This is a talk delivered by SNCC veteran Charles E. Cobb Jr. on Sunday, January 15, 2017 at the People’s Congregational Church in Washington, D.C. on the occassion of the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday.
By Charles E. Cobb
My thanks to Rev. Hopson, the congregation of Peoples church, and especially the church’s Board of Christian Social Action for inviting me here. I grew up in the Congregational church. My father Rev. Charles E. Cobb pastored St. John’s Congregational Church in Springfield Massachusetts, and later co-founded the UCC’s Commission for Racial Justice and became its first executive director. So I feel like I have come back home and welcome the opportunity to speak to you. Thank you.
Julian Bond in Mississippi, 1963. Photo by Harvey Richards.
My friend and former co-worker in the movement Julian Bond, who is greatly missed, used to say that the primary misconception in the public’s perception of the southern civil rights movement can be boiled down to three short sentences. “Rosa sat down. Martin stood up. And then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.”
In the minds of many, the movement is thought of as mass protest in public spaces led by charismatic leaders. That is only partly true, however. The organizing tradition—a very old tradition, with roots in slave rebellions—better describes the movement. And, I want to push this forward as what is most relevant for continuing struggle in the 21st century as well as properly understanding movement history. And that does not mean that mass protest—those of yesteryear and those now, contradicts this tradition.
My approach to discussing the movement this morning is from the bottom up, or put another way, from the inside out since I was very much involved with the movement as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. We were an organization of grassroots organizers.
First, as much as the movement challenged segregation, racial discrimination and white supremacy, fundamental to real understanding of the movement are the challenges black people made to one another within the black community. This underappreciated dimension of the movement is as important today as it was more than half a century ago. Maybe even more important now, given the kind of violence we are witnessing in Chicago and other cities.
Martin Luther King was born today in 1929; we are celebrating his work. So before going further, let me tell you a story about Reverend King that is relevant to the point I have just made.
Few people give enough thought to the fact that before he achieved national and international renown as a civil rights leader, Martin Luther King was a young local minister in Montgomery, Alabama. How he emerged is important to understanding the emergence of the bus boycott there, which was driven by local people at the grassroots.
After Rosa Parks’s arrest, black Montgomery organized a highly successful one-day bus boycott. I am tempted here to discuss Mrs. Parks at length. She was much more than a weary dressmaker seeking a place to sit on the bus. As she put it, her life was “a history of being rebellious.”
E.D. Nixon and Rosa Parks in Montgomery on March 19, 1956. AP/Gene Herrick
At the end of the day, Montgomery’s black leadership—many of them ministers—met in Martin Luther King’s church to discuss continuing the boycott until the city committed to desegregation of bus seating. Most who spoke, expressed various degrees of reluctance and fear about doing this. Finally, the preeminent black leader of Montgomery—E.D. Nixon, one of A. Phillip Randolph’s union men and the former head of Alabama’s NAACP—rose and spoke. As the story came to me from Johnnie Carr, 95-years old when she was telling it, and part of a core group of women who had been working with Rosa Parks since the 1940s, Nixon basically accused the gathering of cowardice: “You preachers been eating these women’s fried chicken long enough without doing anything for them.” It was women, after all, riding buses across town into the white community to jobs as housekeepers and cooks and nursemaids who suffered regular humiliation traveling on public transportation. “Now,” Mr. Nixon continued, “it’s time to get up off your butts and do something for them!” It was then that a 26-year-old Martin Luther King stood up. Do we even think of Martin Luther King as a 26-year-old? “I am not a coward!” He said. The embarrassed gathering agreed to continue the boycott and Rev. King was elected head of the organization they formed at that meeting to continue the boycott—The Montgomery Improvement Association.
The way to understand this moment, I hope you see, is by understanding the kind of challenges black people were making to one another across the south. This is what drove struggle and change. Much of this still remains invisible. And broadening this with an almost equally invisible related point: The Movement thrust forward leaders, not the other way around.
However, as important as he was, I am not here this morning to discuss Martin Luther King. I intend to concentrate instead on Mississippi and its lessons, particularly as they apply to these times. That is the state where I worked as a SNCC field secretary from 1962 until 1967, and the state I know the best.
The vicious racial oppression that once so completely defined this state establishes a special kind of clarity for us this morning. To illustrate this, in a moment I will read to you a description of an encounter reported by another friend, and comrade, and hero from the days of Mississippi’s mid-20th century freedom struggle. Sam Block is his name. He, like almost everyone who formed the backbone of the southern Movement, is invisible and he died far too young from both the physical and psychological traumas of that struggle.
Rally for the Freedom Vote, Hinds County, 1963. Front row from left: NAACP leader Aaron Henry, SNCC organizers Sam Block and Willie Peacock, unidentified. Back row, Rev. Ed King with bandage on face. From crmvet.org
The words will come from a 1962 field report Sam wrote describing the early days of his efforts to organize around voter registration in the Mississippi Delta. Sam was the first of us—meaning the first of us who were young—18, 19, 20, 21 22 and 23-years-old—to organize for voting rights in the Mississippi Delta—cotton plantation country. The Delta was a vicious place where most black life had been reduced to plantation serfdom following the dismemberment of Reconstruction. The Delta was where the White Citizens Council was born. Sam began working in a town where the White Citizens Council was particularly powerful—Greenwood—county seat of Leflore County. Greenwood and the rest of the county, like most other Delta towns and counties, was two thirds black. When Sam arrived, there were more than 13,000 voting-age blacks in Leflore County, but only about 200 had succeeded in being registered. Listen to Sam’s report. The N-word, as we now say in polite company, is used in it; but it is necessary, I think. However, I apologize in advance for any discomfort its use causes. Here’s Sam:
We went up to register and it was the first time visiting the courthouse in Greenwood, Mississippi, and the sheriff came up to me and he asked me, he said, “Nigger where you from?” I told him, “Well I’m a native Mississippian.” He said, “Yeh, yeh, I know that, but where you from? I don’t know where you from.” I said, “Well, around some counties.” He said, “Well I know that, I know you ain’t from here ‘cause I know every nigger and his mammy.” I said, “You know all the niggers, do you know any colored people?” He got angry. He spat in my face and he walked away. So he came back and turned around and told me, “I don’t want to see you in town any more. The best thing you better do is pack your clothes and get out and don’t never come back no more.” I said, “Well, sheriff, if you don’t want to see me here, I think the best thing for you to do is pack your clothes and leave, get out of town, ‘cause I’m here to stay; I came here to do a job and this is my intention. I’m going to do this job…”
Now I think this exchange, which took place on the steps of the Leflore County courthouse, explains everything you need to know about the movement. Sam’s words were a promise and a prediction. Along with Sam, those of us in SNCC and CORE especially, dug in and stayed to do the job; were committed to doing the job, and drawing from deep wells of strength in black communities, broke the back of apartheid in Mississippi. But the outcome did not just affect Mississippi; it changed America. The job we did resulted in changing forever the rules of the national Democratic Party and that is what laid the groundwork for the Obama presidency. This is not boast, but history. Basically: In fighting for the right to vote—and winning—the door was opened to the possibility of winning any elected office, even the highest in the land. As the black abolitionist Fredrick Douglass pointed out more than 150 years ago and it’s as relevant now as then, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.” I stand here in praise of our struggle, and to testify that the violence underlying the Greenwood Sherriff’s words reveal the blood-soaked ground in Mississippi and across the American south that has been the price of progress. I stand here to insist that this must never be forgotten, and that there is a debt, a duty—an obligation we have—all of us—to repay this history with continuing struggle.
Approaching this history, there are, of course, some legitimate questions you may want answered in trying to grasp why I think Sam’s courthouse encounter with the sheriff was so significant. Who was Sam Block? He was only 22 when this happened; that’s kind of young, isn’t it? How did he get to Greenwood? What made him stay in defiance of the sheriff’s threat? The larger question is: Is there something we can use here today?
So, let’s look more closely at Sam. Youth comes immediately to mind in this consideration. As I said, he was just 22-years-old at the time of his confrontation with the sheriff. Largely missing from the narrative about the civil rights movement is that in many instances it was led by young people like Sam. To quote Martin Luther King speaking in support of sit-ins at a February 16, 1960 civil rights rally in Durham, North Carolina: “What is new in your fight is the fact that it was initiated, fed, and sustained by students.”
I was a 12th grade high school student when on February 1, 1960 the sit-in movement erupted in Greensboro, North Carolina. Black students there began refusing to leave whites only lunch counters and restaurants. Within two months such protests had spread to 80 southern cities. The student protests in Nashville, Tennessee, Atlanta, Georgia, and other southern cities that year, reached us via television and newspapers—especially black newspapers. And for me and most of my friends, before seeing these sit-ins, civil rights had been something grown-ups did. Now, looking at young people like Diane Nash or John Lewis or Julian Bond—students, my generation—what was coming through to us was that civil rights struggle was something we could do.
We see something similar in the way that protests over the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford Florida have led to an ever-expanding Movement for Black Lives that is led by young people. A whole new set of young leaders has begun to emerge and lay claim to the future they want to live in; launched a fight for their future. As a SNCC veteran, I see a lot of my younger self in this, and applaud it.
Amzie Moore, Mississippi, 1963. Photo by Harvey Richards.
Sam was also one of Amzie Moore’s people. That’s who sent him, via SNCC to Greenwood. SNCC, which grew out of the sit-in movement had by 1962 evolved into an organization of organizers, working closely and at the grassroots with older veterans of civil rights struggle—many of them local NAACP leaders like Amzie. You won’t know his name any more than you knew Sam’s, but you need to know some things about Amzie because understanding what he represents is another essential component of any real discussion about the movement.
Amzie Moore was the president of the Cleveland, Mississippi NAACP where Sam had been born and grew up, and had decided that he wanted to tap into and use the young energy he saw in the sit-in students. He admired what the students were doing, but was not interested in organizing sit-ins in his town; he wanted a voter registration campaign. He put that idea on our political plate, challenging our idea that “direct action” only meant sit-ins and picket lines of protest. Amize wanted to see the emergence of black power in the Delta. The black people were there; the registered black voters were not.
As we began working in the Delta, Amzie Moore’s home was our central headquarters. His house was an orientation center, a place for breakfast of scrambled eggs or for a spaghetti dinner; it provided telephone connections and was always full of conversation as well as Amzie’s sometimes grim, sometimes funny stories of Delta life and earlier civil rights struggle. Floodlights washed his backyard because he was certain that one night Ku Klux Klansmen, or white terrorists of some sort, would attack his home. Often Amzie, who had fought the Nazis overseas after all, sat in the bay window of his living room with rifles and pistols, waiting to repel an attack he was certain would come (which may be why it never came).
Our relationship with Amzie puts into perspective yet another important dimension of the movement: The convergence of young people—like Sam…or myself—with older people like Amzie—he was 49- years-old when we met him. I had just turned nineteen in 1962. They were willing to share their experiences and open up to us, networks that they had built over many years, even decades, of struggle.
Ella Baker (center) at the Highlander Center.
Ella Baker introduced us to Amzie. She was 59-years-old. You cannot talk of 20th century civil rights struggle without discussing this remarkable woman. And let me also say as an aside here, although it should really be central to any discussion, that you cannot talk about 20th century civil rights struggle without discussing the leadership of women. Ms. Baker was the NAACP’s Director of Southern Branches in the 1940s, was the person who organized Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) after the 1955-56 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. She immediately recognized the significance and potential of the emerging student sit-in movement in 1960 and negotiated 800 dollars from Rev. King to bring student protest leaders together at her alma mater, Shaw College in Raleigh, North Carolina. Out of this meeting came SNCC. As much as anyone, and more than most, her hands and her brains shaped the theory and methods of community organizing which defines the modern civil rights movement. Her main lesson: Organize from the bottom up. “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”
Although a number of historical forces mark the era of modern civil rights struggle, in my opinion, the convergence of some very particular and very critical forces laid the foundation for the modern mid-20th century struggle from which there would be no turning back: the commitment to democracy and human rights embedded in the rhetoric of World War Two’s fight against fascism, the accelerating struggles for decolonization in Africa and Asia, post war economic and educational opportunity in the United States with so much of the world in rubble, and finally: the1954 supreme court decision in Brown v. Board of Education which began the process of dismantling the legal framework which underwrote U.S. apartheid. Importantly, that decision engendered hope, one of the indispensable ingredients for resistance.
Fannie Lou Hamer picketing on Freedom Day, 1964, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
What uniquely marks the era, though, is that in large numbers, people who were usually spoken for by others, began to speak for themselves, and not only that, spoke for themselves in such a way that they could not be ignored. This is very important so let me restate it in a slightly different way: Ordinary people who were usually spoken for by sympathetic advocates, or of, by hostile white supremacists, began speaking for themselves saying “this is what we demand; this is the kind of society in which we wish to live.” Montgomery, Alabama’s mid-1950s bus boycott and the now almost completely forgotten student struggle in 1951 Farmville, Virginia may be the post-World War II events that best represent this. I also think the person who probably best symbolizes this is Fannie Lou Hamer of Mississippi. She was a sharecropper and timekeeper on a Delta cotton plantation who became not only a leader of Mississippi’s 1960s movement, but a great national voice for civil rights. In any case, maids, sharecroppers, day workers, cooks, janitors, farmers, factory workers, beauticians and barbers, as I said, ordinary people who were usually spoken for or of—these voices began to be heard, or at least could no longer be ignored in the mid 20th century. And, through organization and direct action they changed a way of life.
It is worth noting as we seem to have entered an era where civil liberties are being eroded in the name of national security that the civil rights movement forced the issue of civil liberties. In 1963 Bernard Lafayette, one of the leaders of the Nashville Student Movement organized the first civil rights mass meeting in Selma, Alabama. When Sheriff Jim Clark burst in with his deputies and disrupted the meeting he was armed with a warrant from the circuit judge empowering him to prevent “insurrection.” And in the months leading up to the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project approached, the state legislature passed a “criminal syndicalism,” law. It empowered local authorities to redefine organized civil rights struggle (or labor union organizing) as “terrorism” with 10 years of imprisonment possible for any person who, “By word of mouth or written words or personal conduct advocates, instigates, suggests, teaches or aids and abets criminal syndicalism or the duty, necessity, propriety or expediency of committing crime, criminal syndicalism, sabotage, violence or any other unlawful method of terrorism as a means of accomplishing or effecting a change in agricultural or industrial ownership or control or effecting any political or social change….” Whew! After the first group of people tried to register to vote in Sunflower County, Mississippi, white nightriders shot up the black community. In Ruleville, a tiny Delta town, two girls were wounded. I was arrested for the shooting, by the mayor, who said I had done it to gain publicity for a failing movement. I was let go the next morning. If also charged and convicted as a criminal syndicalist I could have had 10 years in jail added to whatever sentence I was given for the shooting.
Looking across today’s political landscape I cannot say that such oppressive legislation is no longer possible. Fear often leads to tyranny.
In the United States today, with civil rights and civil liberties so vulnerable, the most important lesson of the civil rights movement is still relevant. You have to make a demand for the kind of society in which you want to live—especially if you want to live in a free society. As we used to say, “Freedom is not free.”
And this brings us to the Movement for Black Lives today. Alicia Garza, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter wrote a year or so ago, “When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement [that] Black poverty and genocide is state violence. It is an acknowledgment that 1 million Black people are locked in cages in this country–one half of all people in prisons or jails–is an act of state violence. It is an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families and that assault is an act of state violence.” Ms. Garza’s framing mirrors the concerns with systemic oppression that we held while fighting for change in the South.
I, for one, think their protests have been powerful and effective. Now they face the question of organizing beyond protest, a question we had to face too. A question we also have to face is how to support this young movement. We might begin by talking to them seriously about their ideas. I believe the earlier movement history I have offered here can be of some use to the young people working to maintain our ongoing struggle today. Obviously, while not everything from our era will be useful for 21st century activists, there is a core reality that strong movements are built by developing inclusive relationships capable of knitting together strategies formed as a result of listening to ordinary people’s experiences and ideas for change. More than any single thing this is what the movement did in order to engage in effective struggle. I think doing this in the black urban communities that now form the heart of black America is much more difficult than what we were faced with in the rural south of the 1960s, but the basic principle of digging in and finding a language that works remains fundamental. This is a conversation we do not have time for this morning. But I do know that this discussion has begun among some of the groups that form the Movement for Black Lives. So, as the Mozambicans used to say in their struggle for independence from Portugal—a Luta Continua, the struggle continues.
Finally, I ask you to consider this which can serve as a theme for today’s struggle as much as it served as the founding principles of the United States in 1787:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
For all the contradictions found throughout U.S. history this is the core, though still unrealized, ideal of the country. But do we really want to do this? Government as we’ve known it since the country’s inception has always been ambivalent and at many times, hostile to this ideal. And this idea is really the heart of my message to you this morning; what we learn in the passage of time from Martin Luther King’s emergence to the now of Black Lives Matter. It’s the emergence of ordinary people as leaders and spokespeople who are the real force for change—people who keep their eyes on the prize, as the old song goes. And today, this need is more urgent than it has ever been. And perhaps, too, more possible. I am, in effect, challenging each one of you to be the change. A luta continua.
Charles Cobb and SNCC veteran Philippa Jackson, who introducted Cobb at the church service.
Peoples Congregational Church
January 15, 2017
Charles E. Cobb Jr. is a former field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a journalist, and the author of a number of books including This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (Basic Books, 2014). Read more.
Charlottesville, VA October 20, 2016
Remarks on the occasion of a Symposium at the University of Virginia on the life and work of Julian Bond:
Julian Bond, SNCC, the Movement—Changing a Generation
Remarks by Charles Cobb, Jr.
It is difficult to imagine a grown-up civil rights leader in 1960—someone our parents or grandparents age—voicing something like this:
Look at that gal
Shake that thang
We can’t all be
Martin Luther King
This is a young voice and Julian Bond is the young voice we are hearing. He wrote that in 1960; and setting aside the fact that we hear a male voice lasciviously eying someone of the opposite sex, the deeper meaning of this couplet reflects an important change defining his and my generation. “We can’t all be Martin Luther King.”
It is perhaps worth briefly noting before going further that Julian once wanted to be a standup comedian and with another important figure in SNCC, Connie Curry, even enrolled in a comedy school for a time. Students of his here at this university have almost certainly encountered his wry humor.
But getting back to my main point: It is unfortunate that mid-20th century civil rights struggle has come to be largely defined by mass protest in public spaces led by charismatic leaders, with Martin Luther King being the great symbol of this—and in making this comment let me stress that I am not attacking Dr. King. However, the young people who spilled into the southern freedom movement, creating SNCC and expanding CORE—the Congress of Racial Equality, changed the dynamic of civil rights struggle by making a commitment to community organizing at the grassroots in the black belt south. It was struggle at this level that actually powered the movement. There is a straight line, for example, between the grassroot organizing that led to the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the election of Barak Obama. Tim Jenkins here can tell you how student protests in Atlanta got John Kennedy elected in 1960.
I do not have enough time to even begin elaborating on all of the dimensions of this organizing tradition, but it is important to note here that community organizing around ideas of freedom is a very old tradition in America’s Black communities. Enslaved Africans, after all, were not marching in protest on auction blocks nor sitting-in in plantation manor dining rooms seeking a seat at “massa’s” table. No. They were organizing—escapes, revolts, sabotage, even assassinations. They were also communicating in various ways ideas of rebellion and resistance. The kind of role Julian played as SNCC communications director began long before SNCC or the 20th century.
However, whether we start with resistance and revolts by African people in the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries, or with mid-20th century struggle, key to understanding Black struggle are the challenges Black people made to one another within the Black community. This aspect of the movement is often overlooked. Like most journalists, I am always walking around with a few stories in my pocket. So, here is one that immediately comes to mind that Julian liked to tell explaining his first involvement with the movement. The sit-ins had just erupted in Greensboro, North Carolina. Julian, a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, was sitting in a student hangout when another student, Lonnie King, came up to him with a copy of the Atlanta Daily World, Atlanta’s daily Back newspaper. A headline read “Greensboro students sit in for third day.”
“Have you seen this?” Lonnie asked him.
“Yes,” Julian replied.
“What do you think about it?” Lonnie inquired.
“I think it’s great!” said Julian
“Don’t you think it ought to happen here? Lonnie pressed.
“Oh I’m sure it will,” responded Julian. “Surely someone here will do it.”
Then what came to me, recalled Julian, “as it came to others in those early days in 1960, a query, an invitation, and a command.”
“Why don’t we make it happen here.”
Thus the Atlanta movement was born. Look at any movement event and you will see they almost always begin with challenges within the Black community. This is how today’s Movement for Black Lives began although with facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like they have a lot more at their disposal than we had in 1960. Lawrence Guyot a SNCC field secretary who became chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) remarked once, “You can’t challenge institutions without challenging yourself first.” Or, as Congressman John Lewis, a former SNCC Chairman, challenged students in a commencement address this past spring: “If you see something that’s not right, not fair, not just, do something about it. Say something. Do something. Have the courage. Have the backbone to get in the way.”
This is Julian’s story. And his story, like the story of the movement itself, did not spring on the scene fully developed in its ideas and practices. It evolved; it grew. The Julian Bond who refused to disassociate himself from SNCC’s 1966 anti-Vietnam war statement had grown/evolved considerably from the Julian Bond who emerged as one of the sit-in leaders of the Atlanta Movement that wondered whether Bob Moses, another legendary figure in SNCC, might be a Communist. Just as the SNCC of 1966 embracing Black Power had evolved from the SNCC that was formed as nonviolent sit-ins spread in 1960. The lesson for those taking seriously and wanting to understand today’s still-emergent movement for black lives is that the young minds shaping it are still in the process of forming the ideas and practices that will drive it. I sit on the board of the SNCC Legacy Project and we consistently try and make our experiences of half a century ago available for use when relevant.
Crucial to understanding Julian’s story, and resonating today with the surge of young activism of the Movement for Black Lives, is the emergence of young people into leadership that accompanied the sit-in movement. It was something of a first in the long history of Black struggle although I do not mean to diminish the significance of the Southern Negro Youth Congress formed in the mid 1930s—SNYC, the first Snick some of whose leaders were influential with us in the 1960s. Still, shortly after sit-ins began in Greensboro, Martin Luther King speaking in Durham, North Carolina could declare, “What is fresh, what is new in your fight is the fact that it was initiated, fed and sustained by students.” Dr. King wanted these young activists to organize and become part of his organization, SCLC. The students, encouraged by one of the great figures of 20th century struggle, Ella Baker, resisted that and thus SNCC was born. Julian was there at this birthing. Time forces me to skip over a lot of the nuance that forms part of this decision. But these are the roots of some legendary figures in the southern movement: John Lewis, Stokley Carmichael, Diane Nash, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, Charles Sherrod, among them. And Julian.
One step leads to another. The sit-ins resulted in arrests for many. You have to understand, this movement was led by Black college students, many of whom were the first in their families to get to college. You weren’t supposed to go to jail. You were supposed to, in the language of the time, “Make something of yourself.” So what’s happening. Again, with great relevance today I think, Charles Sherrod, SNCC’s project director in Southwest Georgia captured exactly what speaking to a reporter after serving a 30-day sentence laboring on a road gang for sitting in in a segregated restaurant in Rock Hill South Carolina: “You get ideas in jail. You talk with other young people you have never seen. Right away we recognize each other. People like yourself, getting out of the past. We’re up all night, sharing creativity, planning action. You learn the truth in prison, you learn wholeness. You find out the difference between being dead and alive.”
That’s Charles Sherrod at 22 years of age. You almost had to be young to think like that although some grownups come to mind: Bayard Rustin, Pauli Murray, James Farmer and Jim Forman. Among the young activists emerging in 1960 history was driving another momentous decision: Dropping out of school to commit full time to movement work. And if going to jail was difficult for parents and relatives to get their heads around, leaving school even for a short while made little sense at all. We live today in an era in which “gap years” for almost any purpose are fairly common. But back in the day when aunts, uncles, mom, dad, grandma and grandpa had scrapped together nickels, pennies, and dollars to get you to school. . . leaving, dropping out. What’s wrong with you, boy!?
In my view and this of course can be debated, dropping out of school was the single most important decision that shaped SNCC. Julian was among that early group of dropouts. And this brings me to a point that I’ll only make briefly here. Julian came from a prominent Black family. The backgrounds of those who left school to become part of SNCC’s expanding work seems to have cut through traditional distinctions of class. Exploring this is worthy of another symposium. Furthering this was the influence of Ella Baker who stressed to SNCC the necessity of organizing from the bottom up in the rural black belt south. Neither Julian nor SNCC would have become what they became without her. Again, something worthy of another symposium.
I am running out of time so let me move quickly to some sort of conclusion. First, however, an acknowledgement of what Julian built in SNCC from the perspective of someone who was a SNCC field secretary in rural Mississippi. These places—Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, could make you disappear. They were murderous though that seems to be forgotten these days. People got killed for trying to exercise rights we take for granted now. And Julian, as SNCC’s communications director played an important role in keeping us alive. Via Julian, we had a route to public awareness. It was much harder to disappear us in these rural counties. This was something we could not do very well from our various places as field secretaries. I am here in part to acknowledge this great debt to Julian and the department he built.
I have not done several things in this presentation; in particular, I have not presented a biography of Julian. You can go online or get a book for that. I have tried to give you some context for Julian’s movement life which leads us to a legacy that I think the arc of his life reveals: That is that struggle continues; a luta continua as Mozambican freedom fighters used to say. Clearly much work remains to be done. The challenge of this work is really a challenge to you. Want to make change. Change yourself. See something wrong; do something about it.
October 20, 2016
University of Virginia