A “reporter” asked Stokely Carmichael about the position women held within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Carmichael responded, “prone.” The “reporter” was Carmichael himself. The “press conference” a rare moment of levity during the violence filed days of Mississippi Freedom Summer.
Carmichael and other members of SNCC gathered on a pier with a jug of wine when Carmichael launched into an improvised comedy routine. Carmichael’s one-word response to the “reporter’s” question prompted laughter from the other SNCC members.
Humor often serves as a way for people to address uncomfortable facts. Carmichael’s joke reflected the unfortunate reality of a movement rife with sexism and male privilege.
Let the men handle it
Sabina Peck wrote in the article “The Only Position for Women in SNCC is Prone” that leading movement figures the and male dominated media held the sexist views common during the “Mad Men” era. Roy Wilkins was head of the NAACP, the organization that famously led the school desegregation fight. However Wilkins was not a progressive on women’s issues. He dismissed women such as Fannie Lou Hamer, saying they were “ignorant of the political process, should listen to their [male] leaders just return home.”
SNCC wasn’t free from sexist thinking even though the organization’s advisor and first student leader were women. Lawrence Guyot said that women should step back and let the men lead. Carmichael, however, had no problems working with women or following female leadership.
A woman’s work
Men held most of the movement’s leadership positions. However, women did most of the organizational work. Their efforts were not limited to clerical activities. Peck writes that women between the ages of thirty and 50 were three times more likely than their male counterparts to be involved in the movement.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott made the Rev. Martin Luther King a national leader. Rosa Parks sparked the movement, but she was not the first black women who refused to give her seat to a white person nor was she the only woman activist.The Woman’s Political Council monitored the mistreatment meted out to black riders for years. The group leapt into action after Parks’ arrest, organizing mass rallies at Montgomery’s churches and printing flyers to promote the meetings. Women also organized the cars that shuttled blacks to their jobs during the boycott.
The Army of the Lord
It’s hard to talk about the civil rights movement without also talking about the black church because the movement was church based. The movement’s leaders were men who served spiritual leaders and movement leaders – Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, of the Southern ChristianLeadership Conference, and Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam are all the best examples.
However, church was another institution where women comprised most of the members and did the bulk of the work. The of the WPC organized the bus boycott using skills learned in church. Despite their knowledge of church dogma, politics, their managerial skills most women of faith worship in congregations where they cannot become church pastors.
Drafts of history
Patriarchy prohibited women from rising to leadership ranks in the movement and the church. Patriarchy also excised women’s contribution from the first drafts of the movement’s history. Journalists created the first draft, and they focused on the male dominated leadership. Later drafts written as historical books and biographies provided a more complete view, and were the first to explore the key roles played by women.
Historians such as Juan Williams, the author of the book “Eyes on the Prize,” turned their attention to the contributions of grassroots and community level organizations. These histories were among the first to address the the contributions that women made to the movement. In the 1990s and 2000s, writers such as David Halberstam, Taylor Branch and Diane McWhorter went deeper. Their research highlighted the key of people such as Diane Nash, Ella Baker, Catherine Burks and Fannie Lou Hamer.
The proof of the influence the first draft plays in setting historical priorities can be seen in the fact that Parks and Coretta Scott King are the only female leaders widely known by most people.
Baker might be the most influential leader during the movement’s most active phase. However, when she died in 1986, Baker knew that the sexism that prevented her from rising to a key leadership role would stifle her legacy in death.
That legacy included a healthy skepticism of charismatic leadership and the embrace of a more egalitarian model. Baker’s embrace on a new leadership model sprang from her time working in groups like the NAACP and inspired her to embrace a concept called participatory democracy.
Participatory democracy is a form of group-centered leadership in which all members of a group make decisions about philosophy, strategy and tactics. Baker brought the gospel of participatory democracy to SNCC when she became the group’s advisor. She became a valued advisor and was affectionately known as “Mama Baker” or “Fundi,” a teacher of great wisdom.
By the early 1960s, the civil rights movement was floundering after not scoring a major victory since Montgomery. That changed when the student led sit-in movement managed to end discrimination at stores in Greensboro, N.C. and Nashville, Tn. Chicago native Nash led the Nashville movement. Nash attended historically black Tennessee State University. She became an activist after experiencing open and legal discrimination in Nashville.
After the sit-ins succeeded in ending discrimination in Nashville. a group of college students from HCBU’s from across the south met to plan their next move. They formed SNCC at this meeting and Baker became an advisor. She made several suggestions that would end up being historically significant. First, she encouraged SNCC to embrace participatory democracy. She also encouraged SNCC to resist overtures by the SCLC to merge.
The decision to embrace the participatory democracy model ensured that the SNCC kids examined the leadership potential of all of its members and not just those who fit the image of leaders. That meant that a woman such a Nash or a shy person from a rural community such as John Lewis could become leaders.
SNCC’s decision to remain independent had major historical consequences because it freed the group to be more proactive than the SCLC and NAACP. SNCC members played key roles in the movement’s successful efforts between 1961 and 1965. SNCC students injected energy into the Freedom Rides when the original Freedom Riders from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had been arrested or hospitalized after being attacked.
SNCC members embraced the controversial idea of using grade and high school students to protest discrimination among Birmingham’s downtown stores. The students filled Birmingham’s jails and Police Commissioner’s Eugene “Bull” Connor‘s decision to use brutal police tactics against the children enraged Birmingham’s black middle class elite and led to the ultimate resolution of the civil disobedience campaign known as “Project C.”
SNCC members helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Summer Campaign in 1964 that led to the brutal slaying of three civil rights workers and the organization of the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that challenged the seating of Mississippi’s segregationist delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention.
Nash and other SNCC members and alums began working an plans to fight for voting rights in Alabama in the aftermath of the 1963 church bombing that killed four girls. Their efforts culminated in Selma, Alabama and the ultimately successful march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery in support of voting rights. President Lyndon Johnson was able to push through the Voting Rights Act, perhaps the most significant piece of civil rights legislation, later that year.
SNCC may have been the most effective civil rights organization. That this group was organized and led by women and young people must at the very least force us to examine long held views on and perceptions of leadership.