Thursday, April 15, 2010
(Paul Saltzman/Special to The Clarion-Ledger)
50 Years Of Social Change: Civil Rights Veterans Recall '60s, Eye Future
Deborah Barfield Berry • Clarion-Ledger
Washington Bureau • April 15, 2010
WASHINGTON — The plan that summer day in 1961
was for 22 students to protest a law banning black
residents from using the public library in McComb.
But the library was closed. And instead of 22
students, Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes were the
only ones to show up at the meeting place, a local
office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee. Instead of staging a sit-in at the library,
they decided to target the local Woolworth store.
"We would not be defeated. We knew Woolworth was
right down the street and had a lunch counter that
we couldn't eat at,'' recalled Watkins, then a 19-
year-old college-bound student. "We wanted to let
them know we were not afraid to go to jail.''
Watkins spent 34 days in jail. He never got a chance
to eat at that counter. Instead, for decades Watkins
traveled across Mississippi working in small towns
from McComb to Hattiesburg registering blacks to
Watkins and thousands of others were members of
SNCC, a group of students from mostly black
colleges determined to dismantle segregation at
public accommodations throughout the South.
Veterans of that movement are gathering in Raleigh,
N.C., this week to celebrate the group's 50th
anniversary. The conference runs today through
Sunday. Organizers say teaching young activists to
get involved in social change is the major focus.
"Our hope is that these young people will say, 'Gee,
I could do something like that,' '' said Julian Bond,
an original member of SNCC and former chairman of
the NAACP. " 'We still have tremendous problems in
the country. ... Maybe these gray-haired people can
show me how to do it. Maybe I can learn from them
about how social change is accomplished, how
movements are built.' ''
SNCC veterans say they were spurred to act when
four college students in Greensboro, N.C., staged a
sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter in 1960. Many
students already had been active in youth branches
of the NAACP.
"We all ended up on college campuses, so it was
ripe for this sort of thing,'' said House Majority
Whip James Clyburn, who was then a student at
South Carolina State College. "So when those four
students sat down, it proved to be a catalyst.''
Other sit-ins and protests were taking place from
Nashville to Orangeburg, S.C. The Rev. Martin
Luther King Jr. was so moved by the student effort
that he asked Ella Baker, who worked for him at the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to help
them organize, SNCC veterans said.
Two months after the Greensboro sit-in, Clyburn
and nearly 200 other students met at what is now
Shaw University in Raleigh.
Soon afterward, SNCC began conducting sit-ins,marches,
voter registration drives and freedom
rides. Volunteers teamed with local organizers,
particularly in rural communities. They often relied
on locals to house and feed them.
White students joined the protests in the South, and folks
up North also protested at stores to show their support.
"Some people were heard to say, 'By sitting down, these
young people are standing up,' '' said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.,
who attended those first meetings.
SNCC volunteers "were taking chances the older
organizations didn't dare to take,'' Bond said.
Volunteers were beaten. Others lost their jobs. Some
lost their lives. Most were jailed. Still, the ranks
"You come to that point where you lose the fear and
you are prepared to walk into hell's fire,'' said Lewis,
who himself was beaten during the "Bloody Sunday"
march across a bridge in Selma, Ala. "You are
prepared to die for what you believe in whether it
was during the sit-ins or the freedom rides or
during the marches.''
In Mississippi, Watkins said, SNCC workers
sometimes were beaten as they tried to register
"We would be chased by white folks, some with guns
trying to catch us to kill us,'' recalled Watkins,
president and co-founder of Southern Echo, a
leadership development and education program in
Jackson. "The danger was not as much out in the
open as it would be behind the scenes.''
It was particularly dangerous when black and white
young activists traveled together through the South,
But nearly six years after SNCC began, the
organization began to die.
While SNCC was instrumental in pressing for the
Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of
1965, Lewis said, there were few breakthroughs in
places like Mississippi, where most black people
still were not registered to vote. Volunteers still
were being beaten. Some died.
Tensions also flared between more radical factions
of SNCC, led by Stokely Carmichael, and those who
wanted to continue nonviolent protests. Members
Eventually, financial support also began to dry up.
SNCC died a "natural death,'' Lewis said.
Despite its short history, SNCC veterans say the
organization made its mark on the civil rights
Today, Mississippi has more black elected officials
than any other state.
"We can clearly see a lot of progress has been made.
But I'm hoping we don't go to sleep on that," Watkins
said. "Racism is still alive and well not only in
Mississippi but in other parts of the country.''
More Civil Rights Movement On W.E. A.L.L. B.E. :
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