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Plenary Panel — Consequential Impact of the Civil Rights Movement: Implications for Advancing Social Justice in the 21st Century
Advancing Social Justice from Classroom to Community
A National Symposium
November 20-21, 2015
New York University
Charles E. Cobb, Jr, Duke University
Thank you. There are a lot of thanks that I want to begin with, starting with the Faculty Resource Network for inviting me here and enabling me to make this presentation. Thanks also to Dr. Hogan for all that she does at Tougaloo by way of not just preserving movement history, but making movement history useful.
Thanks to Joyce for underlining the importance of Emmett Till on our generation. It’s a piece of our story that is not well known. But she’s absolutely right in describing us as the Emmett Till generation. I’m much better at a keyboard than I am at a microphone. So I won’t be lengthy. But I do want to talk to you some about history, essentially my dissatisfaction with history, and also what I think is possible.
And I also want to talk to you very specifically about what we as the SNCC [“Snick”] legacy project are doing to address some of the flaws in the historiography, which ranges from content to usability of historical information.
I want to start, ironically in some respects, with a quote from a Mississippi writer, who I in fact I don’t hold in high regard (among other things his sentences are much too long). That’s William Faulkner. The quote I want to give you was made in an entirely different context than this here, but it’s relevant to our discussion. Faulkner said—this is in the 50s—in some respects defending the Confederacy, that “the past is never dead; in fact, it’s not even past.” It seems as applicable to us as it did to Faulkner, who in that same article started to talk about how he would defend white people from invasion of black people.
And I think it’s important for you before I go further to understand (and I want to underline this) that I am not a scholar, certainly not in the same sense that I think the academy means “scholar.” I am not hostile to scholars and scholarship. In fact in my own writing I use and appreciate, indeed highly respect a number of scholars that I could cite here. But I’m not. I’m a reporter. I’m a journalist. That’s what I do. I poke around in other people’s business.
Nevertheless, in addition, I don’t face the pressures of scholars. I don’t face any pressure for tenure, even though I’m sometimes on the campus. And I don’t undergo peer review as it exists in the academic world, which is not to say I don’t face pressures—but I won’t go into that here. I want to instead, in line with the discussion I intend to pursue in history, use a quote from someone you have to use if you’re talking about SNCC and what SNCC was and how it got to what it was. And that is Ella Josephine Baker.
As much as we are the Emmett Till generation, it can also be said that we are the children of Ella Baker. Essentially there would not have been a SNCC without Miss Baker. And she was Miss Baker because we were 19 and 20 and 21 years old when she called us together, and she was 57 years old. There was no way we were going to call her Ella. There would have been no SNCC without Miss Baker. I want to use some of her words speaking to us to begin this conversation.
She says this: “In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we exist now has to be radically changed. That means 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. That is easier said than done. But one of the things that has to be faced is, in the process of wanting to change that system, how much have we got to do to find out who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. I’m saying, as you must say too, that in order to see where we are going, we not only must remember where we have been, but we must understand where we have been.”
That’s Miss Baker in 1965, talking to us young people. And again, it’s as relevant now as it was when she was speaking to us. Now it won’t come as a surprise to anyone here, I think, that I have a number of issues when it comes to the historiography of the movement. I think in many respects—certainly in terms of [how] it reaches the public—[the narrative] really misses the point about the movement. My friend, too early passed away in my view, Julian Bond, said this about the public’s understanding of the movement. He told me once—he says it boils down to one sentence: “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.”
And that really is the public’s concept. You know, it’s funny—civil rights struggle, the real point and the real lesson buried in civil rights is the lesson of community organizing at the grass roots. If you want to understand what drove southern struggle—what Joyce just described really more accurately portrays what began to be unfolding in the south. It’s not to speak hostilely or disrespectfully of public protests in public spaces, led by charismatic leaders, but the tradition of black struggle in this United States—and you don’t have to look very deeply in the history—is the organizing tradition.
If you think about it, slaves were not marching on auction blocks in protest. Slaves were not holding sit-ins at the plantation manor dining room table seeking a seat at the table. What were they doing? They were organizing something—escape, rebellion, sabotage, even assassination. They were organizing. And that’s the real tradition of black struggle. And if you look at what unfolded in the 1950s and 60s, whether you start with Montgomery, Alabama, and the bus boycott, or whether you talk about the student movement and the spread of sit-ins and the evolution of student protestors, from protestors to community organizers, then what you’re looking at is the organizing tradition. And there’s a whole set of older people who steered us as 19-, 20-, and 21-year-olds in that direction. When Bob Moses meets Amzie Moore and puts voter registration on the table, Bob didn’t even know that was an issue.
>Bob told me once, he said: I went to school in the 1950s and they talked about the denial of the right to vote behind the Iron Curtain, and I had no idea that there was denial of the right to vote behind a Cotton Curtain, until Amzie put it on the table, and Amzie was clear. He says he was waiting for this student energy, and he wants to use it to get what he wants. He wants that energy to begin organizing for voting rights. And Amzie had a whole plan. . . .
. . . Everywhere you look in the movement in the 50s and 60s, there’s an organizing effort that is unfolding, and not only around voting rights. And I should say while I am mentioning Amzie, that as I stand here—and I say this every time I speak—standing here I’m standing not only on the shoulders of those men and women, the Amzie Moores, and the E.W. Steptoes, and the Mama Dolly Raines, and the Janie Brewers, names that mostly are not familiar—Fannie Lou Hamer, R.L. Strickland—I am not only standing on their shoulders, I’m also standing in their blood. So from my point of view, something is owed those people who made what we were able to do possible—and I always publicly acknowledge that obligation, at least as I feel it, on my part.
Now when it comes to community organization, and grappling with it as history, I think it falls into three rough categories. Three things happened that really drove community organizing in the 1960s, when we were working with SNCC. One is that people who were usually spoken for by others, or sometimes spoken of by others, either sympathetically or unsympathetically, found their own voices and began speaking for themselves. That’s Mrs. Hamer’s story. She goes down to try and register to vote. The word gets back to the plantation before she gets back to the plantation. The plantation owner is waiting there; he tells her, you know, to stop fooling around with these people, to promise never to try and register to vote again. And Mrs. Hamer looks at him—and those of us who know Mrs. Hamer know how she looked at him—and Mrs. Hamer looked at him and said: “I didn’t go down there to register for you; I went down there to register for myself.” That’s her voice; Mrs. Hamer had Mississippi in her bones. And there’s no way that Charlie Cobb, or anybody, could speak as directly to what was at issue than Mrs. Hamer speaking in her own voice. And you see this over and over and over and over again in the South, and you don’t understand the movement unless you understand that what you’re looking at is people finding their voices.
And I tell another story: I stayed with this old man. The first place I ever worked was Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1962, and there was shooting. I was with Mrs. Hamer, in fact, the first time she tried to register. And there was shooting. And the mayor of the town, who was also the constable, the head of the White Citizens’ Council, the justice of the peace, and had the biggest business in town, arrested me. He said I did the shooting, because our voter registration effort was failing. And he confiscated—within the context of arresting me and having me hauled off to jail by the brother of the man who killed Emmett Till—he confiscated a shotgun. Well, you know these kinds of arrests are really attempts at intimidation, and there was no way he could really hold me. So he let me go the following morning. But he had confiscated the shotgun of a man I was staying with, which was a big deal, because Mr. Joe as we called him, Joe McDonald the man I was staying with, used the gun to put food on the table. He had me and Charles McLaurin, two young guys staying with him and eating a lot of food, and he was poor. And he used the gun to keep the varmints out of the garden that he and his wife had in the back yard.
He’s wondering what to do, and I told Mr. McDonald that he had a right to his gun. And he asked me if I was certain. And we had a history book with a copy of the Constitution in it. And I went and got it, and I read the Second Amendment out loud to him. And McLaurin says, “You see, Mr. Joe, that’s where it says so, right in the United States Constitution.”
Mr. Joe could not read or write. He was 76 years old and could not read or write. And he told me to fold over the page and he took the book from me. And I didn’t think anything more about it. And an hour or so later I’m looking around and Mr. Joe is nowhere to be seen. So I ask his wife Rebecca, “Where’s Mr. Joe?” And she says, “He went to get his gun. You said it was all right.” One of our big fears in those days was that people could get hurt or killed because they’re responding to what you’re asking them to do or telling them they can do. There’s no shortage of stories about this. So our big worry was that Mr. Joe is going to go down there because we said it okay for him to get his gun and get himself killed, and I did not want to have to explain that to Mrs. McDonald.
Well, it turned out—we were about to run after him, and, to make a long story short, we heard the rattle of his old truck, and he’s coming back and we run outside. And we say, “You went to city hall. What happened?” And he says, “I went to the mayor’s office, and I told the mayor, ‘I come to get my gun.'” Well, we said, “What did the mayor say?” “The mayor said I didn’t have a right to my gun.” “And what did you say, Mr. Joe?” “I held up the book, and I said: ‘This book says I do.'” And the mayor gave him the gun back.
Now the lesson of the story is Mr. Joe, who had never made a demand of a white man in his entire life, in any of the 76 years of his life, trusted us that he was going to go down there and demand this gun back. And that’s an important piece of the movement. These kinds of relationships aren’t built on protest marches. They’re built by digging into communities, going to church with people, eating dinner with people, drinking beer at the juke joint, sitting on the front porch. Or, in my case, one time I even went out to a cotton field to try and pick cotton, but it was a disaster.
Those are how you build—what you’re really doing is earning the trust of people. Because they have every reason to doubt you. What people like Mr. Joe are good at—even though they don’t have reading and writing literacy, they have excellent people literacy. They know when you’re coming at them with a bunch of BS, and they know when you’re serious. And it takes a little while to build up that relationship, but that’s what organizing does. You’re encouraging people to challenge what impresses them.
The other thing, which is built into this story about Mr. Joe and Amzie Moore and others, is that what you see in the organizing tradition of the 1960s, as SNCC experience, is a convergence of young people, 19, 20, 21 years old, with older people who were willing to share their experience and networks they had developed over decades, in many instances before we were born. Miss Baker was 57 years old when she meets us, Amzie Moore was 49 years old, Joe McDonald was 76 years old, E.W. Steptoe was 61 years old. You go down the list of these people, men and women, and . . . you see this convergence. In a lot of ways that’s what kept us alive, because they knew this terrain. We didn’t.
Now I’m from Washington DC. How much about Mississippi do you think I actually knew? Joyce knew far more than me, yes. In these situations, these are people who had been out there in the 1930s and out there in the 1940s. They formed a big part of Miss Baker’s network, because she had been the director of NAACP branches in the 1940s. So a lot of these local NAACP people were people she knew and, in fact, had developed. So that’s important, this convergence.
And lastly, and perhaps most important, in terms of understanding this dynamic of community organizing, what you see is as much as the movement challenged white supremacy, it was the challenges that black people made to one another within the black community that drove the movement.
I’ll tell you two quick stories, one about Martin Luther King and then one—Miss Baker was a southern woman, so when she was asking you what I call the “who-are-your-people stories,” it wasn’t an interrogation, but you had to sort of talk about who you were. So the second story I’ll talk about in terms of challenge will have to do with me.
This [first] story comes from a woman named Johnnie Carr, who died not too long ago. She was 95 years old when was telling me this story. You may know that the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott was supposed to be for just one day, but that one-day boycott was so successful they met in Martin Luther King’s church, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, to discuss having a bus boycott for as long as it took for the city to desegregate the bus system.
Well most of the people in that meeting who were ministers, preachers, were frightened. They were coming up with one excuse after the other about why you couldn’t extend the bus boycott—maybe we ought to form a committee to go meet with the mayor, stuff like that—and then finally the real leader of Montgomery, a man named E.D. Nixon, one of A. Philip Randolph’s people, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, NAACP leader, stood up. And E.D. Nixon looked out at the ministers, according to Johnnie Carr, and said (I’m quoting Miss Carr): “You preachers been eating these women’s fried chicken long enough. Now it’s time to get up off your behinds and do something for them.” Because you know it’s the women who were affected by all the hostility because they’re the ones who are riding the bus going across town to be the maids and the cooks and all of that kind of stuff. The ministers got so embarrassed, and E.D. Nixon called them cowards, and that’s when a 26-year-old Martin Luther King, just in town to pastor Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, stood up and said (again quoting Johnnie Carr): “I am not a coward.” And the ministers got so embarrassed that they formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and elected this new young guy in town as the head of it. And that’s his first step.
And how do you understand this story? You really have to understand it in terms of the kinds of challenges black people were making inside the black community. They never really surface in the media very much, and when they do surface, they surface in these in these convoluted, distorted ways that are hurtful.
The second challenge I want to read—I say to many in Mississippi that were in the movement that you all kidnapped me. I worked in Mississippi from 1962 until 1967. I had no intention of working in Mississippi. I was a Howard University student on the way to a workshop in Houston, Texas, for students who had been sitting-in. But I got off the bus in Jackson, Mississippi, because Mississippi was where Emmett Till was killed—that’s what I’m thinking. And I felt it’s one thing for me to be sitting in in Maryland and Virginia as a Howard University student; something qualitatively different is at play if you’re sitting-in in Mississippi. So I wanted to see what these people look like. Like do they have some kind of gene that somehow made them different from me? How could they be sitting in? That’s what I couldn’t quite get together in my head, and I made my way to their headquarters.
And I’ll just read you something I wrote:
When I told them, the students, I was on my way to a civil rights workshop in Texas, Lawrence Guyot, a student at Tougaloo College, rose from his seat and gave me a stern look. He was about to head up into the Delta and become part of Snick’s beginning efforts there. In 1964, he would become chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. “Civil rights workshop in Texas,” he scoffed. “What’s the point of doing that when you’re standing right here in Mississippi.” Guyot, as we called him, was a great big intense guy. And his tone was disdainful, really almost bullying, conveying without any further words, what was at once a challenge and a demand. “So, you’re down here just to chatter about civil rights, are you? That’s pretty useless. If you’re serious, stay and work with us.”
Jesse Harris, another young Mississippian I was meeting, chimed in, “You’re in the war zone here, Charlie.” I got the message. The Greyhound left without me. I never completed my journey to Texas and instead became part of SNCC’s effort in the state. When summer ended, I remained in Mississippi as a SNCC field secretary instead of returning to school. I was 19 years old. I will say very quickly one of the important things for understanding the movement is the young energy—really for the first time you see (and I don’t have time to go into it here) young people emerging into leadership positions in the civil rights establishment. This is something new. Martin Luther King acknowledged this at the White Rock Baptist Church, in Durham, North Carolina. He said, “What is new in this struggle is that it was initiated, fed, and sustained by students.” And that is unique.
There’s a lot more, but I had promised Beverly to be brief . . . I do want to end with, again, another person who you should know about. There are a lot of people that just have vanished from the historiography. Howard Thurman is one. If I had to point my finger at any single person who is responsible for the idea of non-violence, making it into the movement, it would be Howard Thurman, the great black theologian, whose book, in 1949, Jesus and the Disinherited influenced a whole generation of black ministers, including Martin Luther King, who never had a copy very far from him. And in that book Thurman argues that the way to understand Jesus is as a person . . . leading a struggle against Roman oppression. And he links it to civil rights struggle in the United States.
Howard Thurman gave the eulogy for a woman who was an educator and political activist: Juliette Derricotte. She died . . . when, after being critically injured in a 1931 traffic accident, a white’s only hospital near Dalton, GA, refused to admit her.
In his eulogy, Thurman says this, and they are words I’d like to leave you with. He says of her, “There is work to be done, and ghosts will drive us on. This is an unfinished world, and she has left an unfinished task. Who will take it up?”