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“We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest”
SNCC at 50—Discussions and Analysis April 15-18, 2010

Introduction to the DVDs

These DVDs present formal addresses, panel discussions and programs that took place at a conference and reunion unfolding over four days at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee or SNCC (pronounced “Snick”).

SNCC, which I chaired from 1961 to 1963, emerged from student protests that erupted on February 1, 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina when four college students from A&T college refused to leave a Woolworth department store lunch counter. They had been denied service because they were African-American.
Similar “sit-ins” spread rapidly across the South. Two-and-a-half months later, April 15-17—Easter weekend that year—sit-in leaders gathered at Shaw and SNCC was born. About a year later, some of us began leaving school to work full-time for SNCC. We felt our commitment to the freedom struggle could not be part-time.

We were inspired and guided by Ella Baker. She had organized southern NAACP branches in the 1940s; she helped organize Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957; and using money appropriated by Rev. King, put together our founding conference at Shaw. “Organize from the bottom up,” was her charge. “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes,” she told us. Our 50th anniversary conference was dedicated to her.

Some of SNCC’s story is fairly well known—sit-ins, freedom rides, other protests in public spaces; but most of our story is not known, at least in part because we have not done a very good job of telling it. An important component of our 50th anniversary conference was to begin the job of telling our story ourselves.
These DVDs provide a complete record of every panel and plenary session at the 50th conference. They are unique not only in their comprehensiveness, but also because they comprise an unprecedented number of SNCC veterans publically examining their Movement experiences. Many of these veterans are not usually encountered in the civil rights canon. In short, the history contained in these DVDs is informed by a special and valuable sensibility available nowhere else. Moreover, these discussions are reinforced with the participation of some of academia’s most thoughtful scholars of the southern Freedom Movement.

I think it is fair to say that without this material, in-depth understanding of what took place in the southern freedom struggle is greatly handicapped, if not impossible. And while SNCC veterans may again gather for reflective conversations in the future, the numbers will likely be much smaller than those gathered here.

Charles “Chuck” McDew
SNCC chairman 1961-63
Chair of the SNCC 50th Anniversary Planning Committee

Day Two | Day Three | Day Four

DAY ONETHURSDAY April 15, 2010:  “Youth Took a Giant Stride”

The first day actually began the evening before the official opening, with participants arriving and checking into the conference hotel. Reunions, some after the passage of decades, took place in the lobby and at registration tables where conversations that seemed to have ended only yesterday, resumed. On the edges of these conversations, listening intently, were young people. More than three hundred, mostly college students registered. Many of them were activists in their communities. Despite a long night of catching-up, most registrants were on time for the 9am opening session at Raleigh’s Center for the Performing Arts. Welcoming those gathered, Chuck McDew, one of SNCC’s founders and a former SNCC chairman, begins with the numbers—more than 800 registrants this first morning (more than 1,100 would eventually register). The day is devoted to panels discussing the organizing experiences in SNCC projects across the Black Belt south and the thinking that undergirded this work. The day ends with a Book Fair featuring 35 authors from SNCC and authors who have written books about SNCC’s work.

The Plenary

SNCC advisor, Timothy Jenkins, in an elegant and brief statement, reminds the gathering that this is not simply a gathering of reminiscence, but a coming together to begin providing important “missing chapters in history” to a new generation of freedom fighters. Here at Shaw in 2010, SNCC veterans “looking into one another’s eyes and telling the truth were people of the day before yesterday reaching out to the people of the day after tomorrow.” Following Jenkins, a vivid and substantive description of SNCC’s birth and impact given by Julian Bond, who participated in SNCC’s 1960 founding conference, also teaches this lesson. An important lesson that emerges from this opening session is that while SNCC veterans do not define themselves as heroes and heroines, serious and effective struggle requires commitment, and commitment often involves risk. Powerfully, a videotaped statement by Jimmy Travis made shortly before his far-too-early death from cancer (July 28, 2009), and who was nearly killed in a machine gun ambush on a Mississippi highway in 1963, conveys that message and sets a tone for the entire four days.

Panel 1: Early Student Movement Philosophy and Activism


Muriel Tillinghast, Moderator –SNCC field secretary, Mississippi, member Non-violent Action Group (NAG) Howard University
David Dennis – Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Mississippi director, Freedom Rider
Joan T. Mulholland –white student from Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi Johnny Parham –Atlanta Student Movement

While deep dissatisfaction was a major factor mobilizing the young people who would engage in direct action protests, often the first steps into activism led to a greater-than-anticipated commitment. David Dennis who would later become CORE’s Mississippi director recalls that on his first sit-in he thought police would give him the choice of leaving the restaurant. And he planned to leave when ordered. Instead, he was immediately arrested. Adult mentoring played a large role; adults who had long been struggling for change supported young activists and helped expand their view of the world. As one panelist puts it, “You don’t pull commitment out of the air.” Joseph McNeil, one of the four pioneering Greensboro students who sat-in February 1, 1960, is present. Responding from the floor to the question of why he sat-in, McNeil says, reflecting the attitude of an entire generation of black students, “I was angry at segregation, knew segregation was evil, knew if I had kids they would have to live under it, and being a crazy [Negro] was like a badge of honor.”

Panel 2: From Student Activists to Field Organizers


Charlie Cobb, Moderator, SNCC field secretary, Mississippi
Jean Wheeler Young, SNCC field secretary Mississippi, Southwest Georgia
Chuck McDew, SNCC Chairman SNCC 1961-63
Dorie Ladner, SNCC field secretary, Mississippi
Wendell Paris, SNCC field secretary, Alabama, Mississippi
Wazir “Willie” Peacock, former SNCC field secretary, Mississippi

What was new with the eruption of sit-ins and the emergence of SNCC was civil rights struggle initiated, fed, and sustained by young people. More than any other organization SNCC best reflected this youthful engagement. Importantly, young activists were challenging other young people to join them, and also challenging established civil rights organizations to speed up the pace of their efforts. The commitment and energy of young people leads directly to the grassroots organizing work that is what really defines the freedom movement of the 1960s. Panelists discuss their deepening involvement with the southern Movement as grassroots community organizers. Harry Belafonte makes an unscheduled appearance here.

Panel 3: SNCC Builds an Organization

Karen Spellman, Moderator, SNCC Research Department Atlanta headquarters
Judy Richardson, SNCC Atlanta headquarters, field secretary Lowndes County Alabama
Betty Garman Robinson, SNCC Atlanta headquarters
Margaret Herring, SNCC Atlanta headquarters
Tamio Wakayama, SNCC photographer
Freddie Green Biddle, SNCC Atlanta headquarters, Mississippi field secretary

SNCC had to organize itself if its field staff were going to be able to organize effectively. Many histories in referring to SNCC ignore the staff of its national headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. This staff was vital in addressing many needs from communications to transportation and the provision of other resources. Although everyone on this panel at various times worked for SNCC “in the field” as well, they represent some of the glue that held SNCC together as an organization. The panelists present a behind-the-scenes look at what kept SNCC running. The panel also reflects the remarkable range of backgrounds in SNCC people; a range that was evident on almost every panel at this 50th anniversary conference.

Panel 4: The Raleigh Civil Rights Movement: “We Did What We Had to Do”

Cash Michaels, Moderator, Editor, The Carolinian newspaper
Dr. McLouis Clayton, Professor, Shaw University
Dr. George C. Debnam, retired physician, Member, Shaw University Board of Trustees

Just 12 days after the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-in of February 1, 1960, students attending Shaw and St. Augustine colleges in Raleigh, North Carolina began sitting-in at lunch counters. This panel of local leaders provides a close-up look at the sit-in movement in the city of SNCC’s birthplace, and the segregation existing there in the 1940s and 50s. A prior generation that challenged segregation is discussed as well as the role of both schools in the 1960 sit-ins. Much of what is described here was also true in cities across the South. In this discussion, connections are made between these institutions, the sit-ins that gave birth to SNCC, and the historic consciousness-raising role of black colleges and universities.

Luncheon Keynote: Rev. James Lawson: “We Have Not Yet Arrived”

At SNCC’s founding conference in 1960 it was James Lawson who captured the political imagination of the students. Years before the 1960 gathering, Lawson was imprisoned for 14 months because of his conscientious objection to the Korean War. In 1958 Lawson became the second black student admitted to the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Soon he began mentoring a group of students in nearby black colleges and universities. These students launched a movement in Nashville that was arguably the most disciplined and committed to nonviolence in the South; and it produced some of SNCC’s most notable figures: Diane Nash, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel, and Marion Barry. Fifty years later, Rev. Lawson demonstrates that he has lost none of his fire, describing "Plantation capitalism" as “the root cause of our problems.” He denounces a nearly one trillion dollar military budget existing “for the sole purpose of protecting U. S. capital” and argues that Barack Obama’s election does not mean that justice has arrived. “The power and energy of the 1960s movement is needed for the 21st century.” Lawson outlines his belief in the continuing value and necessity of nonviolent struggle for social change and justice.

Panel 5: The Societal Response to SNCC

Larry Rubin, Moderator, SNCC field secretary, Southwest Georgia, Mississippi John Doar, former head Justice Department Civil Rights Division
Timothy Jenkins, SNCC advisor, former University of the District of Columbia President
Professor Peniel Joseph, Tufts University, author “Waiting Til the Midnight Hour, a Narrative History of Black Power in America”
Dorothy M. Zellner, SNCC Atlanta headquarters

This panel, and its discussion with the audience, considers the complex response to SNCC by the general public and specific sections of society. The Kennedy administration was deeply suspicious of SNCC but panelist John Doar, head of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division in the 1960s, says that despite political as well as legal constraints on what he and his attorneys could do, they had “enormous respect for SNCC” that helped fuel their efforts. SNCC’s work inspired many students, and the organization found considerable support in groups like the National Student Association and the Students for a Democratic Society. Within this discussion, a larger question is also raised and considered: What should we do today? Panelist Dorothy Zellner concludes: “In January 1960 we didn’t know that one month later everything was going to change. There is no reason on earth [SNCC] can’t happen again.”

Panel 6: Up South: “We Raised Money; We Raised Hell”

Mike Miller, Moderator, former director Bay Area Friends of SNCC
William Strickland, Northern Student Movement, author Malcolm X, Make It Plain
Fannie Rushing, Chicago Friends of SNCC
Betita (Liz) Sutherland Martinez, New York Friends of SNCC
D’Army Bailey, Co-founder National Civil Rights Museum
Julie Poussaint, New York Friends of SNCC

A different kind of organizing and activism is discussed by this panel exploring SNCC’s links above the Mason-Dixon line. Some support groups originally formed to provide money and other assistance for the southern movement found themselves involved in local protests and political struggles. So, while panelists present a detailed description of the fund raising and support they organized for SNCC, given the racism and discrimination existing “Up South,” says panelist Fannie Rushing; it was “not possible to be relevant if all we were going to do was raise money for [down] South.” Panelist William Strickland outlines the Northern Student Movement’s deepening involvement with community organizing.

Panel 7: More Than a Hamburger

Courtland Cox, Moderator, SNCC program Secretary, SNCC field secretary Lowndes County Alabama
Gwen Patton, SNCC field secretary Tuskegee, Alabama
Frank Smith, SNCC field secretary Mississippi
Ed Brown, SNCC field secretary, Mississippi
Leah Wise, SNCC field secretary
Kathleen Cleaver SNCC campus program secretary, Black Panther Party
Doris Dozier Crenshaw SNCC, SCLC Alabama

At SNCC’s 1960 founding conference Ella Baker had encouraged the students to recognize that their struggle was “bigger than a hamburger;” and as their consciousness deepened, SNCC took on issues of civil liberties, especially freedom of association without prejudice, and challenged “Red baiting”; spoke out against the Vietnam War; addressed women’s issues, and in a large way embraced struggles for liberation and empowerment around the world. Importantly, SNCC demonstrated that it was possible to struggle effectively. As panelist Frank Smith, a SNCC field secretary in Mississippi put it: “We saw a problem; went out to try and solve it.” The merit of Barack Obama’s election is discussed and exerting pressure today panelist Leah Wise points out is as necessary as it was yesterday.

Panel 8: Moving on Mississippi: “We Had To be Strong”

Owen Brooks, Moderator, Delta Ministry Mississippi
Brenda Travis, McComb, Mississippi, Pike County Non-Violent Movement
Hollis Watkins, SNCC field secretary Mississippi
Lawrence Guyot, Chair Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
Willie Blue, SNCC field secretary Mississippi
Professor Michael Sistrom, historian, University North Carolina Chapel Hill

Not unexpectedly, some of the southern Movement’s most vivid stories are found in Mississippi. Panelist Lawrence Guyot, former Chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), insists that Mississippi is the state that “made the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.” This is a panel of some of the Movement’s most unsung heroes and heroines: Hollis Watkins, one of the first two students to sit in and be arrested in McComb, Mississippi, a town that in the 1960s had more Ku Klux Klan bombings than any town in the state; Brenda Travis, also from McComb, a 17-year-old high school student who sat in, was expelled from school, and served six and one half months of a sentence that would have kept her incarcerated until she was 21 if she had not managed to flee. She tells that story. And Rev. Willie Blue, a 22-year-old Navy veteran who returned home to Tallahatchie County where Emmett Till was murdered, with “a serious bad attitude.” The significance and impact of the MFDP forms an important part of the discussion.

Panel 9: Alabama: “Turning To Ourselves”

Ruby Sales, Moderator, SNCC field secretary, Alabama
Gloria House, SNCC field secretary, Alabama
Willie Ricks, SNCC field secretary, Mississippi
Annie Pearl Avery, SNCC field secretary Alabama, Mississippi
Professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries, author Bloody Lowndes

Black power as articulated by SNCC emerged directly from the work of its field organizers; and Lowndes County, Alabama, where SNCC consciously organized an independent black political party in 1966, played an especially important role. Black power, the panel shows, is more than a slogan shouted out by Stokely Carmichael in 1966; black people in communities across the south had been struggling for empowerment since the end of the Civil War. Black power also means more than simply electing blacks to public office. SNCC’s success in Lowndes County—one of its least-known achievements—is discussed.

Panel 10: Southwest Georgia: “Do You Want To be Free?”

Donald Harris, Moderator, SNCC field secretary Southwest Georgia
Penny Patch, SNCC field secretary, Southwest Georgia, Mississippi
Charles Sherrod, SNCC project director Southwest Georgia
Rutha Harris, SNCC field secretary Southwest Georgia
Sam Mahone, SNCC field secretary Southwest Georgia
John Perdew, SNCC field secretary Southwest Georgia

Some of the Movement’s most stirring music was found in Albany and Southwest Georgia. It is where the “original” SNCC freedom singers were organized. So Rutha Harris opens this panel and captures the room with a powerful rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.” The Southwest Georgia project was one of SNCC’s earliest and most significant. Project director Charles Sherrod was the first of the college students to leave school to work full-time for SNCC. He points out emphatically that this project “was a Southwest Georgia project not just an Albany, Georgia project” and gives a vivid description of dealing with fear in rural terrain that was as vicious and violent as any place in Mississippi. “The movement is not dead,” says Sherrod who invites his wife Shirley to describe the ultimately victorious efforts to win compensation for black farmers long discriminated against by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Panel 11: Arkansas, Cambridge, MD, Danville, VA: “Everybody Say Freedom”

Avon Rollins, Moderator, SNCC field secretary Danville, Virginia
Bill Hanson, SNCC project director Arkansas, SNCC field secretary Cambridge, Maryland
Ivanhoe Donaldson, SNCC field secretary Danville, Virginia, Mississippi

Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia so dominate the view of SNCC’s projects, that its organizing projects in Arkansas, Cambridge, Maryland and Danville, Virginia are often overlooked. The panelists consider the violent textile town of Danville—the “Last Capital of the Confederacy”—where as well as engaging in dramatic protest against segregation, SNCC experimented with economic challenge. The important but now near-forgotten struggle in Cambridge, Maryland where uniquely the protests were led by an older woman from a prominent family is discussed. In addition to fighting to end segregation, Cambridge’s movement agenda was more expanded than usual: health care, housing and work-force issues. Arkansas may have been the only place in the South where SNCC was invited in by a semi-official organization.

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DAY TWO April 16, 2010: “We Have Come This Far….”

To discuss SNCC is to discuss more than the specifics of organization, or the nuts and bolts of projects or staff. At SNCC’s founding conference in 1960, Ella Baker told the gathered sit-in leaders to push for broad social change in America. “She kept daring us to go further,” recalled former SNCC chairman Congressman John Lewis to a reporter. Just a few years after the founding conference at Shaw, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer a movement legend, and SNCC’s oldest field secretary at 47-years-of-age, said that desegregation and even equality with whites did not adequately explain her commitment. “I want the true democracy that'll raise me and that white man up . . . raise America up." The panels of the second day explore this larger mission, digging into the evolution of the organization, its impact on U.S. society, the response of society to SNCC, and the emergence of black power as an articulated political concept with deep historical roots preceding SNCC. A detailed look at the influence of Ella Baker is taken, and in a luncheon address, one of SNCC’s earliest and most prominent supporters, Harry Belafonte, challengingly reminds the conference that sentimental reminiscence is not the main reason for gathering.

Panel 12: The Impact and Influence of SNCC on American Society 1960 to 1968

Vincent Harding, Moderator, historian, author There is a River: the Black Struggle For Freedom In America, advisor SNCC, SCLC
Professor Charles Payne, author, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom
Taylor Branch, author, Parting the Waters, Pillar of fire, At Canaan’s Edge
Professor Clayborne Carson, author, In Struggle: SNCC and Awakening of Black America in the 1960s
Tom Hayden, founding member Students for a Democratic Society

This panel, says Vincent Harding, is a “beautiful combination of scholars with the warm, warm blood of social activism running through their lives.” The panelists present insights on SNCC drawn from their years of careful study of the southern freedom movement. Clayborne Carson, author of In Struggle, SNCC and the Awakening of Black America, describes the outbreak of sit-ins as the “beginning of a new period of struggle.” And SNCC, says Charles Payne, whose book, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, is a definitive work on Mississippi’s freedom struggle, “convinced people they could step into roles they had never played before.” SNCC’s national impact was great, the panel agrees, but author Taylor Branch wonders why the organization’s importance remains so little-recognized. In just one example of SNCC’s impact, Tom Hayden reveals that SDS was formed in response to a letter he wrote to northern students while jailed in Albany, Georgia.

Panel 13: What was SNCC? How Did It Evolve Over the Years? Why Did it Cease to Exist?

Dr. Joyce Ladner, Moderator, Tougaloo College activist Mississippi, author, Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: the Black Woman
Timothy Jenkins, SNCC advisor, Washington lobbyist MFDP
Cleveland Sellers, program secretary SNCC, field secretary Mississippi
Zohorah Simmons, SNCC field secretary Mississippi, Atlanta, Georgia

“Each of us experienced SNCC differently,” moderator Joyce Ladner says opening this panel of SNCC veterans from different eras in the organization’s history. The panel probes the complex evolution of SNCC more thoroughly than is usual, discussing the radicalizing effect of its style of grassroots organizing, its disillusionment with establishment politics, the attacks on SNCC by former liberal allies and more conservative black civil rights organizations, and the government’s COINTELPRO assault. SNCC’s own political naiveté is also discussed. From the audience a number of SNCC veterans actively participate in the discussion.

Panel 14: Political Impact of SNCC 1964 to 1984

Ivanhoe Donaldson, Moderator, SNCC field secretary, Danville, Virginia, Mississippi
Courtland Cox, program secretary, field secretary Lowndes County, Alabama
Julian Bond, SNCC Communications Director

SNCC’s impact on elections across the nation is still little known but the changes unfolding in the south helped accelerate an emerging black electoral surge in America. Ivanhoe Donaldson explains how Julian Bond’s successful campaign for a seat in the Georgia state legislature resulted in a call for assistance from Richard Hatcher who would win his campaign to become mayor of Gary Indiana. Courtland Cox uses the “regime change” resulting from SNCC’s work in Lowndes County, Alabama as a case study. The development and impact of “popular material” like comic books created, as Julian Bond put it, “new ways to talk to people” about political participation.

Luncheon Keynote Speaker: Harry Belafonte: “Why Can’t Our Children Find Us?”

Rev. David Forbes, one of Raleigh’s student sit-in leaders in 1960 opens this luncheon with a short political prayer. Forbes also participated in SNCC’s founding conference. In formally welcoming attendees, Shaw University Interim President Dr. Dorothy Yancy recalls joining the sit-in movement as a student at Johnson C. Smith College in North Carolina. In his keynote, Harry Belafonte immediately issues a challenge that he calls “tough love”: While it is good that SNCC endures and is able to gather and commemorate its work on the 50th anniversary of its founding, that is not enough. He worries aloud about sinking into sentimentalism and asks: “What can we do with our lives using that same kind of commitment and determination to continue the important work of transforming the United States into a ‘more perfect’ union?” Belafonte describes the roots and evolution of a group of young activists—“the Gathering for Justice”—that he began bringing together with older activists several years ago. Not enough SNCC veterans are part of this and they need to be, he says. “Where are we, who are we talking to, and what are we talking about?”

Panel 15: Ella Baker’s Roots: “Give People Light and They Will Find a Way”

Rev. William Barber, Moderator, Chairman, North Carolina NAACP
Dr. Tim Tyson, author, Blood Done Sign My Name
Dr. Carolyn Brockington, Physician, Ella Baker’s niece

Ella Baker was more than 30 years older than virtually everyone participating in SNCC’s founding conference. Moderator Rev. William Barber who has been leading a campaign to formalize Ella Baker’s legacy in North Carolina says that he wants her birthday, December 13, to be declared “Ella Baker Day.” As well, Barber wants Ella Baker’s home in Littleton, North Carolina declared a historic site. Bernice Reagon explains and sings Ella Baker’s favorite song: Guide My Feet While I Run This Race

Panel 16: Depictions of the Movement in Popular Culture

Jennifer Lawson Gittens, Moderator, general manager WHUT television
Judy Richardson, SNCC national office Atlanta, documentary producer
Danny Lyon, SNCC staff photographer
Charlie Cobb, SNCC field secretary Mississippi, feature writer/news reporter
Chuck Neblett, SNCC Freedom Singer
Maria Varela, SNCC field secretary Mississippi, Alabama, photographer, teacher
Phil Alden Robinson, film director NAACP Image Award winner for Freedom Song

Popular media has trouble with an organization like SNCC for a variety of reasons. For example, says Hollywood film director Phil Alden Robinson, a large problem with getting freedom movement films made for theatrical distribution is the assumption of “no foreign”—that such films won’t sell overseas. Entertainment values that drive news limit interest in day-to-day grassroots organizing and the Movement becomes defined as dramatic protests. But there is new opportunity today. “Media” no longer only means Hollywood or network television and mainstream print media. Young people especially, says photographer Maria Varela, “are not just cultural consumers but culture-makers.”

Panel 17: Black Power, Black Education and Pan Africanism

Courtland Cox, Moderator, SNCC program director, field secretary Lowndes County, Alabama
Professor Geri Agusto, Secretariat 6th Pan African Congress
Professor Gregory Carr, Chair Howard University Department of Afro-American Studies
Professor Sylvia Hill, Board Vice-Chair of Trans Africa Forum
Attorney Howard Moore, SNCC attorney Atlanta, Georgia

Throughout the ten years of its formal organizational existence SNCC did a variety of things it felt necessary; sit-ins, freedom rides, campaigns aimed at the desegregation of public facilities, voter registration drives and the organizing of political parties. Doing what is necessary at any moment in time is an old tradition in black struggle; ideas of Pan Africanism and independent black education connected to the desire and struggle for empowerment are part of that tradition. So it is within this context of looking at movements that began flowing from various “black spaces” long before SNCC that this panel discusses some of the deeper political and cultural currents that fed the flow of political struggle in the 1960s, as well as the movements and institutions beyond U.S. borders which SNCC’s ideas helped inform. They answer the oft-raised question of when the movement stopped by saying that it never did; no more than one can say that the movement began with SNCC.

Panel 18: The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party: “A Real Democratic Process”

Lawrence Guyot, Moderator, Chair Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
Michael Thelwell, Director Washington office MFDP
Attorney Armand Derfner MFDP attorney
Professor Wesley Hogan, author Many Minds One Heart, SNCC’s Dream for a New America
MacArthur Cotton, SNCC field secretary Mississippi

What made SNCC “radical” was the people it worked with, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) which emerged from SNCC’s organizing provides one clear example of this. Although 96 percent of its members were denied the right to vote, the MFDP transformed not only Mississippi politics but the rules of the national Democratic Party. “It is the greatest example of small-d democracy that we have,” says professor Wesley Hogan, author of Many Minds One Heart, SNCC’s Dream For a New America. Former MFDP chairman Lawrence Guyot gives a detailed presentation of the why of the MFDP and its challenges in 1964 and 1965. MFDP Attorney Armand Derfner describes the Party’s continuing impact, especially on the Voting Rights Act. Former SNCC field secretary MacArthur Cotton describes the step-by-step process involved in organizing the MFDP.

Panel 19: Women Leaders and Organizers: “You Can Do This”

Frances Beal, Moderator, Co-founder SNCC Black Women’s Liberation Committee
Mary King, SNCC Atlanta national headquarters, author, Freedom Song: A Personal Story of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement
Professor Cynthia Fleming, author, Soon We will Not Cry, The Liberation of Ruby Doris Smith Robinson
Doris Derby, Free Southern Theater
Maria Varela, SNCC field secretary Alabama, Mississippi, photographer
Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, SNCC field secretary Southwest Georgia, Mississippi

“I considered myself more second-class than SNCC did,” says a panelist. Without ducking the gender baggage men carried in the 1960s, listening to this panel is to gain a concrete sense of the range of work done by the women in SNCC. Women stepped forward as never before in the ranks of civil rights organizations. “You went ahead and learned how to do it and did it,” says one panelist. Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, the woman who actually ran SNCC is discussed; also the “profound” influence of Ella Baker.

Panel 20: The Black Church and Black Struggle

Rev. Bernard Lafayette, Moderator, SNCC field secretary Selma, Alabama
Rev. Nelson Johnson, Student Organization for Black unity
Rev. David Forbes, Raleigh Student Movement

The black church was born in struggle in the midst of slavery, and despite laws and vigilante actions targeting it for destruction the church has not only survived but has played a sustained and central role over more than 300 years of black struggle in America. This panel of black churchmen, with very active audience participation, reflects and examines the historical role of the church, its specific role in the Movement of the 1960s, and the lessons of that struggle for today.

Panel 21: Organizing in the White Community: “We Knew That We Were Not Free”

Bob Zellner, Moderator, SNCC’s first white field secretary, founder GROW—Grassroots Organizing Work
Sue Thrasher, founding member Southern Students Organizing Committee
Sharlene Kranz, SNCC staff Washington, DC, founder Jews for Urban Justice
Margaret Herring, COFO worker Mississippi, staff SNCC national headquarters, organizer Pike County Kentucky
Candie Carawan, Highlander Center Knoxville, Tennessee
Ed Hamlett, State Director, White Southern Students Project (WSSP) in Mississippi

Though black-led, and powered by the energy of the black population, whites have always been part of the southern freedom movement. Indeed, as all the panelists note, in its largest sense the southern struggle was not just for black-only freedom. Three “white” organizations were of particular importance to SNCC: The Highlander Center founded in the 1930s to begin addressing the needs of poor Appalachian whites embraced the civil rights struggle providing one of the few southern sites for integrated discussion and planning; the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF) which reflected a white southern radical organizing tradition and was one of SNCC’s earliest supporters; and finally, the Southern Student Organizing Committee (SSOC), young white southerners who took seriously SNCC’s call for whites to organize white communities. The panel discusses the work of all these organizations as well as the remarkable success of the Washington, DC-based Jews for Urban Justice organization which also developed in response to SNCC’s work. SNCC field secretary Hollis Watkins steps forward and speaks of the impact of white organizing work on the black community.

Panel 22: SNCC and the Black Arts Movement: “We Had To Change the Conversation”

A.B. Spellman, Moderator, poet, author, Four Lives in the Bebop Business
Amiri Baraka, poet, playwright, essayist, founder Harlem Black Arts Movement
Haki Madhubuti, poet, founder Third World Press, Institute of Positive Education
Jamila Jones, co-founder Harambee Singers
John O’Neal, co-founder Free Southern Theater

Focusing on artistic endeavor, the theme threaded through discussion here is as moderator A.B. Spellman puts it: “Where we came from, where we went, where we are and where we might go.” Two of the panelists: John O’Neal, one of the founders of the Free Southern Theater, and Jamila Jones, a founder of the Harambee Singers, were directly involved with the southern movement and describe where artistic effort fit into that political struggle. The poets Amiri Baraka and Haki Madhubuti, though northern artists, describe the intersection and interaction between southern struggle, its activists, and the nationwide black arts movement in which they were key actors. In general, the large and continuing concern with the power and value of word and song in terms of survival and liberation receives extensive discussion.

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DAY 3-April 17, 2010: It’s Gonna Be Our World

Remembering their “elders” who had long labored in the fields of social change and who helped inexperienced SNCC “field secretaries” move from protest into community organizing, the planning committee envisioned SNCC’s 50th anniversary gathering as an opportunity to reach out to the hundreds of young people who would be joining them at Shaw. The third day largely emphasized youth, with young people leading and driving several discussions, beginning in the morning with the introduction of SNCC children by their parents. This is followed by a panel of some of those children; and while their interests generally reflect the influence of their parents they all articulate 21st century views of what is needed now. The morning concludes with an address by SNCC’s Joyce Ladner tracing the path that led from her early life in Mississippi to involvement in Mississippi’s 1960s movement. Former SNCC chairman, John Lewis, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder are luncheon speakers. Lewis, now a U.S. congressman, speaks movingly of what SNCC meant to him. Holder links SNCC’s work to Barack Obama’s election to the U.S. presidency. Afternoon panels of young people consider the cradle to prison pipeline, the Young Peoples Project that is an outgrowth of the Algebra Project of SNCC’s Bob Moses, and the “actions for a new world” needed today. In Shaw’s campus chapel comedian Dick Gregory thanks a large gathering with biting humor that at once acknowledges the progress resulting from the southern movement and exposes attitudinal hypocrisy existing today. In a dinner address actor Danny Glover describes the influence of SNCC when he and other students at San Francisco State University fought for an ethnic studies program. After dinner, songs by the SNCC Freedom Singers and a variety of other artists complete the day.

Plenary: Joyce Ladner

Joyce Ladner is introduced by her sister Dorie. Both were deeply involved with SNCC in Mississippi. Like many African American parents who understood how to survive under Jim Crow and who constantly worried about the welfare of their children, her parents nevertheless taught them not to accept insult and, in their own way, acted as a supportive rearguard. Important to both Ladner sisters was the influence of NAACP Mississippi field secretary Medgar Evers. Ladner traces her roots in the tiny black community of Palmers Crossing to civil rights activism.

Panel 23: SNCC Children Speak

Maisha Moses, Moderator, daughter of Bob and Janet Moses
James Forman Jr., son of James Forman and Constancia Romilly
Tarik Smith, son of Frank Smith and Jean Smith Young
Sabina Varela, daughter of Maria and Lorenzo “Zuni” Zuñiga
Zora Cobb, daughter of Charlie Cobb and Ann Chinn
Hollis Watkins Jr., son of Hollis Watkins and Nayo Barbara Watkins

A number of children of SNCC veterans attended the conference. After being introduced one-by-one a small panel of them presented their view of the world describing lessons learned both directly and indirectly from their parents and the parade of SNCC people crossing their paths.

Luncheon Keynote: Congressman John Lewis: “Stand Up and Make Some Noise”

John Lewis, Chair of SNCC from 1963 to 1966, has been a member of Congress for 24 years. Jailed 40 times and badly beaten several times during civil rights protests, his congressional colleagues refer to him as “the Legend.” As a student at American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee in 1960, Lewis became deeply involved with the sit-in movement. “We did what young people do so well,” says Lewis. “We got in the way,” he tells a luncheon audience in an address filled with reminiscence, invocation of Movement martyrs and acknowledgements of old friends in SNCC. His years in Congress and even the election of Barack Obama, says Lewis, does not mean that now there is no need for struggle to continue. “You’re not too old to fight, to push—it’s in your blood, in your DNA. Stand up and make some noise.”

Luncheon Keynote: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder: “The Nation’s in Your Debt”

There is a “direct line” from the 1960 lunch counter sit-in that took place in Greensboro, North Carolina to the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 says U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the first black Attorney General of the United States. And he as well as Mr. Obama is a “beneficiary” of SNCC’s work, Holder says. However, cautions the Attorney General, acknowledging that the United States still suffers from racial inequality in everything from unemployment rates to the length of prison terms, “There is still work to be done.” And while the Justice Department “will be about that work,” Holder says, to do what needs to be done “will take more than the election of the first African-American president and the appointment of the first African-American Attorney General.”

Panel 24: The Young Peoples’ Project: Come Let Us Build a New World

Omo Moses, Moderator, Young Peoples Project
Albert Sykes, Young Peoples Project
Various Young Peoples Project activists

The Algebra Project begun by Bob Moses in 1988 is one of the legacies of SNCC. Its idea of math literacy as a civil right and efforts at organizing teenagers to make a demand on the school system resonates with the organizing work of the 1960s. In turn, an outgrowth of the Algebra Project is the Young Peoples Project. At the heart of this effort is young people organizing young people. In this session YPP members both explain and demonstrate how small simple tools for building relationships structure their work. This is not a panel but a workshop. Here, these young “math literacy workers” and organizers divide those in attendance into small groups—what would be called “Neighbors Circles” in the communities they work—and lead them into discovery of one another and their concerns.

Panel 25: The Cradle to Prison Pipeline

Benetta Standly, Moderator, ACLU Florida
Crystal Mattison, Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School program
Carmen Perez, The Gathering for Justice
Carrie Richburg, Pen or Pencil

“The one and only thing this nation guarantees our children is a prison bed if they get into trouble,” says Crystal Mattison of the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School program who can hardly hold back her tears. CDF numbers reveal a grim reality: One third of the prison population is black; one sixth is Latino. One point seven million children have a parent in prison. Fourth grade reading scores are being used to project prison needs in some states. Every day 192 children are arrested for violent crimes; 393 are arrested daily on drug charges. This panel traces the path to prison that almost from birth many minority children begin traveling. Another panelist, Carmen Perez, now involved with The Gathering for Justice organized by Harry Belafonte, vividly portrays the gang world that surrounded her childhood in a community outside of Los Angeles, saying how “lucky” she was to have someone “invest” in her. The panelists discuss inspiration from SNCC in their efforts to tackle the issues confronting them today.

Panel 26: Actions for a New World

Ash-Lee W. Henderson, Moderator, Student activist East Tennessee State University
Jonathan Lewis, The Gathering for Justice
Djuan Coleon, National Alliance of Faith and Justice
Ace Washington, Baltimore Algebra Project
Marilyn Shaw, Baltimore Algebra Project

Members of this panel insist that SNCC continues in terms of how it infuses their work. We know that not only policy must be changed says Jonathan Lewis of the Gathering for Justice, “but the attitude that support our work.” Another panelist, Djuan Coleon of Pen or Pencil says in 17 states they are trying to take grassroots organization into education and SNCC’s experience is part of what informs what they do. SNCC, says Ace Washington of the Baltimore Algebra Project is “something I want to go on.”

Special Program: Dick Gregory: “They’re Asking Different Questions Today”

“When you finally get a black president you get a nice, polite, well-behaved educated one who ain’t mad.” Comedian Dick Gregory’s humor is always pointed. Describing “progress” he notes: “Any time you get on an airplane and see an old, fat, ugly white stewardess, [the Movement] got her that job.” Gregory was one of a handful of prominent entertainers who consistently supported SNCC. And he was one of the very few of this handful who regularly put his own life on the line. As he explains it: “I made all the money I needed to make, then I bumped into y’all and found out that there’s another bank.” Using a sometimes caustic humor, Gregory refuses to allow the progress he acknowledges has been made to be seen as meaning there are no problems to solve. He’s sure President Obama “can’t go to New York by himself and get a cab.” The 84-year-old Gregory credits the “integrity of the [Movement] folks that surrounded us” for keeping him healthy. “Young people “should listen to old folks, but not too hard,” he admonishes.

Plenary: In Remembrance of Ella Baker, Howard Zinn, and Others

The spirit of many who were important to SNCC and the southern movement hovered over this 50th anniversary conference; some gone because of assassination, others from the passage of time. Charles Sherrod’s moving version of “One more time” incorporating the names of a long list of heroes and sheroes seems to invoke their presence. Here they are acknowledged with both words and photographs. Ella Baker’s grand niece discusses her “Aunt Ella.” Constancia “Dinky” Romilly tells of the COINTEL poisoning of her husband, SNCC executive director James Forman, and how he “healed himself,” admonishing that “SNCC has not done well in taking care of its walking wounded.” Remembering Howard Zinn, historian Vincent Harding reminds that Zinn, chairman of the Spelman College history department in 1960, encouraged students to challenge injustice on campus as well as the racism in society and was fired for his effort. When Spelman offered Harding the position he had been forced out of, Zinn encouraged the reluctant and resistant Harding to take it. “He who loved his students was sending me to his students.”

Dinner Keynote: Danny Glover: “The Real Costs Lie Ahead”

Actor Danny Glover was 13-years-old in 1960. As a college student at San Francisco State in 1968 “SNCC articulated my own rebelliousness.” He tells the dinner audience that when he and other students launched a campus struggle for an ethnic studies department SNCC “taught us organizing.” Glover elaborates on what he considers to be the new era of struggle of the 21st century. Desegregation and voter rights while important, don’t cost much money in the final analysis. But we are world citizens today, says Glover, and 2.5. billion people in this world are living on less than one dollar a day. Climate change, immigration, global rights for workers, are complex especially in a tumultuous world, and “a higher price will be paid for what must be done.” With the United States so dominant, often negatively dominant, African Americans, “the moral center of this country,” have to find ways “to insert ourselves” in the struggles around these issues.

Freedom Concert

The sound and power of movement song is what fills this session the night before the conference close. Bernice Reagon explains the origin of the SNCC freedom singers and introduces a brief video of Cordell Reagon who first organized the singers shortly after coming to Albany, Georgia with Charles Sherrod. Guy Carawan who introduced We Shall Overcome to SNCC in 1960 is present. And folk singer Len Chandler, a regular presence at protests and rallies explains singing freedom songs: “When you hear something twice, sing it!” Harry Belafonte leads the audience in his famous Banana Boat song. SNCC’s own anthem written by Albany, Georgia activist Bertha Gober closes out the gathering.

DAY 4—April 18, 2010: “We’ll Never Turn Back”

Past, present and future were joined on the closing day. They are linked as were so much of the panel discussions of the previous three days by the idea of continuing work. Robert “Bob” Moses who was SNCC’s Mississippi project director describes and demonstrates his current work for quality public education, noting that the Movement never quite tackled that issue. Bernice Johnson Reagon who became involved with SNCC as a student at Albany State College in Albany, Georgia, reminds the audience through spoken word and song that struggle neither began with SNCC nor ended in the 1960s. She asks the gathering to take another look at black traditional song and hear the expectation in them. The emotion that for many this 50th gathering may indeed be the last time for getting together is a visceral part of this concluding session.

Plenary Speaker: Bob Moses: “We the People”

Introducing Bob Moses, CORE’s former Mississippi project director David Dennis recalls a 2005 meeting in New Orleans with Moses and others to discuss education. This was before Katrina, says Dennis and there were 120 schools in the city. “Now we’re lucky if there are 30.” Lack of education says Moses was the “subtext” of the voting rights struggle. “We won the right to vote; the fight for public accommodations, but not education. And in that way, though blacks are citizens they are second class citizens.” The current fight, Moses explains, is for quality public education as a constitutional right. He introduces Albert Sykes who began working with Moses in Jackson, Mississippi more than a decade ago as a 6th grader who describes what a Moses-designed project—the “Algebra Project—has meant to him. “Young people have to stand up,” Sykes declares.

Closing Program: Solidarity of Past, Present and Future – Bernice Johnson Reagon

“What you hear in Bernice’s songs is the essence of struggle,” says Judy Richardson introducing Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon. And Reagon declares that “I am standing on ground plowed by people before I came into being.” She describes her own deepening involvement with the freedom struggle in Albany, Georgia. A noted scholar of black music she says that the spirituals, often thought of as old people’s music, “leaped into service in jail cells in the 1960s.” The cultural history of black people has always reflected what black people expect from life on earth. Her presentation in song and spoken word outlines the history expressed by black spiritual music and how understanding of it connects to contemporary struggle. “You will not be able to get through your life if you dismiss the ground you’re standing on.”

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