The Port Huron Statement, Participatory Democracy, and the History and Vision of the 1960’s Student Movements
There is a theory of social change in The Long Sixties: From 1960 to Barack Obama, described as “movements versus Machiavellians,” which should be studied as a basic framework for our class. (pp. 2-20)
This commentary attempts to understand the role of people like Charles McDew and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as they emerged in the early 60s.
There always are conflicts and contradictions with the governing coalition – the Machiavellians.
In the early 60s, we faced a Democratic Party that cobbled together a majority coalition composed of northern liberals and southern segregationists – known as Dixiecrats. This contradictory – many would say immoral – arrangement was rooted in the so-called Compromise of 1877, which was settled in the House of Representatives by a deal resulting in Republican Rutherford Hayes becoming president in exchange for withdrawing all federal troops from the old confederate states and ending Reconstruction.
The compromise doomed the newly freed blacks of the South to a century of Jim Crow laws, which were enforced for a century until the student civil rights movement of 1960 successfully challenged them. The Jim Crow system disenfranchised black people voting and electoral representation, and imposed a sharecropping plantation economy where laws were enforced by all white police forces. Perhaps the most brutal dimension of Jim Crow was the lynching of at least 5,000 – 10,000 black people during that era of terrorism.
Reconstruction was a brief work in progress, which we can say was not really resumed on a large scale until the voter rights, freedom schools and political organizing of the early 1960s – many have deemed this the “the Second Reconstruction."
It is unclear what President Lincoln might have done if he was not assassinated by a confederate conspiracy, in the civil war’s final days, on Good Friday 1965. Like Barack Obama, Lincoln was criticized on both sides, the Abolitionists and slaves who demanded the end of slavery, and the southern (and northern) whites who were willing to take up arms against the Union in order to preserve their racial rule. In its short history, Reconstruction included creation of the first black colleges, the election of many blacks to local, state and federal office, and the deployment of northern troops to protect the union and its new black citizens.
In terms of our model of social change, we can see the 13th[i], 14th[ii], and 15th[iii] amendments, along with Reconstruction, as the victories of the social movement that began with rebellious slaves, broadened to Abolitionists, included the Radical Republicans elected to national office, and eventually Lincoln, who ordered the war, issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and embraced Reconstruction. These victories came at a bitter cost of 600, 000 lives, thousands more in wretched detention, and divisions that continue to this day.
Our guest Charles McDew, originally from Ohio, attended one of those historically black colleges, Orangeburg States in South Carolina, as the Sixties began.
South Carolina, where the Republican primary will take place next Tuesday, was a citadel of the Old South, center of its slave trade through the port of Charleston, the scene of the first recorded slave rebellion (Stono River, 1739), and mass insurrection plotted by Denmark Vesey (executed along with 35 others, 1822).
All this is background to the vision and strategy of the Port Huron Statement of SDS, which was heavily influenced by the southern students movement and individuals like Chuck McDew who participated in the Port Huron convention.
There developed two schools of thought at the time, which can be simplified into direct action versus voter registration.
Direct action refers to the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, wave after wave of young people resisting segregation with their bodies and souls. Their belief was that segregation could be ended if enough people refused to conform to it, and if their struggle reached a sympathetic majority in black and progressive communities across the country. They knew that the US government could be embarrassed over the shame of segregation in its worldwide conflict with communist countries and the newly powerful non-aligned bloc of 77 countries from Asia, Africa and Latin America. So direct action was not simply a moral crusade dependent on the good will of America, but included a political strategy aimed at making the national Democratic Party, the new Kennedy administration, choose sides between its Dixiecrat allies and its liberal base.
The alliance with the Dixiecrats not only provided the Democrats with a slight popular majority in the close 1960 election of Kennedy versus Nixon, but it also served to maintain the segregationist order in the South. Plantation labor was profitable and the South was union-free. Kennedy appointed federal judges with segregationist backgrounds. The FBI worked closely with racist southern police forces. Mississippi US senators chaired the committees on the armed forces and constitutional rights.
The strategy of voter registration was based on registering and winning the vote for blacks in the south, an aspiration that was deeply felt in all sectors of the black community. The right to vote was supported by a broad cross-section of Americans, too, and its denial was impossible to defend on any rational or moral grounds. At first, the voter registration strategy was criticized by the direct action wing of SNCC (and CORE) because it seemed to relief the pressure, the street heat on the Kennedy administration, diminished the global headlines of the Freedom Rides, beckoned the civil rights movement to leave protest for electoral politics.
There were grounds or these claims. In the 1961-62 period, the record shows that both John and Robert Kennedy were disturbed, even angered, by the fresh idealism and militancy of the direct action movement. White House tapes recorded President Kennedy, in a discussion of civil rights, calling SNCC “radical sons of bitches.” The standard work of history on the period, by Taylor Branch, quotes Robert Kennedy opposing the Freedom Rides and asking why the Riders were harming the image of the country. One of the Freedom Riders, Kennedy said, even opposed atomic weapons -- that may have been our friend and colleague, Rev. James Lawson, who teaches a class on nonviolent social movements today at UCLA.
I can verify that after I was beaten and expelled from McComb in October 1960, just after meeting McDew, I met with deputy Attorney General Burke Marshall at the US Justice Department and was asked if I would persuade SNCC to leave Mississippi – to my shock, Marshall told me that the federal government couldn’t protect their lives, which turned out to be partially true.
The apparent conflict between direct action and voter registration quickly dissipated, however, as it became clear that one could be and would be killed for trying to register. In the Black Belt, a voter registration drive was another form of direct action – in today’s terms, we could say it was occupying the polling place.
And at least for political (Machiavellian) reasons, the Kennedy Administration was changing rapidly. Faced with the need to break ties with the Dixiecrats to survive morally and politically, the administration drew up plans to support registration drives and behind the scenes arranged for significant funding to be delivered to civil rights workers who were doing the work. It is true that the administration hoped to divert energy away from direct action wherever possible, but a movement to register southern black voters put them on a direct collision course with the Dixiecrat wing of the party represented by governors like Wallace in Alabama and Barnett in Mississippi.
This is precisely what SNCC and SDS wanted. This was what the strategy of political realignment in the Port Huron Statement was all about. To build a social movement that would awaken sympathetic opinion and powerful allies to end the stranglehold of the Dixiecrats on the South. This would be the most significant change in American politics in one hundred years. It would empower blacks in the south, enable them to elect their own sheriffs and legislative representatives, and begin again the tasks of Reconstruction by a campaign for educational reform and economic development.
On June 12, John Kennedy gave a televised national speech calling for a civil rights bill. That night, in response, a Mississippian named Byron De La Beckwith, shot and killed Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers. Evers and his organization were seen as moderate in the spectrum of civil rights opinion. Moderates weren’t safe any longer. The White House arranged for Evers to be buried in Arlington Cemetery.
By July 1963, President Kennedy was calling for a civil rights bill, which had not been on his original agenda. This was a direct response to the sit-in and Freedom Rider movement, calling in JFK’s words for “the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments," as well as "greater protection for the right to vote." The bill was not signed until July 1964 by President Johnson, seven months after Kennedy’s assassination, and just one month after three civil rights workers were kidnapped and murdered in Mississippi -- James Cheney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were killed on June 21; their bodies were not discovered until August 4[iv].
The proposed legislation was considered only token by SNCC at the time, especially because it did not include protections against police brutality, nor did it end bias in private employment or authorize the Justice Dept. to initiate lawsuits against school segregation or job discrimination. In the terms we have used in this course, the bill was token by SNCC’s standards, a substantive reform measured against decades of inaction, and a radical measure as viewed by segregationists.
Now history moved more rapidly than anyone expected. When civil rights leaders called for a Washington March the summer of 1963, the Kennedy administration initially was opposed, fearing a backlash from southern Democrats and the derailing of any chance to pass the civil rights bill. When it was clear that great numbers were coming to the march, including members of organized labor from the north, Kennedy reversed his position to one of welcoming the marchers and inviting the established civil rights leadership to a conversation in the White House. He was taking the risk of realigning the southern electorate heading into the 1964 elections.
Kennedy was moving rapidly on another front that was important to the new movements – towards a lessening of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. In April 1963, he proposed a nuclear test ban treaty:
“It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe or to generations yet unborn.”
The treaty was signed in Moscow on August 5, and in Washington on October 7, as a first step in ending the nuclear arms race. Kennedy was assassinated six weeks later.
As I previously said, assassinations were not considered an obstacle to think much about in those early days. Many of us accepted the notion that America was the world’s most democratic nation, where peaceful transitions of power were the norm. Kennedy’s assassination shattered that assumption.
This is not the time or place (or course) to examine all the narratives that has grown up over 50 years about who killed John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy, in that order, in the short space of five years. I haven’t reached a conclusion myself, but if these leaders were killed by lone assassins, then that is not reassuring about the state of our country. What is certain is that lethal atmospheres of hatred and vitriol were generated against each of these leaders by racists and militarists at the time. The climate of hatred can trigger a homicidal reaction in the psyche of any number of individuals lurking in the shadows of this society.
What is numbing about the assassinations from a social movement or political science point of view is the way they undercut the model of peaceful transition without offering an alternative narrative of change. If one adds the factor of electoral chicanery and stolen elections, from 1876 going through the 2000 case of Gore versus Bush, American politics takes on an unpredictable Darwinian character far different than models of representative democracy.[This is one reason among several for the tendency of current social movements to distance themselves from models dependent on charismatic leadership figures.[v]
While it is true that assassinations destabilize and derail social movements, they obviously fail to stop them in their tracks. Assassinated leaders become martyrs and icons in the later battles over memory, and leadership vacuums are filled in time.
Between Kennedy’s death and the 1964 elections, there seemed to be little change in the course of the civil rights struggle and no sign of the coming Vietnam. On November 2-3, 1963, less than three weeks before Kennedy’s murder, the Mississippi civil rights movement staged an historic parallel demonstration of voting power, called the Freedom Vote, in which 80-90,000 turned out to case protest ballots against the segregated political system.
The movement created its own alternative Democratic Party called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Next came the historic Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, in which 3,000 northern volunteers were deployed to civil rights and voter registration projects in Mississippi. Most but not all of them were white. The thinking was that their families and friends across the north would be drawn into the Mississippi drama by their personal connections with volunteers on the ground. The political strategy was to play by the rules of delegate selection to create an open state Democratic Party, which would challenge the seating of the segregationist Mississippi Democrats at the national Democratic Convention in Atlantic City.
The MFDP challenge was critical to the proposed realignment strategy and became a turning point in Sixties history. After a long community and political organizing project, the MFDP democratically chose 68 delegates, including four whites, to journey to Atlantic City where they would appeal to the convention platform committee. In today’s terminology, this could have been considered an Occupy movement inside and outside the political party process. Mississippi’s blacks were by definition outside the racist political process, while the Freedom Vote and especially the MFDP initiatives constituted a challenge inside the institution itself. Grassroots pressure from rank-and-file Democrats all over America made it appear briefly that the MFDP would win at the credentials committee and on the floor of the convention.
President Johnson had another agenda. Facing the Goldwater Republicans in November, he wanted to retain the voting support of the Dixiecrat bloc and southern white voters. There perhaps was another agenda as well, the Vietnam War, which started with the claims of a North Vietnamese attack at sea on American vessels and led to the first bombing of North Vietnam and a Congressional declaration of war (opposed by only two US senators). The war declaration was drafted on the same day – August 4 – the mutilated bodies of the three civil rights workers were excavated from a Mississippi swamp.
Johnson put on the pressure to keep the white Mississippi delegation seated at the convention, offering the MFDP two non-voting seats and a promised commission on reform for the next convention four years away. It was a conventional offer drawn from the repertoire of politics as usual. But the movement ethos was opposed in principle to any such empty gradualism. The MFDP leader, Fannie Lou Hamer, famously said “we didn’t come all this way for no two seats.” The SNCC project leader Bob Moses said that SNCC wanted to bring morality into politics, not politics into morality.
And that was the end of the early 60s and the Port Huron vision and strategy. As another SNCC leader, John Lewis, later to become a US Congressman, reflected sometime later:
“As far as I'm concerned, this was the turning point of the civil rights movement. I'm absolutely convinced of that. Until then, despite every setback and disappointment and obstacle we had faced over the years, the belief still prevailed that the system would work, the system would listen, the system would respond. Now, for the first time, we had made our way to the very center of the system. We had played by the rules, done everything we were supposed to do, had played the game exactly as required, had arrived at the doorstep and found the door slammed in our face.”
On the one hand, the Black Power movement grew for the first time in Lowndes County, Alabama, mainly in response to the rejection of the MFDP by the Democratic Party. Within one year, SNCC would break apart over the question of whether the organization should be based on an interracial community of organizers, or whether black self-determination should exclude whites from voting membership, which left white activists in search of a new future.
That future was not long in arriving. The UC Berkeley campus erupted in the Free Speech movement that fall, led by a charismatic young activist named Mario Savio, who had spent the summer of 1964 in the SNCC Mississippi Project. The Vietnam War would escalate with combat troops in 1965, and a new anti-war movement was at first led by Staughton Lynd, a Yale professor who had been director of the Mississippi Freedom Schools in 1964, and Bob Moses, the Freedom Summer project director. Their experiences in the South, and at the hands of the Democratic Party, would influence the students and anti-war movements for years to come.
The rupture between the Democratic Party and the New Left would never heal, despite continued efforts to realign the party through the later Sixties. The ghetto rebellions of 1965-68, and the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King (1968), laid the basis for Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” to draw whites into the Republican coalition. The vacuum left by King’s murder opened space for the coming of the Black Panther Party and a very different SNCC in the later 60s, moving in the direction of armed sell-defense and Third World-centered revolution. The realignment also opened the path for a reformed (though still divided) Democratic Party that nominated George McGovern, seated the MFDP, broke with labor and the white South, reformed its rules and was defeated overwhelmingly in 1972. From there came presidential candidacies by southern white liberals who never could have succeeded before: Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1988. And finally the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama, a candidate few even imagined in 1960. Was all this the realignment the Port Huron Statement had imagined?
[i] Abolition of slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for crime (1865).
[ii] Citizenship, due process, equal protection (1868).
[iii] Right to vote (1870).
[iv] The search turned up other bodies in the swamps, including one young man wearing a CORE t-shirt. At least three local black supporters were killed, four were critically wounded, 90 civil rights workers were beaten, 1,062 were arrested, 30 black homes and businesses were bombed or burned, and 37 churches were bombed or set on fire. (McAdam, Doug. Freedom Summer. Oxford, 1988)
[v] Though not in the same category as the murders of the Kennedys and King, the 1965 killing of Malcolm X had a devastating impact on race relations and the prospects for unity in the black civil rights movement for years afterwards. In Malcolm’s case, it is known that the shootings were carried out by members of a Newark mosque with the knowledge of an undercover unit of the New York Police Department.