Replicating History in a Bad Way? White Activists and Black Power in SNCC's Arkansas Project

Article excerpt

STOKELY CARMICHAEL, CHAIRMAN of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1966-1967, derided what he viewed as the "media-driven" version of the civil rights organization's history, which suggested that "SNCC began as an 'integrated' group devoted to a mystical Christian vision of a communal 'beloved society' before the rise of an intolerant 'black nationalism' ruined this interracial Eden."1 This simplistic version of the organization's trajectory has become a crucial part of what Brian Ward has identified as the "master narrative" of the movement, which is found "not just in the pages of many popular high school and college surveys of postwar American history, but also in public celebrations . . . journalistic accounts, memoirs of activists, novels set in Movement days, Hollywood feature films, popular songs, and television dramas and documentaries on the subject."2 Analyses of this kind hinge upon a turning point, after which the noble ideals of the movement were supposedly irrevocably lost.3 Writing in 1967, historian C. Vann Woodward, in answering "what happened to the civil rights movement," decried the black nationalist politics of the era as having "the unmistakable quality of fantasy and a tenuous contact with reality." 4

This "media-driven" interpretation, which glorifies early, integrationist civil rights leaders and vilifies black nationalists as white-hating separatists, has often been accompanied by much hand-wringing over the fate of the white activists who, as the story goes, enthusiastically and at great personal risk joined the organization only to be asked to leave as SNCC assumed a more black nationalist posture from 1966 onwards. The 2008 documentary film, The Jewish Americans, after highlighting the extraordinary and numerically disproportionate involvement of Jews in the freedom struggle, recounts the expulsion of whites from SNCC. A fiery speech by Stokely Carmichael is juxtaposed with footage of some middle-aged Jewish women emotionally describing their sadness at being "asked . . . to leave the movement." Rabbi Rachel Cowen recalls, "We wanted to be loved in return, and we weren't, and that was painful."5

Other SNCC activists remembered being similarly pained. Abbie Hoffman claimed that the expulsion of whites from SNCC made him feel "like a schmuck."6 Casey Hayden recalled that, "To me [the movement] was everything: home and family, food and work, love and a reason to live. When I was no longer welcome there, and then when it was no longer there at all, it was hard to go on."7 For their part, some of the black SNCC members who, for a variety of reasons, began to favor black separatism later expressed a sense of guilt. For example, Ethel Minor remembered feeling torn about the decision afterward, particularly as it pertained to Bob Zellner, the first white to join SNCC. She recalled, "Here was someone who had been on the front lines before I came into the organization. No one wanted to look at Bob afterwards."8

A close examination of the activities of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas, however, reveals a more complex narrative. Although some white SNCC activists there also felt devalued and discarded, there was a far broader range of responses among white members of the Arkansas Project to the system of beliefs identified with the phrase "Black Power." Some white SNCC staffers in Arkansas came to understand that they had inadvertently reinforced the racial order they were seeking to unravel. Many underwent profound political changes as they sought ways to dismantle and disavow white privilege. Some even began to move toward a political position that can best be described as black nationalism and had to redefine their relationships to the civil rights movement as a result.

From its founding in 1960 onwards, SNCC was a predominantly black organization. Whites were not involved in significant numbers until what has become known as the "Freedom Summer" of 1964, when over eight hundred volunteers-three-quarters of them white, northern, college students- streamed into Mississippi to aid in voter registration drives. …


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