Excerpt From: Freedom Song

A Personal Story of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement

“I have written of the shared perspective held by SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] workers and the ethos of the organization. Yet there is an important aspect of the group with which I worked and lived that has only over time become clear to me. This element was so fundamental and played so central a part in the eventual disintegration of our group that it must appear extraordinarily naïve of me not to have been aware of it at the time. The failure to see, respond, and address this reality, however, was not simply naïveté on my part, but was interwoven with the attitudes and hopes of the young people of SNCC. Furthermore, if it was a key weakness that ultimately helped to destroy the group, it was also, ironically, our greatest strength. This fundamental aspect that I began to see only much later is the diversity of race, class, background, and experience of the staff members.

What does that mean? We saw ourselves, black and white together, as a ‘band of brothers and sisters’ and ‘a circle of trust.’ The spirit that united us—not even the most worldly and cynical of my colleagues would today qualify or disagree—was such that we would have died for one another. What this fierce, all-embracing vital force of loyalty disguised was the real and ultimately unassimilable differences in class, race, gender, and experiential backgrounds in our circle.

Black and white together. Really? Who were the whites? There were some from influential homes of famous writers and lawyers, and from private schools. Some were the children of white ethnic workers in mills and factories. Many of us came from middle-class Christian homes. Others of us came from conservative or reactionary white southern segregationist families. There was one now legendary SNCC hero whose father had been an Alabama Klansman. Some represented the New England Puritan abolitionist tradition of the Unitarians and Quakers. Some were urban Jews. Some came from the ‘little red schoolhouse’ tradition of the American Left.

And the blacks? Anyone who looked at the black staff as a homogeneous group could not have been more wrong. A few were the children of northern black professionals, college-educated, confident, and upwardly mobile even within a segregated society. Some had been born in the Caribbean and others were but one generation removed from its cane fields, mostly from the North. A few were the children of that painfully small class of southern professionals that made them a true elite. A vast majority were southern college students, frequently the first of their families to reach university but who put that aspiration aside to do battle. The rest were our shock troops. They were our kamikazes, our heroes and heroines, southern kids, scrappy, many of them academic dropouts working in the cotton fields of the Black Belt, all of them rebellious, the ‘local folk,’ plucky, in their teens and early twenties, many of whom had had members of their families lynched, who responded to the call of the movement—and made it work.

In retrospect, it is clear that while the passion and sacrifice of SNCC united us and made us all equal, the more basic differences in our perspectives, outlooks, and vision of possibilities, while initially masked, would ultimately have to be confronted. That so profound a reality escaped us for so long should not be judged a flaw; it was, rather, ultimately a testament to the strength and power of the civil rights movement during its finest hours.

Journalists were fond of categorizing SNCC as ‘radical.’ Radical compared to what? An October 1960 edition of The Student Voice, in the year of SNCC’s founding, carried an editorial:

Nonviolence has real healing potential. It says that the only ‘place to stand’ is in relation. To what? To the self and the other. Nonviolence says that each person has personhood, that each of us is capable of entering into relation. Consequently, nonviolence refuses to manipulate. It refuses to regard persons as things, as ‘its.’ If we lose sight of this basic concept of nonviolence, we will lose the ultimate potential of the student movement. For, without this commitment to the validity of the other person, the movement will become an institution and persons will become things….To retain personhood will be the hardest battle of all in a world where a mass movement is necessary to save the South and America. But the South and America will not be worth saving unless there persons, real selves, left to live there. This retaining and creating of personhood is the great and final goal of the student movement.

Jane Stembridge, probably the author of those words as SNCC’s first executive secretary, put an additional twist on this germinal concept of SNCC’s when she quoted a black Mississippi woman to me in one of her letters from Greenwood: ‘An old lady the other night told me this line that would solve the whole problem. She said we must act this: ‘Do unto others as you would be did.’’ SNCC’s first chairman, Chuck McDew, was often heard to pose the Talmudic query: ‘If I am not for others, then who is for me? If not now, when?’”