Where do we go from here?
Written by Charlie Cobb, SNCC Field Secretary 1962-1967
Amzie Moore attended SNCC’s October 1960 meeting and put voter registration on the table. The response was lukewarm. SNCC’s priority remained direct action. “Jail Without Bail,” and how to spread the sit-in movement dominated discussion. “Only mass action is strong enough to force all of America to assume responsibility and . . . nonviolent direct action alone is strong enough to enable all of America to understand the responsibilities she must assume,” the invitation to the October conference had stated.
After his election the following month, President John Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, soon made it clear that they were hostile to direct action, and began pressing the student activists of SNCC and CORE to abandon such protests and turn to voter registration. The two brothers thought that the white southern response to such an effort would be less violent and thus less dramatic and embarrassing to the United States than demonstrations. SNCC was suspicious of their overtures. The Kennedy administration seemed indifferent to enforcing existing civil rights law and far too willing to compromise with southern bigots. Many in SNCC thought that the Kennedys were trying to co-opt them and that organizing for voter registration was selling out. They wondered what such an effort meant for the radical, systemic change in the country that they were increasingly coming to believe was necessary. Others, however, saw voter registration as an important step toward the acquisition of real power for meaningful change.
Ella Baker stepped into this debate and helped the young SNCC organizers to reach a consensus decision that prevented a split within the group. SNCC would establish both a direct action wing and a voter registration wing. She knew that the distinction was largely meaningless. In the Deep South, voter registration was direct action. As SNCC field secretary Reggie Robinson later put it: “If you went into Mississippi and talked about voter registration they’re going to hit you on the side of the head and that’s as direct as you can get.”
This debate begins the process whereby SNCC, which began as a protest organization conducting and coordinating sit-ins and Freedom Rides, slowly evolved into an organization of organizers – “field secretaries” – embedding themselves in rural communities across the Black Belt where they gave special emphasis to voter registration.
The influence of the Black vote particularly applied to the Black Belt, where Black people made up 60-80% of the population. As Amzie Moore told Bob Moses in their early meetings, if Black people in the Black Belt were allowed to vote, they could elect officials at every level who could represent their concerns.
The convergence of young SNCC organizers with politically-experienced adults like Ella Baker, and especially with veterans like Amzie Moore and other strong local leaders the age of their parents and grandparents, was crucial to the foundation on which SNCC stood and began developing its work. These adults gave access to networks they had built and been part of for years: not just NAACP branches, but also social organizations like the Prince Hall Masons, Elks, and church groups. They taught SNCC organizers how to move and stay alive in the dangerous environs of the rural Black Belt South.
Much of the work was simply demonstrating that violence could not drive them away. Indeed, SNCC’s young organizers brought something rare into the local communities they entered. “[They] hadn’t been conditioned by people who blew their mind about . . . you can’t do this, you can’t do that,” recalled Amzie Moore who was 49-years-old when he first encountered Bob Moses and SNCC. “They didn’t think they were under slavery . . . You’d go to the courthouse with ‘em – an 18-year or 20-year-old youngster, got on a pair of tight-legged blue jeans and a blue shirt – that was something boy, and he’s walking out there in front, and putting him in jail wasn’t nothing . . . This was an outstanding example of determined leadership in young people. I had never seen it before.”