Founder Julian Bond Remembers 50 Years Of SNCC
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan, in Washington.
Fifty years ago today, several hundred students, civil rights activists, gathered at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. After months of sit-ins and protests, they talked about tactics, strategy and about goals. The students shared stories they heard from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And then on April 17th, 1960, Easter Sunday, they founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to work for a social order of justice permeated by love.
At great risk, SNCC members defied Jim Crow to register voters across the South. They organized more sit-ins, freedom rides, the Mississippi Freedom Summer. They helped organize the march on Washington.
This weekend, SNCC celebrates its 50th anniversary at a reunion at Shaw University. In just a moment, we'll speak with Julian Bond, one of SNCC's founders.
If you were part of this organization, if it touched your life, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Or you can join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later this hour, a woman who struggled with her own emotions after an adoption tells us why she understands the mother who sent her adoptive son back to Russia.
But first, the 50th anniversary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And we have to thank North Carolina Public Radio, WUNC, and Shaw University for technical help and the use of their facilities on campus.
Julian Bond joins us from there. He co-founded SNCC and later served as chairman of the NAACP. And Julian Bond, it's nice to have you back with us on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. JULIAN BOND (Founder, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee): It's a great pleasure, thank you.
CONAN: And we have to begin by noting the death of another civil rights pioneer today, Benjamin Hooks, the former executive director of the NAACP, who died at the age of 85. And, well, 50 years after the foundation of SNCC, obviously a generation is passing.
Mr. BOND: Indeed. And this is a great personal loss for me. Dr. Hooks married my wife and myself, and we were quite close, and it's a great, great loss. He's one of the giants of the movement, and there are not going to be others like him, I don't believe.
CONAN: Today, we hear about these organizations: the NAACP, the SCLC and, of course, SNCC, S-N-C-C. They're very different organizations. What was it about SNCC, SNCC, what was its distinguishing characteristic?
Mr. BOND: I think we were young, and like other young people at other times, we weren't as fearful about our lives and our safety or as knowledgeable about the possibility of them being at risk as older people might have been.
Because we were young, we didn't have the ties that older people have, mortgages and rents and car notes and those kinds of things. We were free agents. We could act and do things our parents could not do, and we dared to take risks that our elders didn't take.
They told us that in Mississippi, segregation could only be attacked from the outside, and we went right to the heart of the beast and attacked it there and beat it there.
CONAN: Is it fair to call SNCC the shock troops of the civil rights movement?
Mr. BOND: That's what we called ourselves and liked to be called.
CONAN: And I wonder, as you look back on it, what was your greatest triumph?
Mr. BOND: Well, I think our greatest triumph was that we existed at all, that these young people of college age, some of high school age, a couple a little older, put together an organization against the advice of our elders, dropped out of college, many of us - against the advice of our parents - created an organization that dared to go into the rural South, where resistance to racial justice was greatest.
The fact that we were able to do this at all and do it successful and win victories I think is a great triumph that all of us who had anything to do with this are immensely proud of today.
CONAN: Against the advice of your elders. You heard founding weekend from Martin Luther King. You also heard from James Lawson, who were both on your advisory board.
Mr. BOND: And we heard from a remarkable woman who's not well-known, Ella Baker. She gave a speech called "More Than a Hamburger," and she told us that what we were about in the sit-in demonstrations should be more than a hamburger and a Coca-Cola at a lunch counter.
We should attack segregation in the whole society, not just at lunch counters. And luckily, we took her at her word and did what she said, and SNCC became what it became.
CONAN: Lunch counters - people may not remember, but there were sit-ins at lunch counters who refused to serve African-Americans at that time, and it was one of the seminal events of the early civil rights movement.
Mr. BOND: Yes. There had been sit-ins in the late '50s, run largely by the NAACP, but they never caught on. Then on February 1st, 1960 in Greensboro, not far from where we are right now, a sit-in began at the Woolworth's department store, and it suddenly caught fire. And within weeks, it had spread South-wide, first to the upper and border South, then later to the deeper, deeper South. And hundreds of thousands of people became engaged in it in the South, getting arrested, going to jail at least for a day or so, in the North in support roles. And so the phenomenon just spread like wildfire literally, and a new movement was born.
CONAN: It had - it found - well, not just fertile ground, but it found a moment. It found a sweeping group of people who were willing to put their lives on the line for this.
Mr. BOND: Oh, yes. There was even a song about it, which I won't sing now. The time is 1960, the place, the USA. February 1st became a history-making day. From Greensboro across the land, the news spread far and wide, as quietly and bravely, youth took a giant stride. Heed the call, Americans all, side by equal side. Sisters, sit in dignity. Brothers, sit in pride.
CONAN: I think your voice is fine. I think you should have sung it. Julian Bond is with us. What do you remember about that first weekend 50 years ago?
Mr. BOND: Well, I remember a couple of things. I remember seeing people here in Raleigh, at Shaw University, whom I'd only seen on television or in newspapers when the news focused on sit-in demonstrations in near places.
Diane Nash, who was the leader of the Nashville sit-ins, was an extraordinarily beautiful woman, as she still is today, and seeing her in person confirmed that she was just as pretty as I thought she was.
Seeing other people who I knew again only as newspaper people, seeing Dr. King, whom I did know because I lived in Atlanta and saw him, sort of an everyday thing, but I don't think I'd ever heard him speak before I heard him speak here. And he was just magnificent, as we know he could be.
Meeting Ella Baker, whom I knew nothing at all about and now know that she played a great background role in many of the 20th century's movements, at times when most people never heard of her, and most have never heard of her now - but meeting her and being impressed by her.
And most of all. meeting all these other people who were my age. I was 20 years old, and they were doing what I had done. They had dared their parents. They had dared their elders to take a direct attack on segregation, and in some places were beating it back even as we met here. So this was just an exciting, exciting weekend.
CONAN: Let me ask you about the N, the nonviolent. How key was that?
Mr. BOND: Well, for most of us, I think it was something that was tactical, something you did on the picket line or at the lunch counter. For a smaller number, like Congressman John Lewis, it became a way of life and something you practiced in every phase of your daily life.
But it was something we adopted as a tactical move for most of us. Most of us couldn't say that, if we were walking down the street and someone hit us, we wouldn't hit back. But some of us said that, and for those, I think they have all my admiration and praise for being able to do it.
CONAN: Was this strictly an African-American organization at that time?
Mr. BOND: Oh, no, far from it. And if you were here today, you'd see that the crowds who have gathered here - and they're really crowds, because we expected about 200 fewer people than actually have gathered here and we're overcrowded, and that's a good problem to have - but they are white and black and Asian people.
This organization was multi-racial. It was multi-cultural. It was non-sectarian. It was secular. It was just a great democratic-with-a-small-D organization, and just a marvel of what it was.
CONAN: Julian Bond helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He's with us today from the campus at Shaw University, where 50 years ago, that organization was established. Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation.
If you were part of SNCC, if it touched your life, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. John's on the line from Tucson.
JOHN (Caller): Hello, John here.
CONAN: Go ahead.
JOHN: Thank you very much, Julian Bond, and all you people for founding SNCC. SNCC made it safe for me to organize for voting in northwest Arkansas, in Washington County. I started actually after the main action that was so publicized had been done, but it really helped me be safe, and it was already completely unacceptable to threaten workers. So thank you very much.
CONAN: What do you mean, John, it made it safe for you?
JOHN: Well, the SNCC, they were young they were a generation younger than Martin Luther King and many of the leaders in the NAACP. They had tremendous energy and integrity, and they really made it not okay to be violent, intimidating and hateful.
CONAN: And you were able then to organize...
JOHN: Yes. I just came in as an election worker - or, you know, registering people to vote, and I was surprised at the amount of courtesy that was extended to me. And it was just suddenly, it was safe.
CONAN: You were not from northwest Arkansas?
JOHN: Yeah - northwest Arkansas, you might call that a border-South area.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And it sounds like you were you started there with some trepidation.
JOHN: Yes, I started with some trepidation. I was very well aware of what had happened four years ago, those of those civil rights workers being murdered in Mississippi. By the way, I was 16 when that demonstration in Washington took place. It tremendously inspired me.
CONAN: Okay, John, thanks very...
JOHN: I was just becoming aware of the civil rights movement.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. We appreciate, of course...
JOHN: Thank you.
CONAN: ...the few civil rights workers, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, they were not the only, sadly, civil rights workers to lose their lives in the cause. Let's go to Jennifer, Jennifer with us from Hocking Hills in Ohio.
JENNIFER (Caller): Hello. Oh, I am so proud of you and all the work you've done. My God. I'm Shawnee, (unintelligible). I live in Hocking County in Ohio. I've been fighting for Indian rights forever. And...
Mr. BOND: Good for you.
JENNIFER: Yeah. And it's the same thing, you know. We were considered in the same way. They took our land. They took everything. Yeah. But I'm so privileged to hear you talking. It's like thank you so much for what you're doing, honey.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: All right.
Mr. BOND: That's very kind of you. Thank you.
CONAN: Thank you very much for the call, appreciate it. We just have a few seconds before the break, Julian Bond. And what's it like there this weekend?
Mr. BOND: Well, it's great because I'm seeing people, some of whom I've not seen literally for, say, 45 years, others of whom I see only occasionally, and some people whom I'd never seen before but knew of. I knew their names, and all of a sudden, here we all are.
And sometimes, you know, you have to look down to the nametags and say: Who is this I'm talking to? And you see it's John Smith. And you say, John, I haven't seen you since, you know, this happened there. And what happened to Joe and Mary and Bill and Bob and so on? So this is like a great, great high school-college-Army reunion all put together, except unlike those, you like all of the people you're seeing.
CONAN: As we're going out, we're listening to "Which Side Are You On?" performed by the SNCC Freedom Singers many years ago. Stay with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
Fifty years ago, few could imagine an African-American president. Jim Crow still ruled the deep South. Sit-ins spread to segregated lunch counters across the country, and as the fights for civil rights really organized, a group of students came together to help lead the way. They formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The 50th anniversary of that organization is celebrated this week on the campus of Shaw University in North Carolina. Today, we're talking about the legacy of SNCC and the role it played in the civil rights movement that changed the country.
If you were part of SNCC, if it touched your life, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guest is Julian Bond, who helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and went on to lead the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as chairman, until early this year.
But also with us there at Shaw is Clayborne Carson. He is an historian, professor of history at Stanford, where he is also the director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, and good to have you with us today.
Mr. CLAYBORNE CARSON (Historian, Professor of History, Director, Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute Stanford University): Good to talk to you, Neal.
CONAN: And looking back on the civil rights movement, what was SNCC's particular role? How important was it?
Mr. CARSON: Well, for me, as a teenager, it was a source of inspiration. This was, when you picked up the daily newspaper, and you saw people your own age who were changing the world, this was something that was bound to have an impact.
I don't think I would be a historian, doing the work I'm doing today, if not for the experience. It brought me to the march on Washington in 1963, and that's where I met my had my first encounters with SNCC people in person and people like Stokely Carmichael and Bob Moses, and these were people who were my role models throughout the '60s. They were taking on segregation at its strongest points, and I thought that they were incredibly brave.
You know, I thought about going to Mississippi, and I think at that point, it would have been very difficult. You know, I was the first person in my family to go to college and - but I was always very affected by them, and I think that's what brought me into fighting for civil rights in my own way.
CONAN: Why important to have an organization led by young people? There were the NAACP, the SCLC. Why not join those other organizations?
Mr. CARSON: Well, I think with SNCC, it was they weren't asking you to, as Julian pointed out, to send your dues in like the NAACP. They were asking you in fact I remember my first encounter with Stokely. I told him I was going to the march, and I was very proud of myself, and I expected him to pat me on the shoulder, and he was saying, well, why would you want to go to that picnic? And, you know, why don't you come down and join us in Albany?
CONAN: Albany, Georgia.
Mr. CARSON: I didn't find out until later that he, himself, had not quit school and gone off and joined, but that was I got the message that if you really wanted to commit to the struggle, it was taking place in southwest Georgia and Alabama and Cambridge, Maryland, and the delta of Mississippi, in all these places where SNCC workers were fighting battles that really had to do, not just with desegregation and discrimination, but they were fighting to turn peasants into citizens, you know, that great struggle to really finish the Civil War.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from Dave(ph) in Franklin, Tennessee. Mr. Bond, could you please take a moment and opine as to what the course of the nation might have been had you not been successful with the sit-ins? I think thought - we were on the verge of an all-out race war.
Mr. BOND: You know, in the history business, that's called counter-factual, and professionally, we don't like to go there, what would have happened if? But you can imagine, had there not been this vibrant civil rights movement in the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s, that we'd be much more of an apartheid society today than we are.
I would hazard a guess that had that occurred, Barack Obama would not be president. Barack Obama would not may not have been a senator from Illinois. So the whole complexion, both literally and figuratively, of our country (technical difficulties) and we'd be a worse country than we are.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get Betty(ph) on the line, Betty with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.
BETTY (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call. I wonder if Dr. Bond realizes how far the reach went. I was a very young, white, poor girl in North Carolina, and I was impacted by watching the black and white films and recognizing the nonviolent approach. And there were small things that people that I knew, that did, just because of the approach that some of these folks took.
I knew that what was happening was wrong. I knew that I had no power. So we tried to take power within our own surroundings. For example, we were extremely poor, yet we had an elderly black maid who couldn't sit at our table. And one day, when I was 11 years old, I asked my mother why she couldn't sit at our table, and she didn't have an answer. She sat at our table that night, and I think that that changed my mother, as well. And I think that Dr. Bond may not realize the reach that they had.
CONAN: Small things, Julian Bond, many, many, many small things.
Mr. BOND: Yes, they are small things, and sometimes, those small things may seem insignificant, but taken together, over time, they pile up to an awful, awful lot.
CONAN: She talked about and thank you very much for the call, Betty she talked about the importance of the nonviolence. Was that debated that first weekend in Shaw, North Carolina?
Ms. BOND: Yes, it was debated. There were some people who said I can do that on the picket line, but I can't do it in my private life. And some people said I can't do it on the picket line or in my private life. And if they said that, we'd say, well, listen, don't go on the picket line. Find some other way to serve. You can support this movement in some other way.
But most people were able to arrive at a happy compromise between what they could do every day and what they could do in these special occasions, when you were on movement duty.
CONAN: Clayborne Carson, let me ask you. This controversy was not settled that one weekend.
Mr. CARSON: No, it wasn't. SNCC went on through the 1960s, and one of the things that I find really interesting about SNCC is that in the midst of that of those battles with segregation at its strongest, they were also engaged in these internal discussions, sometimes going on for days, about issues of violence versus nonviolence, about the role of women in the movement, about many issues that are still with us today.
CONAN: Later on...
Mr. CARSON: They were always...
CONAN: Later on in the organization, about the role of whites.
Mr. CARSON: Of course, yeah, all of these came up because I think one of things that they were brave not only in the physical sense, but in the intellectual sense. They were willing to take on issues that other organizations wanted to avoid, and in fact, I think issues that Americans often want to avoid. The issues of the gulf between the the vast gulf between the rich and the poor, the pockets of poverty that we have in the United States, you know, the issues that King was taking on at the end of his life, the in the poor people's campaign.
SNCC was really engaged in a poor people's campaign, even much earlier than that. A lot of the issues that I think SNCC was dealing with in the 1960s are 21st-century issues. We still have not really resolved these issues of how do you build a democracy in a country that is very diverse?
CONAN: I was just going to say...
Mr. CARSON: Those are difficult questions.
CONAN: And remain so. But Julian Bond, it seems hardly unusual that 20-year-olds would sit around for days arguing about tactics in an organization and about ideas?
Mr. BOND: Well, I wonder if although I teach college students today, I wonder if college students today have the same level of intensity and question-asking and challenging each other that we did. I hope they do. They'd be the richer for it, but I don't know whether or not they do. I'm not even sure if they do. I'd like to be reassured they do.
CONAN: Let's go next to Debbie(ph), Debbie with us from Berkeley, California.
DEBBIE (Caller): Hi, I was in high school during these years, and it was what kept us sane, I think, because the classroom was irrelevant. What was going on in the classroom was irrelevant, and what was really happening in the world was participation in SNCC.
We raised money to send people down to the South, and it was wonderful. It was the beginning of my political life, and I'm so pleased to hear you guys talking about SNCC because I'm very proud of that time.
CONAN: And what about this particular organization did so appeal to you, Debbie?
DEBBIE: I guess it was very inclusive. It was it was something as a even as a 16-year-old that I could be part of history, making part of history, and it was very important to me and important to all of us.
CONAN: Well, thank you, Debbie, appreciate the phone call. And Julian Bond, she was saying at that moment in history, the classroom seemed irrelevant, as the history seemed to be being made in other parts of the country. Right now, a lot of people say that the civil rights movement of the 21st century is in the classroom.
Mr. BOND: Well, I think it's in the classroom or the fight over equity in the classroom and the fight to stop the classroom from being the first stop toward the prison cell, which it is for too many people in this country.
So as Clay said a moment ago, these battles, which we fought in the 1960s, are still being fought today, and some of them have not come to any successful conclusion. I think we're closer to them in some sense now than we were then, but we still have much more to do and we need many more people joining in and helping us make these decision, not just young people but older people as well.
CONAN: Clayborne Carson, the organization, as it evolved over the years, well, some of the passion left as some of the great achievements were - there were victories. There was seemingly less to fight against.
Dr. CARSON: Well, one of the things that I think is interesting to me is that the great victories of the '60s when you think of them as the '64 Civil Rights Act, the '65 Voting Rights Act, the people in SNCC, they didn't stop their struggle the day after the Voting Rights Act was passed. They went back and with a similar degree of intensity. And one of the things I'm finding from looking at many of the people here in Shaw is that some of them are still -they don't - they didn't get the message that the struggle was over. They're still engaged in very intense struggles in various parts of this country, even though now they've got gray hair and grandkids, and some of their grandkids are involved in those struggles.
So I think that this notion - I think one of the problems when we use the term civil rights struggle, it wasn't just about civil rights reform. It was about a lot of issues, about freedom in the larger sense. It was part of the freedom struggles that were taking place throughout the world and that are still going on about how do you really make people equal in any kind of political and economic and other so that they have equal opportunity, you know, that this is the real question of democracy, of how do you - like, as I said, how do you build a democracy in very diverse society. And that's a problem - it's - you know, to me, democracy is an experiment, and we don't know how it's going to turn out.
CONAN: We're talking with Clayborne Carson, a professor of history at Stanford, indeed director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute there, and also with Julian Bond who helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee 50 years ago, former communications director for SNCC, later, chairman of the NAACP. And they are with us from the campus at Shaw University, indeed from the highest point on Shaw University in the cupola of one of the halls there. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.
And this email we have from Richard(ph) in Los Altos, California. My wife and I just returned from a visit to North and South Carolina where we're searching a novel set in the Antebellum South just before the outbreak of the Civil War. While in Raleigh on the street, we encountered two young ladies, African-Americans, attending Shaw University. Both are from the Los Angeles area. I'm white and three months shy of my 70th birthday, I asked the young ladies about Ella Josephine Baker and the founding of SNCC. They were clueless about Miss Baker and SNCC. I wondered to myself, is this progress? And he says, perhaps it is. Julian Bond, you were talking about her earlier.
Mr. BOND: Well, you know, I think about that and both those ways, too. It's a good thing that young people don't know about the horrors of segregation - at least don't know about it firsthand. It's a bad thing that they don't know this used to be in the United States and a great struggle arose in the country and people like themselves joined that struggle to get rid of it.
So you have mixed emotions about what people know and don't know. But you'd think anybody who attends Shaw University would know something about Ella Jo Baker, because Ella Jo Baker went to Shaw University. She was educated at Shaw University and she became a mighty, might Amazon in the movement for civil rights. No where near as famous as Martin Luther King, but she organized Dr. King's civil rights organization.
She played a hand in the NAACP. In almost every battle of the middle of the 20th century, Ella Baker's hand can be seen and it's a positive hand. It's a great hand. And Shaw students should be ashamed if they don't know who Ella Jo Baker is.
CONAN: Let's go next to Mark(ph). And Mark's with us from Lansing.
MARK (Caller): Yes. I wanted to mention that I attended South Carolina State College in South Carolina at the time of the massacre that happened. They called it Orangeburg Massacre. And I was asked by SNCC members to - there were only about 16 whites on campus or so. And we were asked to not be there for our own protection. And this happened again and again during moments of possible confrontation, many times by SNCC and many times by just people in the community. And I thought that was really of notation.
CONAN: So that you felt that they were looking out for you, too.
Dr. CARSON: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And, you know, and they knew that it was a risk for us because we stood out in the crowd. And (unintelligible).
Mr. BOND: It took a special kind of courage...
CONAN: Go ahead, Julian Bond.
Mr. BOND: I was going to say, it take a special kind of courage to be white and participate in this movement because to hostile whites, you were a traitor to your race and were marred for special treatment, harsh treatment from those people who would beat black people, but they would treat what they regarded as renegade white people even worse. So my hats off to this caller.
MARK: Oh, I did (unintelligible).
Dr. CARSON: And I'm glad that you mentioned the...
CONAN: Go ahead, Clayborne.
Dr. CARSON: ...I'm glad that you mentioned the Orangeburg incident also, because that to - been, to some degree, removed from history. You know, this incident when police went onto the campus of a historically black school and shot and killed, I think, four students who were there. Three? Three, you said. But, I - well, in any case, they shot a number of students and many of them were wounded. And Cleveland Sellers, who is right here - most of them shot in the back - was one of the people involved. I just saw him a few hours ago. And now, there's a film about that that I hope many Americans who don't know anything about the Orangeburg Massacre will be able to see that film.
CONAN: Mark, thanks very much for the call. Finally, Julian Bond, it sounds like there's some history that needs to be recorded at this reunion.
Mr. BOND: There's a tremendous amount of history that needs to be recorded. Not only history made by the people who are here but people made by Americans all across the country who've not had their stories told, not have them written down, not have them recorded, they badly need to be. There's so much we don't know about how we got to today and so much we won't know about how we'll get to tomorrow unless somebody writes it down. Dr. Carson has done a great job at this. He's done a great job in preserving the Martin Luther King papers you can get from Stanford University because of Dr. Carson's work.
All of the papers that Martin Luther King ever touched, from little notes he wrote to his parents when he was a little bitty kid, to his PhD thesis all the way forward - how far are you in the papers, Clay?
Dr. CARSON: We're now working on volumes seven and eight, which cover through 1963.
Mr. BOND: So if you want to know more about Martin Luther King, read these papers.
CONAN: Julian Bond, Clayborne Carson, thank you both very much for your time today. We appreciate it. They joined us today...
Mr. BOND: Thank you.
Dr. CARSON: Thank you so much.
CONAN: They joined us today from the campus at Shaw University. Our thanks to member station North Carolina Public Radio, WUNC, for all their help. To David Brower, engineers John Francione(ph) and Peter Barber, and especially thanks to Dorothy Cowser Yancy, interim president of Shaw University.
Stay with us. We'll be talking about adoption and the sometimes difficult emotions that accompany it. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.