During my time at the Freedom Archives, I listened to a collection of reel to reel tapes that featured audio from interviews with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) workers in the South, interviewed by the investigative radio journalist Colin Edwards. In these interviews, the listener is permitted access into the intimate inner workings of SNCC’s Freedom Schools and the political dynamics within the organization as well as relations within Black communities during 1964 in Mississippi.
During these interviews, I listened to firsthand accounts of the battle for Civil Rights and equality that were very personal, detailed and presented a very organic and creative approach to combating the inequalities faced by Blacks living in the South. The majority of the tapes I listened to focus on white college students from elite Northern schools whom volunteered to go South to live, learn and struggle with a number of Black communities during the Summer of 1964.
One of the gentlemen interviewed was Staughton Lynd. During the interview I learned that Lynd had been the former director of the Freedom Schools in the South, as well as his views on the racial dynamics of life in the South and within SNCC. Lynd recalls how some outsiders to Southern society viewed it as partially “un-American in its repression” but also as “a space to create a new kind of America.” This dual outlook between awareness of inequality, yet optimism in possibilities for change, framed much of the consciences of SNCC volunteers.
After listening to firsthand accounts of SNCC volunteer life in a number of rural Black communities and all of the challenges and triumphs, I enjoyed a sense of personal wonderment at their accomplishments as a fellow college student. It was inspiring to listen to their tales of dedication and commitment and that these volunteers used their sense of morality and background of higher education to assist in the development of programs like the Freedom Schools of the South and the Voter Registration Drive.
While I thought the volunteering of White college students from the North was an admirable gesture, I couldn’t help but be slightly weary of the disproportionate amount of young whites that made up the large number of student volunteers, particularly at this time, as well as those individuals I heard interviewed. According to the tapes, within the Freedom Schools those teaching the young African American children were white college graduates who, as volunteer Paul Saltzman noted, had to stay one lesson ahead of the children due to their lack of pre-existing knowledge regarding African American history. This made me wonder what qualified these recent grads to teach African American history other than their desire to uplift local Black populations? Was it simply their background at elite institutions of higher education in the North? Additionally, why did Edwards focus on interviewing the white volunteers instead of focusing on the pre-existing structures of resistance within the African-American communities?
By asking these types of questions I was exposed to another aspect of SNCC’s ideologies and better understand the internal dynamics and contradictions of the organization as a whole.
Many of the SNCC volunteers, the white graduates particularly, noted that the Black Power movement was a great occurrence, and especially necessary for the Civil Rights Movement to move forward. Perhaps these volunteers were aware that their prominent presence within SNCC still facilitated and reinforced the underlying racial hierarchy that SNCC was combating. This dynamic would ultimately play a large role in the further development of SNCC as an organization as Black Power had a huge influence the organizations’ membership and political program by the late 1960s .
As I listened through the interviews of the volunteers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, I began to contemplate, just as Saltzman did, the state of complacency that is facing my generation. What amazes me about SNCC as an organization is that its existence rested not only on the collective desire of its participants to create a more just society, but also on vibrant structures of community resistance present in the American South. It is that power that allowed SNCC to be the great force for change that it was during the Civil Rights movement, and that same power that must be rediscover to reestablish the momentum in the conquest for further equality in our society today.