There is no more dramatic measure of the distance our society has traveled during the past half century than the fact that 50 years ago signing your name could be an act of extraordinary bravery.
In 1960, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded on the campus of Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C, even the most ordinary acts could trigger a rejection, a beating, a jail sentence, or even a violent death-if the actor was an African American daring to break the color line that divided our nation into two zones, one black, one white, separate and decidedly unequal.
Wendell Paris remembers Mrs. Jones, an elderly Alabama woman who had lived under the yoke of segregation so long that when the time came for her to register to vote, "she was so nervous she could not sign her name." Repeatedly, she would affix her signature to the form and then anxiously erase it. Finally, after weeks of indecision, she signed her name and left it there. She, as civil rights activists used to say, finally got a made up mind.
The triumph in Paris's voice as he recounts the story reminds us that the revolution that we call the civil rights movement was made up of thousands of little moments like that. It succeeded because thousands and thousands of downtrodden people like Mrs. Jones finally got a made up mind .
SNCC members were the shock troops of the civil rights movement, putting their bodies on the line to help black folks make up their minds. They, and colleagues from the Congress of Racial Equality, rode the buses in the Freedom Rides, sat in at lunch counters, opened Freedom schools, and encouraged long-disenfranchised people to register and vote in some of the most dangerous corners of the segregated south.
The SNCC veterans who gathered with hundreds of supporters at Shaw this week to celebrate the golden anniversary of the organization's founding have grown gray. Some are stooped. Some use walkers and wheelchair. But for those I walked with, the righteous anger of their youth burns as hot as ever.
Listen to Willie Ricks, now known by the African name Musaka Dada, who, in 1966, etched his name into history by shouting the burning phrase, "black power," on a civil rights march through Mississippi. Ricks, at 67, sounds more militant now than he was then. "Voting is not a solution to our problems," he says. "Freedom only comes through revolution! The capitalistic system is exploiting us now as much as it ever did, with a black mayor, with a black governor, and now with a black president, and we will continue to be exploited until we destroy the capitalistic system completely and liberate Africa completely under a socialistic government."
Few of the SNCC veterans I talked with would use language as colorful as that. Some of them have made peace with the capitalistic system Ricks deplores. At least three have been college presidents. Several others have been recipients of prestigious MacArthur "genius" grants. But all of them would agree with his notion that the movement SNCC belonged to left unfinished business that Obama's election did not resolve.
In a view expressed by many, Ivanhoe Donaldson, now chairman of the board of a national polling organization in Washington, DC, says Obama needs a revived and movement to both pressure and protect him.
"I think that everybody who was in SNCC today still has an interest in social justice.. Many of them are still agitators or activists, engaged in all kinds of things in their community," says Donaldson. " Some of them are still, like Stokely Carmichael used to say, ready for the revolution. If we really want change, we may have to go back into the streets and remind Obama from whence he came. "
Like Mrs. Jones in Wendell Paris's story, these movement veterans still have made-up minds.
Jack White is regular contributor to The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.