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Oral history interview with Cleveland Sellers by William Link
May 10, 1989
Cleveland Sellers (1945- ) was program director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the mid-1960s. He currently serves as director of the African-American Studies Program at the University of South Carolina.
In this transcript of a May 10, 1989, oral history interview conducted by William Link with Cleveland Sellers, Sellers primarily details the activities of SNCC in Mississippi and Alabama from 1963 through 1967. He describes various projects and initiatives, including Freedom Democratic Party, Mississippi Freedom Party, marches with Martin Luther King Jr., and discusses the murder of Sammy Young. He also describes the SNCC philosophy and strategy, specifically the influx and exodus of members, the shift from a civil rights organization to a human rights organization, the Black Panther Party and “black power,” and the influence and roles of other organizations and leaders, including King and Malcolm X.
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Oral history interview with Cleveland Sellers by William Link
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
This is William Link and the date is May 10, 1989, and I'm in the office of Mr. Cleveland Sellers. We spoke earlier about your experiences leading up to the early days of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], and the last time we talked, we talked about how you came to be involved in SNCC and how that involvement led you to Mississippi and the Deep South channel in 1963, 1964. I wonder if you'd mind elaborating a little bit more about what happened in Mississippi, and what SNCC's approach was?
Okay, I think that we had gotten through the search effort in Philadelphia, Mississippi. At the conclusion of that, I returned to Holly Springs, Mississippi, which was in the—at that time, it was considered the second congressional district of Mississippi. It was a black belt area, which meant that, simply that the percentages of blacks living in that area outnumbered the percentage of whites living in that area.
And we felt like if we were going to have an impact politically in the state of Mississippi then we needed to concentrate a pretty crack team of organizers in that area, because the efforts in Mississippi were multiple, in that, one, we wanted to put together the Freedom Democratic Party and take it to the National Democratic Party's convention in Atlantic City and challenge the regular Democratic delegation at that, at that convention. And that challenge would be based on racial discrimination, based on the fact that the regular Democratic party was basically a “Dixiecrat” organization or party, and did not support the National Democratic Party ticket, [and] had a history of not supporting it. And we were raising the question of loyalty and discrimination which occurred in the precincts and the, and the district conventions and the state conventions.
At that particular time in Mississippi, it was, it was pretty much against the moral code for blacks to register. And we had witnessed incidents where people were, were actually beaten as a result of their efforts to register to vote, and even killed in, in, in other parts of Mississippi as a result of their efforts to register to vote.
The other part of the summer project consisted of setting up—we called them freedom schools, and these were schools where we provided, at that point it was called Negro history, to many of the youngsters in those various communities. We also provided math and reading, because the educational system in Mississippi was pretty antiquated. And so when the call went out to recruit volunteers, one of the areas that we had talked about was the area of persons who were skilled schoolteachers that we wanted to bring into that area.
We also provided some preventive health kind of information. So we had a section in, in our area, we did have a nurse who would talk about nutrition and would talk about how to, to improve the health of many of the people in that area, nutrition being one of the key areas in Mississippi. There was a large number of blacks in Mississippi who suffered, or were on the verge of suffering from malnutrition, and there were a number of persons who, through the surveys, had scurvy and other diseases that were related to diet. So we tried to, through our efforts with the Mississippi Summer Project, impact on all those things.
And then we did provide a legal assistance to many of the organizers who were trying to get access to the courthouse, and trying to—had some civil litigations against segregated facilities, or whatever it might be. And that legal assistance also assisted us when we were prevented, or detained, or whatever the circumstances might be, that was in a, of a legal nature. We had a backup of attorneys that were distributed throughout the state.
So the impact was pretty total in terms of what we were trying to do in Mississippi during that summer. We were also trying to expose Mississippi to the rest of the world, and the level of violence and the level of intolerance on the part of Mississippi state officials that, that they didn't really care that other people would see the extent to which they would go to prevent blacks from participating fully in the democratic process in Mississippi. So we, we wanted to showcase that to the rest of the world and develop a consciousness across America to apply the pressure that would break the backbone of segregation there in Mississippi.
Mississippi, in the black community, was always seen as the, as the worst place in the world to be. And we picked Mississippi primarily because we wanted to challenge the rest of America and black America to begin to do in their own communities the kinds of things that we were doing there. We thought we were raising a certain consciousness that we were not afraid to take on the most violent, the most dangerous area in the country, as perceived by many blacks, and we walked tall, and we were willing to make the sacrifice, and we were willing to make that kind of commitment. So we had a lot of messages coming out of Mississippi all at the same time, and they were directed to different groups of people, different categories of people.
I stayed in Mississippi roughly eighteen months to two years. Our project headquarters was in Holly Springs, Mississippi, which is Marshall County. We had the responsibility for a number of other counties in that area. New Albany, Mississippi, was another area that we were involved in, and a, and a number of those counties around there. We probably had about an eight-county area.
And at the end of the summer, when it was time to count up the number of persons we had registered on the application form for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, we had roughly about 37,000 names. So that was a successful campaign, and that added to the rest of Mississippi. We had a formidable organization with people who not only were registering to be a member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, but they were also making a statement that if given the chance, they were willing to participate in the political process, and that they were saying in essence that they were denied that opportunity through their, through their efforts to sign up.
Now we have to put that in context. To sign up on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party application was tantamount to trying to register to vote. So the penalties were the same in terms of how the sheriffs and how the vigilantes and the White Citizens' Council saw that particular effort. So, you know, we ended up having to contact some people in the darkest part of the night, two or three o'clock in the mornings. We ended up having to slip onto plantations to get people signed up. We ended up being chased all over the back roads of the county and having to develop a very sophisticated security system in order to protect many of the workers who were there.
It was always, during the summer in Mississippi, some violent activity or action taking place in some part of the state. We had a school burned, and we had one person killed, and it was under suspicion, suspicious circumstances. One of the people who worked in our project [was] killed under suspicious circumstances. And we did have a school that was burned, and we had a couple of churches burned, one church in Blue Mountain, Mississippi. But our area was probably the least violent area in Mississippi during that, during that summer.
I think the totals came up to something like fifty-six churches were burned during that summer. There were probably over two hundred burnings or bombings of some sort throughout the state of Mississippi. There were probably about three thousand arrests of, of civil rights workers during that particular period of time. So we're talking about a three month period of time, and it was almost like at the Tet Offensive or something in Vietnam. It was just that intense, the reaction and the violence that were perpetrated among many of the people.
When we get to August, we, we go through the regular party process. We have the precinct conventions, and we have the district conventions, and then we go to the state, in terms of selecting delegates to go to the National Democratic Party. And we have a very successful state convention, and on every level we have a successful convention. And we document that information. And we elect, I think it's about seventy-eight, seventy-three delegates from Mississippi, three of whom are white delegates, who we are taken to the, to the Atlantic City convention.
Now many of these people are basically, if you had to put them in a class, were peasants. They were people who worked on the land. Many of them had never been out of Mississippi before. So in order for us to get them to go, they had to make a tremendous commitment to take the time off and to go away from home under circumstances that they were not particularly sure of. But we managed to get that group of people all bused down and escorted from Mississippi to Atlantic City.
We also took along the burned out station wagon of [Mickey] Schwerner, [Andrew] Goodman, and [J.E.] Chaney, [political activists murdered in Mississippi in 1964], and we took along the bells from some of the churches that had burned to the ground. One of the churches is the one that Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were investigating. So we all, we took all of the pieces of the, of the history of that period to act as visible symbols for people of goodwill to take a look at to see that our case that we were raising was a legitimate and valid case.
And we go to Atlantic City, and we, we go and take—and set up exhibits so people can see what our case is. We tried to get the delegates aware of the proceedings of a Democratic convention. Like I said, many of them had never been allowed to register to vote, so they'd never been in, in the party process. So we had to get people in position and in place to figure out how things were going along.
And we developed a strategy to go through the credentials committee to get credentials for the delegates, and at that point you had to make your case. Well, the history books now tell us that when it was time for Fannie Lou Hamer to go on the floor of the convention, to make her passionate plea—Fannie Lou Hamer was, who was a very articulate woman who had, she had her home shot up and she had to live in the woods for a period of time as a result of her efforts to register people in Ruleville, Mississippi—had become one of the spokespersons for SNCC, and a very strong and dynamic woman and leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Very articulate. And at the point where she was to speak at the convention, there was an emergency press conference on the part of Lyndon Baines Johnson. And it blocked it from going national, so the world did not have an opportunity. And there was no emergency or nothing urgent, it was just an effort to block.
It was deliberate.
It was very deliberate. The other interesting thing is, is that the person who was in charge of working out a resolve with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was Hubert Humphrey, who was then in line to become the, the, the vice presidential candidate. And so Lyndon Johnson passed along to him that responsibility. And the irony is, is that the person who on Humphrey's staff that had the sole responsibility was none other than [Walter] Mondale.
So it brings into focus again some of what eventually evolves through the historical process, players and movers. And what Mondale and those were able to work out was a compromise which would give the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party two at-large delegates. And they were going to be given these delegates, I think, from an upstate, northeastern delegation. I think it might have been New York. They were willing to, to allow two of their delegates not to be seated and to allow two of the representatives from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegate to take those credentials, and then they could sit anywhere. But they could not sit in a seat for the Mississippians.
And there were a lot of discussions of that issue. As a matter of fact, Dr. [Martin Luther] King and Roy Wilkens and Bayard Rustin and Joe Rauh and a number of other [civil rights activist] persons came in and talked with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party about the great victory of this compromise.
And then what we were able to do was, we were able to kind of close the delegation off from all of this pressure that was coming in and let them discuss their efforts, from trying to register to vote to getting on that bus, riding all day and all night, coming to represent all the people that they had left behind in Mississippi, and whether or not they wanted a compromise. And they concluded that they had come too far to turn around and that they were not prepared to accept anything but to get that other delegate out, and they were to go and take those seats.
And on several occasions, the delegates who were with credentials slipped into the convention hall and would go over and take the seats in the Mississippi—as a demonstration that those seats would fit them and that they could sit there, they could be intelligent, and they could support the Democratic Party's platform.
But in the final analysis, they chose to, to go back to Mississippi with pride and dignity, and that they felt like they only kind of sold, or would sell themselves short if they were to accept a compromise. It wasn't a position that was favored by the labor-liberal kind of coalition and the wing of the Democratic Party, and probably began to get the Democratic Party to look kind of funny at SNCC as an organization, since we were primarily responsible for this group that was coming out to—from Mississippi.
The majority of the state of Mississippi was manned by SNCCers or SNCC volunteers. CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] had another segment. The NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] had few people in the state during that period of time, and SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] had a kind of distant presence. But the majority of the legwork and the actual recruitment of students and the actual strategizing and all was done primarily by SNCC and CORE.
So when they got to Mississippi, most of the delegates were, were as familiar with SNCC people. And because of the type of work that we did in Mississippi, the fact that we came out unprotected and were willing to make that kind of commitment and make that sacrifice, endeared us to many of the, of the, of the delegates. They knew that, that we were not going to put them in a situation that we ourselves wouldn't be prepared to get in. Our position simply was that we didn't come this far, and we didn't lose these lives, and make these sacrifices, to accept a kind of empty compromise.
Two delegates, two delegates?
Two delegates at-large. I mean, they weren't significant to Mississippi. They were just in—you would be in the building. And so we just couldn't accept that as a legitimate kind of, kind of compromise. Now what that did was that began to, to raise some severe and critical issues in, inside of SNCC, in terms of whether or not there was any validity to trying to change the moral fiber of America, because here's the most, the best case you're going to get, the best scenario you're going to get. And people do not respond to that. They're not dealing with the evidence and information that you have there.
It also began to raise questions in the, in the minds of SNCC about the role of the Democratic Party, i.e. in relationship to, to civil rights. And, and then the other kinds of issues was that the delegation was primarily black and was trying to get inside of the Democratic Party, which itself had some problems with the inclusion of blacks in the process. And the whole question of whether or not race was a primary factor, and how important the whole issue and the question of race was in the context of the political process in America, and whether or not, without the onslaught of volunteers, would we have been able to, to survive our efforts in Mississippi, because many of the volunteers were white. So you have all these issues coming up in the mindset of SNCC. And at some point there's going to be a meeting, and SNCC people are going to have to deal with all these, all these issues.
For some of the people, there was a severe letdown, that they had hoped that the system would work. It didn't. They had invested a lot of, of moral support and consciousness to this, this whole effort. And they were just kind of, kind of beaten down by the fact that even though you had testified and you had testimony, and you could verify that the organization in Mississippi in fact encouraged disenfranchisement, in fact encouraged the nonparticipation of minorities, in fact encouraged and sanctioned violence to people who participated, that it was a turnoff for many people. And they returned to Mississippi kind of with their heads down and fairly dejected.
So then you began to see an effort to talk about a strategy that may work better. If you're going to be a part of the political process, is that process a legitimate process to be involved in? Is, is, is the Democratic Party any more liberal than the Republican Party? Do you have to go third party? What's, what's going to be the vehicle by which you are going to talk about building this political apparatus that enfranchises black people?
And then you begin to see some of the SNCCers begin to go into Alabama. And once you get back from the Mississippi Freedom Summer, Selma opens up, and the Edmund Pettis Bridge [in Alabama, site of several protests in March 1965] opens up, and some of the strategists see an opportunity to go in behind Martin King in Alabama.
What, what kind of—since you brought that up—what kind of relationship did SNCC have with the King operation? How, how well did they work together? Was it—?
Well, initially the, the organization was almost like a stepchild of King. We, when the organization first formed, it had a corner in the SCLC office. But from its inception, the, the organization took a position of being nonaligned, and it wanted to be its own organization, separate and apart from all of the old, old matter. Matter of fact, there were battles at the first meeting in, at Shaw University to keep it from coming under the umbrella of the SCLC, the NAACP, or CORE, or any other organization. It wanted its own identity.
And I think that the key mover in that whole aspiration was probably Ella Baker, who became like the mother, the kind of philosophical figure, the essence of SNCC when it was in its infancy. She was always present, and if you have to tie an organization to an individual, we would probably tie SNCC into Ella Baker than any other personality we had in our organization. And she was strongly for nonalignment. She did not want SNCC to be a leader-oriented organization. She did not want it to be a messianic, where you have the messenger kind of focal triangular with the—pyramid, I'm sorry—with the leader on top articulating and being some mystical messenger.
And, and a lot of what she was, was utilizing in terms of her orientation and history and base was the fact that she had spent, from probably about nineteen—the 1940s going down through the South, organizing NAACP chapters, and then later on she was the frontrunner in SCLC and had actually worked to pull it together. And she had seen all these various organizations develop. So she had, in her own experience, had developed a model that was a lot different from what was in existence then, that she felt like decisions needed to be made by, by the people who were most affected by those particular decisions, that the role of SNCC and the SNCC organizers was to act as a catalyst in the community and act as a, a technical kind of person.
What we were trying to do was work ourselves out of a job. So once we got the community sufficiently organized, then we had no function there any longer. And what that would do was that would free us up to go to some other area and build these community-based organizations throughout the country, and then begin to tie them and link them up together. So that was the kind of organizational model that we were in fact involved with.
Matter of fact, we were supposed to mesh in. That in some instances, we had people who came into Mississippi that we would take to a city. And we'd take them there early in the morning, we'd drop them off. And their job during that day would be to find some place to live and all the other things that went along with that, because SNCC didn't have any money, so you had to rely on your instincts and your skills.
We would provide some training, and we would be there if you really got into a serious situation. But we—and it was not uncommon for us to take people into areas and say, “This is Marks, Mississippi, and this is where you're going to work. And this is the church here, and these, this is the black community here. We'll give you about twelve hours to try to find you somewhere to stay overnight.” And then you would have to work into that community.
So you weren't separate and apart from the community. You were never above the community. You worked through those existing leaders and organizations that existed in those communities.
Was there, was there usually a pattern of local contacts, or would people go in cold?
You would have to go in cold, but you knew that certain things operated. One is, is that the people who were generally independent were the preachers, the undertakers, and the farmers, and so you would have to find those, seek those individuals out. Sometimes you would have contacts. You'd have a farmer who had said that he would be willing to work along with a, a civil rights worker. But you would still have to find housing and find some kind of resources in order to get set up. And if you set up an office, you would have to find the space and whatever exchange you would use to subsidize the, whatever the fee was for that, the use of that space.
But you would have to—like I said, I think the salary at SNCC at that time was nine dollars and thirty-six cents a week when you got it, and generally people didn't get it. But even if you got all four of them, you're talking about, about forty dollars for a month, which, I mean, that won't open up an office, that won't sustain you. So the idea was, was that people had to, to develop a, the kind of air around them that they are a[n] asset to the people in that community, and then people will, are willing to make those sacrifices and reach out and help you. In our area, that began to happen.
Sometimes, you know, farmers would have, you know, tomatoes in the field, and he couldn't use them all, but he needed some help to get them out of the field. You'd go out one afternoon, take your crew out there, and you'd help him pick his tomatoes, and he'd give you a bushel of tomatoes. He would have some hens and he'd say, “Well, I'm not going to eat all these hens.” You'd come out and, you, you kill them and you take them back, fine, you can have it. So people had to learn how to make use of those resources that were readily available. But, you know, you had to know what you needed. And then people made that available.
Then during the period where there are, like, revivals and homecomings at churches, people would come in and say, “Why don't you come to my church and let them know about registering to vote and how important that is, and then what we'll do is we'll have this big meal.” Because they would have, after church they'd have this big meal out there. So you'd go out and you'd get—everybody would ask you to come by, and you'd get some foodstuffs and you could—and so we survived doing that kind of thing.
When you didn't do the work or you created more conflict and confusion, your support dried off. And so we wouldn't have to come back in and check and find out. If you, if you were kind of fallen over, bent over, suffering from malnutrition, we would know that you weren't doing the job there. I mean, that was clear and simple. If we didn't hear from you for about two or three weeks, we knew that you were doing, in fact, a creditable job. And so, that's, that was the style.
So you see many of the old pictures, you'll see SNCC people with the, with the bib overalls on. They wore the bib overalls because that's what most of the people they came in contact with wore. They wore the bib jeans. They were the farmers, people who owned the plantations, the tractor drivers, the mechanics, all those people. So that was a part of it. The blue work shirt, that was a part of that whole thing. Boots, big shoes so that you could—they were warm, I mean, they, they supported your foot. You didn't have to worry about stuff dropping on them. You could run.
I mean, so all of the decorum there is tied into what we found in those areas where we worked. And we wanted to blend in. We didn't want to stand out. We were not leaders, and we would constantly tell people that we're here to help you. If there's anything we can do to help you, then that's what we're here for. And that's the way that whole organizing technique went along.
And we listened very well, because most times the people in those communities know the nooks and crannies in those communities, and they know who is related to whom. And so if you're trying to figure out what's going on, like you can't figure out who it is that's encouraging these people to come and fire on your house, you learn how to read the newspaper and find out who is related to whom. Who is the sheriff married to? I mean, what family, what community? And then who is it that is the power and the authority in that particular community? Who runs that community?
You know, the man who is calling the signals may be so distant away from it that you don't think he's calling the figures. One thing we knew for sure is that in many instances, it wasn't the sheriff. It had to be somebody who had power and authority in that community. It could be the farmer, the large farmer or plantation owner. It could be the White Citizens' Council. But we generally knew that it wasn't the sheriff. So we had to learn how to do the research.
A lot of that research is known by blacks. I mean, they can tell you. “You know, the sheriff don't run nothing. He don't make decisions. The person who makes decisions is Mr. Cox, over there. He, he decides everything that goes on in this county. When I go down and get my uncle out of jail because he drank a little bit too much, if I go to Mr. Cox, before I can get back home my uncle's home.” That's how, you know, you find out where, where that whole thing is. And so then you begin to know how to, how to develop strategies and tactics for dealing with the problem of voter registration and et cetera in that county.
So part of your approach was to organize grass roots to facilitate the organization—
—but at the same time, also identify the white power structure.
You had to identify the white power structure, because you wanted to know where the opposition was actually coming from. And you wanted to know if somebody was going to blindside you that you're not sitting here chatting with that individual and feeding them certain kinds of information that you didn't want to have them fed with.
How would you characterize—you're dealing with a number of different counties and that there were differences from county to county, community to community even. But how would you characterize the nature of the white, the way that the white power structure responded? Maybe that's a little too simplistic. Maybe there isn't just one response but—
Generally, during that period that the white power structure had so terrorized the white community itself, that it was—the white community—that is was very difficult for you to get in there, into that community, that community, by and large, would stand away. But you always had to—
[End Tape 1, Side A—Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Okay, we were talking about the—
Okay, so, so, you know, you're still trying to point out the contradictions, and you're trying to genuinely get people to see that the chief of police and the sheriff and the White Citizens' Council shouldn't be the people who decide everything that goes on in that particular community, and that's what they had done. They had usurped the authority, and many of the people who said, “Well, I don't understand what's wrong with people registering to vote? What's wrong with school integration or desegregation?” They were just—I mean, they couldn't say anything at all.
We had an example of a family by the name of Hefner. The Hefner family—the daughter was Miss Mississippi in nineteen sixty—probably 1962, '63. And when some of the civil rights workers went down, her family asked one of the white civil rights workers to come to their home so that they could explain to them what they were doing. They just wanted to understand it. Well, the information got out and the Hefners were targeted. And shortly after we went in, in 1964, the Hefner family had to move out of the state of Mississippi. And that was the level of it, I mean, the intolerance was, was intense.
So we tried to minimize that kind of thing, because if that happens, then everybody gets upset, and they don't get upset with the people who perpetrated it, sometimes they get upset with, “Well, why did they go over there anyhow? Why, you know—it was them. If they hadn't of been here, this wouldn't have happened.” So we tried to stay out of that kind of, that kind of predicament.
Could you pause this for just a minute?
I'm wondering about the differences between, say, the White Citizens' Council and the Klansmen? Citizens' Council was—
Okay, the White Citizens' Council were basically the people who had the same—that had sympathy with the Klan, but they were aboveboard. And what they did was they did all the maneuvering out front to discourage. They were basically businesspeople. And the only difference between them is they probably had on suits, wherein the Klansmen had on the overalls and the farmers and that kind of thing.
That was the only significant difference between them, except the Klan was clandestine, and they [Citizens' Council] were very much aboveboard. They would put all their ads in the paper, and they would, you know, out businesses, and they would do all the appealing to the Justice Department about not coming in, and, “We the good citizens, we don't want this,” and you know, that kind of thing. That's the signif[icant]—that's the only significant difference. They would also act as a protector of the Klan, too. When the Klan was out there doing whatever it was doing, “It's not in our communities, it's probably those civil rights workers.” And they tried to give it another focus.
So there was a kind of class difference between [unclear] but some overlap?
Yeah, but basically it's, it's the business community, and they call themselves a “citizens' council” and they put “white” on to identify it as an anti-black group.
In the summer of '64, there was some white participation in the Freedom Summer [unclear].
It was a lot. As a matter of fact, out of the 800 and some odd students that came south, probably 90 percent of that group was white. Somewhere between 85 and 90 percent, I imagine. So there was a significant white [recording malfunction—not on tape: participation.
How did that work?
That started out kind of tough at Oxford because we made an effort to try to sensitize] the volunteers to the conditions there in Mississippi. And—hold on a second—
We were talking about the white students, northern white students, and the role they played.
The majority of the volunteers that summer were, were white. At that same time, the large portion of SNCC staffers in Mississippi, or SNCC staffers period, were black. So there was a significant influx of white students at that particular time. And we did start off kind of bad at Oxford, in that one of the things that we did was we brought up a number of the indigenous staffers, that would be people who were raised and born and bred in Mississippi, who were staff people of SNCC, so that we could begin to sensitize the volunteers to the people they were coming in contact [recorder malfunction—not on tape: with.
And I remember on one occasion that they were showing a movie. I think it was a movie of Miss Hamer and some other folk, and they were just showing how people live and how they talked and] all that kind of stuff. Many of the, many of the people would say things like, you know, “We, we want to regist [sic] to vote.” And people would laugh. And some of the staffers who were indigenous to Mississippi and others, got up—many of them, all of them probably were black—just got up and left. They were just, I mean, you—I mean, “Why is it that you're laughing at these people? I mean, they're doing their very best.”
And you have to understand that there is a little bit of a language difference in terms of how people pronounce words. And what they are saying is, “We want to register to vote.” But they say it, “We want to regist.” And that, that is, you know, that's, that's just the way it comes out. And we're not to sit down and say, “Well, these people don't have a vocabulary. I mean, these people don't—I mean, they need literacy tests.” That's getting right back in the same mode.
So when the folk got up and left, at that point everybody had to kind of stop, because the people who laughed didn't understand why that was offensive. So we had to at that point begin to talk about how, how people live and how there is a difference, and that we were not trying to change that difference. What we were trying to do was get people involved in that whole political process. That people all over have differences, but if those differences are not significant—I mean, if they're getting ready to try to pass the SAT exam, or if they were trying to enroll in Harvard University, then maybe we need to work with them on how they speak.
But if we understand what they're saying, that's all that's important. And if they at some point decide that that becomes significant to them, then fine, let them work on that. But right now, only thing we're concerned about is being able to communicate, understand their needs, and being able to relate to them. We don't want people going down there and saying, “Well, at Brandeis [University], we do not talk like that.” So we had to deal with that attitudinal adjustment.
Plus you have a large number of persons who were from upper middle class institutions and upper middle class families. So in order for them to be able to relate, they had to relate to people who they had never in their lives come in contact with before. Not only were they classes apart, they were also races apart. So that took a while for people to get kind of attuned to.
Cultures apart, too.
Cultures apart. So we, we went in and made an effort to sensitize that group to that. But that never really, really got leveled out, and the reason for that is, is that the influx was just so large.
And what happened is, is that once the exposure to Mississippi came, then the random kind of beatings kind of subsided. And so you, then you have to raise the question in your mind, “Here I am, a local Mississippian, and if I stay down here and try to get people to register to vote, I could lose my life. But now if I bring in somebody from Harvard University who happens to be white, then all of a sudden he can protect my life. I mean, what is this? I mean, what's the value of human life?” And so that begins to raise some real interesting internal questions on the part of many of the staffers. So that begins to raise the question about the value of the volunteers coming in.
The other thing was, was that many of the volunteers, for an example, you had a person who was editor of The [Harvard] Crimson. And he was coming down and he was going to set up news articles, releases, and all that kind of stuff, and set up little tabloids and all of that kind of thing.
But now what happens with your effort to develop an indigenous kind of organization? If you're going to have a paper, what's going to happen when he says, “OK, it's been nice. I've been here all summer, it's time for me to return to Cambridge.” What happens to the newspapers? What he has done is, rather than transfer those skills, he has used those skills to set up a model that maybe nobody in Mississippi ever would be able to reach.
And so we had some real concerns about that, because all the typing— you know, people would come in, they could just get on a typewriter and go “zzzzz,” because that's what we were taught in high school and junior high school in terms of doing our papers so when we get off to college, we will be prepared. So we had to deal with that kind of thing. Because what happened is, is that every time you wanted a press release done, rather than calling on Mr. John who lives down and around the corner, and it's going to take him five days because he's trying to look in a dictionary and get all the words right, or calling up one of the volunteers who can do it in two minutes, and what we would then do is go with the two minutes as opposed to getting Mr. John to sit down and do what he always does. He always ends up with a press release. Might not be timely, but he has to do it. And if we are talking about having somebody in that community do that kind of thing, we might as well get used to the five days, because the two, the two minute is going to be gone, and what we leave is, we leave absolutely nothing.
That was part of the rift between the organizations, SNCC and SCLC. We saw SCLC as being an organization of mobilized people, as opposed to organizing people. We saw SCLC as bringing in leadership and then superimposing it over the rest, making concessions that may or may not have gone to the community, may have gone to SCLC, and kind of leaving that community kind of up, in an uproar, with people all exacerbated and frustrated and never wanting to put together any kind of an organization again. So those were, those were the levels of the conflict. And when you talk about the volunteers, those were the kind of issues that were raised.
The other thing that happens is, is that after the program is ended for the summer, there are a large number of people who are going to stay over who then SNCC has to absorb. And what happens is SNCC goes from an organization that's maybe thirty people to an organization now of a hundred and fifty people. Never had an organization that large before in its life. It requires all kinds of restructuring in terms of administration, in terms of resources, in terms of what people are going to be doing, how you supervise those efforts, how you provide anything, and the need to generate larger and larger, larger and larger amounts of revenue.
So the dynamics in terms of the influx into the organization changes the organization drastically. And then the organization has to have people who work on those kinds of things. Heretofore if somebody was chairman of the organization, they could be registering people to vote all at the same time and going to the fundraisers.
Now as chairman of the organization, if the chairman is just chairman, all he is, is a spokesperson. You still need someone who's going on a day-to-day basis, make sure that the funds are coming in, they're placed in the proper place, you know what resources you're disbursing. You have a fleet of automobiles by this time, thirty cars, sojourner motor fleet. I mean, you have to take care of them, you have to have insurance on them, they have to have gas and oil and all those kinds of things. You have to have somebody pick them up and work on them. So now you have another layer of organizational responsibilities that weren't there prior to the summer of '64.
You have to develop a kind of bureaucracy—
You have to—that's right.
—where you didn't have it before.
Did not have it before—
It depends on what kind of—
That's right. And so people could sit around, and they would sit around and discuss and discuss and discuss. And when they'd finished discussing, then they would, they would allow a decision to be made based on the consensus. But now you can't do that with a hundred and fifty people. You could do that with thirty, because some people just concede and say, “OK, I'll do what you want me to do.” But now you have a hundred and thirty and you couldn't do that. Let me see this again—
All right, you'll have to clue me back—
—where we were, sorry. Where we were, yeah. We were talking about the evolution of SNCC really—
—in the 1964, and the development of [unclear, both talking at once]—
Okay, so now you have a bigger organization and, and you know, you have a bureaucracy there, which many of the original SNCCers did not want to see. So again, you have all these contradictions inside of, inside of the organization.
The other thing is, now the organization has taken a distinctly different look. Before, it was primarily a black kind of controlled organization. Now, it's, in terms of numbers, numerically, it's a, it's a majority white organization. So you have a whole lot, a lot of new dynamics.
And if anybody knows anything about SNCC, SNCC discussed almost every issue there was and discussed because of the—what we call the, kind of, Quaker orientation, the whole consensus. You know, you—everybody would sit, and they would discuss the issue about strategies or tactics until we all agreed or we all didn't agree, whatever the position would be, and then we would live with that.
At this point, that feature of our organization has to change. And now you have the vote, and that gets to be very complicated, because you don't have consensus. So you end up with people who vote against, they're still in opposition to. So you have your oppositions and that kind of thing which is—
Factions within the organization, which is, which is kind of alien to this organization. So many of the people who had, who had been there for the long period of time began to have problems with that, with the fact that there are factions. There is no consensus-making process in place after that point, because then you have to fight through the consensus-making process to get to the bureaucracy. Because now it would be nice, but you have a hundred and fifty people, some of which are doing this because all a sudden they don't feel like going back to school. But they're not disciplined enough to stay in one particular area and do the kind of work that needs to be done.
But this is just a good group, it's a feel good. I mean, “I feel good inside of SNCC, I feel good around SNCC people, but I don't really want to do that kind of work.” So you have to kind of, kind of look through that process and see whether or not you're getting the biggest buck for the bang. And it's not just a question of buck for the bang, but we feel a commitment to those people that we're serving, and we don't want to put somebody in the community and the only thing they're doing is kind of sitting around and discussing the issues of the universe and the world and being psychedelic and all those other kinds of things. We think that that's, that's the kind of thing that's going to kill us.
The thing that keeps us alive is that the community has faith in our ability and our commitment. Maybe we're not supermen, and we tell them that. But they do believe that if it comes time, crunch time, that we can provide some services, some technical skills, and we do have the ability to do certain kinds of things. And that's, that's the only thing. But now if people are sitting around and people are looking over in the house and [saying], “They always seem to be having other people over there and they have—this music is playing loud, and they don't never come back to our church anymore. I never see them. What is going on in that house?” So we had to kind of take those kinds of things into consideration.
[It] was not popular, especially with some of the people who came in in the early part of the, the period. So you see all these dynamics impacting on SNCC, and you see SNCC taking a turn and it's changing. It's not a drastic or rapid change, but it is changing. And—
Would, would these differences in outlook follow racial lines? Was there a—
It was across the board, yeah, it was across the board. And a lot of it had to do with people who were new to the organization, maybe, and people who had been there from its inception.
—verses new people?
Yeah, and plus, there's another factor, and that is the fatigue factor that kicks in. I mean, we're talking about 1964. Some of these people had been on that front line for four years now. There was no—we made efforts to rotate them in and rotate them out and do a reorientation and reeducate and all that kind of stuff, but that generally, in a lot of instances, did not have any lasting impact, because we didn't have it done systematically.
So it was a lot of fatigue, too, because we've already gone through this effort of the Mississippi Summer Project in Atlantic City, and then we came back and had the Congressional challenge, and we were just always on the go, go, go, go, go. And that was a point, I think, after the summer of '64 was a point where we needed to rotate some people out, and we just didn't have the ability to do that. And because we had so many new people coming in, we felt like we had to hold on to the old people to kind of orientate the new people. So it was just—we were just stuck all around.
We never got to the process where we did reeducation and we were able to rotate people out into a, an environment where they could, could release and reorientate themselves, rejuvenate, and come back in. We never, we never got to that. So in many instances, what we ended up doing was the key people and the critical area people, we exhausted their re[sources]—their, you know, their, their everything—their spirit, their energy, their everything, commitment, and everything else. So that's another factor that begins the discussions going all over, all over the board.
So—and shortly after that, we are into Alabama with the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, and then we began to come to grips. “Well, who is it that we work with? I mean, and what is it that our organization is all about?” And the bottom line on that was that as hard as we tried in Mississippi to have a, what we called a “White Folk Project,” it just didn't go anywhere. What the reality was, was that we were still primarily working in, in the black community.
So when we went to Alabama, we didn't suffer through the “white people's project.” We just went into the black belt areas, and those areas were mobilized by the Selma and Montgomery effort on the part of King. And so we went in and took over that momentum. And we said, “Okay, now King has been through, you're excited, let's try to build something in these areas.” So we picked Green County, Dallas County and, and Lowndes County, and we began to research that area like we did everywhere else.
And it was [SNCC researcher] Jack Mennis who found this old, old, old, old statute in the books that said that in Alabama you could organize a party in a county, and that party would be a legitimate party if in fact it got two thirds of the voters during that particular election registered as members of this organization. So we put together the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, and we began to build that based on our experience with the Freedom Democratic Party in Mississippi.
And that's where the whole idea of sitting down and asking people what—we had symbols, and they had on the, on the Alabama Democratic Party they had a white rooster, and on the top of it, it had, “White Supremacy,” and under the bottom it had “Forever.” So we said, “Well, let's get a symbol to represent us.”
And it was an elderly black woman who decided that she wanted the panther, because she just thought the panther was so furious. I mean, he—the projection was of a furious kind of animal, but tall and with pride, and sleek and all black, and all the features that—it was quick on its feet. It wasn't a, it wasn't a, a dangerous animal, but it just, I mean it just generated a certain amount of respect for it out of that, that furor. And that's what they were looking for. So that's where you come with the symbol of the Black Panther Party.
Now what happens then is that, I think the Labor or Liberal Coalition picks up on this and finds out that SNCC is no longer organizing inside of that Democratic Party structure process. And what they do is they target the fact that the organizing is focused primarily on a all-black kind of unit. And they take that and tie the black panther to it and, and begin to apply a certain amount of pressure about organizing an all-black unit and organizing outside of the Democratic process.
There's a lot of clamor going on about that effort. And so then you begin to see a kind of shifting of positions. You know, that—the funding for that kind of effort is, you know, you, you—it's a negative, nationalistic kind of orientation, and, and it takes on that kind of trend.
But then we began to, for assistance and help, we began to go into the urban areas—Oakland, Los Angeles, Detroit, New York—and we organized what were then Friends of the Black Panther party. These friends were similar to the Friends of SNCC chapters that we had across the North and across the South that did a couple things.
Those Friends organizations for SNCC provided funds, generated funds. They set up speaking engagements for people coming out of the South, and they lobbied in those particular areas. If it were a company that we could identify in a Mississippi county that was the, the—what is it called—the, the main company was in Chicago, but they had a subsidiary in Mississippi, then we'd ask the Friends of SNCC in Chicago to picket that company and put pressure so that the company would call down to the manager down there and say, “Look, we don't need this,” and, and do whatever we were trying to ask. It could be additional minority employment, or whatever it might have been.
So the Friends of SNCC were, were an asset to the organization. Plus, they had an organization themselves, and they had the ability to do other kinds of things, maybe sponsoring mobilizations, help sponsoring mobilizations, putting the manpower together to put together a mobilization. See, in some instances, all our staff was committed to, to either a fundraising activity or to a project in the South. And we couldn't free up people to do other kinds of things, so the Friends of SNCC would do that sometimes.
So we put together this Friends of the Black Panther Party. And we began to get the Teamsters [Union] with —as they made runs across the country they would bring trailers for us with the clothing and food that was raised in like, in like Oakland. And you know, they'd take a rig out and they'd just tell somebody to go in Oakland at such-and-such a street, hook up and bring this trailer back. So we were able to move stuff across the country using, at that point it was the Teamsters, to bring, to bring that foodstuff and clothing and other resources to people who had been disenfranchised as a, as a result of their involvement in organizing the Lowndes County Freedom organization.
But then you begin to see that that becomes another model, and that's a success model. So then the discussion is, is whether or not this model is more beneficial than the one we've put together in Mississippi, and whether or not we can use this model as a broader model to, to go into other communities across the South, and begin to put together this type of independent black political organization is what we are at the point now, what—that we are talking about. And so there is that kind of tension and discussion that's going on inside of, inside of the organization.
Now at this point, Stokely [Carmichael, SNCC chairman 1966-1967] is in Alabama, in Lowndes County, he's heading up that Lowndes County project, and between he and Jack Mennis, have developed the model. So John Lewis, who is chairman of SNCC at that point, is going to run for reelection. The dynamics have changed, the discussions have changed, and there is a feeling inside of SNCC that maybe John has been chairman—he's been the longest standing chairman that SNCC has ever had—that maybe that should change.
So we meet. And what we meet around is these various issues: the using of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, the whole effort to organize black independent political parties, the whole effort at trying to reconcile the, the movement and activity that's going on in the urban areas. By that time you've already had Harlem, you're on the verge of having Watts [Riots, in August 1965] and how do we tie those—or do we have anything that would work in those northern urban areas? And there are other issues, internal issues about the composition of SNCC, and about the inclusion of this, this large onslaught, and trying to ingest and deal with the bureaucracy.
So we have a retreat up in, right outside of Nashville, and that retreat is the retreat where, at first, John is elected. And then, as SNCC usually can find a way to do almost anything, the floor was reopened as a result of the resignation of two of the top officers, which forced John into a dilemma of deciding whether or not he wanted to resign.
He fought against resigning for a long time, and it kind of undercut some of his support, because everybody said, “Well, John, I mean, if you don't have anything, any other kind of agenda, why don't you just step aside and start the process over again, and you'll win again?” But in any event, John decided to resign. And when he resigned and tried to run again, Stokely beat him on the second, during the second election.
And what that did was that added what we thought was a lot of new energy to the organization. We were still kind of under the thumbs from, from Mississippi, still tied, still trying to hold onto those organizers, still trying to respond to inquiries and questions of assistance and providing assistance.
And then the whole nature of SNCC began to change. I mean, we are operating on, with the models that we have developed. And that's what people fail to understand. That even when we're talking about the emergence of black power, we're talking about that coming out of, out of a set of experiences that the organization had, as opposed to any kind of gut reaction or response to anything.
We are now beginning to recognize that when we do business, SNCC, it's not in the, in the white community at all. We're primarily in the black community doing all of our organizing, wherever it is. If it's in Washington, D.C., if it's in North Carolina, if it's in Georgia, if it's in Arkansas—that every instance, the community that we go into to serve is in fact a black community. So that was a part of the reality.
So then what we have to come to grips with is, is that how then do we utilize this big, mammoth bureaucracy and all this organization to focus in, in that general direction? Then we began to raise the question of, of the value of changing the moral fiber of America, whether or not getting the consciousness of America, could you get it and could you hold it?—was, had any validity, or whether or not you had to go to a power political process, where you, where you, you know, assume certain power.
And what we were saying in Lowndes County, Alabama, was, was that if you wanted to take over the controls and the power and the destiny, then you had to be willing to take on those jobs as sheriffs, as tax collectors, as mayors, as county commissioners, wherever it was that you were. And we saw that initially, just in the black belt areas.
And then we moved from that to talk about whether we were able to do what we said, and that is, develop that beloved community. Somebody's going to have to go out there and organize that other community. And so we began to talk about the possibility of having SNCCers who were white go into the white community. We made several efforts to have Appalachian projects, and the White Folk Project in Mississippi, and some projects and efforts in North Carolina. In each case, they all failed.
So now, you're around 1965, '66, and this is at a point where we're also tying into the war effort. And we're being asked to, to support mobilizations, and we begin to get involved with mobilization. We, we begin to see the real importance of the war in Vietnam, and we're beginning to get feedback from, from people in these indigenous areas where we worked. For an example, the Mississippi, I mean the statement on, from SNCC on the antiwar—
[End Tape 1, Side A—Begin Tape 1, Side B]
—served the same time in the military, I mean, in the, in the freedom movement. And so this information is coming up, and that's the, that was the, that was the reason why SNCC could always be on the cutting edge, because we always had our ear close to the ground. We could hear what people were saying. And we could, we could sift through it. And after you sift through it awhile, you, you could get where people were and where they wanted to be.
And even if you used some of the research techniques that were available to you—and that is, going through the Congressional Records, and going through the law books and all that other kind of stuff, and just reading the trade journals and all that kind of stuff—you could develop some, some vehicles in order to help people move from point A to point C.
But in any event, we, we began to get more involved in the war issue, and that became a critical issue. In January of 1966, we had one of our field secretaries down in Tuskegee, Alabama, killed [Sammy Young, Jr.]. And that was the first time that we'd had somebody who was officially orientated and salaried by SNCC actually killed. Now we had Wayne Yancy on my project in Holly Springs that was killed, but he was considered a volunteer. And I don't know whether or not there were any distinctions between those two. We just did that in order to focus attention on the fact that we were still being killed in Mississippi and Alabama for our efforts to register people to vote and desegregate public accommodation facilities.
And I think that, that probably more than anything else kind of turned SNCC inward, and we began to look at, look at the realities that we were dealing with. And that's where the statement comes, the statement against the war in Vietnam. We just figured that our efforts to focus primarily on civil rights were no longer valid, and we needed to move to the, to another level, and that area was the whole issue of human rights. We needed to broaden our scope. We didn't need to look at just America and Alabama. We needed to be looking at Cape Town and Sharpsville [South Africa]. We needed to be looking at other kinds of progressive movements and countries around. That our struggle was a much larger struggle than we had all anticipated in the beginning.
When you talk about the switch from civil rights to human rights, another dynamic that plays into that is, is, is Malcolm [X]. And Malcolm is, is assassinated, what, '65, I think it is, February 1965. And we had some pretty interesting debates with Malcolm. Malcolm considered SNCC the students here. If you read anything on Malcolm, Malcolm always refers to the SNCC people as students. That's all. He never put us in a civil rights organization. It was always “the students.”
And then some people who were close to SNCC felt like that SNCC people were basically the children of Malcolm. Not that—we certainly did not adopt the whole idea of the Nation of Islam and that, that thing. But in terms of internationalizing the struggle and making it from a, taking it from a civil rights perspective to a human rights perspective, those kinds of things were the areas. And we were working very hard to bring Malcolm's ideas and notions and reconciling them with ours.
The week before Malcolm was killed, somewhere around that time, we had Malcolm in Selma. Most people never knew about it. Malcolm spoke in Brown Chapel. He had come down to speak at Tuskegee. And while he was there, we said “Let's go on over to Selma, Malcolm. Because see, you talk about how we turn our heads and accept these blows, but we're telling you, those are tactics. And when you're in the South, sometimes you have to use tactics that maybe other people don't understand, and we want you to understand the South.” Matter of fact, on the Sunday that he was killed, from all the records I can find, Malcolm was supposed to be in Mississippi speaking with Miss Hamer to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
And what it was, was that it always was a give and take on the part of SNCC. We, we would take what we considered to be the positive aspects of anybody's programs or strategies or tactics, and we'd leave the rest. We didn't feel obligated to take—to accept any of the rest. So we took what we contend would be the whole positive aspects of Malcolm—the whole idea that, that history plays a very significant role, and the whole idea that black people did have a historical linkage to Africa, and the whole idea that there might be some relationship between Kwame Nkrumah, who became the first prime, prime minister of Ghana, and the fact that he had come out of Lincoln University [Pennsylvania], and that the whole “one man, one vote” had come up through that colonial process, and we were using one man-one vote. Is there any linkage there?
So a lot of things are beginning to happen inside of the organization. And then, like I said, that, that blow-up of Sammy Young was just one very bitter blow for all of us to accept. I mean, we just did not take that one very well. And again, we're tired. So add that to, to, you know, somebody who you considered almost like your own blood brother, or your own blood sister. So then, you know, it, it's beginning to take its toll in terms of the pressures on us. And now you're beginning to see the FBI beginning to gear up through COINTELPRO [FBI's Counter Intelligence Program].
And then later on, we continued to talk about the possibility of linking up the southern and the urban. That's our effort, because by now you already have Watts. Our concern is, is that there is just so much energy there. Why are we wasting it and allowing people just to destroy, be destroyed? Can we focus that, can we channel that, can we build the kind of organization that we need to build? You need to hold up a second.
So you begin to see all these, all these things coming together, and now SNCC is taking on a different character. The other thing is, is that by 1966, shortly after Sammy is killed, the, the number of whites in the organization has decreased substantially. I mean, the old line, old-liners are still there, the Bob Zelmans [sic, Bob Zellner] and the Sammy Shirahs[?] and the, a number of other staffers are still, still there. But many of the people who'd come in have either become disenchanted or they liked the hype. You know, it had to be intense a lot of the times. And so they were moving back to other areas. So you—just through the process of just working, that number is slowly dissipating and getting small.
And then you have [James] Meredith, who is, is, is marching down through, through Mississippi, against fear, and he gets shot. And we're—this is Stokely's first period after the election—we're in Arkansas trying to assess and see what we can do to strengthen that project. And we're looking at manpower, because we are recognizing that we're losing people. We've already passed the Voter's Rights Act, so the emphasis is no longer on registering people to vote. The work is much more difficult, because you have to talk about organizing, and that's a skill. I mean, if you don't have that skill, you're going to fall flat on your face.
I can't tell you, not unless I'm telling you every step of the way, every day, how to put a community together. You either know it or you don't. And it doesn't have anything to do with you as a person, it has to do with the mechanics. It's, it's like any craftsperson. I mean, if you don't know how to put mortar in, and how many bricks to put and how to do a corner, then the chances of you building something is going to be slim to none. And all you have to do is put the bricks in the mortar there and you find out very soon.
Well, organizing is the same way. And for SNCC, we had prided ourselves on the fact that we had trained people to be organizers. It just didn't stop there. We tied into Saul Alinsky [considered the father of community organizing] and other professional type organizers. And we had probably some of the best organizers, outside of the labor union during that period, of any organization anywhere in, in—probably in the world, with the exception of other movements.
So, we, we're in Arkansas and we hear about Meredith being shot, and we go to Memphis. And when we get there we meet up with Dr. King and Floyd McKissick from CORE, because CORE is shifting too, it's changing over. And so we decide—and that's Stokely, myself, and probably Bob[?] Smith—that this demonstration is going to come through an area that we know, it's going to come right through the heart of the second congressional district.
Stokely was, during that summer of '64, he was stationed in Greenwood [Mississippi]. Everybody in Greenwood knew Stokely, because that's what you would do—well, not everybody; all blacks in Greenwood would know him. And they'd know of his history and his experience in there, and his loyalty and commitment and dedication and all those kinds of things. When they come through the area of Holly Springs, that was an area that I was in. And so, and we still have people in that area. So we said that for the first time in the history of SNCC, we're in a position now to, to have some real input in planning a march and watching it go.
I mean, you know, in Selma, we, we were originally opposed to the Selma-Montgomery march. But we ended up getting into it because John Lewis had decided that he had a personal privilege, if he chose to have it, to march with SCLC. And when he came across the bridge, he got beaten and clubbed, and our position eroded then. It comes from the, I guess, the part of the philosophy that if you mess with any of us, you have to take us all on, regardless of what the circumstances are. All bets are off. We gonna take care of this. And that, that was a part of the policy for SNCC too. I mean, if somebody was in trouble, all they had to do was call and people would put down everything. “Well folk, I've have to see you later, I got some business I got to take care of,” and we would all concentrate.
Those people who had those particular skills would know what they were assigned to do, and all you had to do was get it structured. We could turn people loose and we could turn a community inside out in probably less than twenty-four hours. I mean, we just, we had that level of skilled individuals, and we had that level of commitment. I mean, we ain't even talking about money. We ain't even talking about where you're going to live. We're just talking about getting them there. And then we'd have a team that would come in and that would be their job. They would be, that was all they would do. They would make sure that we had a place to live and some food to eat and that kind of thing. Your job would be whatever your assignment was. And as the organization got larger and as people with those skills left, it made us more vulnerable to not being able to have that kind of response.
In any event, we said that this was our chance to, to move up in terms of the civil rights movement, and take this giant step and become a real player. And so we talked with—we marched first. We went out with King and [Floyd] McKissick, Stokely, myself, couple of other people. We just said wherever Meredith was shot, that's where we're starting. If he was marching in his fear, we were willing to stand in and we were not going to let that torch fall, and we were marching on. We just wanted to make that clear to the people in Mississippi, because Meredith's march was to encourage black people to throw off the fear and the shackles of fear, and kind of walk straight and tall, and go ahead on and register to vote, and whatever else you wanted to do.
So we kind of talked on that march. We talked about a lot of things. We talked about some of the things that we were doing in Alabama with both King and McKissick and told them that that was a model that we were trying to develop. Next what we have is, we have us going back, and we were going to meet and strategize and do those kinds of things. When we got back, we had Whitney Young [president of the National Urban League] and Roy Wilkinson [former NAACP executive]. And we had taken the position that if the march were to go, then we weren't going to make a national call. What we were going to do was make a local call. We were going to get all the Mississippians we could get to come out.
And the way you break fear is you make people make a stand. And so what we were going to do was, we were going to say [that] we're not calling any outsiders, nobody. We're going to call black Mississippians to come to the roadside, to have rallies at night, to prepare the foods, to make the water available on the trip, to be players in the whole process. That we were also saying that we were no longer going to be naked out there. That we had an organization called the Deacons for Defense down in Louisiana, southern organization. [We] said we were going to bring them in. They were coming. They had a job, they knew how to do that job, and we knew they knew how to do that job. So we were bringing them in. That would be their responsibility, to make sure we could get down the highway.
And what was the other thing? I think those were the basic issues that just riled Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young. I mean, they were just furious. And so what they did was, they said, “We're going to take a vote on this.” What they were figuring was, was they were going to get Roy and Whitney and Martin, and again, we'd be left out. And those were the only organizations that were there. Interesting enough, I think based on our ability to work together and based on a kind of open line of communication, our effort to, to try and discuss with each other, Martin agreed with us, and Whitney and Roy left. I mean, they left in a huff. And they got the airplane, they went back, and they just said, “No, we're not having anything to do with this march,” until they got to Jackson.
But anyhow, it turned out very successful. All along the way we'd have voter registration efforts in whatever counties we were in. At night we'd have a big rally, and King would speak and Floyd would speak and Stokely would speak. For many of the Mississippians, black Mississippians in particular, this was the only time that they've ever seen a civil rights leader in person. And we felt like that was important, for them to be able to see that. I mean, they've gone through the Mississippi Freedom Summer and they've gone through so much, that they had a right and obligation to be able to see this, this person, or these people.
And they would come. I mean, they would come with fruit and water and jars and they would line the highways. And they would just come to almost, some of them would, would, would actually—and this is something that you, I don't know, I think King certainly had very mixed emotions about this—they would come and actually try to kiss his feet. Some would come and just touch him. I mean, some would come and they would just be kind of stunned at, at his presence, and being in his presence.
So it was a, it was an interesting kind of, kind of experience. I think we did the right thing in terms of getting them involved. All the way down the highway, every time we came to a junction, the junction would be loaded with, with blacks. Now not that whites didn't come out, but, you know, they'd come out and sit in the car. They wouldn't, they didn't want to, they didn't want to be seen kind of looking for King. You know, they'd sit back and try to peek, you know, and see, well, you know, there goes King now.
But for blacks, it was just a real awakening. Certainly they felt very comfortable. Stokely was there, and McKissick was there. They knew of the work of SNCC and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was intricately involved in the whole process.
And we went all the way down the highway, and we went to, had trouble in Canton, and then we went to Mississippi. And I think Mississippi was a real awakening for King, because the story goes that while King and those—and I was there, too, with him in Mississippi, Philadelphia—we were walking around the city protesting, you know, the killings of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney. And at one point we'd got almost completely surrounded by whites, and we were back up against the courthouse steps. So King and [Ralph] Abernathy [executive of SCLC] went around to head of the group, and they kneeled down and they were praying. And they were saying that, you know, the murderers of those three kids may be around us, and Lord, please, please, we're praying for our safety and, you know, it went like that.
And when he said that the murderer of the three should be around us, they alleged that [Deputy Cecil] Price [later convicted for his role in the murders] said, “Yes, we are, we're standing right behind you.” But anyway, that's what King heard, or at least thought he heard. And he, he kind of wrapped up the prayer. And then we had to start eagerly moving to get out of town. And by the time we were able to get in our cars, which were a little short distance away from us, and get everybody in and take off, there was just a mob at the tail of everybody. And he, in some of his later communications, talked about that being one time when he was certainly fearful of his life.
And so that was a kind, another kind of awakening. Because see, we had been in Mississippi, we had spent that time in Mississippi, and King always valued the person's commitment, dedication, and willingness to do the work. So that had a certain impact on, on King. And anyhow, we went back and then we had the trouble in Canton. And then we came down to Greenwood and Stokely was arrested and—I don't think King was in Greenwood. Floyd McKissick was there. King was in Greenwood. And Stokely got arrested, and this is where he spent eighteen months, so everybody knew him. When he got arrested, that went around the community, “zzzzoop.” And we went from a, probably a fifteen hundred people rally to almost a four thousand people rally.
And we had [Willie] Ricks there [SNCC field secretary], and Ricks is saying—he is a speaker of sorts. He gets the crowd, his job is to kind of get the crowd worked up. And while we were waiting on Stokely to be released and come, Ricks is saying, “What do you want?” And then he would chant, “Power. Black power.” “What do you want?” “Black power.” And so now you're—he's building up the crowds so when Stokely walks up, Stokely will be able to, to take the fervor here and take it even up higher.
And so the news media is there, and they capture this. I mean, there go blacks, “Black power,” and they're screaming, and they have this, this, this thing on their face. And they, they, they send it around the world, you know. And what it does is it has, for black folks, it has a very positive impact. For whites, I think it has a curious impact, at best. And all of a sudden, black power's been born. And then we spend the next, probably year dealing with the whole concept of black power. But it also—
But it wasn't a—what you're saying is that it wasn't a conscious statement, it was just a—
We knew, we knew that, that in essence, what black people had to talk about was power, as opposed to moral commitment and consciousness and all those other kinds of things, and transforming the moral consciousness of America. And we always had catchphrases. We had “freedom now.” You know, “Black power” was the same kind of catchphrase, except when it got picked up and when it was projected, it dripped with all kind of—“black power” meaning “get whitey,” “black power,” all these—and so rather than going in and doing what we had done—for an example, initially, when blacks were talking about schools and integration of schools, they were talking about desegregation of schools. Desegregation of schools is different from integration of schools.
And what happened is, is that because of the fact that this other group came in and said, “No, you're not talking about desegregation of schools, you're talking about, you're talking about sitting next to my daughter in the classroom,” and all that. So immediately, the black leadership had to take a step back.
And then, rather than talk about equal access to funds and equal access to books and all those kinds of things, they felt like it was important to defend, to, to relinquish the whole effort to talk about equal access, and just talk about bringing people together. And so we—the thinking is, is that for black people, we lost ground over that, because we, we had to give ground in order to, to meet this happy medium.
And over the question and definition of “black power,” we just took the position that if black folk wanted that, wanted that and wanted the concept, then they should give it a definition. So rather than articulating a definition at every point, we deliberately withheld definitions so everybody could have a definition. Some kid running down the street saying, “Black power.” “What does black power mean?” “Black power means running fast.” Fine with us, you know?
What it does is it takes it outside of the arena of the press and the power structure to manipulate it and give it a definition, and then force us to defend or to react to it. For an example, the press began to say, “Black power, we see black power signs in urban areas where there are rebellions.” So what? I mean, that's not—nobody has, has said or articulated the point that black power means burning up somebody's store. I mean, how do you get to that kind of conclusion?
So we, again, SNCC fought about definitions and about positions and all those other kinds of things. This is the part of the whole effort with black power. So we, we left it alone for a long period of time, just let it, let it go out there. “You all want a definition? Find somebody and ask them what it is.” And what we felt like was, was that you couldn't get co-opted on the definition of black power, even though there were efforts on the part of the Ford Foundation and other organizations to get the mainline civil rights movements to cut SNCC off and to support projects that would define and give definition, some kind of context to black power.
But the other thing that, that happened that we were certainly not aware of is, is that that also fed the Hoover machinery, the FBI, and made us even more targets. And so COINTELPRO goes into full force, because now the attitude of America is shifting away from support of civil rights, and black power and the way it's projected is not being very helpful. That's, that's a part of the undermining.
And then Hoover and those have a plan to discredit leaders, and they go up through doing that. They tie somebody into a rebellion, and rather than talking about the cause, they talk about this individual as being an instigator of riots, and this person is responsible. So we don't talk about unemployment. We don't talk about bad education. We don't talk about poor shops in the communities. We don't talk about any of those things—sidewalks, heating, housing—what we talk about is this individual over here has all of a sudden walked into a community, and all the sudden people are willing to risk their lives to burn down some corner market.
Just—there's no logic, but when people [are] in need of having an explanation of what's going on, sometimes we don't think it through and we buy anything that's handed to us. So we were caught in that kind of dilemma, of trying to figure out how to offset some of that that was happening.
This is about 1966 when you began to notice this kind of surveillance?
Oh, the surveillance we noticed all the way from the inactivity back in 1964 in Mississippi. But now it was no longer passive, it became very active in terms of things that were going on. We could tell that phones were being tapped, and we could tell that surveillances were there. And we could tell that some communities we lived in, the FBI would go to every house on the right side and every house on the left side and ask questions about, “Have you seen the folk in that house over there with weapons? Do you know that the Klan is saying—” Anything to try to undermine whatever was going on in a project center.
So we began to see more and more of that. And it just, it just heightened. Where they were sending messages back and forth that were supposed to be written by various SNCC people, and disrupting families. And I mean, it went to, to almost every extent that you could imagine.
Was this, about this point, 1966, SNCC was, would you say it was beat in terms of its power and structure?
Yeah, because again, you have to take into consideration that we were already losing some of our most skilled people. I mean, it's just so much that you can take, and after a while you either become a vegetable or you get enough sense and strength to say, “Look y'all, I'm going to have to move on.”
And it's not an easy process to make that transition. I mean, you have to think about bonding that took place when you were in a house and the house was being fired upon by fifteen or sixteen shooters outside, and your relationship to that individual, and having to rely on people to, for safety and security and for nutrients. You know, we would—some people would go out and hunt, catch rabbits, so we could eat.
So there's a certain bonding, and there's a certain feeling good. First time you've ever been to—by somebody who's probably fairly honest with you about their feelings, about themselves, about their abilities and all those other kinds of things. And so it's hard to pull outside of that and go into an environment where nobody understands what the heck it is you're talking about.
So it's not an easy step. And when you make that step, it's always something pulling you back, saying, “You know, this is, this tough out here.” I mean, I mean, it's not tough because you can't make it, but it's tough out here because you've lost a lot of your energy and the people that you talk to. You want to know what's going on in the world. I mean, that's what people talk about. They get a newspaper first thing in the morning, they read about Asia, Africa, Latin America, wherever it is. There was discussions going on all the time. There was a whole intellectual kind of climate that saturated the movement and movement people.
There was a certain living on the edge. There was certain adventure. There was certain feeling of, of meaning to one's life as a result of being in a community where people respected you and looked up to you, not because you had a degree or a big name or any of that kind of stuff, because of the work you did. It could be just keeping your house clean in the neighborhood. They would say, “Look, they really do a good job with their house.” Might not be nothing but a shack, but people in the community respect those kinds of things. Those were qualities that they were looking for, and those were qualities that you had to respond to.
So when you talk about walking out of that, it's almost like breaking a bond. And you miss people, and you miss your family, and that's what it was. It [had] gotten to be a very tight knit family that cared for each other. I am serious that, that when, when John [Lewis], when John was beaten up in Selma, we had the convention in, we were having a convention, a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party convention, in Jackson. And we were contacted and told that John had a concussion and they were flying him out to Boston to a hospital. This was probably an hour after the meeting was over. And all of us had come in from other areas—like I had come from Jackson—to Jackson from Holly Springs—well, what we did was we decided who, what cars needed to go. I had a car, there were four others that were ready.
So what we did was we just, we got our teams together. I picked up three other people, each car picked up three other people. These were seasoned veterans. And by five o'clock that afternoon, by five, between five and six o'clock, we were in Selma, ready for our next assignment. We had just turned Mississippi a loose. But that's the way we responded to, to things. And then the people from Atlanta, and the people from southwest Georgia, they had responded. They were there. So when we got there, we were ready to be orientated on what, what [unclear], what our assignments were.
[End of Interview]