SNCC staff meeting at Peg Leg Bates club
The sun had long since set at the Peg Leg Bates Resort in the New York Catskill Mountains as SNCC staff members fiercely debated whether the organization should expel its white members. SNCC staffers had gathered at the resort of the famed Black entertainer in December 1966 to discuss where SNCC should focus its energy, and perhaps inevitably, the question of the role of whites in SNCC became a large issue in the meeting.
Race, for many reasons, always a political current flowing through SNCC, had never dominated discussion in the organization. Two years earlier, however, the rejection of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention had shattered SNCC’s hope that white liberals could be reliable allies in the Black Freedom Struggle. More staff members began embracing the idea that Black people needed to organize and create something of their own, independent of white involvement. Heavily influencing this debate was SNCC’s political success organizing an independent, Black-led political party in Lowndes County, Alabama.
Meanwhile, SNCC’s staff members in its Atlanta Project were arguing that SNCC could not effectively empower Black communities if white organizers were involved. Gwen Robinson (later Zoharah Simmons) explained that the Atlanta Project saw raising Black Consciousness as “some part of the antidote to what we were facing in that community in Vine City where people had lost so much hope.” As the director of the Laurel, Mississippi project, she had seen how Black people became cripplingly deferential in the presence of white volunteers. Atlanta staffers argued that white organizers needed to organize in the white community where racism emanated from, instead of in Black communities. They had raised the question forcefully at an earlier meeting, and many staffers agreed, adopting the position Blacks should organize in Black communities and whites in white communities.
By the Kingston Springs meeting, hardly any whites remained on staff. Those that did–like Jack Minnis, Bob Zellner, and Casey Hayden–had been a part SNCC for years. After the vote, white staffers mostly proceeded as normal. Stokely Carmichael and other longtime members viewed the ongoing debate about white participation as distraction from SNCC’s more pressing programmatic goals. Some Atlanta Project staffers, however, kept pushing the organization to officially expel its white members and cut off its dependence on white financial support.
When over a hundred staff members gathered in December 1966 at the Peg Leg Bates resort to decide the organization’s future, the question reared its head once again. “We should ask ourselves why should we exist as an organization and what kind of programs should we have,” SNCC’s Central Committee wrote in a statement before the meeting. “How do we meet the needs of black people?” The agenda included reports on SNCC’s anti-draft work, political organizing, freedom parties, and more with the aim of sparking conversations about SNCC’s programmatic goals. Then late in the evenings, staff members broke into small workshops to strategize about SNCC’s work moving forward.
On the first day, Bill Ware of the Atlanta Project raised the issue of the position of whites within the organization. As Carmichael saw it, Ware and his supporters had come to the meeting “determined to make the question of the role and presence of whites an ideological one.” Over the next couple of days, the debate intensified, shifting from whether white should have voting power to whether they should be expelled.
The question came to a vote after midnight one night. By that point, many had left the meeting or had gone to bed. The loud and angry debate and ensuing vote was what George Ware later called “very sloppy and kind of barbaric.” With 19 for, 18 against, and 24 abstaining, a minority of SNCC members voted to expel the organization’s remaining white members. White staffers abstained and then mostly left. “No white in SNCC could defend himself when attacked on the basis of color,” Elizabeth Sutherland (later Betita Martinez) explained.
The next morning, in the wake of the vote, James Forman proposed dissolving SNCC and sending its assets to African Liberation Movements. The motion failed, but a compromise followed: whites could remain on staff but were not allowed to “vote regarding or determining policy of the organization.”
The bitter debate over whether SNCC should be an all-Black organization overshadowed the programmatic decision to organize local Freedom Organizations. As Judy Richardson remembered, “There was also now a current of viciousness and hostility that seemed to override any connecting bonds within the organization.” More than one person left the meeting feeling that “this was no longer ‘my’ SNCC’,” she explained. The Executive Committee would one more time revisit the position of whites in the organization before the issue was settled.
Stokely Carmichael with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) (New York: Scribner, 2003), 567.
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 236 – 242.
James Forman, Making of Black Revolutionaries (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), xv.
Judy Richardson, “My Enduring ‘Circle of Trust,’” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith Holsaert et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 365.
Maria Varela, “Time to Get Ready,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith Holsaert et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 567 – 568.
Critical Oral Histories Conference: “The Emergence of Black Power, 1964 – 1967,” July 2016, SNCC Legacy Project and the Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University.
Faye Bellamy and Evelyn Marshall, “Central Committee Meeting Notes and Decisions of May, 1967,” Folder: 252253-003-0903, SNCC Papers, ProQuest History Vault.
New York SNCC Newsletter: February, 1967, Folder 252253-003-0903, SNCC Papers, ProQuest History Vault.
Elizabeth Sutherland, “Black White And Tan,” June 1967, Folder: 252263-014-0999, SNCC Papers, ProQuest History Vault.
James Forman, “Rock Bottom (re: SNCC, the Movement & Black Power),” 1967, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website.
From Kingston Springs to Peg Leg Bates , Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website.