Presentation at SNCC’s 50th Anniversary Celebration
On April 14, I traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina, to attend the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. On Friday morning, April 16, I participated in a session on “The Impact and Influence of SNCC on American Society 1960 to 1968″ with Charles Payne, Taylor Branch, and Tom Hayden (Barbara Ransby was supposed to participate but didn’t make it). Vincent Harding chaired the session and asked each participant to start by mentioning their name, where they grew up, and how they first encountered SNCC. I decided that this would give me an opportunity to use autobiography as a way of illustrating my theme. Although I talked, as I usually do, without notes, here is what I wanted to squeeze into the ten minutes allotted to me:
I am Clayborne Carson, Jr. My father, Clayborne Carson, Sr., was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Just after World War I, Dad migrated with his parents to Detroit where his father, Eddie Carson, got a job in the automobile industry. Grandfather Carson spent most of his adult life working at Ford Motor Company, where Dad also worked until he was drafted soon after the start of World War II. Dad was then accepted for officer training and went to Alabama, where he met a young woman from rural Florida who soon became my mother. After serving in Europe, Dad accepted an offer to become a security inspector at the nuclear research laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Mom and two of my siblings joined him there as soon as the government constructed our three bedroom home in the isolated mountain town. Although my parents probably would not have preferred living in a place with almost no other black people, they were convinced that a modern, government-owned town built around a research laboratory would offer their children opportunities they didn’t have.
I was sometimes unappreciative of their sacrifice and by my teenage years desperately wanted to leave the town where I grew up. This is one of the reasons I decided, after finishing my first year at the University of New Mexico, to attend the March on Washington in August 1963. I didn’t tell my parents, because I expected they would not want me to get involved in anything that might interfere with my becoming the first person in my family to graduate from college. The march happened a few days after my first encounter with a SNCC person. At a National Student Association meeting in Indiana, I met Stokely Carmichael, an articulate philosophy major at Howard University, who was representing SNCC at the conference. I eagerly joined his effort to gain the NSA’s support for SNCC and naïvely expected that Stokely would be impressed by my decision to attend the march. I was deflated when he asked why I wanted to attend a picnic in Washington rather than join one of SNCC’s projects in the Deep South. I still chose to attend the picnic, but my encounter with Stokely affected my view of the march and everything that followed. Seeing an energetic group from Mississippi singing songs other than “We Shall Overcome” and listening to SNCC chair John Lewis’s provocative speech were unforgettable highlights of the most exciting day of my young life.
I would continue to be affected by SNCC people such as Stokely and Bob Moses, who I met later in 1963 at a conference in New Orleans. If not for SNCC’s influence and the social transformation SNCC spearheaded, I would not have become a historian or a professor at a place like Stanford. These were unimaginable ambitions then, like wanting to live on Mars, because in 1963 Stanford and institutions like it did not have black professors or courses in African-American history. But, because of SNCC, my life evolved in unexpected ways. I became an historian of SNCC and then, very unexpectedly, was asked in 1985 by Coretta Scott King to edit the papers of her late husband.
Although many people see King and SNCC as quite different in most respects, after spending most of my adult life studying both King and SNCC, I have come to see them as moving along different routes toward similar conclusions. King, like SNCC’s organizers, did not see the passage of civil rights legislation as the end of his struggle. King and most SNCC workers did not retire from the struggle after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act but instead increased the intensity and radicalism of their efforts. They insisted that it was necessary to look beyond the limited civil rights gains of the 1960s to the global freedom of those that King called the barefoot and shirtless people who were fighting against colonialism as well as systematic racial oppression.
Their radical vision of a global struggle of the oppressed majority of humanity reminds us that most of us are no more than a few generations removed from those peasants struggling not only to survive but to achieve better lives for their children and grandchildren. At the beginning of the twentieth century, most human beings were still peasants – poorly educated, landless laborers without the basic rights of citizenship. Only about fifteen percent of humanity could vote and participate in the political life of the country where they happened to live. A small minority of these peasants would join revolutionary movements to overcome colonialism and systematic racial subordination, but more often they sought greater freedom and opportunity by migrating as to urban areas or by leaving the South.
The long struggle of peasants and their still struggling urbanized descendants to improve their lives and become citizens is history’s greatest freedom struggle, because this struggle affected the majority of humanity. The historical significance King as well as SNCC is that they understood this global dimension of the African-American freedom struggle and sought to remind those of us who are a few generations removed from peasant that we have a responsibility to use our skills and resources to assist those who are poor, poorly educated, and political powerless. SNCC workers did not initiate the southern freedom struggle, but its projects in the deep South enabled skilled and dedicated young organizers to connect with the courageous grassroots leaders who were already there.
Together, they propelled history’s greatest freedom struggle to the decisive victories that were achieved during the lifetimes of many of us at this conference. We should celebrate a struggle that, within a single generation, overcame colonialism, the American Jim Crow system, and the South African apartheid regime. When my students asked me about these systems of oppression, I note that they left behind a terrible legacy but that today they have largely been relegated to the history books. Because of the heroic generation who spearheaded the climatic battles of history’s greatest freedom struggle, my students will never have to witness the horrific terrorism and dehumanization that once damaged the lives of most of humanity.
I can image that my grandparents who escaped from peasantry would be amazed by the victories of the past century and pleased that their descendants have done so well. I wonder whether, in their most hopeful moments, they would have been so audacious or have had sufficient religious faith to have imagined that their great-grandson would someday participate in a movement to destroy the system of white supremacy that oppressed them or that their grandson would someday incorporate the story of escaped peasants into the narrative of American history or that her great-grandson would witness the inauguration of an African-American president of the United States?
King’s valiant life and SNCC’s courageous challenge to white supremacy in the deep South remind us of what we owe to the ongoing liberation struggles of the world’s peasants and urbanized peasants.