonviolent direct action of Gandhi and others to the issue of racial discrimination in the United States. CORE was a high-commitment membership organization; its members participated in direct action that often led to beatings and arrests. Princi- pally a Northern organization, in the South, CORE was a leading force in Louisiana, Florida, Texas and the Carolinas. In Mississippi, under the umbrella of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of all the major civil rights and other African-American organizations working in Mississippi, CORE was responsible for work in the State's Fifth Congressional District. James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner were CORE field secretaries when they were brutally murdered by white law enforcement officials and others in Mississippi's Neshoba County.
It is hard today to imagine the terror that existed among black people in the South, particularly in the "Black Belt" counties. Often constituting more than 80% of the residents, only a handful were registered to vote. Most worked in near-peonage conditions as day laborers, sharecroppers and tenant farmers in "the rural" or as domestics in small towns. Fear was pervasive; any black who asserted his or her rights was likely to be fired, evicted, denied credit, beaten, experience a fire-bombing of the family home or be killed. A tiny black middle-class, comprised of school teachers, independent business people and those who were able to retain ownership of land, was fully intimidated as well. Among these, there were a few courageous individuals who stood up for their rights and others'.
But by 1962, freedom was in the air: the student-led sit-ins spread throughout the South. The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) initiated "freedom rides" to end discrimination in interstate public transportation. Both sit-ins and freedom rides had been lead stories on national TV news. In 1954, the Supreme Court had ruled against school segregation in the famous Brown vs Board of Education case. In 1955 and 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr. led the Montgomery bus boycott and other cities in the south had similar boycott campaigns. SCLC-led marches and mass demonstrations challenged segregation head-on in cities across the South. In the early 1960s, SCLC also initiated a citizenship education program to prepare black voters to vote. The NAACP was filing briefs against various forms of legal segregation in the south, and its chapters in the South were small centers of resistance to Jim Crow. By the early 1960s a consensus in the southern movement had emerged: organizing around the right to vote was the key to black freedom. Again and again, black citizens sought the right to register to vote only to be denied by county clerks and other registrars of voters.
By 1965, pressure on the Federal Government to guarantee the right to vote was irresistible. President Lyndon Johnson supported the Voter Registration bill which, when signed into law, opened the door for black voter registration. Soon thereafter, Federal legislation was passed that authorized the Justice Department to directly register black voters in counties where local registrars were systematically denying blacks the right to register.
Throughout this period, harassment, intimidation and violence persisted against both Movement workers and local residents who exercised their rights. Federal enforcement of rights was, at best, spotty. Tension was great. And a price was paid by some of those who worked without relief in these circumstances. Some began drinking or using drugs; others suffered "burnout;" still others became mentally ill. Civil rights workers in rural communities bore the brunt of the tension, and it was among these staff that problems most frequently occurred. Those of us who were part of the period had little understanding of the toll being taken on some of our comrades in struggle. "Post traumatic stress syndrome" was as yet unnamed and largely unrecognized. The support community which Deep South civil rights organizations provided for their staff itself began to fray and come apart in the face of violence and the unwillingness of the Federal Government to fully protect the rights of black citizens in the South. Heated debate emerged over "black power" versus "freedom now" or "integration," "nonviolence" versus "self-defense" and "philosophical nonviolence" versus "tactical nonviolence." Healthy debate gave way to bitter dispute and recrimination, further contributing to the dissolution of The Movement.
For those of us who were part of this period, The Movement was our 1930s, our Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, our organizing of industrial workers in the CIO, our fight against fascism in World War II. But unlike veterans of each of these struggles, our hurt veterans had no post-struggle support system. There was no "Veterans of the Lincoln Brigade" organization, no labor unions to provide emotional and financial support for its early organizers, no GI Bill to provide financial aid or Veterans Administration to provide physical and mental health care. Further, the deep community which bound us together as a band of brothers and sisters, a circle of trust, had collapsed by the end of the 1960s. Bitterness replaced mutual support; anger was turned inward against one another.
Today, thirty to forty years later, veterans of that period are attempting to rebuild the community we then knew. All of us identify that time as one of the most significant in our lives. Most of us never again experienced the intensity and depth of feeling that bound us together as a "beloved community"--both the way we sought to be with one another and the community we sought to build in the society as a whole. Some of us are the walking wounded, suffering the most dramatic effects of post- traumatic stress syndrome. This is manifested in addictions of various kinds, homelessness, mental illness and other problems. But all of us are wounded in one way or another from that experience. In coming together, we hope to overcome the various kinds of pain we experienced with the death of The Movement and the pain we imposed upon one another. All of us of that period are between 50 and 75 years old. Many of us have been involved in some aspect of social change work ever since The Movement period. Many work for nonprofit or small grassroots organizations that have no health care coverage and/or no retirement program beyond their contribution to social security. Some are even more economically marginalized with no health care or retirement plans.
For the most part, those of us initiating this effort were in SNCC. Recently, the community of support that was SNCC at its best has begun to rise, Phoenix-like, to restore the sister- and brotherhood we once knew.
During this period, a theme emerged: it is a time to heal the bitterness of internecine conflict within and between the different organizations that divided us back in the 1960s and early 1970s. We increasingly realize that whatever our differences then, and whatever our differences now, we did something significant in the country and the world. We did support each other in the struggle--however inadequately. We miss that spirit of mutual support and, at its best, love that bound us together. It is, we believe, a time for reconciliation and renewal of past relationships.
We also feel a debt to those of us who have specific problems that can be addressed by an effective support community. We want to reach out to those who are isolated and bring them into the community we once knew. We want to help those who have no pensions, health care, jobs or other source of financial income to find the assistance they need.
An initiating committee of Movement veterans proposes to develop a network of support for veterans of the Movement who now need that support--which includes those of us who are members of the group. The initiating group was comprised of SNCC field secretaries Hardy Frye, Phil Hutchings, Betita Martinez, Mike Miller, Wazir Peacock, Jimmy Rogers and Jean Wiley. Joining them are Fred Mangrum and Scott B. Smith, Jr. and Bruce Hartford , an SCLC staff member who worked in the South in 1965-67. We seek to re-establish the community we once knew. Specifically, we envisage a program comprised of the following elements:
Three overall guiding principles would inform these activities. First, to create a seamless web of resources so that the individual needing assistance would feel like a welcome comrade rather than a client. Second, to make it possible for the individual who receives assistance to become fully re-integrated into the community of support that is now being recreated by people who were in the Movement in the 1960s. Ideally, the person would become fully interdependent --able to work, live and otherwise function in the community without specialized resources supporting him or her. Third, our group would not become a distributor of money or other resources. Rather, we would work together to find these resources for those who need them.
At the dinner honoring him shortly before his death, Kwame Ture spoke. His theme was the need for unity among all African people. "If Roosevelt and Stalin could get together against Hitler, then black people ought to be able to get together against their adversaries." There were other similar statements as well. There was one moment when he captured the room; you could have heard a pin drop. After speaking of the necessity for unity, he looked down the long dais and said to Minister Farrakhan, "Minister Farrakhan attacked Martin (Luther King, Jr.)." He paused for dramatic effect, then continued. "The NAACP attacked Martin. CORE attacked Martin. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee attacked Martin." He paused again, then quietly said, "And Martin never attacked back. We need unity in the black community." It is this spirit which we seek to rekindle.
We are developing our own San Francisco Bay Area group. We have now met about ten times. We hope and plan to develop in the Bay Area activities which will allow us to achieve the above identified purposes and to implement the above named program.
We hope to raise funds to make it possible for us to hire a traveling organizer who would visit Movement veterans in metropolitan areas across the country urging them to form similar groups in their areas. We hope the Shaw gathering can be a place to discuss these ideas and to encourage people in other areas to initiate local committees.
Our vision is of local committees in any area where there is a sufficient number of Movement veterans to constitute such a committee.
Third, we have initiated a "Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement" web site to provide information about our activities, be a point of contact for individual Movement veterans who list their contact information and describe their Movement and post- Movement experiences, identify support resources for Movement veterans and be a place for memorials and tributes to fallen comrades. Bruce Hartford set the web-site up and is its volunteer web-site manager. We imagine that at some point down the road a national committee would be formed, and would serve as a clearinghouse for activities, convenor of regional and national gatherings and coordinator of efforts that require action larger than any one metropolitan area can undertake. At the same time, we anticipate that each area's committee would be autonomous and run by its members.
Copyright © Mike Miller, 2000.
Copyright © 2000
Last Modified: September 11, 2000.