SNCC

Brass Tacks

At a Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee gathering in May, 1966, newly elected chairman Stokely Carmichael announced:

A fundamental change has occurred in the nature of SNCC; this change portends the only reorientation of emphasis meaningfully possible; this emphasis must be irrevocably on blackness and black people.

With that declaration, Carmichael -- armed with little more than a rhetoric of outrage -- began to pursue the almost mystical notion that there is a frontier of American politics solely for Negroes, and that it is SNCC's to find. Mississippi Summer Project veterans Bob Moses and John Lewis were dismissed as revisionists. The new Howard educated policy-making core -- Carmichael, Courtland Cox, Charles Cobb, Cleveland Sellers -- focused on the words "self-determinism," "nationalism," and "black power." The newly evolving SNCC image was one of hard cool. The old tactic and credo of Ghandian pacifism was termed irrelevant.

It is almost a year since SNCC elections brought its ideology of activism to the Movement's vanguard. Last May SNCC was an organization grappling with growing disillusionment by elements inside and outside the group. Carmichael's taking office solved these questions as far as SNCC was concerned: white involvement in the struggle was a sell-out; the Movement had to be black, directed exclusively by and towards black people.

Last May it was possible to speculate with some degree of certainty on SNCC's new direction. Both SNCC's manpower and finances had drastically diminished. SNCC's effectiveness was less than at any time in its short history. SNCC's energies were directed simply at keeping alive the creative spirit that had kept the Movement going.

Last May, SNCC's leaders took advantage of a growing militancy born of disillusionment and nurtured by the unresolved Chaney-Goodman-Swerner murders and the desperate, crushed hopes of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. After the Selma Summer of 1965, Civil Rights lost to the growing conflict over Vietnam its undisputed priority as a national objective. But militancy itself is not a direction; it is an emotion. While a very real part of SNCC's all-black orientation, it spoke more of SNCC's organizational condition: desperate, disillusioned, and virtually bankrupt.

The past year has served only to illuminate that condition. SNCC lost most of its white money and support when it decided that the white community as a whole was its enemy -- politically, culturally, socially, and economically. In order to make up for the loss of white money and white support, SNCC launched a new appeal aimed at northern Negro college students.

Negro students from Berkeley to the University of Chicago to Harvard were attentive but not awestruck by Carmichael's appeal. Carmichael wasn't bringing most of his audiences any news. Afro-American and militant black-only groups had been in formation since 1963 when the Movement came North. James Foreman's statement last March to Harvard Afro-Americans -- "Your very presence in this American, educational institution is, by example, oppressing your black brothers and sisters . . . I'm fighting for your mind, baby, just like Whitey" -- antagonized, not inspired, Negroes who listened for a concrete program and heard only polemics.

In SNCC's home of Atlanta, and in Black Belt colleges, Carmichael has found a perplexing and almost insurmountable problem in recruiting 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week revolutionaries from the Negro middle-class. Behind Carmichael, the leadership cult is pre-occupied with presenting an image of bitter coolness. SNCC has rejected intellectualism -- the notion that Negroes must obtain certain credentials and legitimacy from education to be meaningful to the Negro community -- as bourgeois and escapist.

SNCC's sensitivity to the developing Negro activism on Northern campuses showed a still present line of communication between SNCC and students. Yet Carmichael's misreading of this unrest and his resultant inability to enlist 24-hour soldiers clearly reveals the distance between SNCC and the Negro on campus. The Harvard-Radcliffe Association of African and Afro-American Students typifies the new character of Negro activism. The Negro in AAAAS is proudly intellectual and even prouder of having reached Harvard. He is not "unmindful of the masses of black people he has left behind," as SNCC puts it. But he will not be intimidated for his hard work or antagonized for his efforts to "make it," even if making it doesn't allow for a full-time, SNCC-type commitment. Where SNCC has been dogmatic and uncompromising, Afro-American groups have been innovative and creative. Harvard AAAAS, for example, has sought to develop ties with the Negro community -- to plant its intellectual roots in the ground of political and social realities -- with activity ranging from tutorial programs to organizing black businesses in Roxbury.

Most of its members also won't buy the notion that becoming a professional entails a sell-out to the system. The Negro activist is now bored with constant, vague polemics about the "oppressive, capitalist system" while action not abstraction is needed.

This is not to say that SNCC was not welcomed on campuses by Afro-Americans. If anything the reverse is true. He catalyzed thinking in those who had found it convenient not to think. He crystallized subtly felt prejudice into formulations of the causes of Negro poverty and disfranchisement and the character of the white political and economic system. But Carmichael and other SNCC people seldom ventured beyond the simple formulations. What they said was exciting, but did not inspire action.

SNCC and Afro-American groups no longer have whites in their membership. For Afro-Americans it is a decision of tactical importance arising out of a conscious, creative effort to see black students determining the direction of their own movement. For SNCC, the decision of white-exclusion is more deeply rooted in a chauvinistic dogma that says black exclusivism equals black superiority -- a romantic contrivance that even the late Malcolm X abandoned. It is disheartening that the only visible product of SNCC's collective array of striking personalities is a kind of street-oriented, ultrahip, political lingo that makes all SNCC statements sound distressingly similar.

SNCC failed in 1966. While talking of "self-help" and "resources of the black community," SNCC did nothing substantial to sink its roots deeply in the Southern black community. SNCC's money is Northern, "guilty," white -- and decreasing. SNCC has not really done anything to change that. In the North and South, SNCC has perpetuated the myth that the left is the Negro's final resort. But it has gone left without really understanding what leftist politics in this country are all about. SNCC's recent declarations that Socialism is the Southern Negro's last hope is simply intellectual dishonesty.

The dwindling SNCC staff of the past year has substituted talk for tactic. They have been polemical when plain discussion was called for. Since last May, SNCC's purpose and energies have not singled out any self-sustaining, meaningful activity. It has no program tailored to long range purposes, and even in Atlanta SNCC has neither catalyzed nor offered viable community leadership. SNCC lacks a broad community base and visible, tangible results, the major tests of effectiveness, have been noticeably absent.

One listens with persistent impatience to the standard SNCC dialogue about "functioning inside or outside the system." The American Dream has been discredited in Courtland Cox's words as "an offer void in states where prohibited by law." SNCC has branded this country immoral and unrealistic for Negroes, and damaging for the black psyche. All this may be very true, but SNCC has not found a viable answer to the question: "So now what?" And it is by this answer -- or lack of it -- that SNCC must be measured and judged, no matter how profoundly right or wrong their analysis.

The real spirit of SNCC is almost dead. Its only meaningful legacy is a sense of commitment that grew out of protest and action and that is slowly smothering under a too-demanding arrogance of anti-intellectualism. SNCC will never get to play the game of politics as it once thought it might. It has given up too much faith in the feast -- the system -- to find a seat at the table meaningful.

This is a bleak forecast for SNCC. Carmichael has already opted out of running again for chairman, and no one anywhere in the present eschalons seems ready, willing or able to fill the formidable void this month's elections will bring. As SNCC's resources and manpower dwindle, the sounds of a new student activism are just beginning on hitherto quiet Southern Negro campuses. It was this kind of activism that SNCC spent the last year trying to capture and make its own. For SNCC this activism may have some too late. If so, this month's elections may be SNCC's last.