“We got caught up in the movement…I washed up on the shores of Mississippi [from the North]” proclaimed journalist and author Charles “Charlie” Cobb, as he discussed his organic entrée into the civil rights movement as a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field secretary. Cobb’s sentiments were largely shared by the other panelists, which included Courtland Cox, Ivanhoe Donaldson, Larry Rubin, and Robert “Bob” Parris Moses—all of whom were northerners actively engaged in the herculean struggle for civil and human rights as it was waged by SNCC. During the classical phase of the black freedom struggle (ca. 1954-1968), SNCC emerged as one of the preeminent civil rights organizations, involving themselves in the era’s now iconic moments, such as the 1963 March on Washington and the student sit-in’s proliferating throughout the American South.
While these watershed episodes in history crystallized SNCC’s place within the pantheon of civil rights organizations, the aptly titled conversation “Where Do We Go From Here?” facilitated by Princeton’s Center for African American Studies (CAAS), urged its intellectual congregants to consider the quotidian struggles experienced by the architects of SNCC and the communities they served. This bottom-up approach to understanding the energizing force and relevance of SNCC, according to Professor Imani Perry, offers a “corrective” to the popular memory and historiography of the civil rights struggle and the tendency to privilege the movement’s heroes and its conspicuous victories. In other words, this community-centric rubric goes beyond expressing how the benevolent few rose to the mantle; rather, it demonstrates how communities of activists and community folks alike, were the real powerbrokers in the modern quest for civil and human rights.
Perhaps more salient than the trope of “getting caught up in the movement,” was the fact that these men lived to tell their stories. Their macabre tales of dodging death in the wilderness of the South’s most notorious states, stand as a testament to the physical and psychological costs of challenging systemic racism and inequality, a debt SNCC and its foot soldiers were all too willing to pay with their own lives. Their staggering display of courage—then and now—remind me of the stalwart shoulders on which this generation rests. In the midst of global socio-political unrest, the Occupy Wall Street campaign, and the troubling politics of the budding Voter ID laws, I wonder if we are up for the imminent challenges ahead? Are we capable of getting “caught up in the movement” in the same way that our foreparents did? Are we equipped to sustain this rich legacy of fearlessness in the face of adversity? How can scholars and archivists participate in the communities and movements that we seek to preserve? Finally, to draw upon Courtland Cox’s appeal at the close of the conversation: Are you prepared to make justice your life’s work?
For more information on CAAS’ programs related to SNCC, visit the following links: