Raised in Cleveland, Ohio
Seeing members of the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG) walking around the Howard University campus in overalls and wearing movement pins shortly after arriving for his first year there, Phil Hutchings was fascinated. They seemed to have forsaken the middle class lifestyle that dominated Howard’s campus, choosing instead to work in the Movement. Hutchings joined the organization.
NAG, a SNCC affiliate, served as a movement school for Howard students who were interested in the Black Freedom Struggle. Hutchings felt like he learned more during his late night conversations with fellow NAG members, like Tom Kahn, than he did from his traditional coursework. He remembered that Kahn was “one of the first people who sat down and talked to me about the history of the U.S. Left, something I would’ve never gotten quite the same way by reading a book about it.”
Hutchings’ politicization process had begun when he was growing up on Cleveland’s East Side in the fifties. He was involved in various civic organizations that were “getting me into some of the broader stuff in the world.” He joined his local NAACP youth council as a high schooler and participated in pickets to raise awareness about the southern student sit-ins.
It was during his time at Howard that Hutchings first “put his body on the line” for the Movement. Inspired by local high school students, he helped organize a sit-in demonstration at Chinese restaurant in near-by Baltimore. He described the experience and his subsequent arrest as “a freeing kind of experience…It was a real sense of all of a sudden I was making a stand.” The arrest marked Hutchings’ full-time commitment to the Movement.
Hutchings left Howard before graduating to join the Movement in Mississippi during the summer of 1964. He was impressed by Mississippians who were attempting “to do Democracy at the very most grassroots level.” He also learned the basics of being a community organizer. He learned to look out for “how people thought…how they approached ideas, what language they used around those ideas.” Like NAG, Mississippi provided Hutchings with an invaluable real-world education.
After Freedom Summer, Hutchings moved to Newark, New Jersey, where SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) had begun an action program similar to SNCC projects in the South. Hutchings applied the lessons he learned working with SNCC to his community organizing work in the city’s mostly-Black and impoverished Third Ward. He centered his work on issues that local people thought were most important. He also pioneered Black Power in a northern urban setting. He fought for community control over public institutions, like schools and government poverty agencies, that shaped the lives of the area’s residents.
Hutchings work in Newark impressed SNCC, which was looking for ways to organize in the urban North. In 1968, Hutchings replaced H. Rap Brown as SNCC chairman. His chairmanship took place during some of SNCC’s most difficult years as the organization, having won the fight for voting rights, sought to find its way toward continuing struggle.
For his part, Hutchings tried to steer the organization towards grassroots community organizing in northern cities, but SNCC was unraveling–shrinking resources, COINTELPRO, tensions with the Black Panther Party, and simple exhaustion among much of SNCC staff. Hutchings was not able to do much about it. Looking back recalled Hutchings, SNCC “was on a downright, downward cycle.”
Stokely Carmichael with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (New York: Scribner, 2003), 136-151.
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 291.
Rebecca E. Klatch, A Generation Divided: The New Left, the New Right, and the 1960s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 98-99.
Interview with Phil Hutchings by Joseph Mosnier, September 1, 2011, Civil Rights History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.