December 1961

SNCC leaves McComb

With most of SNCC’s staff in jail because of high school student protests, and local adults angry over the protests, what had seemed like a promising start to SNCC’s first voter registration effort had ground to halt. Herbert Lee’s murder in broad daylight in late-September made it unmistakably clear how much local people were risking when they went down to the courthouse to try and register. After that, SNCC organizers found few who were still willing to make the attempt.

SNCC lost the support of many McComb adults when their sons and daughters were arrested after walking out of Burglund High School. Local NAACP leaders had wholeheartedly supported voter registration work, but they felt betrayed when local youth gravitated towards direct action. They felt double-crossed by SNCC. “They deceived me, using the children was not my thing,” local supporter Nathaniel Lewis explained, “I cut loose from Robert Moses.”

Bob Moses, Chuck McDew, Curtis Hayes, and other young McComb activists on trial in 1961, crmvet.org

Bob Moses, Chuck McDew, Curtis Hayes, and other young McComb activists on trial in 1961, crmvet.org

SNCC’s situation looked bleak but not hopeless from the Magnolia jail. Bob Moses, Chuck McDew, Bob Zellner, and nine others had been convicted of disturbing the peace in connection with the student march. “This is Mississippi, the middle of the iceberg,” Moses wrote from his shared cell. Hollis Watkins, who with his friend Curtis Hayes had led the McComb sit-ins, was singing “Michael Row the Board Ashore,” but he added to the lyrics, “Mississippi’s next to go.” Despite SNCC’s stalled voter registration work, Moses kept faith: “This is a tremor in the middle of the iceberg, from a stone that the builders rejected.”

When the twelve were released in early December, it seemed like the young organization had been defeated. But SNCC took important lessons away from the experiences in McComb, ones that its organizers carried with them into their subsequent organizing in the Deep South.

SNCC had learned that they could embed themselves in a community and organize, especially around voter registration. Mentors like Ella Baker and Amzie Moore had told Bob Moses that people in the rural South were waiting for them, and his encounters with C.C. Bryant, E.W. Steptoe, and others proved that to be true. SNCC found that support came from both expected and unexpected places. Local leaders were willing to tap SNCC into their networks made up of an older generation of activists. And new leaders emerged from the Movement. Young people, like Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes, who went on to become SNCC’s first homegrown field secretaries, were especially willing to join SNCC’s efforts.

The community also protected SNCC workers, taking them into their homes, feeding them, and sustaining them. “Everywhere we went, I and other civil rights workers were adopted and nurtured, even protected as though we were family,” Moses explained.

Moses left McComb in December 1961 for Jackson. He wanted to watch out for the expelled McComb students who were finishing their education at Campbell College, and he planned to to work on the congressional campaign of R.L. Smith, the first African American to run since Reconstruction. Meanwhile, Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes headed over to Hattiesburg at the invitation of local NAACP leader, Vernon Dahmer, to start a voter registration campaign there. SNCC had left Southwest Mississippi by the start of 1962, at least for the moment. But they took everything they learned there with them. According to Bob Moses, SNCC “had, to put it mildly, gotten its feet wet.”

Sources

Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).

Charles E. Cobb, Jr., This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get you Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

John Dittmer, Local People: the Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995).

Robert P. Moses & Charles E. Cobb, Jr., Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 46.

Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996).

Interview with John Doar conducted by Blackside, Inc., November 15, 1985 Eyes on the Prize, Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University

Copy of Bob Moses’s Letter from the Magnolia Jail, November 1, 1961, Faith Holsaert Papers, Duke University

SNCC Press Release, “Robert Moses and twelve McComb students were released on bail from Pike County Jail,” December 6, 1961, Social Action Vertical File, WHS

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Report by Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes detailing their work in Southwest Mississippi, ca. February 1961, crmvet.org


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Letter from Ella Baker to Webb Owens discussing SNCC’s work in McComb, May 24, 1962, crmvet.org