SNCC: Born of the Sit-Ins, Dedicated to Action Remembrances of Mary Elizabeth King

SNCC: Born of the Sit-Ins, Dedicated to Action
Remembrances of Mary Elizabeth King
From Trinity College SNCC Reunion, April 1988

Originally published in A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC, by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg

Born of the Sit-Ins
Belief and Action, Freedom and Responsibility
The Importance of SNCC
SNCC and the Position of Women

Born of the Sit-Ins

I think it’s very important to ask what exactly was this organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) — what made it unique in a unique struggle that flourished in the South between 1955 and, to my mind, 1965.

One of the things that made SNCC so distinctive is that it grew out of a phenomenon that was completely unplanned. At the start of the decade of the 1960s, February 1, four students in Greensboro, North Carolina, following a bull session, fed up with the laws of segregation, decided to go downtown to Woolworth’s and to sit in. They didn’t call it a sit-in, they just decided to order a Coca-Cola and not to leave when they were refused. That sparked other students across the South who similarly went to lunch counters and sat, ordered a Coca-Cola or whatever, and refused to leave. Within three months there were 35,000 students who had sat in. By then it had a name. And by the end of the year, 50,000 students had sat in and 3,600 had gone to jail.

Most of those students who were sitting were the first of their generation to go to college. Going to jail was about the worst possible thing that could happen and yet they were willing to put everything on the line; they were willing to sacrifice not only their future but their family’s investment in them. What was it that made that happen at that point in time that had launched the brushfire of reaction? Within hours, the students in Nashville, who were already preparing themselves in biweekly seminars on nonviolence, had moved downtown. Shortly thereafter students in Orangeburg, South Carolina, had moved to sit in. In Texas. It spread all across the South like lightning. What made that happen at that time?

Well, I think that one of the most significant, if not the most significant, global phenomena since World War II was the sweep of anti-colonialism throughout the world. And if you remember when television came, Black families had begun to see leaders from Africa. They had heard about the Algerian War, which was still raging at the time of the sit-ins — one million Algerians had been killed in a struggle with the French for control of their own country. The British Raj had ended in 1947. At the time of the sit-ins, Fidel Castro was in the news almost every night. It was absolutely inevitable that at some point in time American Blacks would launch an anti-colonial struggle in the United States.

What happened with the sit-ins I believe is partly attributable to the studying that was going on. I mentioned the Nashville group. With guidance from the Reverend James M. Lawson who had spent three years in India after the death of Gandhi, this group of students had been studying the works of Mohandas Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau, they had been studying the nonviolent civil disobedience and the nonviolent resistance of the Indian struggle, they had studied the basic philosophy of Christianity, and also there was the influence of the existentialists. There was a belief for many of the people who became involved that you are what you believe. It was a part of the times.

And following that sit-in in February 1960, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a remarkable woman named Ella Baker called a conference in April in Raleigh, and that was the start of this organization. If there is any one person that I think deserves the credit for SNCC’s philosophical framework, it’s probably Ella Baker. She profoundly influenced many of us with her beliefs, which had been constructed through a lifetime of organizing.

She was born in 1903 and she was organizing all during the 1920s and the 1930s with the YWCA, as a founder of CORE, and as an important leader in the NAACP. She was there when SCLC was born. She was the person who took $800 from SCLC for the first conference on SNCC, and she is the person that you find repeatedly from the twenties right through the sixties as the pivot, as the catalyst for many of the civil rights organizations. And she profoundly believed that there is leadership in everyone, in the most humble hamlet. I was to encounter her two years later. I was 22 years old when I went to work for SNCC. There were 41 staff members at the time, spread across about ten southern states, and it was the most extraordinary group of students, of young people, that I had ever met.

The moment that I met the staff in the SNCC headquarters in Atlanta, I knew that my place was with the movement; there was no turning back. I was part of a campus group that traveled from Ohio Wesleyan to Nashville and Atlanta and Tuskegee in my senior year, and I met Bernard Lafayette and Jim Forman and Julian Bond and others, and that was it I knew that that’s where I belonged. So even in my own response, I had something of that self-sacrifice, that willingness to throw everything to the winds for this force.

Belief and Action, Freedom and Responsibility

It’s hard for me to impart to you fully the strength of that commitment but there is no one, no matter how jaded or how worldly, among my peers who would disagree with me when I say that we were willing to die for each other. We believed in something bigger than ourselves and we were willing to sacrifice everything for it. We believed that ideas should come from action, not from ideology. We had a stern insistence that our conceptualization, our thinking, our framework, should grow from engagement with the people that we were working with rather than any doctrine or any ready-made philosophy. We were not ready to accept anyone’s -ism. We wanted to do it ourselves.

The sit-ins were profound in their insistence that belief and action are one. What those students were doing was saying that nothing else counts except the willingness to act out your beliefs. SNCC also had the most pure vision of democracy that I have ever encountered. We never doubted the feasibility of democracy; we had no doubts about that at all. We struggled for consensus. It was never easy, it was always a struggle, but we believed that everyone had a right to speak and everyone’s opinion was important.

One of the most vital distinctions between this extraordinary organization and the organization headed by Dr. King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), was its view of leadership. We believed that leadership was something inherent in every individual — to be biblical about it, even the least of these — and we believed that our role was that of organizers. We talked about ourselves frankly as an “organization of organizers” and that we had to move on. We saw ourselves as working ourselves out of a job. The first time that I met Julian Bond, he said to me, “I think SNCC’s going to be gone in another five years. There isn’t going to be a need for us and we’re going to be moving on to other things.” We never had any sense of institutionalizing ourselves.

We thought of leadership as a matter of development, a process, a matter of becoming, and that our role was to help it emerge and flourish. And we were also an incredibly diverse group of young people. Howard Zinn did a survey in 1962 [reported in SNCC: The New Abolitionists] of 41 SNCC workers, and at that time 35 of them were Black, 25 came from the Deep South. All of the southern Blacks were from homes where their mothers worked as domestic servants and their fathers were farmers, truck drivers, factory workers, bricklayers, or carpenters. So the organization had that cadre at its core, but also there were many others from a variety of different homes and ethnic backgrounds that were part of the organization.

For myself I have to say that one of the most important things that was at work for me when I went to work for SNCC was the studying that I had done of a theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was involved in a bomb plot to kill Hitler. He was a German theologian who believed that being Christian meant taking sides. He was incarcerated; he was locked up in Buchenwald and was hanged by the Nazis, but he believed two things that profoundly influenced me then and, frankly, influence me now. He believed that freedom is expressed in the willingness to assume responsibility and he believed that freedom without responsible action is not freedom.

I think that one of the other things I would like to highlight about this extraordinary organization is the fact that there is nothing that we were afraid to discuss. We asked astounding questions of each other. There was nothing that was too cosmic, too enormous for us to consider. In fact, the debates in our organization straddled some of the great philosophical questions of the century and I think it contributed to that debate on a global basis.

I mentioned the question of leadership, our position that leadership had to come from the bottom up in contrast to the more conventional perception of leadership in SCLC centered around a singular leader, centered in the historical leadership of the Black church. We debated questions of reform versus revolution. We debated the question of nonviolence as opposed to armed struggle. We debated the question as to whether a centralized method of organizing our struggle was better than a decentralized method of organizing. In other words, should we have a strong central organization to serve as the catalyst or should we attempt to decentralize as much as possible to local communities? We also debated the question of whether there weren’t some virtues in authoritarianism or should we be manifestly as democratic as we could be. And finally we debated the question of the power and psychology of men and women.

Certainly there was a two-centuries-old — if not longer — tradition of grass-roots resistance right from the earliest days of slavery. There were all sorts of efforts to overturn and end slavery, including petitions and work stoppages and all sorts of devices, buying one’s way into freedom, and finally, armed resistance. There was a long tradition of resistance and faith and endurance, but what was remarkable about SNCC is that it came together and despite its almost anti-ideological position, particularly in the early years, it developed a framework for social change that spark-plugged and catalyzed a whole series of other movements.

There was no guidebook for how to organize. A lot of the very basic principles of organizing used by SNCC were subsequently used by Saul Alinsky and in the grape strike in California, and any number of other movements and endeavors. We took some insights from the labor movement, it’s true. We took some tips from study. But, primarily, the tactics that we developed grew out of the experience and the engagement with the people in the Black Belt counties in which we were working. But that movement went on to catalyze the emergence of the modern women’s movement. It certainly was the spark plug for the resistance to the Vietnam War. Those two movements profoundly influenced the techniques used by the environmental movement. One of our volunteers [Mario Savio] launched the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. If you look at where people are now you see the tentacles going out from SNCC throughout the intervening three decades.

The Importance of SNCC

SNCC was important. We could get to see any member of Congress that we wanted to see, any senator. We had former CIA directors flying in to meet with us. The eyes of the world, in a sense, were on us through the television media. We, being the big, big “we,” all of the thousands of people, the armies of unnamed people involved in the movement, had made it irrevocable for the 1964 Civil Rights Act to be passed, and the deaths of our three fellow workers had in large part focused the legislators on that point so there was no return to the status that existed before.

When I arrived in Mississippi, half of the counties in the Mississippi Delta had not one single Black registered to vote, and the protocols that were at work were essentially those passed in the 1890s, when lynchings of Blacks by white mobs occurred on the average of one every two and-a-half days. Lynching still took place. I remember clearly that after the death of President Kennedy I spent five days trying to find one reporter who would report the fact that Bob Moses had told me that the bodies of five Black men had turned up in the Homochitto River near Natchez. I could not find one reporter for five days who would report that fact. Finally, after five days, Claude Sitton of the New York Times was willing to include that in his account.

The situation had been like that since the 1890s. Today we have a situation in which there are over 7,000 Blacks who have been elected to office; more than 300 American cities have Black mayors. The Black mayors in Mississippi comprise the largest number in the country. Black voter turnout in 1986 was responsible for bringing the Senate back to the Democrats. In Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, the incumbents were dumped because of a Black voter turnout in excess of 85 percent. So we are beginning to see the full flowering of the political muscle that began to break out at the time of the early 1960s.

SNCC and the Position of Women

But we also were not sure of ourselves as an organization; we did not know exactly in which direction we were going to move. And as we pondered all of the possibilities that were open to us, the call went out from Jim [Forman] and a committee in Atlanta inviting all of the staff flung across the South, from Arkansas to the Eastern Shore [of Maryland], to a staff meeting to take place in Waveland, Mississippi, in November 1964. And each of us was invited to prepare a position paper on anything we wanted to write about. In SNCC’s radical egalitarian tradition, we could say anything we wanted to say, write about any topic, challenge the staff to anything we wanted to challenge them to. And these position papers were gathered and mimeographed in Atlanta and sent out. There were, as I recall, 37 position papers as we convened for the staff retreat. These papers were not to be the central defining question on the agenda, but they were to inform the overall environment of the meeting.

Casey [Hayden] and I had been talking amongst ourselves for at least the two years before that. We had been reading together and studying together at night, long discussions. We had begun to talk about ourselves as women, and as the staff pondered the question of what would be our vision now and where would we go, how would we develop a structure to support the direction in which we were going, how would we determine where we were going — because process questions always underlay content in SNCC — we decided to raise some things that were bothering us about the subordinate status of women in some projects, about the reflexive use of male organizers as spokesmen, and a potpourri of other concerns.

I remember talking with Ruth Howard, with Muriel Tillinghast, with Jean Wheeler Smith, with Dona Richards, with Theresa del Pozzo, with Emmie Schrader during that period. And I started to gather examples from bulletin boards and staff meetings and memos that were coming across my desk and so on. And I put together a memo and I showed it to Casey and she said, yes, she would go along with me on it, but we decided we’d better do this anonymously. I was sure that if we put our names to it, it would be greeted with nothing but a wall of laughter.

And to show you how much has changed since then, when Amy Carter read a manuscript of my book Freedom Song [1987], she couldn’t believe that part. She said, “You weren’t really afraid of ridicule, were you? I mean, you had come to grips with your own death and everything; you were afraid they were going to laugh at you?” Yes. We who had come to grips with our own death, we were afraid of what our fellow SNCC staff members were going to say when they read this position paper about women.

When we finally got it distributed, we were right, basically. There were one or two people who stepped forward, but they were noteworthy, they distinguished themselves in supporting it. The women I have already mentioned, of course, were supportive, but among the men there weren’t too many. I remember Bob Moses and Charlie Cobb being very supportive, in particular. So was Julian Bond. But very quickly people figured out who had written it. And it was out. It was out there on the table and the genie never went back into the bottle.

I’m going to do something that I ordinarily would never do; I’m going to read a segment from my book Freedom Song, about something that happened after that paper was circulated.

SNCC always worked extremely hard. It was nothing to work twelve hours a day, seven days a week. We were exhausted half the time. I remember one night that I passed out at 3:00 AM when the telephone rang in the Freedom House in Tougaloo. I went to answer the phone and on the way back to bed, I just passed out, I fainted I was so tired. Well, we always worked hard but we also partied hard. And that night a group of us started drifting down to the pier of Waveland, and it was Stokely Carmichael and Mendy Samstein and Carol Merritt and maybe about twenty of us. And we went down to the pier and Stokely, whom we had called “Stokely Starmichael” the summer before in Mississippi because of his natural celebrity, started cracking jokes.

Cracking jokes one after another, he usually made fun of himself and the people of Trinidad more than of anyone else. It was the same this night. … Several … of us were beginning to mellow after the traumatic meetings. We were soothed by the gentle Gulf winds that were still warm in November, the lapping waves, and the wine. The moon was bright enough to read by.

Stokely started one of his monologues. He led slowly and then began to warm up. One humorous slap followed another. We became more and more relaxed. We stretched out on the pier, lying with our heads on each other’s abdomens. We were absorbed by the flow of his humor and our laughter. … Stokely got more and more carried away. He stood up, slender and muscular, jabbing to make his points, his thoughts racing. He began to gesticulate dramatically, slapping his thighs and spinning around, thrusting his arm, silhouetted against the moon like a Javanese shadow puppet. … He made fun of himself and then he dressed down Trinidadians.

He started joking about Black Mississippians: He made fun of everything that crossed his agile mind. Finally, he turned to the meetings under way and the position papers. He came to the no-longer-anonymous paper on women. Looking straight at me, he grinned broadly and shouted, “What is the position of women in SNCC?” Answering himself, he responded, “The position of women in SNCC is prone!” Stokely threw back his head and roared. ..with laughter. We all collapsed with hilarity. His ribald comment was uproarious and wild. It drew us all closer together, because, even at that moment, he was poking fun at his own attitudes.

[Freedom Song, pp. 451-452).

Now, that is my version of an account that has been widely reported as a serious comment and was picked up by a great deal of the feminist literature that followed, and I wanted to take this opportunity to set the record straight as I remember it, as Casey and others who were there remember it, and if you ever meet him, ask him what he thinks. But that's the true story as I saw it.

I think it's important to say as well, though, that because all of this occurred in the context of a debate on SNCC's future direction and its structure, that part of what Casey and I were doing in writing that paper was not addressing the concerns of women as a gender statement, so much as it was a belief that if the movement was all that we believed it to be, if leadership was what we believed it to be, then it was appropriate for there to be opportunities to address our agenda too, or for us to raise the things that were of concern to us.

We were concerned that SNCC move in the direction of increasing democratization. I've already discussed the deep gulfs, the ravines that SNCC straddled, questions of decentralization or centralization, of a more authoritarian approach or a more democratic approach, questions of the highly charismatic leader or of leadership from the bottom. There were so many issues, so many polarities that SNCC was constantly grappling with. And in that context, in talking about women, Casey and I were arguing that SNCC should return to the earlier vision of the sit-ins, the period when one acted on one's beliefs, because of a belief that one was what one believed. And so in a sense what we were doing in introducing that paper on women was broadening the debate in favor of a more decentralized and democratic SNCC, one that implicitly would be able to address our concerns too, and we were also asking SNCC, will there be room for us as women to act out our beliefs as we had with the early vision of SNCC with the sit-ins.

About a year later the issue had moved along, it was no longer so sensitive. Casey and I went to Virginia and we wrote another paper; this time it was no longer secret, we signed the paper. And the foment on SNCC's structure had deepened by then, so we were, again, basically posing those same questions. We were calling for a return to the basic values of the sit-ins and the early vision of SNCC.

This paper we sent across the country to a group of forty women organizers in some of the other peace and civil rights organizations, the northern student movement, Students for a Democratic Society, others who were organizing. And we talked about a common-law caste system in the larger society. And we said that subtle attitudes forced women to work around or outside hierarchical structures of power which excluded them. We were no longer talking about SNCC, we were talking about the entire society. I've already mentioned that one of the things we got to do in SNCC was to ask questions with astounding implications, and this is what we were doing again.

We also pointed out that many men wanted to join our dialogue but that others found it hard to respond nondefensively, and we concluded that the problems between men and women functioning in society as equal human beings are among the most basic that people face. We've talked in the movement about trying to build a society which would see basic human problems, which are now seen as private troubles, as public problems and try to shape institutions to meet human needs rather than shaping people to meet the needs of those with power.

I remember years later Barbara Raskin came to see me and she said, "Oh, Mary, I'll never forget the day that your memorandum arrived in the mail. We organized a group here in Washington, a consciousness-raising group it was called later, and we studied that memo and we restudied it and we passed it around amongst ourselves and finally the thing was so dog-eared that we could no longer read it."

So that memo sent to those forty women across the country was one spark, one piece of tinder, in the modern women's movement A year later there was a first women's caucus at the SDS convention in Urbana, and when a group of women walked out of that convention, the ironic thing was that the only man who stood to support them — this was a group of women who had been studying that memo — the only man who rose to support them was Jimmy Garrett, who was the SNCC staff member who ran the Los Angeles office.

Well, the women's movement in the modern sense was clearly the successor movement to the Civil Rights Movement and, of course, there are civil rights issues at the core. It's an error of historiography not only to fail to recognize the role played by SNCC in the Civil Rights Movement, but also not to realize the role of the Civil Rights Movement in building a larger concern for the rights of women in our society. And I want again to point out what was so unique about SNCC was its openness to these questions, that it could nourish Casey and me and others to ask these questions, to write these papers, to pose these things. SCLC was priestly, patriarchal; these questions could never have been raised and there were not enough women in the organization to raise them.

I think the last thing that I would like to point out is the incredible synergism that occurs between movements. I agreed completely with [Lawrence] Guyot when he pointed out that women who are now half of the delegates of the national Democratic conventions have the Challenge by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Part to thank for it. That’s absolutely historically correct. So there is an ongoing impulse from the movement that has taken us from one movement to another.

Copyright © Mary King. 1988