The Learning Curve

Learning From Experience: Maria Varela’s Perspective, SNCC Field Secretary, 1963-1967

Part 1

Part 2

Learning Materials by the People for the People

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

The Road to Selma

Maria Varela with her camera. Photograph by Matt Herron

Maria Varela with her camera, Matt Herron, Courtesy of Maria Varela

When SNCC began working in Selma in the early 1960s, local movement leadership asked for literacy classes as a part of the voter registration effort. I had accepted the invitation to join SNCC in late 1962 and arrived the summer of 1963, expecting to work at its Atlanta headquarters. However, after conversations with SNCC field secretaries Bernard Lafayette and Frank Smith, they asked if I could be assigned to Selma to start a literacy project. Because of my Catholic background, they figured I might be useful in supporting one of the main civil rights leaders of Selma, Father Maurice Ouellet.

Father Ouellet was the pastor of a Black Catholic Parish in Selma and a strong supporter of the Movement. He opened his buildings to voter registration classes and meetings. (So many of his parishioners were arrested during the 1965 Selma demonstrations that St. Elizabeth’s was dubbed “A parish of jailbirds” by the National Catholic Reporter.) Father Ouellet had made repeated requests to develop a literacy project. While I knew nothing about adult literacy, Frank and Bernard figured because I was Catholic, the good pastor would feel at least supported by SNCC in his commitment to the Movement.

Alabama Voter Registration Form

Alabama Voter Literacy Test

When SNCC added voter registration to its strategies in 1961, Black voters faced considerable barriers. To register to vote, they had to take an unconstitutional literacy test. Even if the applicant passed the test, registrars would often arbitrarily fail them; applicants also faced losing their jobs, incarceration, and violence. To add to these barriers, many people were already embarrassed about their reading skills. I had a lot to learn about teaching adult literacy and its relationship to registering voters.

Formative in tearing down my largely inapplicable educational experience was participating in a 1963 summer program in Atlanta with roughly twenty Black teenagers, sponsored by SNCC/NSA (National Student Association). These young people had taken it upon themselves, often with no organized movement, to demonstrate against segregated facilities. SNCC had created the summer program to provide education, strategy and training support to keep them from being “disappeared” in jail or at the wrong end of a gun or rope.

Initially, the group was restless, anxious for hands-on action and training instead of classes and workshops. Wisely, the program began with several intensive sessions on Black History taught by Black SNCC staff. It covered resistance movements, achievements and accomplishments of African Americans. I was stunned by how engrossed students were as they listened. Some held their heads higher and squared their shoulders. Others had a look in their eyes that I hadn’t seen before…a blend of steel, pride, and perhaps some anger. The atmosphere changed for the rest of the summer, as they engaged with a passion the remaining material.

And it changed me. I felt anger and betrayal. Sixteen years of education and all this information had been hidden … kept from us. For me, it was a ‘soft landing’ (for now) into the Black world…but it brought me to the other side of a yet undefined fence. It also forever changed my view of education and the role of self-esteem and pride in learning.

The SNCC Selma Literacy Project

When I moved to Selma in the fall of 1963, Worth Long was the SNCC project director and my mentor. Because voter registration work had to go hand in hand with literacy classes, he welcomed the help on developing a literacy project. Most SNCC field staff were so overworked and under-resourced that teaching literacy was better done by someone who did not have organizing responsibilities.

Country Life Reader

The Brown Family Reader

Letter from U.S. Adult Literacy Division

Knowing nothing about adult literacy, I tackled researching existing materials. To my dismay, what I found was totally inappropriate for adults…especially Black adults. Adult literacy readers were childish, featuring only white middle class people, and assuming the only way to teach reading was to start at the first-grade level.

The reading-challenged adults I met in Selma did not fit the assumptions of existing literacy materials. Many had gotten their “alphabets” and some reading training either at home or occasionally when they could get to school. Many could spell through a sentence to puzzle out its meeting. They might know the word “addition” but not “one.” The existing materials started at such a low level or were so childish that most adults lost interest from the beginning. The materials and instructional approaches only seemed to reinforce the shame and embarrassment about their reading capacities.

Even the head of the Adult Literacy Division at the U.S. Health Education and Welfare Department was critical. In 1963, the Division had completed a study of existing literacy materials, and found they were “old, out-of-date, and unimaginative.”

In a report from that summer, I wrote:

The learning adult is not a child. He speaks in complicated sentences with many-syllabled words. He has had a life-time of experience and learning with the resultant wisdom of age.

To gain some experience in teaching literacy, I went twice a week to the home of Mrs. Caffey, a St. Elizabeth’s parishioner. In our first session, I handed her a “Brown Family” literacy book. She nodded her head politely as she dutifully turned each page…without pausing on one. Then I asked her what she most wanted to learn to read; she replied: “The Bible”, and promptly pulled it out. Working with the Bible was key in creating the motivation for her to tackle word recognition and comprehension. I learned that motivation for a reading-challenged adult rested largely in how badly they wanted information useful for bettering their lives

The Summer Project

With encouragement from SNCC’s administrative secretary, Ruby Doris Smith, I secured funding to recruit Black students for the summer of 1964 to work on a summer literacy project in Selma. I found Silas Norman doing graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, James Wiley at Harvard, Carol Lawson and Karen House at Howard University. We held training sessions the winter of ’64 to prepare us teach and create materials that would raise reading levels and increase participation in the Movement.

We laid out the values that would guide the work:

“Requirements for materials stem from the values of the movement for human rights that we are now involved in. Some of those values are:

  1. The only society worth working for is that where man participates fully in the decisions that affect him.

  2. Man has an unlimited ability to change and grow.

  3. There is value in those qualities contained in the life of the black belt Negro adult which have helped him to survive and endure in his circumstances and which have given him whatever wisdom he now possesses.

  4. Any attempt to assist a people in changing their circumstances must take the people where they are and involve them in creating the direction and quality of social change needed.”

But the project was busted up three weeks after the project staff arrived in Selma. They had decided to test the newly passed 1964 Civil Rights Act and went to the segregated Thirsty Boy for a milk shake. Sheriff Jim Clark arrested and hustled them off to jail. The date was July 4th. I spent the next month raising bail and working with attorneys. We were enjoined by an injunction forbidding the assembly of three or more people, which also shut down the voter registration practice sessions that had scheduled.

Lessons Learned

After the project staff was released, we sat down and reflected on what we had learned before they went to jail:

  1. Recruiting the reading-challenged adult was really difficult!

  2. People needed time to practice the test and feel confident that they wouldn’t make mistakes when they went to register.

  3. Developing reading materials and teaching literacy classes at the same time was too much.

In final evaluation, I had bit off more than we could chew that summer. It was too difficult to build appropriate reading materials and teach reading at the same time (much less, in the middle of a war zone). For literacy work to go forward in the Movement, reading material needed to be developed first employing in a method of “test, draft, test” that used people’s own words, large print and images. People like Bob Moses were developing literacy teaching methods in Mississippi, and we felt we could develop materials to be used in these efforts.

When the summer ended, except for Silas Norman, the project staff returned to school. Silas wanted to stay to continue our work on the SNCC Literacy Project in Mississippi. Then, Jim Forman offered Silas a job on the Alabama SNCC Staff. That was bad news for me but good news for Alabama. I continued on to Mississippi without him.

Part 2: Learning Materials By the People for the People