Earlier this month President Johnson received three women from McComb, Miss., at the White House. They told him that their homes had been bombed because they had helped white civil rights workers during the summer and they asked him to help them. The President, they said, seemed to be near tears when they left, and he promised his aid.
The story illustrates the reaction of those outside the Civil rights movement to the events that take place within it. When these events confront us, we are overwhelmed. Not even the President of the United States can tell a woman whose house has been bombed that she must be patient. Nor can he remain unmoved at the story of just what it is like to be a Negro in Mississippi.
But when we get a few hours or a few days away from this kind of experience, it begins to fall back into its old place as something we don't know all that much about, something we can do nothing for, one of many problems in the world.
A good way to maintain your sense of the urgency of civil rights problems is to keep a copy of Howard Zinn's book handy. When you begin protesting that federal troops in McComb might cost Johnson votes in North Carolina, turn to a passage like this one, describing SNCC workers' attempts to feed would-be voters who had been waiting all day to register in Selma, Ala.:
Two SNCC field secretaries stood before the shopping cart and filled their arms with food. One was Avery Williams, Alabama-born. Another was Chico Neblett from Carbondale, Illinois Both had left college to work for SNCC
Chice gave his wallet to Ferman, a final gesture of acceptance of going to jail. He said to Avery, "Let's go, man." They walked down to the corner (a SNCC man never jaywalks in the south) with all eyes on the street focussed on them.... It was 2:20 p.m. As Chico and Avery came close to the line, the fat trooper with the cigar and the blue helmet, Major Smelley, barked at them, "Move on." They kept going towards the line of registrants. The next thing I saw was Chico Neblett on the ground, troopers all around him. They poked at him with clubs and sticks. I heard him cry out and saw his body jump convulsively again and again: They were jabing him with the cattle prods...
Zinn's book is valuable as a history of the first three years of intensive, "direct action" civil rights work in the deep South. But what makes it stand out from the umpteen thousand other books on the civil rights movement written this year is that it also presents the unusual philosophy that has been born out of SNCC work.
This is not, apparently, the same philosophy that is created by sitting in an armchair and worrying about "the Negro problem." The usual text on the inevitability of violence is replaced by a polite reaffirmation of the "Nonviolent" in SNCC's title and a warning that if violence is not to take over in the movement, the government must begin to act. The usual section on the incompatibility of whites and Negroes in the civil rights movement is replaced by a chapter describing how individual white men have won the respect of Negroes who never expected to feel anything but hate for whites. Another chapter argues for government action to protect civil rights workers against local police and sheriffs.
Zinn's book is an unbalanced glorification of SNCC, and if you dislike its idealistic attitudes, you will dislike the book. Zinn admits its failings ("It exasperates its friends almost as often as it harrasses its enemies") without dwelling on them. His implicit point, and I think it is correct, is that organizational failures aside, SNCC has done some remarkable things and has created some unusual thinking in three years.