As a 19-year-old attending Howard University in 1960, Courtland Cox joined with other young civil rights activists in a death-defying effort to empower disenfranchised Black people throughout the Jim Crow South. The organization they started that year was called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), but there was nothing nonviolent about the system of racial segregation, economic oppression and voter suppression that they wanted to dismantle.
Because of poll taxes, bogus literacy tests and the ever-present threat of violent retribution, only 14 percent of eligible Black people were registered to vote in Alabama and just 5 percent in Mississippi. One parish in Louisiana had not registered a Black voter since 1900. Activists who tried to help register Black people were often attacked and sometimes killed by White people intent on maintaining the status quo.
Today, at age 80, Cox can look over the nation’s political landscape and see progress that was virtually unimaginable in his activist days. The country has had a two-term Black president and now has Kamala D. Harris, a Black and Asian woman, as vice president. Raphael G. Warnock (D) was recently elected as the first Black senator from Georgia. Nearly one-third of the nation’s top 100 cities have Black mayors. In 1960, there were none.
But as SNCC veterans prepare for a belated 60th anniversary of the group’s founding — to be held at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in D.C. in June — Cox’s celebratory mood is tempered by a harsh reality: Voting rights are under assault like no time since the post-Reconstruction era following the Civil War.
“What strikes me about the struggle for power at this point is the use of the big lie — that Trump won the election, but it was stolen from him,” said Cox, who is board chair of the SNCC Legacy Project. “So, the question becomes who did the stealing? And they say it occurred in Philadelphia and Detroit and in Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona. Meaning, basically, that the Black community and people of color stole it.”
Ignoring audits, court rulings and electoral college votes to the contrary, Trump loyalists stormed the Capitol in January to “take back” their country. And Republican-controlled legislatures in 26 states have introduced more than a hundred pieces of legislation aimed at restricting the vote.
“Blacks, women, Hispanics, Asians, LBGTQs now have the ability to engage the political system,” Cox said, “and there are people who will not stand for it.”
Such blatant attempts by Republicans to “win by foul if they can’t win fair” should prompt Black people to ramp up their political organizing efforts, begin forming new coalitions and strengthening old ones to prevent the clock of progress from being turned back, he said.
Just as civil rights activists such as Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin and Sterling Brown served as mentors to the young SNCC members, today’s SNCC veterans also offer guidance and advice to younger members of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Cox, who is from New York and now lives in the District, was born in 1941, the same year as Emmett Till. And it was the murder of 14-year-old Till in Money, Miss., in 1955, that spurred Cox into civil rights activism.
For the past seven years or so, Cox has met with those from what he calls the Trayvon Martin generation.
“And I’m saying to them, based on experience, that being in the streets protesting has a limited shelf life,” Cox said. “They are assuming that people in power will hear them and that they are speaking truth to power. I tell them that is a waste of time because the people in power know better than you what they are doing to you and they don’t really care.”
His recommendation? Move beyond the streets, beyond electing mayors of a city to electing governors of states. Build coalitions that hold power in state legislatures. Be the ones who control the state budgets, the National Guard, who determine the quality and price of an education.
“While I want to celebrate Martin Luther King and while I want to celebrate everything we accomplished with SNCC, at the end of the day, there is a different objective reality to deal with,” Cox said. “In my day, we were in protest. Today’s young people are in power and I want to see them use it. We don’t need to be in the streets asking people to be for us. We need to be for ourselves.”
Cox recalled that back in 2016, his talks with young people about the importance of voting was sometimes met with scorn. “They were like, ‘the vote is a waste of time,’ ” Cox said. “But when I talked to them again in 2018 and 2020, they understood. They wanted to vote Trump out because their lives depended on it. And what they need to understand now is that, even though Trump is out of office, their lives still depend on the vote because, at the end of the day, politics is also about economic interests.”
And that, he says, is why the fight over voting rights endures and grows even more fierce.
“This is not just about Trumpism and one lost election,” Cox said. “It’s about the kind of political and economic system we are going to have and who will set the agenda for America.”
He noted, for example, that in the system we have now, it took only a few days and no legislation for the Federal Reserve to use $3 trillion to stabilize capital markets during the covid-19 pandemic. In effect, helping the rich get richer. On the other hand, it took weeks of Congressional “reconciliation” talks and a tight vote to get $1.9 trillion for the “American Rescue Plan,” which was aimed at helping the poor and working people not lose their homes and jobs and keep their children from starving.
Some might argue that the nation has its priorities wrong.
“Look at what happened in Texas,” he said. “They wanted to keep energy low and profits high. Always putting profits over people. And when the energy grid breaks down, the ‘haves’ head for warmer climate like Cancún and leave the ‘have-nots’ to freeze.”
At the upcoming SNCC commemoration — last year’s was canceled because of the pandemic — Cox and other veterans will certainly share memories of the struggle. But they will know as well as anyone that what took years and lives to accomplish can still be lost in a heartbeat. And even after the right to vote has been won and secured, effort must be put into learning to use it wisely.
Cox recalled what the elders used to tell the young SNCC activists, something that is just as valid today: “They’d say, ‘I may not be there to enjoy what we are fighting for, but the struggle must continue.’ ”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.