By the mid-1960s, SNCC’s organizational work had shifted towards gaining political and economic power for Black communities. But Black Power encapsulated more than controlling resources. It was also about expanding consciousness–whether through increasing awareness of African liberation struggles and embracing of African culture or by claiming the power to define and asserting Black is Beautiful.
For SNCC staffers like Zoharah Simmons, working in the field and within SNCC was often a deeply personal consciousness-raising experience in and of itself.
Black Consciousness was also about claiming the power to define. As Courtland Cox explained:
The phrase Black Power was liberating, and the whole concept that we are going to define what is beautiful was liberating. We allowed ourselves to now challenge people and begin to understand that we are also powerful in our own way.
Encouraging creativity, expression, and pride was something SNCC had started experimenting with in Mississippi during the summer of 1964. Students in dozens of Freedom Schools wrote poetry or watched plays performed by the Free Southern Theater, SNCC’s traveling theater group that held theater workshops across the state.
Alongside the call for Black Power, “Black is Beautiful” was coming into its own. Black political expression, Black social expression, and Black arts were gaining traction in the mid-1960s across the country and throughout the world. Karen Spellman described what this looked like in Washington, D.C.
With the growth of Black consciousness came a shift in how SNCC understood its work on the ground. More and more, Black staff members felt that whites should go into the white community to organize. This sentiment was especially strong in SNCC’s Vine City Project in Atlanta. As Zoharah Simmons explained: “We can’t go in there and organize. The problem comes from the white community. Who’s going to organize them?”
Up in Washington, D.C., SNCC veteran Marion Barry and others began a community organizing campaign called the Free D.C. Movement. Like SNCC’s work in Lowndes County, the goals were empowerment, local control, and tangible improvements in Black people’s lives.
In Atlanta, SNCC staffers staged a theatrical production called “Back to Black” at the Magnolia Ballroom in 1967. The musical revue was one of SNCC’s first Black Arts cultural events. Writer Desi Woods Jones enlisted Worth Long, who had won a reputation as a “revolutionary poet,” to write some of the lyrics. That song became Harambee, and Bernice Reagon and the Harambee Singers later adopted it as their theme song.
Pull together, pull together, in struggle for Black Power