We’ve Been Here Before: Learning From the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
We need to stick to a radical, principled, intersectional, anti-imperialist political orientation that trusts in the power of the people to make history.
“SNCC built a people-centered, radically democratic organization that put those most affected at the center, especially youth and students.”
"My great fear is that we are all suffering from amnesia. I wrote to recover the memory of the human rainbow, which is in danger of being mutilated…It’s not a person. It's a system of power that is always deciding in the name of humanity who deserves to be remembered and who deserves to be forgotten…We are much more than we are told. We are much more beautiful."-- Eduardo Galeano,Uruguayan journalist, writer and novelist
Amnesia 2019. Both about the times we are living in, as if they have never happened before, and about the people’s resistance that has endlessly risen up defiantly in the face of all forms of abuse and oppression. Obviously, every time is unique but what we are witnessing today is certainly not some aberration from how this settler-colony has functioned in the past. Politicians holding fascist rallies. Defiance of the law. Inflammatory, hateful rhetoric. White terrorist attacks. Discovery that law enforcement is full of members of white supremacist groups. All these describe the South under decades of segregation, too. What is Trump doing that is any different from George Wallace or any other Southern governor during that time? Demagogic appeals that incite violence and crank up a reactionary base? Nothing new.
In a similar way, we must not forget the lessons from those who courageously built the movement to eventually overthrow the racist Southern apartheid system. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was the leading, left, radical organization working in the South during this time. Inspired by Ella Baker’s wisdom, SNCC built a people-centered, radically democratic organization that put those most affected at the center, especially youth and students. In the current time of the dominance of the non-profit industrial complex, let us remember the words of SNCC member Prathia Hall,one of the first women SNCC field secretaries in southwest Georgia, who said “there’s a direct relationship between the fact that we don’t have any money and the fact that we are doing something real.”
“What is Trump doing that is any different from George Wallace?”
In a time when so many are fixated on the role individual personalities and candidates can play in making history, let us remember the work of SNCC that centered the power of ordinary people to create radical transformation. At a time when we are being told by many on the left that voting is the main avenue to change, let us remember how SNCC organized those who had not yet won that right into a Black Freedom Movement so powerful that it gave birth to other social movements in this country as its influence rippled across the globe.
Let us remember how SNCC challenged the whites-only state Democratic Party in Mississippi and became the catalyst for the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), an independent, county-based, political organization. Let us remember that SNCC and the MFDP not only challenged the racism of the Democratic Party at the state level but also took its delegation to the 1964 Party convention in Atlantic City and exposed the enabling, corrupt white supremacist leadership of the party institution as a whole. Let us never forget Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper from Sunflower County, Mississippi, whose truth-telling about her personal experiences with racist state violence and systematic disenfranchisement of Black voters at a credentials committee meeting upset the leader of the Party, President Lyndon Johnson, so much that he had to call an emergency press conference just as her speech was going to be aired on national network television. Denied their rightful place, let us also remember how the MFDP delegation stood firm and rejected the “two seat” compromise being forced on them by the authoritarian, patriarchal Party leadership.
“SNCC was unapologetically anti-imperialist.”
In these days of endless wars and bi-partisan support for bloated military budgets, let us remember that SNCC was unapologetically anti-imperialist and expressed its support for anti-colonial struggles in Africa.They opposed this same President Lyndon Johnson and declared in early 1966 that “the United States is pursuing an aggressive policy in violation of international law’ and called for withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. Preceding by decades the solidarity expressed in 2014’s #PALESTINE2FERGUSON, SNCC published a newsletter article in the summer of 1967 that connected U.S. imperialism with Israeli military action. Let us remember the principled position SNCC took when it asked its readers if they were aware “That the U.S. Government has constantly supported Israel and Zionism by sending military and financial aid to this illegal state ever since it was forced upon the Arabs in 1948?” Knowing how the nonprofit structure often dictates what work it deems appropriate and what it does not, let us remember that SNCC’s principled position led to significant loss of donor support and undercut its ability to raise money.
There is no denying we live in perilous times but they are not unique. We need to stick to a radical, principled, intersectional, anti-imperialist political orientation that trusts in the power of the people to make history. We need to heed SNCC organizer Bob Moses’ instruction working in a climate of white terrorism in Mississippi. “I used to think, Pick one foot up and step forward, put it down and pick the next one up,” he said. “You get down to that level of reality if you’re doing canvassing in these dangerous areas. What you learn is the importance of a daily routine carrying you through, and in the midst of routine, you can dissipate a lot of fears.” Unafraid and supported by those fierce ancestors who have come before us, we keep walking.
Paul McLennan is retired union member, part-time low wage worker, people-centered human rights organizer, and supporter of Black Alliance for Peace who lives in Atlanta.
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