Acts of Righteous Disobedience

By Peniel E. Joseph,
who teaches Africana Studies at Stony Brook University and is the author of "Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America"
Thursday, May 31, 2007


SNCC's Dream for a New America

By Wesley C. Hogan

Univ. of North Carolina. 463 pp. $34.95

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick") evokes no special meaning for most Americans today. That is unfortunate. As Wesley C. Hogan's impressive "Many Minds, One Heart" reminds us, SNCC engaged in the tedious work that gave meaning to the better-known clashes, marches and civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Mentored by veteran organizer Ella Baker and nonviolence guru James Lawson, SNCC workers such as Diane Nash, Charles Sherrod and Bob Moses became part of an early group of activists who imagined the impossible: equal rights for black Americans in some of the most racially repressive parts of the South.

At first, SNCC activists did this through a combination of daring and brio that included confronting Nashville's mayor about the immorality of segregation and rescuing the Congress of Racial Equality's stalled Freedom Rides, which featured groups of interracial volunteers traveling by bus across the South to protest racial segregation in interstate travel. SNCC projects in rural Mississippi and semirural Georgia forged the sketchy outlines for what became a new type of community organizing. Burrowing into the backwoods of plantation counties armed with voting registration literature, SNCC workers were inspired by the dignity and courage of sharecroppers, strengthened by networks of community activism and brutalized by systematic acts of white terror.

For Hogan, who teaches history at Virginia State University, the core of SNCC's approach, which sought to allow blacks and whites to participate in a shared civic life of voting, discussion and even disagreement, can be found in the nonviolence workshops directed by Lawson in 1959. Intense, philosophical and practical, the workshops buoyed participants such as Nash, Lewis and James Bevel, who composed a wing of SNCC that held on to nonviolence as a forceful repudiation of Jim Crow. Stokely Carmichael, a Howard University student, Freedom Rider and Black Power icon, represented another cadre, one that viewed nonviolence as an effective tactic in the service of democracy.

Inspired by the courage and determination of poor blacks, black and white activists were transformed by their time in the South. The model of democratic citizenship exemplified by SNCC served as a blueprint for the New Left, especially Students for a Democratic Society. An early group of SDS activists, most notably Casey Hayden (who in Hogan's telling schooled her less experienced husband, Tom), attempted to take SNCC north by organizing in urban ghettos and helped galvanize the New Left's approach to race, democracy and citizenship. By 1964, that journey took on new dimensions with SNCC's Freedom Summer project in Mississippi, political brinksmanship at the Democratic convention in Atlantic City and soul-searching at a staff retreat in Waveland, Miss.

"Many Minds, One Heart" does a fine job of analyzing how SNCC combated racism in some of the worst parts of the nation and, for a brief moment at least, allowed sharecroppers, students and other ordinary folk -- both black and white -- to believe that a deeper, richer, more democratic culture was possible in America. While offering eye-opening analysis of SNCC's heroic years (1960-64), Hogan sticks close to the conventional script regarding the group's demise. SNCC's "loss of democratic patience" is traced back to unnamed ideologues and rabble-rousers who sound suspiciously like Black Power militants. This attribution is surprising in light of the spate of new scholarship on the Black Power era, as well as Hogan's sincere, painstaking and refreshing efforts to question received wisdom elsewhere.

Ultimately, in my view, SNCC and the larger civil rights movement were beset by political and personal crises that made them painfully aware of the limits of defiantly imagining a world free of racism. In short order, SNCC's rich culture of political activism frayed as a result of political infighting, personal fatigue and the failure of the federal government and society as a whole to embrace SNCC's eloquent lessons about race and citizenship.

Historians generally have failed to explain the nuances of a story whose legacy should continue to resonate into the present. "Journalists, academics, and politicians recorded the civil rights movement for posterity," Hogan writes. "Repeatedly, almost all of them got it wrong. They got it wrong because they had not experienced a transforming moment when they discovered that their prior understanding of race in America had been fundamentally [skewed] by white supremacy. They also got it wrong because scholars and politicians belong to the very part of society the movement was trying to change, a society replete with hierarchy and unearned condescension." "Many Minds, One Heart" offers a poignant, detailed examination of how SNCC's efforts in the South gave Americans the chance to see ordinary citizens transforming their communities on an unprecedented scale.

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