Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Michael Simmons

SNCC Re-evaluated: Racism in the Civil Rights Movement

First Published: The Organizer, Vol. 7, No. 9, October 1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Marxist-Leninists have a responsibility to sum up history based on the most advanced understanding of the class struggle. The lessons learned from the OCIC’s Campaign against Racism and Accommodation has necessitated a re-evaluation of, not just the communist movement, but all significant progressive movements. Clayborne Carson’s new book, In Struggle, SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960’s, provides a starting point for such a process in relation to one of the most important expressions of the modern Black Liberation Movement.

SNCC (Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee) was the most dynamic of the major civil rights organizations. Founded and led by Blacks, SNCC was in the vanguard of the militancy that characterized the Southern freedom movement. Growing from a campus-based organization that coordinated sit-ins and disseminated information, SNCC grew into an organization that at its peak had over 60 staff people and hundreds of volunteers working in communities throughout the South. It also developed a Northern support apparatus that had a presence in most major cities in this country.

Carson’s presentation of SNCC’s history, is the best to date, but it fails to target the fundamental contradiction in the organization – racism and accommodation. Instead, he chooses to see it as one group of Blacks who viewed SNCC through idealistic spiritual philosophies that transcended race, vs. another group who viewed the movement in terms of a Black movement that had race at its centerpiece. Rather than seeing the racism of the white members of SNCC in manipulating these two trends in SNCC, Carson sees the role of whites as basically that of passive observers reacting to these two trends. It should be noted that Carson’s perspective on this coincides with other written accounts of SNCC, either by former members or observers of the organization.

Carson discusses SNCC in three phases. The first phase is the transition from a student-based organization to one of full-time organizers who lived in the communities in which they worked. The strategy was to break down racist barriers to public accommodations and voting by building local organizations. Although struggle emerged in SNCC from the beginning on the role of whites in this effort, the dominant trend was for SNCC to be fundamentally a Black organization.

Carson states that SNCC’s initial efforts in Georgia and Mississippi were met with severe police repression and minimum concrete success. He says that SNCC’s initial response to this was to set up a public relations operation that was geared to the Northern white liberal community. But he fails to critique the basis of this decision, its political impact nor any political alternatives that SNCC could have chosen.


SNCC’s response to racism was to be fatalistic toward the overt racism of Southern whites, while liquidating the racist paternalism of Northern whites. This led SNCC to develop a political strategy of an alliance with Northern white liberals, basically writing off any possibility of winning Southern whites to seeing the civil rights movement as being in their interest. SNCC allowed Northern white liberals to posture about their anti-racism at the expense of white Southerners. White SNCC workers were never consistently challenged to take up struggle in the white communities. Had there been a sustained, successful effort by SNCC to build a movement of Blacks and white Southerners, it would have proven to be more durable than relying on the vacillating liberals in the Democratic Party.

Initially, the political impact of SNCC’s strategy was most obvious in the North. Carson fails to draw out any consequences to SNCC’s Northern operation being run mainly by whites and for the liberal community. The clearest contradiction that was posed was, that the most militant organization in the Southern movement was virtually unknown in the Black community in the North, until the advent of Black Power. During this period, there was never any attempt by the whites in the Northern offices to mobilize political support in the Black community for SNCC’s work.


Another consequence was the recruitment of Northern Blacks. Many Blacks who joined SNCC through official SNCC channels had to be approved by whites. In Philadelphia, for example, when I wanted to become a member of SNCC, I had to go through a series of interviews with a white college teacher. I and other Black applicants had to explain to her why we wanted to join the Black civil rights movement! The questions were always focused on our commitment to working with white people and checking to see if we had any latent nationalist tendencies. Our views on organizing Black people and the problems facing the movement were either not asked or were ignored. In this context of seeking the most accommodationist Black people, those who did not show enough appreciation for the whites working in the civil rights movement were rejected. White people were also interviewed. However, similar attention was never paid to their racism. The assumption was that if they wanted to work in the civil rights movement, they couldn’t be racist!

It is in SNCC’s second phase where this perspective developed into a political strategy of an alliance with Northern white liberals. This led the organization to be constantly concerned with the views of their “allies” before making major political decisions. To consolidate the alliance, a Summer Project was developed that would bring 1,000 Northern white liberal college students to work in Mississippi. The political rational for this was that the only way to gain national attention about the conditions and repression of Blacks in Mississippi was for the bourgeoisie’s sons and daughters to be faced with the same situation. This resulted in SNCC focusing its recruiting not on Southern Blacks, but on Northern whites. Black SNCC workers who opposed whites coming into Mississippi were put on the defensive to prove their anti-racism. They were challenged to “rise above race” and “not to segregate themselves.” In this context, the arguments that whites tended to assume leadership roles and that their presence reinforced patterns of racial dependence were treated as narrow, subjective, and based on insecurity. Confrontations with the racism of the white volunteers were viewed as “racial outbursts” or “tirades.” The underlying assumption was that accusations of racism were not based on the concrete reality of SNCC. In fact, Blacks’ reaction to the racism of the whites in the movement were subjected to analysis by two psychiatrists.


On the other hand, the views of whites were never subjected to the same scrutiny. Carson quotes these views without any critical comment on the racism of their formulations. The fact that many Blacks felt that merely coming to Mississippi was not an inherently anti-racist stance and that people still had to prove their commitment to the struggle against racism was seen solely as hostility and Black nationalism. Carson allows statements like “I want to be your friend, you Black idiot” to be summed up as “unconscious prejudice.” Many of the reactions of the whites to working under Black leadership during the summer were similarly racist. Carson consistently accommodates their racism by stating that “white civil rights workers became targets of Black frustrations.” He quotes one white volunteer’s assessment of a sharp struggle in the Jackson, Mississippi office as a “race riot.” Needless to say, no psychological studies were made to speak to the basis of these formulations.

The social patterns of many SNCC workers changed as a result of the Summer Project. Prior to the Summer Project, the Black SNCC workers socialized with the local residents. Social activities was the one common ground to relate to people, regardless of their political perspective. However, during the Summer Project many Black civil rights workers began to socialize more with the white volunteers and a gap between SNCC and the Black community began to develop in many projects. By beating back criticisms of racism of the white volunteers, many Black SNCC workers played the role of the overseer for the white volunteers. Criticism made by the community residents over the loose morality and hygiene of many of the volunteers were passed off as Blacks being “hung up on middle class values.” Blacks who did not want to socialize in an interracial context and who opposed interracial relationships were ridiculed. In particular, Black women who opposed these social patterns were viewed as narrow, subjective, and jealous.

However, the predominant form of racism in SNCC was paternalism. Carson fails to bring this out perhaps because he, like most SNCC workers, viewed it as respect. White volunteers often ignored the leadership of Blacks and failed to make their views known. Many would attempt to exalt the least political Black person by projecting the view that being poor and oppressed made Blacks inherently profound. Rather than developing political relations, the volunteers’ relationships with Blacks were fundamentally personal. White who cultured this accommodation to their racism were seen as positive by most Blacks in SNCC.

The failure of SNCC to face squarely its acceptance of this racist paternalism led to the third phase of SNCC. This phase, though fundamentally positive, was undermined because of this failure. After the Summer Project, SNCC was seeking new directions and was critical of much of its past. Most significantly, the alliance of white liberals with the civil rights movement was called into question. However, because the strategy was not understood in terms of racism and accommodation to racism, the result was a one-sided reaction to racism.

Carson approaches this in a chapter called “Racial Separatism,” which focuses on the Atlanta Project of SNCC. The Atlanta Project was developed to mobilize Blacks to support Julian Bond, who had lost his seat in the Georgia Legislature because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. Soon after its inception, based on trying to organize in Atlanta, the Project members began to make a critique of SNCC’s historic strategy of alliance with Northern white liberals. The Project’s position was that the presence of whites compromised the struggle for a positive racial identity for Black people. They felt that for SNCC to be significant in the struggle for Black liberation, it should be a Black organization and that whites should leave the organization. The Atlanta Project was also critical of the arguments that SNCC should not take a critical stance to the War in Vietnam, in particular, and American foreign policy, in general, because it would alienate SNCC’s white supporters.

The internal struggle that the Atlanta Project precipitated caused SNCC to change its direction. A fundamental change in leadership occurred and SNCC became the forerunner of the Black Power Movement. Carson concedes the correctness of the Atlanta Project’s perspective, but he is critical of its efforts. He suggests that its major weakness was that because some of the leading members were relatively new to SNCC, it did not appreciate SNCC’s history as a “race-less communal organization.” Rather than rejecting this myth, the Atlanta Project made a critique of it and the failure of the political strategy that developed out of it.

Having been a member of the Atlanta Project and integral to its critique of SNCC and the civil rights movement, I see that the Project’s weaknesses caused it to virtually self-destruct as a viable entity within SNCC. While a correct critique was made concerning the racism of the whites in the civil rights movement, we did not understand what allowed it to exist. Rather than take up the question of accommodation to racism, whereby all project members would have had to be self-critical, it placed the total blame on the whites in SNCC. This resulted in the Atlanta Project taking an organizational approach to a political problem. The Atlanta Project’s failure to grapple with accommodation to racism caused it to see the solution to racism in SNCC as voting whites out of SNCC. Instead, the Project should have struggled with the question of principled multi-national unity. This would have meant not only an on-going struggle against racism in the organization, but also a similar struggle with accommodation to racism.

Carson details the demise of SNCC, as it tried to orient itself to changing political realities. However, Carson fails to sum up this history by critical comments on the liquidation of the racism of Northern whites by SNCC, the failure of SNCC’s political strategy during its second phase, and how all these compromised the struggles during SNCC’s third phase. Moreover, this history continues to be played out in the people’s movement by the failure to address racism and accommodation. For principled multi-national unity to become a reality, a self-critical look at this issue is a prerequisite. Carson’s book does present a wealth of information to aid in this effort.