These days, there is nothing old civil rights activists like to do better than hold reunions, where like World War II veterans, they trade war stories, recall the “good fight,” and praise themselves for leading the struggle which eventually led to the election of America’s first African-America President.
It should be no surprise then to find SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) activists “now averaging 65 years of age” engaging at such nostalgia at their recent reunion in Raleigh, North Carolina. According to the lengthy report filed in The Nation by the 1960s radical leader and SDS founder Tom Hayden, they sought to pass “the torch to a new generation fighting for a constitutional right to quality education.”
The keynote speech was given by Attorney General Eric Holder, who spoke at the same site where SNCC began as a coordinating group for the growing sit-in movement exemplified by the famous Woolworth counter sit-in, where a few black students demanded to be served. Their calm demeanor and steadfastness exposed the nation to the reality of segregation. Holder, as Hayden could not refrain from noting, is now “under fire from the right” for trying to rebuild “the Justice Department’s civil rights division.” As for Obama, Holder told the SNCC veterans, “There is a straight line from those lunch counter sit-ins to the Oval Office today.”
The purpose of the event was not simply to reminisce, but to “rekindle the spirit of 1960 and build on SNCC’s achievements,” Holder added. “There is still marching to be done.” (On this issue, I will soon write on Abigail Thernstrom’s new book, Voting Rights — and Wrongs, in which she shows how far removed we are from the issues of that era.)
Undoubtedly, SNCC at the start played a major and courageous role in registering black voters in the South, as well as participating in sit-ins and the Freedom Rides, at which now Congressmen John Lewis was savagely beaten in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1961. The problem with glorifying SNCC’s entire history, however, is that the organization departed from its early position of working to establish what they called a “beloved community” based on non-violence and interracial harmony, a goal they shared with Martin Luther King, Jr., and adopted the Nation of Islam’s brand of black nationalism, separatism, and the advocacy of violence to achieve its stated ends — or as Malcolm X famously argued, “by any means necessary.”
Hayden acknowledges the problem, quoting a historian named Peniel Joseph, who spoke at the conference. Hayden writes:
SNCC became “a blip in the dominant [civil rights] narrative,” according to 37-year-old Tufts historian Peniel Joseph, who attended the conference. Historicizing SNCC is extremely important, he said, though there is a danger that “glorifying” the early SNCC implies that a “bad SNCC” developed after 1966 with the rise of Black Power, calls for self-defense and revolutionary internationalism. Those apparent extremes should not be discredited, Joseph said, but contextualized in the failed social response of the US government; the escalation of the Vietnam War at the same time as the Selma, Alabama, march; and the employment of counterintelligence programs by the FBI. (Emphasis in bold, mine.)
Joseph’s logic should be familiar. It is the same argument once used by Stalinists to justify the terror of the Soviet regime under Stalin. As they said, “American encirclement of the Soviet Union, meant to destroy socialism, forced the Bolsheviks to take harsh actions in response to the West’s opposition and counter-revolutionary policies.” It is the logic of Bill Ayers in his memoir on the Weather Underground, when he argues that their militancy and bombings were a response to the evil and bombings of the United States, whose policies drove them to take extreme action. This form of putting things into context can be used to explain and justify almost anything.
The conference chose only to celebrate “SNCC’s overall role in defeating segregation and winning voting rights,” and made “no effort at dividing ‘good’ from ‘bad’ SNCC’s, to distance the organization from its more radical phases.” Despite Hayden, the fact is is that there were two SNCC’s, and the second one was indeed not only bad, but very bad. One can find out the entire story in reading the very sympathetic but thorough history of the organization written by Clayborne Carson in 1981, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. He describes the major shift the organization underwent when its leader John Lewis was forced out and replaced by the militant Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Toure). As Carson writes, despite assurances that SNCC’s goal was the same one of ridding America of racism, “the contrast between Lewis’ moderation and Carmichael’s outspoken militancy was obvious to observers.”