SNCC: The Battle-Scarred Youngsters
By Howard Zinn • The Nation • October 5, 1963 and republished April 23, 2009
Having just spent a little time in Greenwood, Miss., I felt a certain air of unreality about the March on Washington. The grandiose speeches, the array of movie stars, the big names dropped and bounced several times, the sheer impress of numbers—all added up, technically, to an occasion that one describes as “thrilling.” And it must have been so to participants and to the millions who watched on television. Still, while swept up in the spirit myself, I wondered if, to the Negro citizen of Greenwood, Itta Bena, and Ruleville; of Albany, Americus, and Dawson; of Selma, Gadsden and Birmingham; of Danville, and other places, it may not have seemed the most Gargantuan and best organized of irrelevancies.
There was one relevant moment in the day’s events at Washington: that was when the youngest speaker on the platform, John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, lashed out in anger, not only at the Dixiecrats, but at the Kennedy Administration, which had been successful up to that moment in directing the indignation of 200,000 people at everyone but itself.
The depth of Lewis’ feeling and the direction of his attack may have baffled Northern liberals, mollified recently by the Administration’s new Civil Rights Bill, by its bold words and by the President’s endorsement of the great March. But John Lewis knew, because the young SNCC workers in his organization are on the front lines of the conflict, that while the President and the Attorney General speak loud in Washington, their voices are scarcely whispers in the towns and the hamlets of the Black Belt.
Greenwood, Miss., just before the March, revealed in its own quiet way how the Deep South remains essentially untouched by resonant speeches in the national capital.
Surrounded by cotton plantations, Greenwood overlooks the Delta from a vantage point in west-central Mississippi. It is the headquarters for the Voter Registration Project, in which all the major civil rights organizations cooperate, and whose working force is sup-plied mainly by the youngsters of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC—affectionately called SNICK). It is the seat of Leflore County, where Negroes are 65 per cent of the population and half the Negro families have an income less than $27 a week. Almost no Negroes vote, and attempts of the past year to register Negroes have been met with torch, shotgun and a dozen varieties of official brutality, intimidation and subterfuge.
The SNICK “office” in Greenwood is like a front company headquarters during wartime. As I came in one evening last August, having driven from Memphis, I was greeted by Annell Ponder, whose younger sister I taught at Spelman College in Atlanta, and whose path has crossed mine several times in the last few hectic years. The Ponder girls are all tall, black-skinned and beautiful. Annell has been in Greenwood this past year handling the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s part of the voter registration project. She is quiet and courageous. She has been beaten by police in Winona, Miss. When friends went to the jail one day, they found her sitting there, her face swollen and marked, barely able to speak. She looked up at them, and just managed to whisper one word: “Freedom.”
With Annell at headquarters were a bunch of the SNICK kids. One of them came forward to shake hands and we recognized each other—it was Stokely Carmichael, a tall, slender philosophy student at Howard University, born in the West Indies and reared in the sit-in movement. We had met in Albany, Ga., during the first outburst of trouble there in December, 1961.
What was on for the evening? A mass meeting at one of the Negro churches. And then a party at the home of one of the girls.
They showed my wife and me around the building: on the first floor, a big jumbled room for meetings, with a long table in the center—this was the dining room, too, for whatever voter registration workers were around when mealtime came—and a small kitchen to the side, where Mrs. Johnson cooked the meals. Upstairs were cubicles serving as offices, and a large area with two iron cots in a corner, for travelers in the movement. Cartons of books were on the floor; they had been donated by a Northern college, and were soon to go on new pine bookshelves.
At the church meeting, middle-aged Negroes who had lived forty and fifty years in the Delta without shaking a white person’s hand, came up to shake hands and say hello. Greenwood has this past year been going through that tense, hopeful process begun recently in many communities of the Deep South—the first contact on an equal basis with white people; an awakening to the possibility of genuine brotherhood. These first white friends have been college students from New England, or ministers from the Middle West, or just interested people passing through—rather than local whites. But it is a start. And among the SNICK youngsters manning battle posts in the Black Belt have been young white Southerners: Bob Zellner from Alabama, Sandra Hayden from Texas. It is a beginning, and credit belongs mostly to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for blasting open in various parts of the Deep South the first pockets of equal interracial contact.
For Southern whites, watching at the edge of these pockets, it is a painful but inexorable educational process. The first reactions to the sight of Negroes and whites in friendly contact are outrage, fury, often violence. But repetition of the vision dulls the reflex and there begins, not acceptance yet, but at least hesitancy.
Perhaps Greenwood police this past year have begun to move into the second stage. When a police car stopped my wife and me as we were driving away from the SNICK party, they seemed at least a little accustomed to the idea. They flashed their lights again and again into our faces and into the car, and cast looks at the house where the lights were on and the noise of the party could still be heard. They spent some time examining identification papers and then (unlike a previous similar experience in Atlanta, where my companion was a Negro and we were arrested) muttered for us to move on.
The next afternoon, a race against time began among the SNICK workers in the Greenwood office. Thirteen youngsters were in Parchman state prison farm, and had been there for two months. Forty-five other Negroes—men and women of all ages—had been on the county prison farm, also for two months. All of them had been arrested in June on charges of “breach of the peace.” After much legal delay, release was at hand. A young lawyer, representing the National Council of Churches, had come to Greenwood with bond money for these fifty-eight people. But it turned out that information supplied him by local officials, and transcribed on the bonds, was full of errors, and the county attorney would not accept the bonds. If the transaction could not be completed by that Friday afternoon, the prisoners would have to spend another weekend in jail.
The proper information was quickly compiled, and all available typewriters and people who could type were assembled in the Voter Registration Project office. The new data were typed in. The papers were taken to the sheriff. Just before dusk on Friday the fifty-eight emerged.
The headquarters that night had the eerie quality of a field hospital after a battle. Youngsters out of jail—sixteen and seventeen years old—were sprawled here and there. Two of them lay on the narrow cots upstairs while a few of the SNICK girls dabbed their eyes with boric acid solutions; some dietary deficiency in jail had affected their eyes. One boy nursed an infected hand. Another boy’s foot was swollen; he had started to lose feeling in it while in “the hot box” at Parchman, and had stamped on it desperately again and again to restore circulation. Medical attention was refused them in prison. The cold newspaper reports of the past few years about people arrested in various parts of the Deep South for demonstrating have never conveyed the reality of a Black Belt jail.
Three SNICK youngsters, with a tape recorder on the broken-down table near us, told about their arrest, and about life at Parchman.
The first was Willie Rogers:
. . . it was twenty minutes to one when the chief came out of his car and across the street in front of the courthouse. It was June 25th—Tuesday. The chief said, I’m askin’ you-all to move on. We said that we were up there to get our folks registered. So he said, I’m askin’ you-all to move on, you’re crowdin’ the sidewalk—the sidewalk was clear. We walked up to the courthouse steps so as not to block the sidewalk. He said, I’m askin’ you to leave now. We said we came to get them registered and soon as they registered we would leave. So he started placing us under arrest—one by one.
We stayed in jail about two hours before trial came off, and the judge sentenced us to four months and $200 fine for refusing to move on, and about an hour later they came and took us to the penal farm, which we stayed out on the penal farm about a week and worked. . . Tuesday, without us knowing they had sentenced us to Mississippi State Penitentiary, Parchman, Mississippi. . . Two boys named John Hanley and Arthur Jackson and I—he put us in the hot box. We stayed in the hot box two nights. It’s about five foot nine inches square, which they call it the hot box. Long as they don’t turn the heat on—with three in there you can make it. There’s no openings for light or air there was a little crack under the door, but you couldn’t see your hand before your face less you get down on your knees. When they got ready to feed you they band the tray through a little door which they close—and then you can’t eat unless you get down on your knees by the light comin’ in the door—then you can see how to eat. And they had a little round hole in the floor which was a commode—about as big around as a six-pound bucket top. After we stayed in there those two nights, the sergeant started pickin’ at me: “You’re the lyingest nigger in Greenwood, aren’t you?” I told him no, I didn’t lie, which I had, because I didn’t tell him nothing about the movement in Greenwood. . . . The last night he decided to take our T-shirts and things—so we decided not to wear no underwear. So he decided to open all the windows and turn on the fans, and the beds that we were sleepin’ on, they didn’t have no tick or nothing, just metal, and had round holes in it. So last night I didn’t sleep—I stayed up all night and all day today and he came in right after lunch and MacArthur Cotton and I, we weren’t saying anything, and, the guards came around and handcuffed us to the bar . . . . I’m seventeen.
. . . My name is Jesse James Glover. I live in Itta Bena, Mississippi. I was arrested at the courthouse in Greenwood—charged for likewise, not movin’ on. Some of the older people with us, they moved on. But we didn’t think it expedient to move, because the courthouse is a public place. So we stayed. . . . We had a trial next morning. We didn’t have a lawyer . . . We stayed at the county farm four days. We dug ditches in the white part of town. We decided among ourselves we weren’t going to work or eat any more because we were afraid of being shot from a car passing the road or by one of the guards, because we were all working with SNICK. We didn’t eat for two days, neither worked, then they came to take us to Parchman. There was about 25-30 policemen outside with guns and blackjacks and things standing around the bus when we came out—we all put our hands behind our heads and they searched us all, put us on the bus. So we left. . . We stayed there a week and then I took sick. He didn’t let me see a doctor. That’s the man in charge. They call him “sergeant.” We ate twice a day. At night they put the fan on and it was cold. We were sleepin’ on a steel bunk with forty-four holes in it . . . . A week later I was put in a place called the hot box. I stayed in this hot box two days and a half. I was put in because Freddie Harris and Lawrence Guyot and I was whisperin’ to each other. Another week I was put in the hot box again. I stayed there four days. About half a week later he said some lice had gotten in the place, so he cut all our hair and gave us some blue ointment and put fourteen of us in a cell—two beds for fourteen of us. We stayed there all night. About another week, I got put into this hot box again he said we were talkin’. He put nine of us in this box—it’s about six by six. Nine of us we couldn’t lie down . . . . Three or four more days they began to take our T-shirts and cut our food in half—so we gave our shorts back because we said what good are shorts without T-shirts. So they put us back in the cell, without our shorts, and turned of the fan again. We were naked. It was real cold . . . The next day he put thirteen of us in the hole, this six by six hole. We were making it okay about 30 minutes with the fan off—breathing in this oxygen, lettin’ out this carbon dioxide—and the air was evaporating on top of the building, and it got so hot the water was falling off the top of the building all around the sides like it was raining. One boy was taken sick in the box. They took the sick boy out—they didn’t take him to a doctor—they put him in a cell for that morning. He let us out of the hot box that morning, back in the cell. We told everyone to keep quiet because we didn’t want to get in the hot box again—it might cause a death in the hot box. So we all was quiet for a long time. Then a few fellows were talking to each other. He came down and told Lawrence Guyot, I’m going to put these niggers up to this damn bar if I hear any of this racket—so they hung MacArthur Cotton, Arthur Jackson, and Willie Rogers on the bars—MacArthur was singin’ some Freedom songs. . . . Altogether, I was thirteen days in the hot box . . . . How did I get in the movement? I was at a mass meeting in Itta Bena. I’d been walkin’ and canvassin’ on my own. Bob Moses asked me, did I want to work with SNICK. I told him yes. So from then on I been working Monday I’m startin’ school, but in the evening in Itta Bena I’m going to get young people to work with me canvassing—teach the old people how to fill out the forms—try to get my town moving.
. . . My name is Fred Harris. He came around and said, you gonna move? you gonna move? And he frightened the old people. And when we didn’t move he arrested us. . . I stayed in the hole four days. In all I spent 160 hours in the hole—the hot box that is. He told me next time he found paper on the floor in my cell he would hang me up by my arms and my legs. And about a week after, that I asked to see the doctor, and he told me, yes, when I die. I’m seventeen. I’ll be starting school Monday. I got involved with the movement back in 1960, when SNICK came up. I was fourteen then. Sam Block was talking to me about the movement. I told him, yes, I’d be glad to help, and I started from there on. . . At first my mother didn’t want me to be in it. Then she realized it would be best for her and for me If I were in the movement, so she told me I could go ahead and work in the movement.
While the returned prisoners took turns lying on the bunks, SNICK workers were being delivered to different parts of the Negro section of Greenwood to announce a mass meeting that night to welcome the prisoners back home. You find, roughly, three kinds of SNICK workers in a place like Greenwood: two or three regular staff members, who make $10 or $20 a week in those weeks when there is money; ten to fifteen students from various parts of the country who have left school temporarily to work with SNICK, and who subsist on $5 or $10 perhaps every other week; indeterminate numbers of young people from the town and the surrounding countryside, who volunteer their time, risk their lives and their liberty, and get an occasional meal at headquarters.
I sat in on the staff meeting next morning, held in the large main room. In one corner was a boiler, in another a rubbish can. On the walls were a map of the cty of Greenwood, newspaper clippings on civil rights, photos of Pete Seeger when he was in Greenwood, photos of Jim Forman (executive secretary of SNICK). Scattered around were two typewriters, some broken chairs, books and newspapers and a big pot for Kool-Aid.
But if poverty showed in the material possessions at SNICK headquarters, the human resources were something else. Chairing the meeting was Bob Moses, the quiet fighter in charge of the Voter Registration Project, a veteran by now of Mississippi violence and nonviolence. Here was Sam Block, silent, thin, dark, his home deep in the Delta, who did the early reconnaissance for SNICK in the area and almost lost his life for it. Here was Willie Peacock, also from Mississippi, another SNICK veteran. Annell Ponder was here, representing SCLC (Martin Luther King’s group); Martha Prescod, a slender college student from the North; Stokely Carmichael, the fiery young man from Howard; Jean Wheeler, a smiling coed, also from Howard. Here too was a former star student of mine at Spelman College—her home a little town in South Carolina—now just graduated from Yale Law School: Marian Wright. With her, was another graduate from Yale, a young white fellow named Oscar Chase. (Chase recently wrote a valuable legal paper which shows how the federal government, by bold, imaginative use of the injunction, could fulfill its responsibility to protect the constitutional rights of Negroes in the Deep South.) In the room also was another of the increasing number of white college students in this essentially Negro-led movement—a California sociology major named Mike Miller, who has done impressive research on civil rights matters. And five of the youngsters just out of Parchman jail were present.
That afternoon we drove in two cars to Itta Bena, a feudal cotton village outside Greenwood, where Negroes came off the land to meet in a dilapidated little church, welcome back the Parchman prisoners, and sing freedom songs with an overpowering spirit. One of the returned prisoners was Mother Perkins, fragile and small, seventy-five years old, who had just spent, like the rest, two months on the county prison farm for wanting to register.
Cars filled with white men rumbled by along the road that passed by the church door, but the meeting and the singing went on. Anyone who felt the urge got up and spoke. An old man rose on his cane and said. “All these years, going along behind my plow, I thought some day things would change but I never dreamed I’d see it now.”
Bob Moses told them that Negroes—and whites—were without jobs in all the big cities of the nation, that they could not run away any more from the Delta to Chicago and Detroit, that they must stay and wrench from the State of Mississippi what they deserved as human beings. Marian Wright told them a fable about an eagle that for a long time was told it was a chicken and believed it. Stokely Carmichael reminded them that while the Lord might be on their side, they would have to secure their rights by their own intense efforts. Meanwhile, the automobiles kept passing on the road outside.
The crushing conclusion that comes out of Greenwood, Miss—and Selma, Ala., and Danville, Va., and Americus, Ga.—is that the federal government is but a shadow in the hard-rock places of the Deep South. Standing at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, John Lewis turned his wrath, not at the easy target, the Dixiecrats, but against the Administration. “It is the federal government that indicted nine of our people in Albany.” The Democratic Party, Lewis made clear, cannot be treated as a savior as long as it lives with Eastland, nor can the Republicans, harboring Goldwater. “What political leader can stand up and say his party is the party of freedom?” And then, the most dangerous question one can ask in a country boasting of its two-party system; “Where is our party?”
To many, the March had been presented as a gigantic lobby for the Administration’s Civil Rights Bill, but Lewis pointed quickly, unerringly, to the weaknesses in the bill. Furthermore, by sponsoring a new civil rights bill, the Administration had skillfully turned attention to Congress, and deflected the erratic spotlight of the civil rights movement from possibly focusing on inadequacies of the Executive.
The straight, crass fact at which John Lewis was aiming is this: the national government, without any, new legislation, has the power to protect Negro voters and demonstrators from policemen’s clubs, hoses and jails and it has not used that power.
Despite the welcome new words of concern by the Kennedy Administration, despite several dozen suits filed by the Justice Department in voting cases, the Negro in the Deep South still stands alone and unprotected as he tries to eat in a bus terminal, register to vote, or hand out a leaflet on a street corner. The right to vote, and freedom of expression, are not in themselves solutions to the fundamental problem, which is a rear-ranging of economic and political power in the South. But they are prerequisites to that rearrangement.
There is a constitutional rock to which the Executive branch can tie its lines and then smash, with all the power at its command, every Wallace, every Barnett, every Chief Pritchett, every Commander Lingo, every Bull Connor, who ever begins to lift a billy club at an American citizen exercising his constitutional rights. That is the Supreme Court’s statement in the Debs case of 1895: “The entire strength of the nation may be used to enforce in any part of the land the full and free exercise of all national powers and the security of all rights entrusted by the Constitution to its care.”
But to act on that dictum calls for certain traits which the Administration has thus far not shown: imaginativeness in the use of the courts; boldness in the exercise of Executive power; the courage to set new precedents in federal relations; the willingness to bypass Congress on an issue about which Congress spoke its mind in 1866—when it passed the Fourteenth Amendment.
Above all, it means changing to the offensive. Up to now the Administration has simply reacted to every racial crisis. Southern officials have thrown thousands of people into jail, and then put the burden on the civil rights movement to get them out. The national government needs to act, and then put the burden on Southern segregationists to revoke the action; let them wrestle with courts, raise money for trial, plead for toleration.
The “equal protection” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court’s statement in the Debs case, the declaration of Section 242 of the U.S. penal code that any official who deprives a person of his constitutional rights has committed a federal crime; these are the already-existing legal bases for Executive action. That action requires, first, stationing all over the south hundreds of federal agents (replacing the F.B.I., which is incompetent in the field of civil rights) to protect the constitutional rights of Negroes. These agents would have the specific assignment, and the authority granted by the President, to jail any local official who violates the Constitution.
At the same time, the President must begin filling—as he has failed to do so far—the federal judgeships of the Deep South with persons committed to the principle of equality, regardless of the wishes of the region’s Senators. Among the outworn political institutions of this nation is that of “Senatorial courtesy,” which requires Kennedy to consult Eastland in the appointment of a federal judge in Mississippi, Talmadge and Russell in Georgia. The shattering of precedent can start here. Then, a combination of quick-acting federal agents and determined judges can begin to rivet into the mind of the Deep South, and into the mind of the nation, not that Negroes are equal (that will take time), but that if they are not treated equally the consequences will be swift and harsh. When ten CORE and SNCC people, white and Negro, walked into Alabama to try to establish what Bill Moore, at the cost of his life, had failed to establish—the right to walk safely on a public highway—a cordon of federal marshals should have surrounded them. And when Alabama Safety Director Al Lingo showed up with his electric prod poles and guns, he should have been taken immediately into federal custody.
The burden of legal proof needs to be borne by the segregationists, and this has not yet been done. Any good lawyer knows that the advantage is in the hands of the man who moves first, that delay and bureaucracy and legal complications all work against those who are trying to undo an action. Yet the civil rights movement, which cannot help it, and the Justice Department, which can, have been on the defensive.
The needed initiative is not likely to come from a government whose dedication to racial equality is as circumspect as that of the Kennedy brothers. It took a series of explosive crises throughout the nation to force from them words of moral concern that became part of the Constitution a hundred years ago. It took something close to a revolution to bring forth a moderate civil rights bill, which will be further moderated by Congress, and by segregationist federal judges, and by a cautious Justice Department.
Basic changes are needed in the social structure of the nation before meaningful racial equality can be established. But in the Deep South, a prerequisite for such changes is the establishment of the right to vote, to organize, to speak, write and assemble freely and without fear of violence. That requires a radical new use of initiative and power by the national government. And because the Administration—and inherently, any administration—lacks the internal motivation for such a seizure of initiative, it will have to be prodded by the increased use of nonviolent direct action.
Right now, those who see this most clearly, feel it most intensely, and are best prepared to move on it, are the young people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Published in The Nation • October 5, 1963 and republished April 23, 2009[Note: Annell Ponder was spelled Annelle in the original article. It has been corrected here.]
Memo to Bob Moses, 1964
A 1964 memo from Howard Zinn to Bob Moses (a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) outlined a plan to minimize violence in Mississippi for the upcoming Freedom Summer. Read memo.
On the Road to Voting Rights: Freedom Day in Selma, 1963
Excerpted from Chapter 5 of You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn’s first-hand account of Selma’s Freedom Day in 1963. “The idea was to bring hundreds of people to register to vote, hoping that their numbers would decrease fear. And there was much to fear,” Zinn writes. Read excerpt.
Freedom Day in Hattiesburg, Mississippi
By Howard Zinn
First-hand account of Freedom Day in January 1964. Read article at the Zinn Education Project.
SNCC: The New Abolitionists
By Howard Zinn
A detailed, first-hand history of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Read more at Haymarket Books.