In July 1962, I went with two students from Jackson, Mississippi's sit-in movement to a little town in Sunflower County called Ruleville. We'd only been in town for a couple of days when, while walking down a dirt road, a car stopped in front of us. A white man holding a pistol ordered us into the car. He was the mayor. He was also a justice of the peace; he owned the town's hardware store and headed the local White Citizens' Council.
Pistol in hand, he brought us to the hardware store, where he ranted about New York Communists and told us to get out of town. The leader of our little threesome, Charles "Mac" McLaurin, responded, saying we were in Sunflower County to encourage and help people register to vote. The U.S. Constitution gives us the right to do this, Mac told him. The mayor's unforgettable response: "That law ain't got here yet."
This story begins two years earlier. On Feb. 1, 1960, four students attending North Carolina A&T, a historically black college in Greensboro, N.C., purchased school supplies at Woolworth's department store, then sat down at the store's lunch counter for coffee and doughnuts. "Negroes get food at the other end," the waitress told them, pointing to the far end of the counter where there were no seats and blacks were expected to carry their orders outside. The four stayed seated until the store closed.
By the end of March, the sit-ins had spread from Greensboro to 80 other Southern cities. Two and a half months after Greensboro, on the weekend of April 15-17—Easter weekend that year—about 150 student activists gathered at Shaw College (now Shaw University) in Raleigh, N.C., where they gave birth to the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (usually pronounced "Snick").
For me, the sit-ins were a wake-up call, and I became deeply involved with movement, first as a student protester and, before long, as a field secretary for SNCC in Mississippi from 1962 to 1967.
The deeper meanings of the sit-ins, like much of the Southern freedom movement of the 1960s, are not very well understood. There are black people today in places that black people once could not occupy. Back in the day, we could hardly imagine a black person in the White House or even reading the news on television.
But African Americans are not in these positions today because a sudden change of heart occurred in this nation. There was pressure: a significant amount came from young people on the campuses of historically black colleges and universities. In fact, the student eruption triggered by the Feb. 1 sit-ins may have been the only time when HBCUs, as a collective body, have had national political impact. And young black people who came off these campuses to organize kept the pressure on for years, primarily through SNCC.
On April 15, I will be joining SNCC veterans at a conference and reunion on Shaw University's campus. The discussion will begin with some of the important lessons contained in the sit-ins. It would be a mistake to reduce the sit-ins to a simple demand by black students for a hamburger or Coke where only white people were allowed to eat. The sit-ins were important because the students were challenging themselves, making their way in a fashion that would become very significant to the larger freedom movement. Before the sit-ins, civil rights seemed like something grown-ups did. Now, as SNCC's legendary Bob Moses once put it, remarking on his reaction in Harlem to the sit-in students in the South: "They looked like I felt."
The bonds we formed in the student protests 50 years ago were strong despite the diversity of political opinion and economic class among SNCC members. Listen to another legendary SNCC leader, Charles Sherrod, the first of us to leave school and commit to working full-time as a SNCC field secretary: "You get ideas in jail. You talk with other young people you have never seen. Right away we recognize each other: People like yourself, getting out of the past. We're up all night, sharing creativity, planning action. You learn the truth in prison; you learn wholeness. You find the difference between being dead and alive."
For all of the youthful energy and commitment to challenge and change that erupted in 1960, the reason for SNCC's existence comes down to one person—a then-57-year-old woman—Ella Baker, one of the great figures of 20th-century struggle. In a deep political sense, we are her children and our 50th anniversary conference is dedicated to her.
In the 1940s, Baker was the NAACP's director of southern branches, organizing and assisting local chapters across the South. In 1957, she was instrumental in the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), becoming its first executive secretary (actually "temporary" executive secretary because she was a woman in an organization of male preachers). She immediately recognized the significance of the sit-in movement and got $800 from King to bring together the student activists to her alma mater, Shaw College, to create SNCC while fending off efforts by SCLC to make us a student arm of that organization.
What she stressed, and what came to define SNCC, was the idea of organizing from the bottom up. "Strong people" she would say, "don't need strong leaders." She encouraged us to think that our work was community organizing.
In 1961, other sit-in students left their campuses to work full-time for SNCC as "field secretaries." Again, we saw challenge in this as much as political commitment. Traveling by bus to Houston in the summer of 1962, I got off in Jackson, Miss.,to introduce myself to the students who were sitting in there. Why? Because Mississippi was identified in my mind—as it was in the minds of many young black men of my generation—with the murder of Emmett Till. I wondered what kind of black people were these Mississippi students who dared confront one of the most brutal and violent regimes in the United States. When I explained that I was just passing through on the way to a civil rights workshop in Texas, Lawrence Guyot,, who would later head the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), looked at me with total disdain, "Texas? For a civil rights workshop? What's the point of that when you're standing right here in Mississippi?" I got the message, felt the challenge, and stayed.
We dug in. Truthfully, until passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, we never got huge numbers of people to even try to register to vote. There was too much violence, too much economic reprisal, too much intimidation, all ignored by the federal government and supported by the local so-called forces of law and order. In Mississippi, when Byron De La Beckwith was found not guilty of the murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, the state's major newspaper had a front-page photograph of De La Beckwith shaking hands with a smiling Gov. Ross Barnett.
Not being run out of Mississippi was a victory in itself. We made our way to strong people who were willing to expose themselves to reprisal in order to fight for change. And our work had greater impact than we realized at first. In 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which we helped organize, decided to challenge the legitimacy and seating of Mississippi's officially recognized Democratic Party at the National Democratic Convention that year. President Lyndon B. Johnson and other national party decision-makers exercised what can only be called raw white power and denied seating to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. This was because of the clout wielded by southern white Democrats—power they owed to their exclusion of blacks from the political process.
We were bitter about it because we thought we had failed. But the party promised changes that would expand the participation of women and minorities. In 1972, these changes were formalized into what are now called the McGovern Rules, outlawing explicitly racist local party affiliates and increasing the number of women and minorities in party leadership roles.
The candidacy of Barack Obama—and Hillary Clinton, for that matter—would not have been possible without the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge that generated the pressure for these new rules. President Obama owes a great debt to this Mississippi challenge of 1964 as well as to the black people in Mississippi and across the South whose blood still soaks the soil.
Civil rights victories—the 1964 Public Accommodations Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act—were a dilemma for us in SNCC. In five years, we learned that the problems of black life in America were greater and deeper than these two pieces of legislation could remedy. "Where do we go from here?" we asked ourselves, and we never really found an answer.
Differences of political opinion that had been relatively unimportant in the heat of struggle loomed larger now. Was willingness to face terror enough to qualify for membership? How strong should central authority be? Is nonviolence still relevant? What about self-defense? How do whites fit in? The MFDP's challenge of the status quo and its refusal to kowtow to liberal Democratic Party pressures, our stance against the war in Vietnam, our support for a Palestinian state, and our use of the slogan "black power" brought the wrath of former allies down on our heads. I think our stances were all legitimate, but they cost us politically.
Complicating all this was the simple fact that we were tired. We stopped organizing, in a sense, losing the best in ourselves. As Bob Moses put it, SNCC was like a boat in the water that had to be repaired to stay afloat, but had to stay afloat in order to be repaired.
Our disintegration will also come up during our gathering in Raleigh, and there are undoubtedly lessons in it for today. Some of us will not have seen each other for years. Still, I think that while "repair" has gone on for decades, most of us are still afloat. And there are lessons in that, too.
Charles Cobb Jr. is senior analyst for All Africa. His latest book is On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail.