A Radical Rise and Fall

In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s By Clayborne Carson Harvard University Press

Greensboro, N.C., Feb. 1960--Four Black college students sit down at the lunch counter of a downtown Woolworth's and ask to be served. When the manager refuses, they inform him they'll stay. And they do, until closing time, when they return to their campus and recruit dozens more. The protest continues for a week, larger every day, as the Blacks and their white allies remain peaceful but assertive, and as local whites grow angry and violent.

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WITHIN DAYS OF the decision of Joseph McNeil, Izell Blair. Franklin McCain and David Richmond to remain at that lunch counter, the unrest had spread. Across the South, people were sitting-in and standing outside, carrying signs and bearing bruises. The outburst of student activism--on a scale not seen since in the South--was uncoordinated and spontaneous; we know of many of the protests only because there happened to be newsmen in the area. The demonstrations were not, for the most part, tremendously effective, but they were tremendously exhilarating. And obviously the start of something bigger.

Enter, stage left, SNCC. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a group which would quickly become the second most importance force in the American civil rights movement right behind Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Begun just two months after the first sit-ins, its purpose was to coordinate protest. In subsequent years, it looked for sources of independent Black political power such as voter registration campaigns. But within six years, SNCC was in its dotage, became a feeble, vulnerable, yet ever more rhetorical intellectual vanguard in the rush toward Black militance. Clayborne Carson's portrait of the group in its transition from SNCC to what one member called the "Non-Student Violent Uncoordinating Committee" reads like a primer on political organizing, full of insight into both the sources of SNCC's strength and the seeds of its demise.

A successful movement demands a visible, evil enemy, something activist organizers have known since the days when they were rounding up Christians for the Crusades. For the civil rights movement as a whole and SNCC in particular, the villains were easy to come by. There were the club-swinging sheriffs, invariably paunchy, invariably cackling, invariably so stupid that they'd sic the dogs and turn on the firehoses and order the charge smack in front to the t.v. cameras. There were the hooded Klansmen, who blew up churches. There were the signs--"Whites Only" or "No Coloreds." As other movement historians have documented, civil rights leaders were smart enough to provoke reactions, and when the cops refused to swing away on national t.v --as in the effort to end segregation in Albany, Ga.--the movement's chances dropped dramatically.


SNCC's most effective years were also marked by pragmatism. Its staff and volunteers organized to win limited and attainable goals such as the integration of bus stops and bathrooms and the right to vote. The organization was decentralized, its structure chaotic, its projects dependent on individual effort and initiative. But, for a while, anyway, it worked.

The moral passion and drama of the early civil rights struggle was one of the most important reasons for the group's success. Less traditionally Christian than King and his followers, SNCC spawned an emotional, windy pride and esprit that made up for the $10 a week wages and the dangers that went with trying to organize as entrenched an area as Amite County, Mississippi. They were "action-oriented," possessed of a "revolutionary elan," filled with courage and passion. Carson quotes a Black Georgia woman who lost her job when she let SNCC workers stay in her house:

Two things we knew held us together: prayer of something good to come and song that tells from the depth of the heart how we feel about our fellow man.

Indeed, music had become a weapon in the struggle: "After the song, the differences among us would not be as great," Bernice Reagan, an Albany student leader who joined SNCC, said. "Somehow, making a song required an expression of that which was common to us all." Wherever they traveled across the South in 1962 and 1963, SNCC organizers carried with them a favorite song that soon became a movement standard:

Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round turn me 'round, turn me 'round, Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round I'm gonna keep on walkin', keep on a-talkin' Marching up to freedom land.

The music died as the years went on, and SNCC itself began to weaken. The visible enemy grew harder to see, as the sharpest edges of race-hate were blunted and as the cops and registrars grew savvy. The movement, including SNCC, found it hard to shift from protest focused on consensus issues like voting rights to protest focused on issues with less support, like the economic problems that were emerging as intractable plagues in Black America. Without a visible enemy and without the fire borrowed from the southern campuses at the start of the sit-in period, SNCC workers began to slack off, long-standing projects began to fade, and the "circle of trust" that once had banded together the organization's leadership began to crack.

In some ways, SNCC more than the rest of the movement, should have been able to adapt to the new economic and Northern emphasis, for its members had shifted course before and consistently had been at the movement's intellectual and ideological front. But it was exactly that fickleness and militance that made SNCC vulnerable and which eventually robbed it of all effectiveness and left it a shambles.

With dizzying speed, SNCC had turned from its strictly non-violent suits and ties at lunch counters to a strident denim-overalls organizing in the fields. It soon shifted again, this time to "Black Power" (a phrase made prominent by SNCC member Willie Ricks), and proceeded to expel its white members. Before the 1960s ended, it had forsaken the "non-violent" in its name, and become the "Student National Coordinating Committee." It began to speak a new language--Molotov cocktails, inflaming, needling, never giving an inch.

All of this may have been intellectually and ideologically correct--certainly it was hard for these veterans to accept King's notion of interracial redemption through suffering. But whatever its validity, it succeeded in destroying the organization and helped to provoke a backlash that curbed the effectiveness of the civil rights movement. Carson's account shows the folly of rhetoric when it is unaccompanied by the work of organizing, of creating support. "During the final year of SNCC's existence, staff members became increasingly dogmatic and isolated. Formerly controversial ideas became cant and posturing. SNCC's demise as a national organization merely confirmed the earlier death of its singular spirit and of the black struggles that had produced that spirit."

SNCC'S ANALYSIS of American society should have warned it of one more danger with increasing militance. Our government places sharp limits on dissent; when a person passes those limits without the support of huge numbers, he is doomed. From the moment that Black Power became the SNCC byword, phones were tapped, arrests were made, leaders shot. As one FBI memorandum about the organization concluded, "You are urged to take an enthusiastic and imaginative approach to this new counterintelligence endeavor and the Bureau will be pleased to entertain any suggestions or techniques you may recommend." Obviously, fear of repression should not place absolute limits on militance; the calculating radical, however, will wait until he has the support to challenge the state, not be snuffed out by it.

Persuader is one role the militant wing of almost every American movement for social change has played. The existence of a credible radical organization will scare the country enough, or so the theory goes, that the more moderate demands of the movement will win acceptance. But being wild-eyed can only be valuable in this way if there is a consensus of less radical but equally committed organizers pressing for demands. Without that support, the militant will inevitably end up like SNCC--out on a ledge where they are vulnerable to the police and the populace.

In short, the message of In Struggle is that it is no shame to be a little impure ideologically if you're also being effective. Change takes time, and the building of support is not easy and fast.

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Greensboro, N.C., 1981--The problems haven't gone away. The Klan is larger and richer than ever and they have proven that they can get away with murder. The enemies are becoming visible again--the radical right, an administration determined to oppress the Third World, the neo-conservatives. Again this country will have to be set straight. But it won't be done with hate, and the rhetoric of humanity will be more effective than the rhetoric of revolution. A new movement can begin to build, must begin to build, to continue where SNCC derailed. With any luck, it will be a movement that sings.