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A Family Divided

Medgar Evers' assassination in his own driveway haunted many SNCC members.

"All revolutions devour their children." That's a well-known quote about how revolutions begin with wide-eyed idealism, and end in bitter destruction, fighting and bickering. When I studied the 60's Civil Rights Movement in high school, I saw a revolution that totally contradicted this quote. The endless boycotts, sit-ins, parades, marches seemed to be a united effort by African Americans and sympathetic whites. Together, they seemed masterfully to overthrow the system of racial segregation that had plagued this country for almost two centuries.

Digging beneath the inspiring story line, however, I discovered a movement full of conflict and tension. Instead of seeing the Civil Rights Movement as Martin Luther King, Jr. leading the masses towards victory, I found rivalries, divisions and a far more complex picture than I had before. The demise of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is one of the most vivid examples of just how hard and back-breaking the struggle for equal rights was.

There has never been a more influential youth organization in the history of America than the SNCC. This small group of committed students had set off an explosive reaction in the South with its sit-ins and protests starting in 1960. In 1961, SNCC dared to challenge the ways of the South with the famous Freedom Rides. SNCC even challenged the "moderate" blacks like Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for not being aggressive enough. SNCC didn't just want blacks to be able to sit at a lunch counter with whites. They wanted real change in the economic and political status of blacks, and that meant fighting for voting rights. Voting was the heart of any democracy, but the South, through poll taxes and literacy tests, had deprived African Americans of their right to vote. Members of the group now set their sights on a "Freedom Summer" in 1964. They targeted Mississippi because while 42% of the population was black, only 6% were registered to vote. The Freedom Summer represented the most courageous achievement of SNCC, but planted the seeds of the disagreements that would later tear the organization apart.

SNCC made the decision to recruit white students from elite colleges in America to join the movement down in Mississippi. It was a controversial decision with a practical reason. SNCC needed the manpower, and thought that drawing upper-middle class whites would also lead to greater media coverage. Way before black nationalism caught on in mainstream black America with the rise of the Black Panthers, debates over the role of whites in SNCC had arisen. But for one magical summer in 1964, 1,000 students, lawyers, ministers, and artists converged on Mississippi with a mission to change the state where racism seemed to be a permanent way of life. It was a mission fraught with danger. Only one year earlier, NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers had been shot in cold blood in his own driveway in Jackson, Mississippi.

One of those who risked his life in Mississippi was Dr. Mark Weiss. Neda and I visited Dr. Weiss, and left with a deep admiration for his convictions. When Dr. Weiss saw blacks on TV being sprayed by hoses and attacked by dogs in Birmingham, Alabama, he made up his mind to do something about it and started a SNCC chapter on his college campus in Northridge, CA. During the summer of '64, he decided to join his best friend in the Freedom Voting Project in Mississippi. After raising $2000 and armed with 2,000 pounds of food, Dr. Weiss boarded a Greyhound bus. His father, fearing for his son's life, cried and asked him not to go.

Dr. Weiss stayed on for another semester after most of the other Freedom Summer workers went back to school. He taught kids how to read, conducted marathon psychology group sessions and played the guitar. When I asked if he ever felt scared, he says no. "I felt more at home there than I did anywhere else. Some of the older black people would take my hand and kiss it. We were the only white people in town, and they understood what we were putting on the line and appreciated it."

The day Dr. Weiss arrived, the bodies of three students turned up in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman shocked the nation and stiffened the resolve of SNCC to break the hold of white political power. That same summer, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was formed as an alternative to the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party.

Fannie Lou Hamer with posters of the 3 slain students behind her

The MFDP was co-founded by Fannie Lou Hamer who was 44 when she was recruited by SNCC to help with the voting drives. Hamer became a legend in the SNCC movement, a woman who when she entered the room "the walls would shake." Her most famous quote became "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." At the 1964 Democratic convention, the MFDP demanded to be the rightful representative of Mississippi since the state Democratic Party had excluded them. A sympathetic nation watched on TV the pleas of the MFDP. Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic nominee, arranged a compromise for 2 MFDP delegates to be seated. The MFDP refused and walked out. Fannie Lou Hamer declared, "We didn't come all this way for no two seats when all of us is tired." Even without achieving their goals, these poor and inexperienced activists had stood up to one of the most powerful institutions in the US and forced the Democrats to contend with them.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party shook up the Democrat's Atlantic City Convention.

Though the Civil Right Act and Voting Rights Act were passed by Congress, by 1965, SNCC members were becoming disillusioned with nonviolence. The constant beatings, threats and harassment had taken their toll. There was also resentment towards Martin Luther King, Jr. Even though it was SNCC workers who were putting their lives on the line everyday in the Deep South, whenever King came to town, all the media attention would focus on him. Stokely Carmichael, after the bloody march in Selma to pass the Voting Rights Act, said, "This is the 27th time I have been arrested. I ain't going to jail no more. We been saying freedom for six years and we ain't got nothin'. What's we're gonna start saying now is 'black power.'"

Stokely Carmichael later changed his name to Kwame Ture.

SNCC Chairman John Lewis, though understanding the frustration of his fellow members, recognized that they had achieved tremendous gains within the past five years. In 1960, the President, Congress and law enforcement agencies like the FBI and Justice Department were their enemies. They had swayed public opinion to the point where they now had the support of the government. But Stokely, said Lewis, was losing hope in nonviolent principles. "He said we should 'tell off' Dr. King, and 'stick it' to Lyndon Johnson," Lewis recalled. "Indeed, he began to lose faith in Dr. King's dream of an integrated, colorblind society. Stokely shunned the support of the many white students and activists who had worked and bled with us. SNCC, he believed, should be for blacks only."

John Lewis, now a Congressman, is considered one of the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.

There was now a real divide in SNCC, one based on religion and geography. Lewis, who came from the South, was a devout Christian for whom nonviolence was not a tactic, but a lifestyle. The Northerners tended to be better educated, articulate and angry and not as driven by religious conviction. Lewis believed that 'black power' was short-sighted and based upon an ignorance about the South. "We were rooted in those communities and their churches and we had an understanding of how far you could go, one step at a time," Lewis said. "Sometimes I think the Northerners thought they could just come down South and just liberate the natives. Those of us who had been born and raised there had a better understanding of how long a struggle it was going to be."

By 1966, the struggle had gone on too long for Stokely Carmichael and a takeover was staged. Carmichael replaced Lewis as Chairman of SNCC and Lewis sadly left the organization he had devoted his life to soon afterwards. Seven months after the coup, whites were expelled from SNCC, and the cry for Black Power was in force. There was lingering resentment over the fact that so much media had been showered on the three students killed in Philadelphia because two of them were white. When blacks were killed, nobody paid attention - such as the case of Herbert Lee, an elderly black farmer whose murderer got off scot-free. Carmichael now said SNCC would no longer talk to white reporters and insisted he be called "Mr. Carmichael." Instead of moral appeals based on Christian charity, SNCC now pledged a black assertiveness that no doubt threatened many whites.

Emma Foster, a long-time resident of Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Carmichael would join the Black Panthers and later move to Africa. SNCC would dissolve in the early 70s. Many friendships were ended and many SNCC people suffered for years after from the psychological trauma of the 60s. But everyone who participated in the Freedom Summer of 64 agrees it was one of the most inspiring times of their lives. SNCC may have devoured itself, but the revolution they put into place is felt everywhere I turn in Mississippi. I arrived in Philadelphia, MS expecting to look over my shoulder at KKK people following me. All I felt was a peace and tranquility far removed from the terrorism of the 60s. I talked to one resident, Emma Foster, who remembered those days of violence and bloodshed. She said, "Lots has changed, but there is still room for improvement. The Klan is still around and there's police brutality." In order for those changes to happen, we should probably heed some of the last words of Stokely Carmichael who died of cancer at 59. "Minister Farrakhan attacked Martin. The NAACP attacked Martin. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee attacked Martin. But Martin never attacked back. Black people need to be unified."


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - Conspiracy, garbage and a living wage: The undoing of a hero
Jennifer - X stands for: Fight the powers that be!
Nick - Protecting the Black community Black Panther style
Stephanie - The night Watts was set ablaze