Over the past few weeks, as I’ve been meeting with young people in a variety of formal and informal teaching and learning sessions in Denver and across the country, my thoughts have often focused on an extraordinary, history-shaping group of high school and college age young people that I first met in the early 1960s, half a century ago. They were members of and co-workers with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a name that can only hint at the magnificent and sacrificial contributions they made to the movement for the expansion of democracy in America that we usually call “The Civil Rights Movement.” Beginning with the lunch counter “sit-ins” that four black freshmen initiated in Greensboro, North Carolina in February, 1960, the college-led sit-in movement quickly spread (without cell phones or lap tops) to dozens of cities across the south, challenging the “Jim Crow” segregationist laws and practices that were meant to keep black people in a separate, subordinate position, laws that were often backed up by a brutal prison system and by informal, terroristic mob action. So the students who decided to become unarmed warriors for justice and for a new south and a new America realized that they were choosing a dangerous, perhaps life-threatening path, but they decided that their human dignity and their basic citizenship rights and their quest for the “beloved community” across racial lines were worth all they could give.
In April, 1960, encouraged by an extraordinary social change veteran worker named Ella J. Baker, the young leaders who formed the core of the sit-in movement across the south came together for the first time at Ms. Baker’s Alma Mater, Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, another historically black college. It was there—during the traditional Easter time college break—that the group decided to organize itself (rather than becoming the youth arm of an organization like the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality [CORE] or Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC]). Filling the Shaw campus with their long, deeply engaged discussions concerning their varied and similar experiences, their sense of identity and purpose, almost shaking the walls with the life-giving, explosive power of their singing, constant singing, for courage, for strength, for hope, for justice–for connection with all the ancestors who had prayed and loved and suffered them into existence—they discovered and affirmed and sometimes disagreed with each other. But by the time the sessions were over at Shaw the young black-led nonviolent warriors had begun to develop the first stages of a powerful community of sisters and brothers who would eventually share life and death, laughter and tears, fear and hope, and commitment to the creation of a new world, for half a century, in some cases.
They very quickly determined that Ella Baker was right when she encouraged them to realize that their most significant struggle was for much, much more than a hamburger, or a seat at a lunch counter or on a bus, or “integration” into a deeply flawed society. Instead they claimed the awesome right and responsibility to continue becoming leaders in the creation of a new America, a profoundly democratic, just and compassionate society. During the course of the Shaw conference they wrestled with the powerful challenges presented to them by James Lawson, the extraordinary teacher and practitioner of non-violence who had been crucial to the development of the Nashville student movement, the most disciplined group at the Raleigh conference. Eventually, after much discussion and debate, most of the Raleigh gathering agreed to take seriously the audacious words that they had asked Lawson to draft for them at the heart of their “statement of purpose:” “We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our faith, and the manner of our action. Nonviolence, as it grows from Judaic-Christian traditions, seeks a social order of justice permeated by love. Integration of human endeavor represents the crucial first step toward such a society.” The students knew that these were more than words for Jim Lawson. He had spent time in jail and in community service as a Conscientious Objector during the Korean War. He was deeply grounded in the life and teachings of Gandhi, as well as Jesus. He was Dr. King’s most important friend and guide in the way of nonviolent struggle. So the young people at Shaw could hear him with deep seriousness when he invited them to affirm a statement of purpose that presented a challenge not only to most of them, but to the nation they were now facing. So they began a long period of testing and wrestling with themselves, with the south and with America when, with Lawson, they declared, “Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Peace dominates war… Justice for all over throws injustice. The redemptive community super-cedes systems of gross social immorality.”
By the time my late wife, Rosemarie, and I began to know and work with the young people of SNCC it was 1961, and they were moving—on subsistence wages and great courage—to live out their magnificent statement of purpose in many dangerous parts of the old “Black Belt” south. Rose and I came south from Chicago in the late summer of that year, just a year after we were married. At the time we were serving as full time volunteer “Representatives to the Freedom Movement” from the Mennonite churches, one of the “Peace Churches” of America. Based in Atlanta, co-directing a Movement house where we lived, and where activists from many organizations (and non-organizations) often gathered to meet and rest, sing and eat, plan and reflect, study, pray, debate and heal—and live together across racial and religious lines, we had many opportunities to spend significant time with the young servant-leaders of SNCC (“SNICK” as they were called in the Movement), whose tiny office was not too far from Mennonite House.
In addition, one of our central responsibilities for several years was to make ourselves available to the Southern Movement in any way and any place that we could. This very flexible assignment—which Rose and I basically constructed ourselves—took us to many places where SNCC’s intrepid community organizers were working with local black community leaders to challenge the old order of Jim Crow segregation and black disfranchisement. We saw their tremendous courage and creativity, their deep respect for the older people who had lived through great terror and who now took great risks to welcome the SNCC workers into their homes and communities. We saw their deep commitment to the Movement and to each other. (By this time they had begun to attract a small but steady stream of young white co-workers, beginning with some from the south who were drawn by SNCC’s vision, courage, organizing skills and powerful hope for a new America, beginning with a new south. Most of those young southern white comrades in hope often had to make very difficult breaks with their own families and communities when they made it known that they were ready to give themselves to a black-led movement for a new society of democratic transformation.) We recognized the deep and authentic grief that they experienced when more than once they lost a co-worker to segregationist violence or to an early death too often pushed on by the physical and mental strains under which they lived. And since Rose and I were no more than 10 years older than most of the SNCC members, we often played the role of slightly older sister and brother to them, deeply related to but not officially connected with their organization.
From that vantage point I remember how deeply impressed I was with the decision of these young people to carry out some of their earliest freedom organizing work in Mississippi. Starting in 1961 they responded to invitations (urgent, heart-felt calls) from some of the local black leaders in the state who had been carrying on dangerous, often clandestine work to try to break their communities out of the terroristic and economic traps that the official and informal white leadership had caught them in, especially to keep them from participating in the basic citizenship right of voting. As the SNCC members wrestled with the call to Mississippi they very soon decided that the “Magnolia State” and all the terror, danger and death it represented for whoever dared to challenge its “way of life” was exactly where they should begin the work of organizing for voter registration. And their reasoning—through long days and nights of discussion and shouting and crying and singing—was essentially this: “If we can crack Mississippi then we can do the job anywhere.”
Rosemarie and I knew then that we needed to be with our courageous, freedom-loving, people-loving younger brothers and sisters. We easily recognized them as Jesus’ companions who were freely risking their lives on behalf of “the least of these.” So we were with them not only in Jackson and Meridian and Greenwood and other Mississippi grounds where they marched with local people to plant more and more seeds of freedom and hope, often watering the ground with their blood and their tears, sanctifying the jails with their songs—“Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Freedom.” We were with them in southwest Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama, and at their earliest anniversary celebrations when they returned to Shaw University. We were with them when Jimmy Baldwin and Joan Baez and Dick Gregory and Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis and Harry Belafonte and Nina Simone came to wherever the SNCC folks were, to sit with them, to sing with them to march with them, to stand with them.
We were with them in the midst of the very painful, but very necessary struggles that accompanied the Black Consciousness/Black Power Movement, when the sisters and brothers of SNCC’s tear-stained, blood-stained, black/white “beloved community” had to re-assess their meaning, purpose and future direction. We shared the amazing privilege of seeing, feeling and interpreting both the pain and the power at that time. Both pain and power were very deep. Both still reside in the eyes and hearts of many of our beloved younger companions.
So when the word began to seep through the indestructible half-century old network, word of a Fiftieth Anniversary celebration of the gathering that led to the founding of SNCC, I knew that I had to be there. I also knew that Rosemarie (who loved, welcomed and encouraged her younger Movement siblings with great depth, a depth that physical death has no power to overcome) would surely have to be there as well. And, of course, since these are unquestionably Ella’s children, and Shaw is still her school, then “Ella’s Song” will fill our hearts: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
Before the month is over, I plan to share with you some of the memories, hope and inspiration that I expect to bring back from the gathering in Raleigh. I certainly hope that others who attend and those who feel a sense of connection will join the conversation on line, on the phone, in our dreams, in our lives. We cannot rest. (Of course, if you feel the spirit before Raleigh, please respond in any way you wish, at any time you want.)
Meanwhile, you will likely want to know that over the dozen years of our Project’s life we have carried on extensive, filmed, autobiographical interviews with many of SNCC’s earliest participants, including several veterans who have passed on since we interviewed them. (Prathia Wynn Hall and James Forman are two of these deceased warriors.) Some of these interviews are already edited in our usual DVD format and are either ready for purchase now or will soon be available. Don’t hesitate to call us at 303-765-3194 for additional ordering information. The struggle continues. We still need each other.