This article appeared at The Nation on April 20, 2010.
Raleigh, North Carolina--One thousand enthusiastic celebrants at the fiftieth anniversary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee here were credited by a top White House official with making possible the Barack Obama presidency, as the group passed the torch to a new generation fighting for a constitutional right to quality education.
It may have been the last assemblage of the original SNCC tribe of organizers, now averaging 65 years in age, but the promise of SNCC's children, now between their teens and 30s, was evident in hundreds of young faces from all over the country.
US Attorney General Eric Holder spoke on Saturday at the same Raleigh site where SNCC was founded as a coordinating network for the exploding sit-in movement that began in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960. After internal debate, the conference steering committee invited President Obama. The decision to send Holder was freighted with memories of Justice Department officials in the early 1960s who, after initial hesitancy, often struggled alone to prevent segregationist violence against young civil rights workers helping local people to register and vote. John Doar, now 89, who faced down racist officials on many occasions, sat in the crowd as the new attorney general spoke.
Holder, under fire from the right as he tries to rebuild the Justice Department's civil rights division, told the crowd that "the nation is in your debt."
"There is a straight line from those lunch counter sit-ins [of 1960] to the Oval Office today, and a straight line to the sixth floor of the Justice Department where I serve today," Holder said. His late sister-in-law, Vivian Malone Jones, defied Governor George Wallace to integrate the University of Alabama in 1963.
"This progress could not have happened without SNCC's work," he went on. "The path was blazed by you, and I stand on your shoulders."
Holder pledged to strengthen civil rights enforcement and place a new emphasis on trying to reverse policies that have incarcerated young men and women of color for longer sentences than their white counterparts.
"We are counting on you to rekindle the spirit of 1960 and build on SNCC's achievements. You look strong to me. This army is not disbanding. There still is marching to be done. Stay as committed as back then."
Holder's speech attracted little attention in the mainstream media. But if a primary purpose of the SNCC conference was to claim a legacy in history, the legitimizing import of Holder's official remarks was important. In the early 1960s, SNCC was criticized privately by President John Kennedy, prior to the 1963 March on Washington, as a group of "radicals" and "sons of bitches." Representative John Lewis, who preceded Holder on the Raleigh stage, was under severe pressure in 1963 from the Kennedy administration and mainstream civil rights leaders to tone down the speech, in which he famously demanded to know, "Where is our political party?" Robert Kennedy at first tried to freeze the Freedom Rides, and even questioned the loyalty of the early SNCC militants. In time, that tension would lessen, as SNCC kept up the heat on the Kennedys, a process that may lie ahead in SNCC's relations with Barack Obama.
SNCC became "a blip in the dominant [civil rights] narrative," according to 37-year-old Tufts historian Peniel Joseph, who attended the conference. Historicizing SNCC is extremely important, he said, though there is a danger that "glorifying" the early SNCC implies that a "bad SNCC" developed after 1966 with the rise of Black Power, calls for self-defense and revolutionary internationalism. Those apparent extremes should not be discredited, Joseph said, but contextualized in the failed social response of the US government; the escalation of the Vietnam War at the same time as the Selma, Alabama, march; and the employment of counterintelligence programs by the FBI.
The historian Taylor Branch was one of the few to question whether SNCC inadvertently might have contributed to what he called the "shocking distortion of history" in which SNCC's role is largely erased. "The empirical achievements of the 1960s are buried under amnesia," Branch lamented. "It's understandable that segregationists would want to discredit that era. But we are complicit in failing to embrace nonviolence and our own achievements, partly because of the frustrations over how long it took for society to reform. As a result, many Americans don't know and appreciate the way the reforms we won have benefited them."
As an example, Branch pointed to the 1964 crisis at the Democratic National Convention, when the party establishment rejected the challenge of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic delegation, organized by SNCC. The compromise offered by Johnson--two seats without a vote--was indeed token, Branch said, but in a wider sense it was an effort that would lead to a more open Democratic Party. Completely forgotten, he claimed, is that at their convention a few weeks earlier, the Republicans expelled most of their few black delegates in order to win more white segregationist voters.
While the primary emphasis of the Raleigh conference was to celebrate SNCC's overall role in defeating segregation and winning voting rights, there was no effort at dividing "good" from "bad" SNCCs, to distance the organization from its more radical phases. The room was jammed with old militants of all stripes. Amiri Baraka gave a presentation on the black arts. Kathleen Cleaver, former wife of Eldridge Cleaver and now teaching at Emory University, stood cheering for third-graders from Oakland, California, where the Black Panther office was headquartered. Peniel Joseph is writing a positive history of the late Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure). (In private communications with Holder's office, the SNCC conference representatives lodged a forceful complaint against the transfer of another of their later chairs, H. Rap Brown [Jamil Abdullah al-Amin], to a high-security Colorado prison far from his Atlanta home. He is serving a life term for allegedly shooting two Atlanta sheriff's deputies in 2000 after they tried to arrest him at home for failure to appear on a speeding offense. One of the deputies died.)
The fact that the Raleigh conference was overwhelmingly interracial was a sign that old antagonisms have been transcended and largely healed.
A women's workshop asserted a historic role for SNCC in the rise of the women's liberation movement, another once-contentious issue put to rest.
Dimmed the most in the legacy discussions was SNCC's early leadership in opposing the military draft and the Vietnam War. That opposition began as early as 1964, not in the later "bad" period, and resulted in SNCC original member Julian Bond's being expelled from the Georgia legislature in January 1966. A federal court restored Bond's seat, and he later became president of the national NAACP.
By comparison, the raging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter now led by President Obama, were little mentioned during some forty-five workshops and forums. In fairness, it is safe to assume that the 1,000 participants were overwhelmingly critical of the current wars, and that point was driven home by keynote speakers like the Reverend James Lawson and Harry Belafonte. But the main focus of the workshops was SNCC's civil rights impact and legacy.
It will be impossible to report the outcome of so many workshops until transcripts are released by the organizers. The topics were diverse and speakers were many, including: the early student movement, how activists became field organizers, how SNCC built an organization, "more than a hamburger," Alabama/Black Power, Southwest Georgia, lessons of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and so on.
Perhaps the most important question on everyone's mind was the future. Just as important as securing a legacy in history was opening the way to a better tomorrow. That was the focus of two plenary sessions, which amounted to a ritual transition within the SNCC tribe. On Saturday in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church, the grown-up "children" rose one by one to take their elders' places, with the quiet blessings of those elders who were still alive. While hundreds wept, clapped their hands and sang, they came to the pulpit to declare themselves: Maishe Moses (Bob and Janet Moses), her brother Omo, James Forman Jr. (James Forman and Dinky Romilly), Tarik Smith (Frank and Jean Smith), Sabina Varela (Maria Varela and Lorenzo Zuniga), Bakari Sellers (Cleveland and Gwendolyn Sellers), Zora Cobb (Charles Cobb and Ann Chinn), Hollis Watkins Jr. (Hollis Watkins and Nayo Barbara Watkins), Gina Belafonte (Harry and Julie Belafonte). Sherry Bevel (James Bevel and Diane Nash) combined humor and compassion for her father, who was convicted of incest in 2008, released on appeal and died shortly afterward:
It would be a shame if his wit and energy was forgotten. We have had great men and women who were caught up in drug or alcohol problems, or were philandering with underage girls. But I for one don't think we should just forget Thomas Jefferson.
The following morning, in SNCC style, the meaning of this ritual transition took material form. Bob Moses and David Dennis, who represented SNCC and CORE in Mississippi and still work together, addressed a large breakfast. In his customary low-key way, Moses asked people to "think about" pushing for a constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to quality education for every single American. People then sat in small discussion groups. The abstract idea was made real by the presence of young people, many of them the children of SNCC, who are already organizing through a remedial algebra project and a broader young people's project aimed against economic and educational disenfranchisement and mass incarceration of young people of color, their own generational peers. As the first SNCC stood with the demonized of the Black Belt, this newer generation was immersed in organizing the demonized of the inner cities. To discuss what such an effort might look like, sparked by two organizing efforts, the Algebra Project and the Young People's Project, aimed at addressing the educational and economic disenfranchisement of young people of color. Moses offered a few words of historical background:
When Jimmie Travis was shot in 1963, we got into a Mississippi court. John Doar was there. The judge asked why are you taking illiterates to vote. So the subtext was education. In 1870 in Mississippi the Fifteenth Amendment had been approved. The black voters had put into the governors office Adelbert Ames, under the protection of federal troops. President Grant asked for an amendment to guarantee all children the right to an education. Then in 1876 the backlash came. They said the money should be used to build railroads in the Delta, not for schools. We got sharecropper education. That's where we were until 1963. Then we got Jim Crow out of public accommodations, out of the Democratic Party, and we got the right to vote. We didn't get Jim Crow out of education. So that's the work we have to do. Some people have issues with a Constitution written by white people. But think of it as an evolution. We have moved from being property to being second-class constitutional people, and now we must become constitutionalized as people with a right to quality education.
Moses asked the conference to repeat with him the preamble to the Constitution, beginning with the universally known phrase, "We, the People." He noted that it didn't say we the government, didn't even say we the citizens, an implied reference to immigrants of today. As I rolled the phrase around in my memory, I began to understand another way to say it, more in keeping with the SNCC tradition. If one takes the comma away, one can simply assert in common language, "Who are we? We the people," not something a politician wants to hear.
After Moses finished, Albert Sykes from Jackson, Mississippi, rose to represent the Young People's Project. Sykes first met Moses when he was in sixth grade in the Algebra Project, and gradually became a mentor and organizer, starting thirteen years ago. He called on the conference to unite behind his new generation. "We are transitioning from the sit-in movement of 1960 to a stand-up movement of young people. For us, literacy is the next frontier. And we're gonna need your moral capital, your financial capital, lawyers to get us out of jail, and we need to spread across the whole country."
As he spoke, at least 100 young people from many states were moving around the room distributing sign-up sheets. Moses said, "Now we're gonna ask you to do some work." The tables came alive with conversation.
Something had shifted in the long weekend. Now the past was very much present, and a future of some kind was beginning again. The tribe of SNCC was still gathered, their spirits high, but the children were leading now, and the work of the future was beginning again.
As one SNCC veteran, Doris Derby, declared as the conference wound down, "When they say SNCC is a state of mind, they are right."