Crossing the White Line: SNCC in Three Delta Towns, 1963-1967

Article excerpt

IN NOVEMBER 1965, the red lights of a Gould, Arkansas, police car pulled over a vehicle driven by Dwight Williams, a black activist accompanied by a white female. The constable charged Williams with "crossing the white line." Although describing a driving infraction, the phrase could also have referred to the repeated violations of racial etiquette that occurred in Arkansas in the 1960s. In that decade, black and white Arkansans witnessed the dismantling of Jim Crow-a system of laws, customs, mores, and values that had encrusted the South since the Civil War. "The Negro population has been waiting for years for this movement and it has finally arrived. It's a rather incredible experience," noted one black in the Arkansas delta. Another African American insisted that it was not so much that dreams had suddenly come alive, but rather that life finally approximated "the ways things should have been."^sup 1^

Some Arkansas whites, on the other hand, dreaded change. Congressman E. C. (Took) Gathings of West Memphis told the House Rules Committee in 1964 that the "lot of the southern Negro isn't as bad as it is sometimes painted. He understands the members of the white race and they understand him." "We know our niggers a little better than you," a West Helena realtor assured an "outside agitator." But John Bradford, one such "agitator" who came to Helena, did not see the same delta as Gathings and the realtor. "The housing is so bad that when you're inside, you're still outside. We were renting a room and every time it rained, we got wet. There were no bathroom facilities. They [delta blacks] aren't living. They're just existing. They have nothing to be happy about." A black activist in Gould agreed: "We were being oppressed, depressed, held back, kept down.... When you got out of school, you had to migrate to the North or just be stuck in a rut here." A white former resident of Helena returned for a visit in 1963 and sensed the conflict brewing: "The Negro is bearing more on the mind of southerners today than at any time in history. The white southerner is worried. He knows the Negro is seeking his rights but does not know where the next move will be."^sup 2^ The black and white activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were among those plotting these moves.

SNCC was founded at an April 1960 conference at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, after students used sit-ins to integrate Woolworth lunch counters in nearby Greensboro and Nashville, Tennessee. Although no Arkansan attended the April meetings, SNCC leaders immediately recruited students from Philander Smith College, an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church institution founded in 1877 in Little Rock. These new recruits joined veteran Little Rock civil rights activists and began sitins at downtown Woolworths in March 1960. Intra-group rivalries, poor planning, and fear of police reprisals resulted in failure; seating at Woolworth remained segregated.^sup 3^

For the next two and half years, relatively little protest occurred in Arkansas. Ruth Arnold of the Arkansas Council on Human Relations wrote SNCC national headquarters in Septembers 1962 asking for someone to be sent to revitalize the movement in the state. A SNCC secretary promised that James Forman, the organization's executive secretary, or Charles McDew, SNCC's chairman, were on their way. "They are unpredictable," she warned, "but they do seem to be moving in your direction. They descend like acts of God over which neither you nor I have any control." Instead of Forman or McDew, a young white activist from the North, William Hansen, arrived at the campus of Philander Smith on October 24, 1962. Labeled a "professional agitator" by Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, Hansen was, in the words of the Arkansas Gazette, a "lean, intense young man."^sup 4^

Hansen immediately contacted SNCC leaders at Philander Smith and Shorter Junior College and organized a strategy session attended by seven students. …