Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Book Notes: In Struggle - SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson

"In Struggle" is Clayborne Carson's book, chronicling the rise, achievements, development and disintegration of SNCC (known as "Snick"), the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee. SNCC was a unique member of the cluster of Civil Rights groups which fronted the African-American struggle for justice in the 1960s. Carson's work is meticulously researched drawing on both written and oral records, and his research is presented in passionate and eloquent prose. The story of SNCC itself was explosive and provocative, so it seems appropriate that Carson's scholarship is not dry and detached fact-collection, but embraces the turmoil of those times with academic history which is as compelling to read as a thriller.

The book opens in 1960, by which time the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, with the campaigns against segregation across the American South bringing names, places and events like Rosa Parks, The Montgomery Bus Boycott, The SCLC and Martin Luther King Jr to prominence. The first stage of the movement was dominated by Christian-Gandhian non-violence deployed as a fundamental belief (not merely a tactic), and sought to appeal to the conscience of America to allow full participation in American life of all its citizens. Crucially the movement at this stage was interracial, and drew many Black and White idealistic students to the South to join lunch-counter desegregations, and other protests.

Among the bravest, most committed of these activists were those of SNCC, whose unashamed militancy took them on an inevitable collision course with entrenched white powers structures. While King and the SCLC used protest as a powerful negotiating tool, seeking to draw first Kennedy, then Johnson into enforcing violated federal desegregation laws, the SNCC staff threw themselves into projects like Black voter registration projects in rural Mississippi. SNCC was encouraged into life by SCLC staffers life Ella Baker who insisted from the start that this new younger movement be separate from the older clergy-led organisation. From the start SNCC produced undoubted heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, of whom the most well known is John Lewis. Lewis' work as an activist earned him countless beatings, imprisonments, and troubles, from being amongst the first of Freedom Riders, to being photographed while State Troopers cracked his skull with their nightsticks on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge. (As I write, I have a framed print of that sobering image up in my study).

In Struggle contains a quite breathtaking account of these struggles, and SNCC's unique ability - not just to take huge risks in confronting injustice, but in grass-roots community activism. While other organisations had the ear of politicians, others worked with businesses, and others brought charismatic leadership to the movement, SNCC had a remarkable ability to develop effective programs in some of the most dangerous counties in the South - with an emphasis on individualism, and community-led (not leader-led) organisation. 

Carson reviews the different programmes and struggles which SNCC faced as they sought to educate through Freedom Schools, register Black voters in Mississippi, challenge the Democratic Party in Mississippi and seek economic gains from the freedoms achieved. His book does not present a one-sided glowing account of SNCC, as alongside his obvious admiration for these activists he recognises their struggles and limitations. The Freedom Summer voter registration projects in the deep South are rightly celebrated as major achievements of the African American community for democracy; but the book also examines the tensions within the movement, between the locals and incoming activists, and between Blacks and Whites.

Throughout the book Carson emphasises SNCC's radicalism and unwillingness to compromise on its goals of African-American advancement. It was SNCC's John Lewis who had to be restrained from an overtly militant speech which threatened to de-rail the great March on Washington. The militancy commitment of SNCC's staff often came with a huge personal cost attached too. Many SNCC staff operated in great danger from the authorities, Klansmen, White Citizens Councils, and sometimes all of these in cahoots. They were also barely paid, and so legendary SNCC community organisers such as Charles Sherrod, Bob Moses, or Bob Zellner lived on very little, as they worked.

Having read several histories of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement, such as "Bearing the Cross"; David Garrow's history of King and the SCLC; it was interesting to read something about their more radical critics from within the movement. Repeatedly, interpretations of the same events were handled differently. One example is their relative responses to the Albany Campaign in Georgia in 1961 when SNCC, SCLC and others mounted a massive campaign to desegregate the city - against determined opposition from the City and its police chief Laurie Pritchett. Andrew Young of SCLC, refuses to see Albany as a 'failure' despite its huge hopes and limited gains; saying on the "Eyes on the Prize" DVD series, that what they learned there was critical in future successes such as Selma. Carson on the other hand sees Albany as sounding the death-knell for non-violence as a belief, rather than as a tactic. He charts the way in which young angry Black people saw Albany as not frustrating but enraging; spurring them on into increased militancy which found a growing resonance within SNCC.

It is that rising Black militancy which occupies much of the latter half of In Struggle. Carson describes how SNCC moved out of the South and engaged with Northern ghettoes, and a younger generation of predominantly secular leaders largely displaced the likes of Lewis. The changing attitudes within SNCC start extremely early in Carson's estimation. While the early movement wanted equal participation in multi-racial America, by the end of the decade SNCC was a Black-separatist organisation, hostile to white America, demanding a new version of segregation, having expelled all its white staff. Carson examines why the rising generation took this militant direction, and why such extremism was a logical outcome in the context of ongoing Black poverty and powerlessness which the much heralded gains of the movement, like LBJ's Voting Rights Act, simply did not address. When Lewis was removed and Stokely Carmichael became chair of SNCC, the quiet, determined, Christian-orientated leader still pursuing a version of the 'beloved community' was replaced by a fiery orator whose use of the "Black Power!" slogan electrified his audiences. Later leaders such as H. Rap Brown further upped the militancy of SNCC, as anti-American, anti-Capitalism, Pan-Africanism, ghetto riots and opposition to the Vietnam war came to symbolise the second stage of the movement as The Freedom Rides had the first.

The final part of the book describes SNCC's complete collapse by 1970. Repeated ideological battles, internal feuds, personality cults, loss of white-liberal funding and police harassment, led to the organisation fizzling out as an effective civil rights organisation. Carson's response to this is interesting however. He repeatedly castigates SNCC for losing their great history as grass roots community organisers - in favour of demagogic orators seeking to give voice to what they perceived as an emerging worldwide revolutionary Black consciousness. SNCC died, finally because it lost touch with its grassroots, with its communities and had fired, or lost all its best community workers and programmes. What Carson does not do is to subject the ideological trajectory of SNCC to much critical evaluation, apparently seeing it as an inevitable consequence of the context in which African Americans found themselves in, and the multiple-failures of liberalism to deliver jobs, housing, healthcare, and the profound psychological need for Black-Power, by people who had been repressed by White Power all their lives. He doesn't explore why SNCC took to Black Nationalism as a response to these pressures, when not all African Americans did. Furthermore, he does not ever suggest that even the most extreme of these ideological emphases actually damaged SNCC as a viable entity. My personal view is that at its best SNCC embodied the finest and most courageous traditions of the pursuit of democracy and human dignity of the last century. But the tragedy of the end of SNCC is not just an organisational one - but also an ideological one. One of the few forces which can subvert the moral quest to better the lives of the least in society is nationalism, and separatism, which merely accepts what divides us an inevitable thing, to be first tolerated and then celebrated. 

Finally, the concluding part of the book summarizes the work of SNCC, and looks at the ongoing legacy of the organisation and its contribution to African American history of which it is undeniably a major factor. In Struggle is a brilliant history book, carefully and vividly exploring an essential element of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s which is so often overlooked by the mainstream media. Carson writes with great insight and sympathy with his subjects. It is stimulating, highly revealing, brilliantly educational and very readable. In short, this is what historical writing is supposed to be like.

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