Marking SNCC's 50th Anniversary

Read Charlie Cobb's Column

Half a century ago, a group of college students involved in the civil rights movement formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Raleigh, N.C. It became a national touchstone for the movement. SNCC's founding chairman was Marion Barry, still a councilman in Washington, D.C. after long service as mayor. Barry and journalist Charles Cobb, who served as a field organizer for SNCC, take a look back with Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, you tell us more. We'll hear what you have to say about our program this week in Backtalk. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to go back half a century to the American South. College and graduate students all across the South were organizing sit-ins to protest segregation and other injustices. But they didn't know each other. And a key leader in one of the established civil rights organizations thought these students should get together to learn from and encourage each other in what was often dangerous and difficult work.

So the lady, whose name was Ella Baker, organized a meeting at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Some 300 people attended that meeting, which began 50 years ago yesterday. And from it, the student non-violent coordinating committee, or SNCC, was born. This weekend the group is marking that half century with a gathering, also at Shaw University.

And we wanted to know more about it. So we've called Marion Barry. He is a member of the Washington, D.C. City Council, a former longtime mayor of that city. He was then a graduate student at Fisk University. And he was the first national chairman of SNCC. He joins us from here in Washington, D.C. Also with us is author and journalist Charles Charlie Cobb. He's a former SNCC field secretary, and he joins us from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. CHARLIE COBB (Author, Journalist): Thank you.

Mr. MARION BARRY (City Council Member, Washington, D.C.): Thank you.

MARTIN: Let me ask each of you why you wanted to become a member of SNCC. Why did you go to that meeting back then 50 years ago? Mr. Barry?

Mr. BARRY: In that period, everything in the South was segregated. And also, after the revolutions, et cetera, and usually it's the young students that start these kind of things. So I was at Fisk University with Diane Nash and Bernard LaFayette and John Lewis and we were talking to Reverend Lawson had started getting us together around that was in 1958, we were doing a few things.

So on February 1st, when the four young men sat in at A&T, we were ready in Nashville. So the second Saturday, we went down, about 300 of us were arrested. It was really we knew that there were injustices, that things were not right. And so that was that movement, just our time had come. And we had a strong movement in Nashville. There was a strong movement in Atlanta. And there was sort of an informal competition between Atlanta with Julian Bond and Lenny Cain(ph) and that crowd.

And Ellen Baker, through, Dr. King through Ellen Baker, invited us to rally because we were not connected. We read about each other, we hear about each other, I mean, know somebody, but there were no connections. And we came together to organize. I think King had a different idea. I know he did. I think Dr. King's idea was to make us the youth of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

But Ellen Baker, working for King now, urged us and pushed us into forming our own organization. She said, you don't want to have to spend time (unintelligible) you know, and these older folks whose ideas and ideologies is not in tune with what you all are.

MARTIN: These older folks, huh?

Mr. BARRY: You're vibrant and you're fresh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Charlie Cobb, what about you? You, in fact, I do want to mention that you wrote about your experiences in a piece in TheRoot.com. But talk about what made you go? Because right here, Mr. Mayor is saying, you know, he had no question about that he was going. There was no question what about you?

Mr. COBB: I agree. But I have to make a point, when the sit-ins broke out in 1960, I was in the 12th grade, a high school student. So, I'm looking at these people, I'm looking at Marion and I'm looking at them on TV. Diane Nash, John Lewis, Bernard LaFayette are in Atlanta, Julian Bond and Ruby Doris. And for me, it was the first time I realized that civil rights didn't have to be something that grownups did, because I'm looking at people my own age, my own generation.

And I was going to be going to college the next year. And if you were black in 1960 and planning to go to college, the chances were overwhelming that you would be going to a historically black college or university. And with only one or two exceptions, you'd be going to a school in the South, which meant you'd be confronting the same thing Marion and others were protesting.

So, what's coming across to me is a challenge. Well, what are you going to do when you get to school? And sure enough, when I get to Howard University, I think I had been on campus only two or three weeks. And I'm sitting on the campus lawn and somebody gives me a leaflet about protesting in Maryland. And I got on the bus that weekend and I got involved that way.

MARTIN: Can I ask you, though, how your parents felt about this? I take Marion Barry's point that protests and things of this sort are often led by young people. Young people are often on the frontlines of these kinds of things even if they're not organized in the way that SNCC was organized. But can I just ask, what was it like for your parents?

Mr. BARRY: Well, part of it was that there was no modern model. But my mother, I grew up in a very poor household not poor in spirit. And the last thing she wanted me to do was to go to jail. You know, you just didn't go to jail. If you went to jail, it means you had done some bad thing. And then the other challenge for me was nonviolence. These people hitting on me and doing that kind of stuff. The way I grew up, you had to fight your way out of it. You know, didn't have guns and knives, but we had knuckles.

And so I had two challenges to overcome: One is the nonviolence, which I hadn't even heard too much about it, except through Gandhi, and the fact that my parents were scared to death.

MARTIN: Charlie, what about you?

Mr. COBB: Well, my parents and my relatives, a Washington, D.C. family, had long been active in civil rights. So they kind of admired the sit-ins that we were doing. In fact, when I got arrested that first time and got out of jail, my mother said, well, I kind of expected that you'd wind up in this. My parents had more trouble with me leaving school to work full-time for SNCC, especially since I was working for SNCC in Mississippi, which as far as anybody in my family and I think most of the black community in the United States was concerned, was the worst place on earth for a black person.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We're speaking with former Washington, D.C. mayor, now city council member, Marion Barry. He was the first national chairman of SNCC. And Charles Charlie Cobb, the field secretary for SNCC from 1962 to 1967.

Mr. Barry, you were going to say something?

Mr. BARRY: Can we get down to some of the dynamics that were going on?

MARTIN: Sure. Let's hear it.

Mr. BARRY: You know, what was very interesting, and Charlie knows this, out of all the 11 so-called Confederate states, Mississippi is the only state that did not have a black student there, because of the oppressive nature of the people there. And we had a couple of them, too, (unintelligible).

But there was a lot of, you know, getting to know each other, understanding each other. There were varying degrees of philosophies within the movement. A lot of people had never done this before. Most of us hadn't. And Ellen Baker was a great guide in Atlanta. Charlie would agree that she was a guiding light. Here she's working for Dr. King, but yet she's advocating a separate organization.

So we came to the conclusion when we're students, we were nonviolent and we were committed that's how SNCC was born. And then you had competition within the movement as to who were the best, who was the baddest, who's the boldest, you know. I remember having a long talk with Julian about that in Atlanta (unintelligible), you know, people from South Carolina. But we all had the same zeal and zest for freedom and to break down these barriers.

MARTIN: What effect do you think participating in SNCC had on each of your lives? Charlie?

Mr. COBB: Well, you know, to survive and to work in these kind of rural areas that were also dangerous that we worked in in places like Mississippi or Alabama or southwest Georgia, and especially if you were like me coming from Washington, D.C. and never really been in the Deep South, what you had to learn how to do was listen and talk to people and understand people on their own terms.

And that, of course, has been invaluable in my life as a reporter and journalist. And, secondly, to see what people were willing to risk for freedom. And people you wouldn't expect and to do this, at least I wouldn't, because I was coming from D.C. We are talking about maids and sharecroppers and day workers and factory workers and small farmers. To see their courage is life changing. You realize that ordinary people can really do extraordinary things.

MARTIN: What about you, Mr. Barry?

Mr. BARRY: I say, well, Michel, for me, you know, my vision was probably Tennessee that's about the most vision I had like most black kids. We didn't have any black people in textbooks and all that kind of stuff. So I didn't have much of a vision beyond Tennessee at Fisk. I wanted to be a research scientist, probably get a PhD, something like that.

But SNCC opened me up to a whole world out there, you know, to identification of oppressed people around the world and the diaspora. And I read a lot. And it helped me understand better who I was, what black people ought to be about. But, also, I met people like (unintelligible) and other people that gave me courage. I said, here's a sharecropper willing to risk her economic future to register to vote, get beat up, locked up and it just demonstrated that it's not how much you know, it's what you feel that's important. And, Charlie, looking back on it, we would look larger than we were.

Mr. COBB: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARRY: I mean, we did a lot of murals and things. But we had a profound impact on this world. And the other thing which I think which I think we had an impact was the Mississippi summer project that Bob Moses put together. And he brought about we brought about a thousand young, white people who were Southern daughters of governors and Time magazine and others. And for their fathers and mothers, to see them get beat up and injured, in jail, opened up Mississippi. That's my view about it, that that opened up Mississippi.

MARTIN: What do you think the legacy of SNCC is for today? Or what do you think the meaning of it is for people today? Because there's always this ongoing, you know, debate about whether young people today are as willing to put themselves on the line as were young people in your, you know, era, despite the fact that there are so many tools that they have for organizing, that you didn't have, like, you know, the Internet, and, like, social media that enables people to get together.

And then of course a lot of young people today will say we care just as much, we express it in a different way. And I just want to ask each of you, what do you think that the lesson is that we could be drawing today from what you all did then?

Mr. BARRY: Well, first of all, I consider ourselves freedom fighters not just for civil rights, but for human rights against war. But, also, it demonstrates with courage and tenacity and commitment, you can overcome almost anything, not just natural civil rights, but in life. That's what it taught me.

MARTIN: Charlie Cobb, what about you?

Mr. COBB: Well, I think two things: Firstly, SNCC and what it did had a ripple effect that caused profound changes in this country that are much larger than, say, voting rights or access to public accommodations. Whether you talk about SNCC changed the national Democratic Party. It was the trigger for the women's movement. It expanded the idea of how you struggle. And you can see that in terms of, say, the gay rights struggle or sexual preference struggle.

So, there are all of these profound changes that are really triggered by SNCC's work in the South. And secondly, if you were here at Raleigh, we have upwards of a thousand people participating in our 50th anniversary. A good chunk of them are young people, and that's part of our legacy. The young people who want to dip into our experience to continue the struggle, so to speak.

MARTIN: Charles Charlie Cobb is a journalist and author. His latest book is "On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail." He's a former field secretary for SNCC. He was kind enough to join us from Raleigh, North Carolina, where there is a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. We were also joined by Marion Barry, a member of the Washington, D.C. city council. A former longtime mayor of the city. He was the first national chairman of SNCC. And I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BARRY: Thank you very much, Michel.

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