Intergenerational organizing for freedom: notes on Mississippi Summer conference

Young people have a feeling of the future in a soulful way”

— Timuel Black

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I hadn’t heard much about SNCC* before moving to Chicago, but when several people who I respected a lot were introduced to me as leaders of SNCC, I hurried to learn more about it.  It is important to my development as an activist and an educator to dig under the Hallmark version of the Civil Rights movement, to know about what people learned, and not only how they engaged in the struggle with injustice in the world around them, but also how they struggled between themselves and within themselves.  I am particularly interested in knowing how outsiders, both Black and White Northerners, entered into the fight for Civil Rights: how did they come into Southern communities as activist strangers, without disrespecting local knowledge and leadership?

In her book on Ella Baker, Barbara Ransby pays close attention to this question, showing how Baker challenged Civil Rights leaders who imposed their norms and goals on local communities and insisted that movement leaders must take their lead from local people.  Ransby’s book also illuminated for me powerful differences, as well as synergies, between the SCLC**, where Martin Luther King Jr. and other middle-class, mostly male Black clergy led, and SNCC, which was younger, more interracial, and more grassroots-focused.  Ransby emphasized Ella Baker’s work to support the leadership of the younger group, which involved not only working with the more politically powerful SCLC but also challenging its methods and its biases.

Then, as now, people working for social change wrestled with the limits and possibilities of radical action.  Though people often think this means hostile and divisive behavior, radical tactics respond very directly to a context of extreme hostility – where hierarchies and profits push out basic human rights like education, health, and life.  Ella Baker explained:

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning–getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.

For SNCC, this meant fighting for voting rights, through education, organizing, and political action.  The Mississippi Summer Project was a SNCC campaign launched in 1964 to register as many Black voters as possible in Mississippi.  Young people came from all over the country to stand up to the intimidation and violence of the racist white establishment that kept Black people from the polls.  They were welcomed by Black Mississipians, who, above and beyond allowing young White and Black northerners to organize in their communities, accepted loss of job, safety, and life for taking part in the campaign for voting rights.

Last week in Chicago, as part of the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, SNCC leaders gathered with youth leaders from Fearless Leading by the Youth and other groups organizing against police violence, and students from local schools and universities.  The conference, “Come, Let Us Build a New World Together,” was “designed to connect the past with the current wave of youth activism and the socio-economic crises of ‘endangered communities.’”  The intergenerational discussions at the conference highlighted how SNCC confronted systemic racism 50 years ago and how this fight continues today.  Tracing the evolution of the struggle allows for cross-generational exchange of perspective, strategies, and stories.

The conference was a model of intergenerational respect, expressing not so much the expectation that young people pick up where the older generation left off but the commitment of older and younger organizers to fight together.  One SNCC leader commented, “We get free when we get engaged – it’s a very spiritual thing…we’re looking at you young people, seeing the effects of what we did then – you can go into restaurants, to integrated schools, you can vote.”  In a country where political power is tied to money, grassroots power has to have a spiritual base, expressed in song and art and love.  SNCC leader John Hardy said, “There’s a personal commitment at base here – we have to have faith that change is going to come. If you don’t believe it, you can’t achieve it. Politics begin when two people get together.”  For SNCC folk, inner commitment took the outward form of carefully planned tactics: “With SNCC, there was always a plan and a procedure to move forward.”

SNCC leaders talked about strategies that guided their work:

*put young people on the ground, at the source of the problem.

*non-violence as a tactic (it frustrated those in power, who expected and hoped for violence)

*direct confrontation

*let the local people speak (vs. SCLC, where the clergy was out in front.  When King came to Chicago – SCLC leadership squelched local leadership; they never regained power after that)

*equip the youth with knowledge of how to attack these problems (know your opponent; study leaders of the past)

*educate each other

As leaders of a group that used racial difference, privilege, and tension as both political tactics and educational processes, SNCC leaders had a lot to say about cross-racial organizing.  One pointed out that “[SNCC leader] Stokely Carmichael told people to go back and fight racism in your communities.  White people could go to Mississippi to fight racism but couldn’t fight it in their own communities.  They started the women’s movement, the peace movement, the environmental movement – but they couldn’t face racism.”  Watching the Democratic presidential candidates deal with the challenges young Black Lives Matter activists put before them, it is clear that progressive politics have been handicapped by a refusal to engage in the truth-telling and restorative processes of addressing racism in America.

Angel, a young Public Allies leader who, along with SNCC leader John Hardy, facilitated our intergenerational discussion group, closed our circle with powerful words: “what are the lessons learned?  My generation hasn’t learned the lessons, because we haven’t sat down and reflected on the history.  But when we do, when we understand what the older generation is saying, we can break it down for the younger ones, so they can relate. Earlier, Dr. Al Bennett talked about the bricks that everybody here needed to be laying to build the path to the future.  But when you place the brick you don’t just put it there.  You stand on it and say this is my brick. Go forth with fire and burn!”

 

*SNCC (“snick”): Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an organization of young people founded in 1960 by African American college students engaged in direct action for Civil Rights

**SCLC: Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a national, intergenerational Civil Rights organization; following the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the founders in 1957 and the organization’s first president.  Ella Baker worked for SCLC and helped to found SNCC as an organization allied with but separate from SCLC.

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