Into the Field
Written by Charlie Cobb, SNCC Field Secretary 1962-1967
SNCC’s first voter registration effort began in McComb, Mississippi in the late summer of 1961. Amzie Moore who lived in the Mississippi cotton plantation country known as the Delta was not quite ready for Bob Moses when he returned to the state, so he sent him to McComb NAACP leader Curtis Conway “C.C.” Bryant. McComb is located in Southwest Mississippi then the most Klan-ridden region in the state. Nonetheless, supported by Bryant and a small core of local adults, Moses began conducting voter registration workshops. Few people of voting age were willing to make the attempt at registration, given reprisals ranging from murder and violent assault to retaliatory job loss. However, what he was doing had two unforeseen effects: local young people, excited first by just the fact of Moses’s presence in town and soon by other incoming SNCC workers, felt that “Freedom Riders” had come to their town and wanted to be part of the Movement that they had only heard about. Some began working with Moses, canvassing the Black community for those willing to put their lives on the line to try to register to vote. Other young people began organizing their own student protest movement.
The other effect of the McComb project was to bring SNCC’s work to the attention of Black leaders in the surrounding counties. Soon, residents “out in the rural” came to McComb and asked SNCC to begin projects in their counties, which were, if anything, even more dangerous than McComb. In Amite County, Moses began holding a “voter registration school” at a church on the farm of Eldridge Willie “E.W.” Steptoe, who in 1952 had organized an NAACP branch in the county. SNCC soon encountered violence at a level it never had before. A key supporter in Amite County, NAACP leader Herbert Lee, was gunned down and killed in broad daylight by E.H. Hurst, a white state legislator. SNCC workers were attacked and beaten at county courthouses. As Moses would put it years later, SNCC, “had, to put it mildly, got our feet wet.”
Meanwhile, Charles Sherrod, who was the first of the student sit-in leaders to leave school to work as a SNCC organizer (Moses already had a Masters degree when he went South), began a second project in Southwest Georgia in the fall of 1961. He based the project in the regional capital of Albany. Against the backdrop of mass protest initiated by students at Albany State College (now University), Sherrod and a core of SNCC field secretaries began organizing for voting rights in the surrounding rural counties. These Georgia counties were no less violent than the Mississippi counties where Moses and SNCC had begun working a few months earlier. Blacks formed a majority of the population in Southwest Georgia, but few were registered voters. And, as in Mississippi, whites greeted SNCC’s work with violence and reprisal. However, as was also true in Mississippi, there were strong adults who seemed to have been looking for them. The small farm of Annie “Mama Dolly” Raines in Lee County, for example, became a base of operations for SNCC’s organizers, and often she would sit up at night with her shotgun keeping a protective eye out for nightriders. These were unexpected people, not on the radar of the civil rights establishment or the nation in general.
What also emerged from this organizing process in both Southwest Georgia and Southwest Mississippi was a core of young people who would fan out into rural communities as SNCC field secretaries. For the most part, they were local young people.