Solidarity May 03, 2021

A conversation with former SNCC organizer Charles Cobb Jr.

Akwe Amosu

This interview with Charles Cobb Jr. focuses on the role of white solidarity with black activism in the US civil rights movement in the early 1960s.  Cobb was a young organizer in Mississippi when the suggestion was made to invite up to one thousand young people, largely white, to come south and volunteer to support black communities over the summer of 1963. He reflects on his and other organisers reactions to this proposal; how they came eventually to support it; and how it worked out in practice. He ends with comments on the movement for black lives in 2020.

Akwe: AmosuLooking back to the 1960s, when you were a SNCC [1] organizer in Mississippi, what do you recall about solidarity at that time from white Americans?

Charles Cobb Jr: Well, I can tell you, the bulk of the country, meaning the bulk of white people in the United States in 1960 were opposed to the sit-ins[2], meaning mostly white people were opposed to the freedom rides. John Kennedy hated the sit-ins. He thought they got in the way of his conflict with the Soviet Union, undermining America’s stature in the world. This begins to change as young people get involved. And I consider, there was a kind of sympathetic resonance on college campuses and high schools attended predominantly by white people, toward the sit-ins and the freedom rides and the civil rights struggle that kind of culminates with the 1964 Mississippi freedom summer. And it’s still largely created by college students. We – meaning SNCC – felt betrayed by the Democratic Party in 1964. They had sold us out and that resonated among white young people and this began to have an impact on the culture itself of the United States. So when you see all this diversity in protest, sympathetic to the movement for black lives, it’s one of the results of this cultural change that began unfolding in the middle sixties because of the Southern civil rights struggle. So in some ways the culture itself began to change. And that’s what frightens people like Donald Trump and all the people around him. That you can’t get away with articulations of white supremacy very easily any more in this country. There’s still a long way to go. Police still feel comfortable shooting young black men, and there’s a lot of distance to travel, but I argue all the time that what began unfolding in this country because of the Southern struggle is a massive cultural change with regard to race.

AA: So when you look back, did you want white allies there with you on the ground?

CC: We were ambivalent about this. For instance, if you take the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project[3], which brought upwards of a thousand young white students to Mississippi to organize around voting rights, freedom schools and things – I was opposed to it, argued against it. A lot of us organizers – well there weren’t that many of us, there were only 23 of us in the whole state – but most of us were opposed to it.

AA: Why? What was your argument?

CC: The argument was, look: part of what we were trying to do is show and persuade people that they could take control of their lives. And if you brought all these white people into the state, it just becomes another example of white people reaching down to uplift the downtrodden Negro. So if you needed a leaflet, it might take some high school student all afternoon to type out a simple leaflet calling for a mass meeting that evening. Whereas it would take, say a college student from oh, say, Stanford, half an hour to bang out the same leaflet.  There was greater value in what the high school student had done and what the Stanford student had done because the high school student now saw that he or she could make a concrete contribution to the movement. They could hold up that leaflet with some pride and say, “I did this.”  That’s what you wanted to encourage in communities where people were taught – and had been taught for a hundred years –  that they’re unable to do anything, they don’t have the intelligence. They don’t have the ability.  And there were other reasons that we were opposed –  who wants to travel from one side to the other with a car-load of white people! It just makes you a target, as a practical consideration. So we had these arguments, but what was interesting in these arguments, every single local person we worked with was in favor of this project and bringing these people down there. Mrs Hamer[4] backed me into a corner and said, “well, I’m glad you came here, Charlie, what’s your problem with other people coming here?”  Now, what am I going to say to that?

So it’s a funny kind of dynamic here because, you know, we accepted it.  Those of us who were opposed to the Project worked with it, accepted it, because you can’t say to people, “we think you have a right to make the decisions that affect your lives,” and then turn around and say, “but I don’t like your decisions so I’m not going to work with you.”

AA:  And why were they so open to having white people coming and working with them?

CC: Because everything in their life told them, rightly, that exposure was beneficial. If you expose the life they live, the oppression or whatever, the poverty, that was a good thing. And it was. The more attention they got, they felt, the better things could be.  It was a simple reasoning, simple rationale, and inarguable.

AA: And in practice, how did it work out?

CC: I think about it a lot and I get asked about it a lot. You know I proposed the Freedom Schools[5] and the reason I proposed them, was education. If you’re going to organize in a community, you have to find a consensus that you can work with that will commit people to what you’re trying to do. Voter registration was one kind of thing that there existed a consensus about; another thing there was a consensus about was education. It didn’t take long to see how bad for black people, the schools in Mississippi or Alabama, or Georgia were; they were designed to keep black people ignorant and unskilled. But with all these students coming down from some of the finest colleges and universities in the country, it seemed to me that a way to begin tackling education as it affected black people in the state of Mississippi was through these students.  So I wrote a proposal that we have the Freedom Schools, and we use the students to begin to do two things; one – engage in remedial education, reading, writing, and arithmetic; but we could also use the schools to give young people a sense that there was a larger world and a larger range of possibilities than what the white people who control the schools in Mississippi were saying. And you could teach them black history. You could teach them about black people they had never heard of, and you could teach them about Africa – that it was more than Tarzan.

AA: So the things that you were worried about – disempowerment of the local black community, because of these skilled white young people coming in and taking the task away from them – did that happen?

CC: It didn’t really happen. And partly it was because we also kept a tight leash on these students – monitoring what the interactions were like. But no, we were wrong, in other words.

AA: How was this viewed in other parts of SNCC? I’ve heard that not everyone took the same view of this question.

CC:  Well no, I mean the organization was divided, in Mississippi too. What tipped the scales was that Bob Moses[6], the project director of SNCC in Mississippi really wanted it;  and what tipped the scales for him was the murder of a man, Louis Allen[7], who had witnessed the murder of another man, a farmer who was a strong support of SNCC. And Bob, I think just said, “enough, we’ve got to get the country to pay attention to Mississippi and I’ll bring these students – I want these students here because I know, if we bring the children of America to Mississippi, the country will pay attention.” And he was right on that. And our attitude – those of us who opposed this project – was, well, if Bob wants it this badly, let’s help him. That’s how political decisions are really made! Once we decided to work on it and with it, that’s what we did and thus the freedom schools, and thus the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union[8], and thus the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party[9] and the Poor People’s Corporation[10] and any number of other developments within the context of the work that summer.

AA: So you could say that this instance of white solidarity with black struggle in Mississippi was a solid success.

CC: SNCC had support from whites. Our ambivalence about the Summer Project was the number of whites – we were talking about a thousand whites, and I think 900-and-some predominantly white students came to Mississippi that summer. We were worried about being overwhelmed by white people. We were not opposed [on the grounds of race per se], and here I think history unfortunately has racialized the opposition from those of us who disagreed with the idea of the Summer Project. We were wrong. I mean, some of the relationships that developed among these students who came down to Mississippi still continue today; letters are exchanged. I’ve met students who remember me, as, quote, the founder of the Freedom Schools in Mississippi, now in their sixties. You know, but were teenagers back in the day.

AA: So now as you look at the era we’re in today and this major remobilization of young white people around the issue of race, what are your reflections?

CC: I haven’t quite yet determined what to think.  I like the fact that there is noticeable diversity in these protests. I’m not sure what that might mean if you’re talking about organizing at the grassroots in black communities.  It’s the same question I had way back in ‘93, when we were debating the Mississippi Summer Project.  Remember; to say “black lives matter” is to say two things. One, you’re protesting police violence and other acts of racism; but it’s also, it seems to me, to say we have to make life inside black community matter. That’s the organizing question. And the young activists haven’t quite figured that out yet.   Before COVID 19, this past June 2020, we were planning to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of SNCC and we had to cancel it because it just was not possible to congregate in this fashion. We’ve now scheduled it for June 2021 and that’s to be not simply our remembrance of the events surrounding the formation, but it’s also to be very consciously an intergenerational gathering where yesterday’s activists can talk to today’s activists about the possibilities for the future and how you organize in black and brown communities. So we’ll see what comes of that.

 

In the Coda of Episode 3 of the Strength and Solidarity podcast, Charles Cobb Jr shares more about his time as an organizer with SNCC, and the history of a song that they found motivating.   

 

[1] SNCC – Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee

[2] https://snccdigital.org/events/sit-ins-greensboro/

[3] https://snccdigital.org/events/sncc-debates-freedom-summer/
[4] Fanny Lou Hamer: https://snccdigital.org/people/fannie-lou-hamer/
[5] https://snccdigital.org/inside-sncc/culture-education/freedom-schools/
[6] Bob Moses: https://snccdigital.org/people/bob-moses/
[7] https://snccdigital.org/events/louis-allen-murdered/
[8] https://snccdigital.org/events/mississippi-freedom-labor-union-founded/
[9] https://snccdigital.org/events/building-the-mfdp/
[10] https://snccdigital.org/events/poor-peoples-corporation-organized/