Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies English Language and Literature
On the Frontline of Redemption: SNCC and Its Contribution to the Civil Rights Movement, 1961-1965 B.A. Major Thesis
Supervisor: Jeffrey Alan Vanderziel, B.A.
I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.
I would like to thank my supervisor Jeffrey A. Vanderziel, B.A.
for his practical and valuable counsel.
Table of Contents
The Sit-in Movement 12
The Freedom Riders 18
Voter Registration in the Deep South: the land untouched since Reconstruction 23
The Freedom Ballot 32
The Freedom Summer of 1964 36
To the end: the Voting Rights Act of 1965 44
Born out of the turmoil of various spontaneous protest activities, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) represented an attempt at their coordination. It entered the Civil Rights Movement fairly late, in 1960. And though it was a birth generously assisted by Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), no other civil rights organization would become so independent, so relentless and so uncompromising.
My work tries to trace the ideas and events that were crucial at the very beginning. The first three chapters, dealing with the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides, guide the reader through the initial period when the movement sought to find itself. In the realm of the African American movement, SNCC found valuable allies, primarily the Congress of Racial Equality, as well as opponents, the fiercest of which became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). For their radical stance and unpredictable deeds, its workers faced backlashes ranging from public denouncement to death threats to murders.
The fourth and fifth chapters depict the shift from direct action to voter registration that created tension within the organization and almost caused it to split. It was during this period, 1963-1964, that SNCC definitely assumed the role of the torchbearer. Its workers were both the architects of, and had done most of the labor-intensive work on, the campaigns preceding and inherent in the Freedom Ballot.
The Freedom Summer of 1964, the most ambitious project of SNCC covered in the following chapter, won a great victory for the entire movement, for it brought the case of black enfranchisement into the spotlight of the nation. Heavily dependent on white Northerners, however, the project helped rise a long-term conflict within SNCC that would trouble the organization ever since. The SNCC-organized Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party had won remarkable concessions at the Democratic Party national convention, including a promise to desegregate all the future delegations. The chapter will reveal the reasons why it was not enough for the radicals in SNCC, although the liberal America and the entire civil rights movement unanimously applauded the victory.
The penultimate chapter, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, finds SNCC almost paralyzed, unable to regain its drive after the influx of several hundred white students. The chapter thus chiefly describes the path to the bill’s passage – a process from which SNCC voluntarily distanced itself, and SNCC’s growing disillusionment with the liberals and conflicting views in regard to the more moderate currents of the movement.
Finally, the last chapter discloses the rationale behind SNCC’s alienation from the mainstream of politics and agitation. It tries to analyze the important shift in attitude from nonviolence towards armed self-defense: a shift that stripped it of its last liberal supporters. After losing its financial base and all its allies within the movement, excluding whites from organizing and embracing black pride, the organization vanished from the scene.
The thesis basically attempts to strike a balance between two constituents: the genesis and the issues. The first part of the work happens to be more on the genesis side, the accounts of certain issues being present in sporadic sketches, while the second addresses the issues directly.
The result, I believe, is a comprehensive mixture of first-hand testimonies (Zinn), backed by a somewhat distanced yet imperative history (Williams) and further elucidated by the numerous scholarly analyses.
The reader will come to see (and that is the hypothesis of my work) that the history of the Civil Rights Movement is to a large extent the history of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
In the beginning, there was chaos. There was not much structure, not much organization. Yet there was great vitality and spirit. And from the need not so much to contain the chaos but to “coordinate” the efforts, was born the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
The inspiration must have come from various sources. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision, which overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Fergusson decision and once and for all outlawed the doctrine of separate but equal and (initially, only on paper) ended segregation in public education, was doubtlessly a strong impulse. The Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 also marked a profound victory and sparked the imagination of thousands of blacks throughout the country. Led by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.1 who was then a fresh face in town, and united under the “Montgomery Improvement Association”, the boycott showed the strong will and capabilities of African Americans to organize on a large scale and shook the complacency in the land of Jim Crow. It went on successfully for nearly thirteen months, helped rise King as an articulate leader and led to the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The 1957 case of the Little Rock Nine at Arkansas capital city’s Central High School was deeply disturbing, too.
But to many of the youngsters that were to become the architects of SNCC (pronounced “snick”), these were not more than childhood memories. When Brown v. Board of Education was decided, Diane Nash was sixteen years old. John Lewis was only fifteen when fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was savagely tortured and murdered in Mississippi. By 1960, Nash and Lewis were in college. (Williams)
The real ignition, though, had come in a form of a sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina (NC), on February 1, 1960, when four freshmen at the Agricultural and Technical College seated themselves at a Woolworth’s lunch counter to, as one of them, David Richmond, recalled later, “see what would happen.” (Zinn: 16) They remained there for an hour until it closed, with no service. All four had been members of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Youth Council. They spent the previous night debating what could be done to end segregation. The news soon reached Ella Baker, an energetic woman in her late fifties and executive director of the SCLC. In the 1940s, she spent six years with the NAACP as their field secretary and after the SCLC was set up in 1957, she became the first full-time executive secretary of its office in Atlanta, Georgia (GA). She was greatly impressed by the students’ spontaneous act of rebellion. In two weeks, sit-ins spread to fifteen cities in five Southern states. Baker realized that the movement lacked a central direction and leadership and decided that something should be done to coordinate it. (Williams)
She appealed to the SCLC to back a meeting of students involved in the sit-ins. With $800 and the prestige of Martin Luther King, she organized a conference at Shaw University in Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina, which was dubbed the “Sacrifice for Dignity”. Baker had hoped to draw about a hundred students. In the end, more than two hundred arrived, half of them student delegates from twelve different states. By that time, there were sixty centers of sit-in activity. At the meeting, there was some tension over whether to keep any official ties to the SCLC and it was Baker who openly advised the students to go their own way. “Ella Baker was very important in giving direction to the movement at that particular point,” Diane Nash remembered. Thus, the Easter weekend (April 15-17) of 1960 ended with the formation of an independent student-run group that was to organize the sit-in effort: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. (Williams: 136; Zinn: 32-33)
Jane Stembridge, a white girl from Virginia, later described that first night in Raleigh: “The most inspiring moment for me was the first time I heard the students sing “We Shall Overcome”… There was no SNCC, no ad hoc committees, no funds, just people who […] released the common vision in that song.” (Zinn: 33)
II. The Sit-in Movement
There was another important figure behind the swift spread of the initiative. James Lawson was a Nashville divinity student who refused to be drafted during the Korean War and only escaped prison thanks to a group of Methodist teachers who sent him to India as a missionary. There he spent three years, learning about Gandhi’s tactics of mass resistance. King later encouraged him to spread Gandhi’s ideals of nonviolence throughout the civil rights movement. His nonviolence workshops soon gained popularity, particularly among students. By 1960, he had traveled across the South, promoting passive resistance and lecturing at schools and in churches. (Williams)
His activities were centered in Nashville, Tennessee (TN), where, out of the sit-ins, a lot of future SNCC people took shape. Marion Barry, a graduate in chemistry at Fisk University who would later become the first chairman of SNCC, took part from the beginning. A native of Chicago and also at Fisk, campus beauty queen Diane Nash deeply loathed the segregation. She enrolled in Lawson’s workshops2 where students often role-played: one group pretended to sit at a counter and the other would act as a harassing mob. John Lewis, raised on a farm in Alabama, at the time attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary. After participating in workshops, Lewis, Nash and other students initiated a group they called the Nashville Student Movement. They really wanted to “test the lunch counters”.(Williams: 123, 126; Zinn: 19-20)
Then, independently of the Nashville movement, the Greensboro sit-in of February 1 was staged and suddenly there was no stepping back. There was no hint that the movement would become so widespread, though. Lewis and Nash were delighted to hear reports from other cities where the strategy was adopted. But southern segregationists believed that the uproar would soon be over. There was a precedent: the strategy itself was not new when it was introduced in 1960; in the 1940s, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) achieved little success with the sit-ins in Chicago and equally, during 1958 the NAACP in Kansas and Oklahoma tested but soon abandoned the tactic. Nevertheless, CORE had long emphasized nonviolent direct action and proved a vital educational and organizing agent. This was particularly true in Orangeburg, South Carolina (SC), with college student Tom Gaither as an able organizer. (Williams: 129, 132; Zinn: 23)
“Do sit straight and always face the counter”3
The sit-ins took the established African American organizations, like the NAACP, the SCLC and CORE, by surprise. The characteristic features of the new movement were spontaneity and self-sufficiency. It was clear that the “Negro leadership class, epitomized by the NAACP, was no longer the prime mover,” and that the whole desegregation struggle relocated from the “courtroom to the marketplace.”4
As noted earlier, the centers of activism rapidly multiplied and the sit-ins developed in size and organization. Moreover, their direction was steady: deeper into the South. In Nashville, some twelve days after the Greensboro incitement, forty students (Nash among them) sat in at Woolworth’s. After some debate, the white students were allowed to join in. Many of the first incidents were rather comical, with the waitresses running around nervously. But the tension was mounting and soon there was violence. Sit-inners were being pulled off their stools, beaten and kicked. Cigarette butts were pushed against their backs, smoke fumed in their faces, French fries thrown and drinks poured on them. White participants were oft nicknamed “nigger-lovers”. The police would come in only after the beatings and arrest not the attackers but the activists – typically for “disorderly conduct”. (Williams: 132-133; Zinn: 20, 25) During the fourth sit-in on February 27, it was exactly the same. ‘Everybody’s under arrest.’ But the police were taken aback to see a second wave of students seize the seats; and then a third wave.5
Eighty-one participants were arrested that day and the city’s black adults raised a considerable sum of money to bail their children out of jail. Many students refused to be paid for, in defiance. A distinguished black attorney, sixty-two-year-old Z. Alexander Looby agreed to be their chief defense lawyer in court. Three days later, 63 were arrested at Nashville’s Greyhound bus terminal. In Atlanta, GA, the movement made its presence especially impressive when, on March 15, two hundred students marched like one into selected downtown businesses. This time, there were 76 arrests. Meanwhile in Orangeburg, SC, the police smashed up a march, using tear gas and water hoses and capturing more than 500 demonstrators! (Williams: 133; Zinn: 24-25)
Reports of violence against the sit-inners were coming from other states, too.6 But neither Kentucky nor Texas exercised such ruthlessness as Mississippi. In the streets of its capital, Jackson, police unleashed their dogs as well as clubs. By the end of the month, however, policemen were instructed not to arrest the sit-inners due to national publicity. (Williams)
“The Devil has got to come out of these people”7
On April 19, 1960, the porch of Z. Alexander Looby’s house was firebombed. Luckily, no one had been injured. The bombing enraged the black community like nothing else before and the same day, a protest march of 2,500 headed for the city hall. Nashville’s mayor Ben West waited there to face the crowd in person. Diane Nash asked the questions. West publicly expressed his disapproval of the segregated lunch counters. The next day’s headlines read “Mayor Says Integrate Counters”. (Williams: 139) For the city stores, such statement came as a relief. For long, they had been afraid to take the first step towards integration and now, they could refer to the mayor as the one to be blamed. In early May, four theaters and six lunch counters, which had been the prime targets of the sit-ins, finally served blacks. (Williams: 138-139; Zinn: 23)
In the meantime, the 1960 Nixon versus Kennedy presidential campaign carefully avoided civil rights issues. Inside the black community, students and the older leaders were at odds over the nature of the protest. While the NAACP had political, not to mention economic, ties with influential whites and stressed the importance of legal means of struggle, the mood of the youth was impatience – impatience with the courts, the government, the standard patterns of negotiation. Yet most of the established leaders had been able to sense a new dynamism brought by the young – this was particularly true of Martin Luther King. A middle group emerged between the open supporters and conservative opponents. It consisted mostly of urban professionals and prominent scholars who had to maneuver their way through an array of pressures from both the black and the white side of town. While being publicly supportive, in private they tried to discourage the students from direct action. ‘You have to work slowly to get lasting results,’ would be their advice. But the students were willing to continue their fight and in the end, the “elders” were only left two options – and most of them had chosen to join. (Zinn: 26, 30-31)
The Easter weekend of April 1960 saw the creation of SNCC after Ella Baker had decided that the sit-in leaders should be somehow brought together. The colleges of the North were generally sympathetic to the efforts and almost twenty of them sent their delegates to the Raleigh conference. James Lawson, who had just been expelled from Vanderbilt University, delivered the opening speech. From the beginning, their activity was free of any formal connections to the old “Negro establishment.” The conference set up a temporary committee and Ed King from Kentucky was appointed the administrative secretary. In May, Martin Luther King, Ella Baker, James Lawson and observers from various groups witnessed the committee name themselves the Temporary Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and elect Marion Barry their chairman. Furthermore, an office was set up for the summer with an ambition to coordinate the numerous student-run activities. In June, Jane Stembridge made a journey from New York to Atlanta to become SNCC’s first office secretary. Bob Moses, a Harvard graduate who came down South for the first time in the summer of 1960, recalled later how “SNCC and Jane Stembridge were squeezed in one corner of the SCLC office… [and] Miss Ella Baker was in another corner…”(Zinn: 33-35)
At the May meeting it was also decided to print a newsletter, spreading the news of SNCC’s birth. The first issue of The Student Voice also contained a poem by one of the co-founders, Julian Bond. The group soon understood that achieving even a slight degree of coordination was anything but easy. “No one really needed organization because we then had a movement,” described Stembridge. (Zinn: 36)
Nevertheless, Marion Barry spoke for SNCC before the National Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, defending the sit-ins and calling for federal action. In October, 1960, there was a big conference in Atlanta where SNCC was given a permanent status. It never became a membership organization, though. Thus, the “member” would be the one who took action. SNCC consisted of one delegate from each of the sixteen Southern states and the District of Columbia. Owing mainly to the lack of containment, the movement managed to keep its spontaneity and unpredictability. (Zinn)
Also in October, a month before the presidential election, sit-ins had already been conducted in 112 southern cities. Martin Luther King, Jr., although his father tried to discourage him from participation, was inspired by the students’ dedication to nonviolence and joined a sit-in in Atlanta. He was arrested and due to an earlier probation, he got a four-month sentence. Senator John F. Kennedy used this opportunity to help him out of jail and in return, gained popularity among black voters. (Williams)
In December, the month before Kennedy’s inauguration, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of integration of the interstate bus terminals and stations. But in the Deep South, the Court decisions had been merely scraps of paper if not enforced by federal agencies. The CORE activists wanted to find out what exactly Kennedy would do to execute federal law. Black and white CORE workers intended to travel together by bus throughout the South. But there was harassment and jailings down in North Carolina. The spring of 1961 thus marked the beginning of a different phenomenon: the “Freedom Rides”. (Williams)
III. The Freedom Riders
As it was the case with the sit-ins, the idea of the “Freedom Rides” was not brand new in 1961. As early as 1947, inspired by a Supreme Court decision (the Irene Morgan case) outlawing segregated seating on interstate buses, members of CORE and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR; an organization instrumental in CORE’s establishment in 1942) arranged a ride through the upper South, named “Journey of Reconciliation”. But it was rather a disappointment and the less fortunate riders ended up in prison. (Williams)
And fourteen years later, it was a Supreme Court decision again (the Boynton case) that proved a call to arms. This time, it prohibited racial discrimination not only on the carriers but in the bus terminals, as well. James Farmer, at the time CORE’s executive director, was on firm ground in concluding that there was no civil disobedience involved in “merely doing what the Supreme Court said we had a right to do.” (Williams: 147) The strategy would be to try to use all the whites-only facilities at every stop. The riders, an interracial group - blacks sitting in the front, the whites in the back - would refuse to give up their seats when ordered. Among the first volunteers was James Peck, a 46-year-old white and one of the partakers in the original ride of 1947.
When the new chapter of the movement started in the spring of 1961, SNCC was one year old, very loosely bound, with only two full-timers maintaining an office in Atlanta. But most of the students selected for the Rides were sit-in veterans who were eager to build a stronger organization. (Zinn)
The first Ride
On May 4, 1961, a group of thirteen boarded two separate buses (Greyhound and Trailways) and started from Washington, D.C. with the intention to enter New Orleans, Louisiana (LA), on May 17, the anniversary of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. John Lewis of SNCC was on the Greyhound bus when it stopped in Rock Hill, SC, where the riders were attacked while the police just stood by. After considerable delays, both buses made it to Atlanta, GA, for a night off. On May 14, Mother’s Day, they crossed the border to Alabama and were en route to Birmingham when, outside the town of Anniston, the Greyhound’s tires got slashed and as it sought refuge, a firebomb set the bus ablaze. (Williams: 148; Zinn: 42-43)
Also outside of Anniston, a group of thugs beat James Peck and old professor Walter Bergman onboard the Trailways bus. In Birmingham, there were no policemen at the station and the Riders were brutally assaulted by an angry mob of whites.8 The group then found shelter in the house of Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth. “Bull” Connor, the notorious Public Safety Commissioner of Birmingham, AL, later declared that his officers were off for Mother’s Day. Nevertheless, all the Freedom Riders met the next day, ready to continue. But after the incidents, no bus driver would risk his life by letting them get on. In the end, they decided to rather fly to New Orleans and take part in a rally on May 17. (Williams: 149, Zinn: 44)
The double impact: JFK, SNCC and the Montgomery riot
Meanwhile, major newspapers in and outside the United States brought the images of the burning bus. In reaction, Kennedy held an emergency meeting. For many blacks, President Kennedy was a disappointment because several months into office, he introduced no civil rights legislation. The Kennedys (President’s brother Robert was then the new Attorney General) now knew that some action was unavoidable. Alabama governor John Patterson was extremely disinclined to assist them. He didn’t even return their phone calls. That infuriated the attorney general so he ordered federal marshals to get ready for dispatch, should the situation call for it. (Williams: 149, 151)
At the same time, SNCC was determined to continue the rides. If they stopped, it would prove that violence had won.9 Diane Nash called the Justice Department and, in vain, demanded protection for the Freedom Riders. In Nashville, she quickly set up a new group, joined also by first-ride participants John Lewis and Henry Thomas. This group then had left her behind as it (eight blacks and two whites) set to move on May 17. Bull Connor had them put in jail right after their arrival and two days later, facing their hunger strike, ordered his officers to drive them to the Tennessee state line. But they started all over again and the same afternoon, they were back at the Birmingham bus terminal. SNCC office worker Ruby Doris Smith flew in from Atlanta to join them. Again, no driver dared take them to Montgomery. (Zinn: 44-46)
The day before, Gov. Patterson agreed to meet with President’s deputy John Siegenthaler who had come to Birmingham to observe the situation. Patterson agreed to issue a statement declaring protection to any traveler in Alabama. This promise was apparently enough for the Justice Department who then arranged a bus for the Riders. “There were police cars all around the bus… But when we got inside the Montgomery city limits, it all disappeared,” recalls Ruby Doris Smith. (Zinn: 47) At the terminal, the bus got encircled by a mob of about 300. Some women shrieked ‘Kill the nigger-loving son of a bitch!’ as the first rider who got off, Jim Zwerg, was being pounded with fists and sticks. President’s aide John Siegenthaler was knocked unconscious as he tried to help one girl escape. Several cars burst into flames. The Alabama State Police chief fired a warning shot and ordered the crowd to disperse. Then he called the governor who declared martial law. (Williams: 155; Zinn: 47)
“We’ll take beatings. We’re willing to accept death”10
Not only did Gov. Patterson break his promise to the administration; the police were reported to arrive as late as twenty minutes after the violence broke out. Furthermore, federal representative Siegenthaler was lying on the pavement for nearly half an hour before he got any medical attention at all. Robert Kennedy responded by dispatching 600 federal marshals to the Montgomery air force base. (Williams)
On Sunday, May 21, about 1200 blacks assembled in Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church for a mass meeting to protest against the violence. Martin Luther King, Jr., flew in from Chicago to have a speech. Outside the church, National Guardsmen and U.S. marshals clashed with a stone-throwing mob of whites. (Williams: 157-158)
“Hallelujah, ain’t it fine? […] I’m traveling down Freedom’s main line…”11
Determined to continue to Jackson, Mississippi (MS), a total of 27 Freedom Riders in two buses left Montgomery on May 24. King who was still in probation period did not join them and quite a few were offended by his disinclination to risk. Though escorted to Jackson by the National Guard, once they were arrested – and they were arrested (when trying to integrate terminal facilities) – the Riders were beyond attorney general’s competence. Robert Kennedy called for a “cooling-off” period in attempt to release the tension.12 (Williams)
The Mississippi trial of the Freedom Riders was a farce. True to their philosophy, they preferred to go to prison rather than pay a single cent. One of the first to be put in the Parchman State Penitentiary was Stokely Carmichael, a twenty-year-old student raised in New York. He joined a SNCC affiliate named NAG (Nonviolent Action Group) at Howard University in Washington, D.C. For 49 days at Parchman, he was driving the sheriff mad when he kept singing and banging loudly on the cell door.13 Tens of students continued to arrive in Jackson to challenge the segregation in the bus terminal. By the end of the summer, the number of arrests totaled over three hundred. (Zinn: 40, 53-57)
SNCC (or the Committee) had been steady in its devotion to the cause. July and August of 1961 saw many of the Freedom Riders fresh out of jail. The SNCC Atlanta office still served as a loose link drawing them together. There had been several meetings throughout the summer, attended by up to twenty Committee workers. Probably the most important was held in August at the Highlander Folk School, Tennessee. The controversy that took over much of the disputes there was sparked earlier, though. A black youngster, Tim Jenkins of the NSA (National Student Association) introduced the idea of campaigning for voter registration to the Committee already in June. Two months later, the issue almost caused SNCC to split. A sharp divide emerged between the people who emphasized direct action (i.e. sit-ins, rides, boycotts etc.) and those who favored steering toward enfranchisement. (Zinn: 58-59)
IV. Voter Registration in the Deep South: the land untouched
The Committee was helped to get over the crisis by the woman who stood behind its foundation and who had been its mentor ever since – Ella Baker. The consequential compromise established that there would be two factions: Diane Nash was to administer the direct action projects and the voting-rights wing got its leader in Charles Jones (of Charlotte, NC). While this decision was being made, Bob Moses, then a SNCC volunteer, was already setting up voter registration schools around McComb, MS. He had become a very influential figure in the movement. (Zinn)
Moreover, there were people who did not return to school at the end of the summer and stayed with SNCC to work full-time: Diane Nash, James Bevel, Charles Jones and Charles Sherrod, to name the key ones. And because Ed King and Jane Stembridge had left for school, the Committee needed an executive secretary. When it came to proposals, Nash phoned James Forman, a 33-year-old teacher from Chicago who had recently been involved in demonstrations in North Carolina. He agreed that he would start in October and thus, SNCC was able to sustain the drive. (Zinn: 60-61)
By deciding to work for SNCC, one agreed to work for $10 a week. That was the standard wage for a field secretary. Often it took weeks for any paycheck from Atlanta to arrive at all. The vast majority of the Committee’s annual budget14 came from private donations either by individual supporters or institutions, and most of the money was used to back the field operations in Mississippi and southwest Georgia. SNCC was a grass-roots organization that essentially sought to empower the local people so that they were self-reliant after SNCC had left. Logically then, the tendency was to employ youngsters out of Deep South towns and make them become SNCC field workers right in their hometowns. (Zinn: 10-11)
Coming to work in Mississippi, Bob Moses paired with Amzie Moore, a veteran head of NAACP’s chapter in Cleveland, MS, and they started to plan a campaign. The so-called Magnolia State was the toughest in the segregationist camp. That was one reason for SNCC to choose Mississippi, for they always had instinct for a challenge. Its population was 45% black, out of which only 5% were registered to vote. Blacks constituted nearly half of the population but they had literally no political representation. Mississippi was a “feudal land barony” (Zinn: 64) where only a few whites held absolute power over the economy and where the majority of white population was poor, but blacks were even poorer.15 The resultant status quo for an Afro-American was a semi-slavery with little prospect of establishing a decent life and abundance of opportunities to get in trouble. The segregation – from the cradle to the grave – affected every aspect of life of a black person. (Williams: 208; Zinn: 64-65)
In Mississippi, a person who wanted to vote was required to fill out a 21-question form. They had to be able to interpret to a registrar (all of them were, of course, white) any one of the 285 sections of the Constitution of Mississippi. The registrar had exclusive authority to decide the correctness of the interpretation.16 (Zinn)
The first bloodstains: McComb
The first two SNCC field secretaries to arrive to McComb (Pike County) on invitation from C. C. Bryant of the local NAACP were Reggie Robinson and John Hardy. They came to help Moses set up the first voter registration school on August 7, 1961. Another one was organized on a farm of Amite County NAACP leader E. W. Steptoe. The county courthouse in Liberty (the seat of Amite County) had been entered by first applicants. There, Moses was badly beaten by Billy Jack Caston17. When he filed charges of assault against Caston, it was the first time that McComb witnessed a black suing a white. And after Marion Barry of the ‘direct action’ wing of SNCC arrived and held workshops on nonviolent protest, McComb experienced a series of sit-ins, too. But violence and arrests caused the activity to slow down. The town’s black community was angry with the workers for leading their kids into jail. Then on September 25, Herbert Lee, a black farmer, was murdered in Amite County.18 People were no longer willing to go to register. Yet, this did not stop SNCC. Chuck McDew (the then chairman) and Bob Zellner came down to McComb and marched 115 students to the city hall to protest the killing and the arrests of sit-inners. For organizing this rally, they were found guilty of “contributing to the delinquency of minors” and having no money for bail, Moses, McDew and others ended in jail. The community was left disturbed and embittered. For SNCC, it was a hard lesson, but it was just the beginning. (Zinn: 66-78)
The NAACP criticized SNCC for disrupting the voter registration campaign by staging demonstrations and dismissed SNCC from its project altogether.
Southwest Georgia: the Albany episode
The city of Albany, GA, was another instance where the differences between the civil rights groups clearly manifested themselves. When the SNCC workers came in the summer, the NAACP was already running a campaign against school segregation that persisted in Albany, as elsewhere, in spite of the 1954 Brown verdict. On November 1, 1961, the Interstate Commercial Commission issued a ruling in support of the Supreme Court’s prohibition of segregation on interstate buses and terminals. Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon (both SNCC representatives) experienced stiff opposition from the NAACP when trying to organize the students.19 (Williams)
In the tightly segregated former slave-trade center, they knew that the only way to break the spell of silence and fear was through the students. With a third field secretary (Charles Jones) in town, they set up an office where they ran sessions on nonviolent protest, prepared newsletters etc. Gradually, the skeptical ministers were willing to let them use their churches. The arrogance of the city’s officials brought the movement together and a large-scale cooperation got underway under an umbrella organization – the Albany Movement – that was formed on November 17. In mid-December, Albany received national press attention when Police Chief Laurie Pritchett arrested a group of Freedom Riders. In the series of protest marches that followed, hundreds of black citizens were put in jail. Martin Luther King, Jr., was invited to address a mass meeting at the Shiloh Baptist Church and was also arrested, having led a march of 250. By that time, the number of arrests rose to 737. (Williams: 167-169; Zinn: 127-130)
King’s ways irritated SNCC workers – they saw the movement that they patiently built over the months being taken over by “glory-seekers.” “We can bake our own cake” – such were the remarks of longtime Albany activists.20 (Williams: 169)
Chief Pritchett carefully avoided any use of violence against the demonstrators. The courts charged the protesters with minor offences only, evading the issue of segregation and getting in conflict with federal law. However, when the defendants (i.e. the Freedom Riders) were trying to integrate the courtroom, they were forcibly pulled into the “colored” section. When King got sentenced to forty-five days in jail for the December march, President Kennedy got worried about the course of affairs.21 Burke Marshall, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, began to negotiate with Albany representatives who had until then been loath to deal with the civil rights movement. (Williams)
“Did you see them nonviolent rocks?” Chief Pritchett asked the newsmen after the violent clash of July 24. For the first time, demonstrators threw bricks and bottles at the police. Again, there was a rift. SNCC’s Charles Sherrod argued that nonviolence was a tactic, not the goal and called for further mounting the pressure on the city officials. But King decided to postpone any other protests until the situation calmed down. In mid-August, winning no concessions from stubborn segregationists, Martin Luther King had finally left Albany in a state of deep depression.22 On the other hand, SNCC “could claim Albany as a victory”: its tireless effort helped continue the mass rallies for the next six years. (Williams: 174-179)
The Albany movement had taught them skills on community organizing that they were to fully utilize in the Magnolia State.
Mississippi, “the land of the tree and the home of the grave”23
The middle-class oriented, legalist and more conservative NAACP had never had an easy relationship with young and unpredictable “Snick.” On several occasions, its Mississippi representatives even accused the Committee staff of being Communist-inspired. Rather, SNCC posed a threat to NAACP’s monopoly in the state. The civil rights groups were compelled to fight for whatever funds there were, and the NAACP “jealously guarded its turf […] with a suspicion bordering with paranoia.” (Sinsheimer: 220-221)
In early 1962, Bob Moses moved to a rented house in Jackson, MS, along with newly-wed James Bevel and Diane Nash Bevel, and others. The group was planning campaigns for the summer. With Tom Gaither of CORE, they drafted a proposal for a unified voter registration front: SNCC, CORE, the SCLC and the NAACP met in a fragile coalition under the label of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO).24 This became largely a channel for funding, coming from the Taconic and Field Foundations and administered through the so-called Voter Education Project. The 1962 campaign was aimed at the northwestern Delta counties (Coahoma, Holmes, Leflore, Sunflower etc.). Most of the COFO field staff was provided by SNCC and similarly, most of the work was done by the enthusiastic Committee staff. (McMillen: 359-360)
In May, Diane Nash Bevel got sentenced to two years for promoting nonviolence. Although she was pregnant, she decided to go to prison.25 In the spring and summer, activity spread in all directions, to Holly Springs (Frank Smith), Laurel (Lester McKinnie), Hattiesburg (Curtis Hayes and Hollis Watkins), and then to Greenville, Cleveland, Ruleville and other places. Frank Smith reported that they also dealt with subtle forms of reprisal.26 But the area consuming most attention was to become Leflore County and its seat, Greenwood. There, SNCC workers and Mississippi natives Sam Block and Willie Peacock won the sympathies of local African Americans by showing courage in the face of police brutality. Their Greenwood office on 616 Avenue I was being visited by more and more people looking for guidance. (Zinn: 80-85)
Then something happened – something that would consume much of COFO’s energy during the upcoming winter. The Board of Supervisors of Leflore County, which exercised control over the welfare programs, terminated a federal program for the distribution of surplus food. Over 20,000 poor blacks were cut off from the commodities that they were dependent on to get through the winter. The county spokesmen claimed that voter registration had no effect on their decision-making, but the ordinary sharecropper thought otherwise. The neighboring Sunflower County adopted similar measures. (McMillen)
The call for help reached the friends of SNCC in the North and soon there was response. Two black Michigan State students, Ivanhoe Donaldson and Ben Taylor, drove a truckload of food, clothes and medicine a thousand miles from Michigan to the Mississippi Delta. They were stopped and arrested for possession of narcotics27 in Clarksdale, MS, their goods taken away. Due to massive protests, they were released and Ivanhoe Donaldson then “became a one-man transport operation” (Zinn: 87) and he repeated the thousand-mile journey twelve more times. Such was the willingness of some volunteers to help – for the people were desperate.28 The food supplies meant something more: in the minds of Mississippi blacks, the direct action joined hands with direct aid. SNCC field workers communicated with the locals on a day-to-day basis and soon, people began showing up to register to vote. (Zinn)
Leflore: “the testing ground for democracy”29
On February 24, 1963, Bob Moses drove from Greenwood to Greenville, accompanied by Voter Education Project (VEP) man Randolph Blackwell and young SNCC staff member Jimmy Travis. They knew that they were followed by a car.30 En route to Greenville, it pulled up on their side and thirteen .45-calibre bullets shattered the window, two of them hitting Travis in the neck and shoulder. When the news got to the offices of the civil rights organizations, they cried out in protest. Once again, they vainly demanded federal protection. Dave Dennis of CORE wired the attorney general, demanding immediate action. Aaron Henry of the NAACP issued a statement and James Forman wrote directly to President Kennedy. COFO workers from all over the state were asked to come to Greenwood at once. Violence in Greenwood continued undisturbed: on March 24, the COFO office was burnt up and someone fired a shotgun into a home of a SNCC worker (George Greene). Three days later, Moses, Forman, Willie Peacock, Frank Smith and six others were detained for leading a protest march to the county courthouse. The demonstrations went on for few more days, joined also by comedian Dick Gregory.31 In the end, SNCC organizers were released in return for an agreement by the local representatives with the Justice Department.32 (Zinn: 89-92)
Indeed, the federal government and its executive arm, the Justice Department, had not remained completely static, but the measures that it took lacked far beyond the expectations of the civil rights movement. Litigation and lip service were the tactics that it most often adopted. The radicals in SNCC felt somehow betrayed and in the early spring of 1963, several SNCC workers sued the federal government for not acting decisively – not asserting its existing powers” – in their defense.33 The civil rights camp supported their stance unanimously. (McMillen: 363)
Also in the spring, Medgar Evers of the NAACP, determined to renew the struggle against segregation in Jackson, announced his intentions in a series of letters to the representatives of the state, city and business sector. ‘Do not listen to false rumors… Refuse to pay attention to these outside agitators,’ such were the words with which Jackson’s Mayor Allen C. Thompson addressed black citizens. (Williams: 219) In May, the NAACP-organized sit-ins attracted national press coverage. Students were harassed by segregationists; clubbed and arrested by the police. SNCC came to Jackson to provide training lessons for the sit-inners. Evers wanted to carry on the mass rallies but the NAACP leadership preferred to stick to court suits, and instructed him to emphasize the voter registration. Nevertheless, he went on, raising money on his own.34 On June 12, Medgar Evers was shot dead in front of his house.35 (Williams: 218-221)