Setting the standard for 
racial justice organizing

"This is our Freedom Summer!” declared protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement. That activists today see themselves as carrying on the tradition of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—the organization of young, fearless activists that became a leading voice of the civil rights movement—is testament to the fact that SNCC remains the standard by which any generation measures its commitment to fighting for racial justice. Preeminent writer Howard Zinn’s book provides virtual play-by-play of SNCC workers in action, enough to make SNCC: The New Abolitionists indispensable reading for today’s activists. The subtitle, “The New Abolitionists,” refers to the mass grassroots movement that helped pave the way for the abolition of slavery, showing that, like activists today, SNCC saw itself in a long tradition of fighters for racial justice, determined to bring the system of Jim Crow crashing down. As with all of Zinn’s work, The New Abolitionists restores the role of ordinary people in changing the world to its rightful place—at the forefront. 

Published in 1964 just before SNCC launched its Freedom Summer initiative to register Black voters in the South, The New Abolitionists is more than an account by a contemporary of the civil rights movement; Zinn was intimately familiar with the organization’s activities and personally knew many of SNCC’s leading members (some of whom were his former students). From the outset, Zinn notes that his intention is not to write a comprehensive history of SNCC but “to catch a glimpse of SNCC people in action, and to suggest the quality of their contribution to American civilization.” To this end, several of the book’s descriptions of SNCC’s campaigns are given firsthand: in one anecdote, Zinn (who is white) joined SNCC members in desegregating a Mississippi courtroom at the trial of SNCC leader Bob Moses. These qualities distinguish The New Abolitionists as a fascinating read not separate from, but deeply engaged in, the activism of the moment, charting in real time SNCC’s development as a key player in the civil rights movement. 

The first chapters of the book trace the birth of SNCC in 1960, from its rise out of the sit-ins and freedom rides through its shift to organizing in the Deep South, including its campaigns in Mississippi, southwest Georgia, and Alabama. In examining the context that produced SNCC, Zinn notes that the direct-action tactics of the sit-ins brought tens of thousands of mostly young Black people into political activity and won concrete victories that legal work alone had failed to secure, marking an advance over earlier efforts confined to winning piecemeal legal reforms: “What had been an orderly, inch-by-inch advance via legal processes now became a revolution in which unarmed regiments marched from one objective to another with bewildering speed.” Beginning with sixteen southern-based members and just 150 members by 1964, SNCC nevertheless became a pivotal force in shaping the newfound efforts by young people to end Jim Crow. SNCC was an organization of committed activists who, according to Zinn, represented nothing less than “the front line of the Negro assault on the moral comfort of white America.” 

It would be easy to charge Zinn with romanticizing SNCC were it not for his descriptions of its numerous and undeniably impressive activities, which courted the threat of jail, violence, and even death in the regions where the institutions and ideology of southern racism appeared most intractable. In this period, according to Zinn, three-quarters of SNCC staff were between the ages of fifteen and twenty-two. Contrary to accusations of being “outside agitators,” about 80 percent of SNCC workers were Black, and a majority of them (including some of SNCC’s first white members) were born in the South to poor or working-class families, with just a few years of college under their belts. A typical SNCC activist’s profile details the year in which they abandoned school to work full-time for the movement; the number of times they were arrested; and a statement like that of Lawrence Guyot: “I think we need to change every institution we know. . . . I’m not satisfied with any condition that I’m aware of in America.” Many of the regions in which SNCC worked were characterized by enormous inequality, with both Blacks and poor whites living alongside a wealthy white minority. Yet it was Blacks who were overwhelmingly barred from the ballot box, excluded by poll taxes and literacy tests and, if that did not work, “by force.” Working for sporadic and meager pay and living in conditions that approximated the abysmal poverty endured by the vast majority of southern Blacks, SNCC sought to integrate itself into previously isolated communities and galvanize them to demand their rights.

Beyond Zinn’s description of SNCC’s practice of refusing bail upon arrest; organizing pickets of courthouses that declined to admit (much less register) Black voters; and conducting an integrated freedom march to complete the route of a murdered white civil rights worker, all under threat of reprisal from not only white segregationists, but the state as well, Zinn also captures SNCC’s culture of brave defiance. Some of the book’s most powerful passages include Zinn’s interviews with SNCC workers and excerpts from their letters that show a truly remarkable level of commitment, camaraderie, humor, and determination in the face of the harshest repression. SNCC members speak of their work to turn their jailhouses into activist schools, singing freedom songs in prison, and confounding the efforts of their jailers to subdue them. In one instance, Zinn recounts the trial of Bob Moses who, when asked by the prosecuting attorney, “Where would this democracy be if everybody obeyed officers like you did?” responded, “I think that it would be in very good shape.” Through the courage and actions of its members, SNCC’s goal was to push the federal government to “show the political courage in Washington that Negroes and their white supporters are showing in the Deep South and repudiate the 1877 compromise for all time.”* Therefore, Zinn argues, SNCC’s actions constituted the most significant campaign for political rights and racial equality in the South since Reconstruction. 

Towards the end of the book, Zinn provides an assessment of the debates and challenges that confronted SNCC and suggests the broader potential this opened to challenge not only racism, but inequality in all its forms. Many of these debates were not specific to SNCC and should resonate as well with activists today, including the role of whites in the movement, the question of nonviolence, the role of the state, and whether it is possible to end racism without taking on capitalism. In the chapter “The White Man in the Movement,” Zinn details some of the internal debates that foreshadowed SNCC’s later shift toward Black nationalism, such as whether white participation would undermine Black leadership or be perceived negatively by southern Blacks, and whether whites should stick to working in white southern communities. Nevertheless, Zinn argues that the significance of launching an interracial, antiracist organization in the South lies in its impact on the consciousness of Blacks and whites alike, both within and outside of the movement: by witnessing Black and white SNCC workers joining with local Black activists, living together, protesting together, facing the violence of police and white mobs together, and going to jail together in the name of racial equality, “The point was made vividly to Negroes that compassion as much as cruelty crossed race lines. And the point was made to Southern whites that, try as they might to obliterate the image, someone like them, someone with white skin and from the South, had a different view of the way people should live together on earth.” Thus, SNCC members showed by example, through both the willingness of Blacks to stand up for their rights and through whites also putting their own bodies on the line, the possibility of a different kind of society. As Fannie Lou Hamer asserted in a response to these debates, “If we’re trying to break down this barrier of segregation, we can’t segregate ourselves.”

Another important issue the book illustrates is the extent to which not only the violence of white segregationists, but the failure of the federal government to intervene on behalf of Blacks’ civil rights, posed a barrier to SNCC’s progress and raised new questions about what it would take to break the hold of Jim Crow in the South. Again and again, Zinn documents the memos of SNCC activists to the Justice Department pleading for federal protection of freedom riders and of Blacks attempting to register to vote, to no avail: southern police officers sanctioned for colluding in the brutal beating of civil rights protesters and arresting them on trumped-up charges, often in full view of the few FBI agents the Department of Justice bothered to send down, without repercussion. Southern judges convicted activists for simply protesting and awarded them excessive bail, yet the federal government found every excuse not to intervene. In fact, Zinn devotes an entire chapter to putting local authorities’ civil rights violations in the context of federal law, demonstrating the many ways the federal government could go about enforcing those rights if it chose to; he offers an indictment of the Kennedy administration that would be rare even today, depicting how both his and the Johnson administration initially abdicated the responsibility of the federal government to protect citizens’ rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. In this way, Zinn indicts not only the South, but the entire US government for its failure to enforce civil rights legislation or protect Blacks from the violation of even their most basic rights. Written before the murders of SNCC activists Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney at the start of SNCC’s Freedom Summer campaign, his assessment that continued government inaction would result in greater violence was tragically prophetic. In this way, the book shows how the inaction of the federal government, along with the harsher repression activists confronted in the South, ultimately pushed SNCC to more radical conclusions about the limitations of nonviolent direct action, the interests of the government in upholding white supremacy, and a less nuanced position in favor of the right of Blacks to self-defense. As Zinn notes, “Malcolm X’s exhortation to Negroes to arm themselves and shoot back when attacked is hard to counter in the light of the murder of Medgar Evers, the bombing in Birmingham, the endless instances of brutality by police.”

In evaluating the overall significance of SNCC, Zinn concludes that, while it had not yet won significant material victories, its greatest achievement was “to move into long-dormant areas of the Deep South, to arouse Negroes there from quiescence to revolt, and, in so doing, to disturb the conscience of the entire nation.” Far from seeing themselves as heroes come to liberate the South, SNCC sought to galvanize southern Blacks to act toward their own liberation. Zinn notes that these efforts helped lay the groundwork for indispensable local leaders, such as Fannie Lou Hamer, to emerge from among the most disenfranchised regions of the South and become some of the movement’s most dedicated fighters. Thus, the book makes clear the impact of SNCC’s actions on ordinary people, especially Black people, across the country in raising their sense of possibility and their capacity to fight for a just world. 

Beyond a brief meditation on SNCC’s tendency to rush into actions, its lack of long-term strategy, and the disorganization of its main offices, Zinn is never overtly critical of SNCC’s politics, and only indirectly interrogates their faith in the US Constitution and the limitations of appealing to the government on a moral basis. He also venerates SNCC’s use of direct-action tactics as superior and opposed to political organization, arguing that the latter can never be truly representative, no matter what political system is in place, because political leaders “develop interests of their own the moment they step out of their constituency into office.” (There is a case to be made that it was precisely this lack of political organization in the interest of Blacks and those fighting for their rights that contributed to the eventual dispersal of the movements’ more radical elements and allowed for its cooptation into the Democratic Party.) Nevertheless, Zinn recognizes the greater potential of the civil rights movement to expose broader issues within American society, and that this potential produced anxiety within the political establishment and amongst more liberal observers over how far the struggle would go. As he notes in the book’s final chapter: “The Negro in the Deep South, battling for the right to vote and looking North, where his people can vote, and are still poor, begins to wonder: can we end the Negro’s poverty without some radical overhaul of the economy—without ending poverty for everyone?” For this reason, Zinn argues that the future relevance of SNCC was dependent on whether it could respond to some of these broader questions beyond race, and speculates that the inability to solve them within the existing system might push elements of the civil rights movement to argue for a planned economy “on the basis of public need rather than private profit.” Thus, Zinn accurately predicts that the struggle would raise questions about not only the South but also about the whole of American society, leading many members of SNCC to advocate more fundamental change to the existing social and economic structure as necessary to uprooting racism.

SNCC: The New Abolitionists offers an important assessment of the new ideological openings and the sense of possibility that the civil rights struggle opened to confront not just the system of Jim Crow but inequality in all its forms, and illustrates the role of SNCC in laying the groundwork for the next phase of the struggle. This forward-looking view is encapsulated by the words of Ella Baker, who Zinn quotes speaking at a SNCC meeting in Hattiesburg, Mississippi —words that speak equally to the struggle for racial justice today: “Even if segregation is gone, we will still need to be free; we will still have to see that everyone has a job. Even if we all vote, but if people are still hungry, we will not be free. . . . Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind.”

*    The Compromise of 1877 was a pact between Northern and Southern elites that rolled back political gains of Blacks during Reconstruction in exchange for Republican political rule. This allowed the southern ruling class to reinstitute a regime of racist tyranny, maintained through both Jim Crow laws and extralegal violence.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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