What a wonderful five days at Shaw in Raleigh to celebrate the history of SNCC, to re-establish old connections and make new ones, all in the service of the continuing struggle for justice. As a historian and "outsider" to the SNCC family, it was truly my honor to be a part of this historic gathering, to see some of you again, meet many of you for the first time, and to document aspects of the festivities with my camera. It is always impressive to me the way SNCC vets graciously tolerate, and often lovingly embrace, those of us hanging around the edges of your world - the scholars, the students, the activists, admirers and friends of SNCC. We are all "children of SNCC" and each of us has a personal story about the way your history and legacy has transformed our lives. Thank you.
I have posted 352 photographs from the conference to a website: http://sncc50thanniversaryconference.shutterfly.com/
This is by no means a comprehensive record of
events, but rather glimpses of my experience there. Please feel free
to head on over and take a look. Please also consider adding your
own photos to the website, as well as a comment in the Guestbook to
let me know what your impressions are. I also posted about a dozen
excellent links to online resources related to SNCC's history.
Please feel free to
share the link to this website with anyone else in your network that you think might enjoy taking a look at the photos or links. In addition, if you would like me to send you the original digital file of any of my photos, I am happy to do so. Just drop me an email with the image number(s).
Again, thank you for your individual and
collective contributions to the transformation of our society into a
more democratic and just place! I took to heart what Mr. Belafonte
said when he challenged us to more vigorously engage the struggle in
our current historical moment, but I was also deeply moved by Ms.
Reagon's poetic reminder at the closing session that while there is
great work yet to be done, that it is ok to pause and acknowledge,
even lift up, the epic contributions you all made to a different
moment in time. We don't want to get lost in nostalgia, but it is
ok, and even good and right, that you and we pause to reflect on
what has gone before, to take stock, learn some lessons and seek to
draw out whatever insight
and guidance this history might offer us as we continue to struggle against the various injustices of the early 21st century...
Thanks again for letting this skinny white dude from Cleveland, Ohio, enter your "circle of trust"... it has made all the difference to me.
Enjoy the photos!
a lutta continua,
by TOM HAYDENApril 20, 2010
Charlie Cobb curtain raiser
WUNC broadcast with Charlie Cobb, Fran Beal and Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson
Florida Times-Union on Charlie Cobb
The tribe of SNCC by Tom Hayden appearing in The Nation magazine
Charlotte Observer report on Holder
Julian on NPR
curtain raiser in News and Observer
Harry Belafonte in the News and Observer
another NPR story with Guyot photo
entire Eric Holder speech
Montgomery (AL) Advertiser on Bob Mants
WALB in Albany, Georgia
Gannett Washington Bureau story
How about running my IPS story on your media list. After all, I was
there 50 yrs ago.
The Student's Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) celebrated
its 50th reunion last weekend. SNCC played a major role in the
sit-ins, freedom rides, voter registration drives and marches that
defined the American Civil Rights movement.
Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Taylor Branch says SNCC's role in shaping America is as essential as that of the Founding Fathers. He reports from the conference:
interviewed by Susan Lehman
Susan Lehman: John Lewis, Julian Bond, Charles Cobb, Ruby Sales, Dave Dennis and other SNCC veterans gathered at Shaw University last weekend. What most surprised you about the 50th Anniversary conference?
Taylor Branch: What was most surprising was how many people showed up. SNCC people are notoriously argumentative. They are dying out. They are scattered all over the place. And yet, I don't know the precise number, but it seemed to me there were more than a thousand people there.
SL: How do you explain the big turnout?
TB: There is a hunger for what is fundamental. A lot of people think our national politics is out of whack. SNCC addressed problems that no one thought could be solved, and risked their lives doing it. They know they deserve credit for this. And I think they are alarmed about what is happening in the country. Apart from all this, there was probably a sense that for a lot of them, this is their last shot to get together with people they were bosom buddies with 50 years ago. If it's a 50th, and you miss it, you can't plausibly say, "Hmm, I'll skip this one and go to the 60th!
SL: How would you characterize
TB: SNCC played a far larger and more positive role in American history than is commonly appreciated. Correctly viewed -- and historically viewed -- the SNCC people shoved into motion an awful lot of freedoms that changed the country in fundamental ways we take for granted today. This extends far beyond eliminating segregation. SNCC helped end -- literally -- the spirit of terror in a whole region of the country where people were afraid in a meeting room or a living room, or a downtown place that had any mixed presence.
Doing so made people's hands sweat. Because violence was ever present. People were getting beaten up, killed and insulted and there was a lot of hatred running through the land. SNCC's witness eliminated this and also changed the partisan structure of politics in the whole country.
By winning the right to vote for black people, SNCC helped create the two-party South. It also helped create - or stimulate - prosperity in the South, which was impossible while the South was gnarled up enforcing segregation. The region was not fit for major-league sports teams, then, as soon as segregation was eliminated, sports teams - the Atlanta Braves and Miami Dolphins teams sprouted up, and the Sun Belt was born. There were all kinds of blessings for lots of people. And not just black and white people, but for women and the disabled. The women's movement and a whole host of movements that followed came out of a fundamental struggle over questions about what equal citizenship means, what the role of politics is, and the responsibility of every student.
Properly viewed - and history will one day see it this way - the Civil Rights movement in general, and SNCC people as the young shock troops, playing the same role as the Founding Fathers did. They confronted systems of hierarchy and oppression, and set into motion a new politics of equal citizenship that benefited everybody.
On the uses of nonviolence
SL: What can be learned from SNCC's successes in eliminating racial desegregation?
TB: The overwhelming lesson is that they grounded themselves in nonviolence and in the notion that people will respond to the moral values of equal citizenship and democracy and basic religious morality, if it's dramatized sufficiently. And they discovered a kind of nuclear energy in nonviolent witness from the sit-ins to the voting rights era. That's a pretty big discovery.
SL: Is there anything in contemporary American political life that suggests nonviolence could be as powerful a force now as it was during the Civil Rights Movement?
TB: All political agitation is a form of nonviolence and political debate will win out in the end. But I don't see any contagious movements of nonviolence. One of my biggest complaints when I got to universities is that no one is studying nonviolence. Here you had a movement that came out from the weakest and most invisible segment of society in civil rights; it was a movement that adopted nonviolence and really shoved society -- against its own will -- in a direction of profound and beneficial reform. Yet nonviolence isn't studied.
It's a travesty that you can go on university campuses in the politics department and find people writing dissertations on minor attack ads in a campaign but not studying something as sweeping as the changes eight-year-old girls wrought on the national psyche by walking in front of dogs and fire hoses. This is a pretty remarkable thing. We are the oldest experimental democracy, and whole idea of democracy is to settle disagreements by vote instead of the sword. The vote -- as Dr. King used to say -- is an act of nonviolence. It's not a to tally marginal issue.
SL: Speaking of voting and marginalization -- If patterns of felony disenfranchisement persist, we'll have a higher level of disenfranchisement among African Americans in a few years, than we did at the time the Voting Rights Act passed.
TB: This is a political issue that needs to be addressed. Certainly the direction of American history from the inception has been to widen the franchise, not to narrow it. If we are actually narrowing it in a significant or politically important way, that is a turn backwards in history and we should be very skeptical and watchful about that.
SL: Attorney General Eric Holder delivered the keynote address at the SNCC conference. What role did government play in SNCC's understanding of the path to justice?
TB: This was an issue of tension between SNCC and Dr. King. Dr. King always tried to knit together the pressure from the movement withresults through politics. He was always looking for way to outlaw segregation and secure voting rights, legally. The legal part mattered. King tried to keep the movement together, and, at the same time, he negotiated with all three branches of government to move towards a voting rights law. For King, the whole purpose of movement was to gain some footholds in law. SNCC started that way, but was so disillusioned by the slow performance of the federal government -- and the fact that the federal government that had been so slow to move on Civil Rights was that it was starting the war in Vietnam -- that they disregarded the legal aspect. As an historical matter, I think this is why King lasted longer. SNCC came apart when it scorned the delicate task of keeping movement going and getting a political response.
SL: Was SNCC a racially-mixed organization?
TB: It was almost entirely black from 1960 - 1964. Those were important years. But then when they made the enormously controversial and philosophically fraught decision to bring 600 white college students down for freedom summer, a lot of them stayed on, and to a large degree threatened to swamp SNCC in inter-racialism. It was not smooth. Part of the inner struggle of SNCC to this day was they professed to be above the race issue, but in the crucible of risk and trying to work together across unfamiliar cultures, there was a lot of friction. It was controversial at this reunion to use the symbol of white and black hands clasped, which was SNCC's original symbol. The symbol was anachronistic. In the end, SNCC ended up being an all-black organization. The reunion was about 90% black.
SL: You have written about the way history and myth-making impede progress. Could you say a bit about how this happens?
TB: Race is a powerful engine of dangerous myth in American history. To some degree, it is today: a lot of the Tea Party animus is undigested 1960's resentment that people are called upon to act outside their comfort level with people from different backgrounds and races, and that government is forcing them to do this. And this is why they don't like the government. And because it is subliminal and emotional, it's not ever said directly. A fantasy is being fed to them: that if it weren't for the government, they could be totally comfortable, would be wealthy and not have problems. It has a lot of a success-church mythology sprinkled with an awful lot of federal-government-is-the-instrument-of-scary-minorities-and-foreigners, and to that degree that kind of mythology. Some of those same people are to tally blind to all the benefits - even to the white southerners - that the Civil Rights movement brought to them.
SL: Harry Belafonte said, during the speech he gave at the conference, that "no one should leave without a passionate idea about what to do now." What ideas or issues galvanized most passion?
TB: The issue of education and non-functional schools, particularly in cities was a big issue. Bob Moses, one of the most powerful forces in SNCC, has been working on education issues for years. There was a lot of interest in prisons and the burgeoning prison population. There are two million people in jail; reasons for this has something do with sentencing disparities of sentencing, and the effect of the drug war in imprisoning people for nonviolent crime.
The two issues of prison and youth education dovetailed with some people who were upset about fact that younger and younger kids, particularly black kids, are incarcerated right out of school. A lot of people were interested in peace issues and in the question of why we are continually fighting wars, and, the question of whether there is a correlation between our having government's tilt towards increased executive power and the national security state, and the fact that not only have we been involved in more long-standing wars, but also that we are losing them.
When I saw Eric Holder, I felt badly that people like myself and SNCC didn't applaud him and step up to offer support when he announced plans to try 9/11 people in civilian courts. This was to me, in a SNCC way that has to do with questions about what fundamental democracy is, a courageous step. Essentially Holder was saying: "We are not afraid to test our values in the open by putting our case there and allowing defense to have its case, and that is what the American system is about. And to fear that this might fail or be dangerous is a step backward from our values and a surrender to those who equate democracy with militarization."
SL: The Attorney General hasn't officially retreated from his announced decision to try the 9/11 case in civilian court. So it's not too late to stand up and voice support.
TB: You're right. I came out of the Holder speech thinking that if SNCC wanted to write him a letter I'd do what I could, and if anyone announced a march in support of that decision, I will try to attend.
SL: After four days what do you think was the ratio, amongst conference-goers, of hope to hopelessness or just fatigue?
TB: I didn't sense a lot of hopelessness. I sensed something more like determination and sprit. There were a lot of people who said, "When we started SNCC, there wasn't a lot of conscious talk about how that this was going to change the South. The first thought was we couldn't put up with it any more and that we simply wanted to do something that would show we disagreed. And not necessarily because we predicted it would lead to the kind of change it did." People started this because they wanted to make a witness or because something welled up in them. That's what a movement is. It wasn't calculated. Something reminiscent of that spirit was present over the weekend.
SL: Last question: you used your panel to talk about how SNCC doesn't take sufficient credit for the profound changes it brought. What difference does it make if SNCC -- and its accomplishments -- are fully understood?
TB: SNCC doesn't claim the breadth of its impact. And this hurts not only SNCC's own reputation, but contemporary politics as well. It leaves a gap. People should be a lot more optimistic about what you can achieve in politics than they are today. The Pew organization just released a study that says a huge percentage of people disparage government and say it is worthless and you can't do anything about it. If everyone had a true appreciation of breadth of changes spawned by the Civil Rights movement in general -- and by SNCC in particular -- it would be hard to justify that level of cynicism and opposition.
Taylor Branch is the author of, among many other books, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters.
"It seems to me that..."
Zora and Charlie Cobb
RALEIGH, North Carolina, Apr 27, 2010 (IPS) - Robert Moses, 75, a legendary leader and organiser in the 1960s U.S. civil rights movement, was huddled with a dozen people discussing plans for a campaign to make quality education a constitutional right. On one side was his son Omowale, 38. On the other was John Doar, 89, head of the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department in 1960-67 and prosecutor of the major civil rights cases of that era.
The age differences were noticeable at the conference they attended this month in Raleigh, North Carolina, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It was a moment for the "elders" - as high school and college students at the conference called them - to pass the torch to a new generation of activists.
SNCC, or "snick", as it was known, was founded on the campus of a black college, Shaw University in Raleigh, to coordinate the Southern student civil rights movement. A few months earlier, four black students had "sat-in" and demanded service at a lunch counter at a Greensboro, NC Woolworth's department store that reserved stools for whites. The management refused.
On succeeding days, more students joined them. As word spread, other college students staged "sit-ins" around the South.
SNCC took the movement further, evolving from a coordinating committee to an office that sent "field secretaries" to most Southern states. By 1963, there were 181 young staff and volunteers who lived and worked with local leaders to register and educate black voters and wage economic campaigns to gain their rights.
The next year, 1,000 young people, mostly whites, came to Mississippi for a SNCC campaign to register voters and run 28 political "freedom schools". Two of the whites and a Southern black youth were murdered by racists.
In 1965, SNCC organised a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge to the all-white state delegation to the Democratic Party Convention. In 1965, it challenged the seating of Mississippi's congressional delegation in Washington. It supported black candidates for Congress and local office; black elected officials in the southern states increased from 72 in 1965 to 388 in 1968.
SNCC actions led to a ban on segregated Democratic Party organisations and ultimately prompted Southern racists to quit and join the Republican Party. The awareness SNCC created played a role in Congressional passage of the anti-segregation Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
SNCC made foreign policy issues part of the black agenda. Staffer Julian Bond won election to the Georgia legislature in 1965, but the body refused to seat him because he endorsed SNCC's criticism of the U.S. war in Vietnam. A year later, his admission was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court. He served for 20 years.
Bond told the conference that, "What began 50 years ago is not history. It was a part of a mighty movement that started many years ago and that continues to this day - ordinary women and men proving they can perform extraordinary tasks in the pursuit of freedom."
That resonated with the young people. Abeni Nazer, 18, a freshman at the University of Baltimore, said, "I've never met Dr. [Martin Luther] King, I've never met Malcolm X [a Black Muslim leader assassinated in 1965]. But Bob Moses and a lot of people here, I actually get to meet them and I feel like, when you have first-hand experience and you're sitting face to face with these people, it's totally different than reading it in a book or seeing it on television. It inspires me more; it puts the passion back."
Robert Moses is a bridge to the modern movement. A former high school math teacher, in 1982, he started the Algebra Project, to develop methods to teach math to low income and minority students. That led to the Young People's Project, headed by his son Omowale, which trains high school and college students to work with students on math and to promote reform of math education. They follow SNCC's strategy.
Albert Sykes, 26, a Jackson, Mississippi YPP leader told IPS that SNCC's lesson was "start local and think local". He explained, "The initial sit-in was four guys sitting at a lunch counter. It was a single action but had a ripple effect. The message from the elders is to stay local and do small incremental steps, which for YPP is quality education as a constitutional right."
Later, addressing conference participants in Shaw's gymnasium, he said, "We transition from Feb. 1, 1960 and the sit-in movement to the 'stand up' movement. Young people in Jackson, Mississippi have to stand up, young people from Chicago, Illinois, from Minnesota, Georgia, have to stand up…" And the young people stood up to applause from the "elders".
He complained that, "Some of the challenges come from the torch not being property passed between the SNCC generation and our parents and our parents' generation not handing the work to us."
Other SNCC leaders also seek to pass the torch. Ivanhoe Donaldson, who organised for SNCC in Mississippi and Selma, Alabama and Bernard Lafayette, who worked on a Selma voting rights campaign, joined singer and civil rights supporter Harry Belafonte in 2005 to found The Gathering for Justice.
Carmen Perez, 33, a worker for the group, said for her the challenge was "a criminal justice system that incarcerates children".
Javier Maisonet, 25, who works in Chicago for YPP, said the sit-ins put everything in perspective. He explained that one SNCC activist said, "Once you come to terms with the worst thing that can happen to you, you can do whatever needs to be done."
*Lucy Komisar attended the founding conference of SNCC in 1960. She was editor of the Mississippi Free Press, a civil rights newspaper, in 1962-63. Her website is http://thekomisarscoop.com/.
Sue Thrasher's blog on the SNCC reunion:
Julian Bond’s talk:
Firsthand report from SNCC's Historic 50th Anniversary Gathering in Raleigh, NC, April 15-18. By Carl Davidson and other CCDS participants.