Echoes of the 1960s: SNCC and White Liberal Participation in Anti-Racist Movements

SNCC’s Atlanta staff in 1963 (Photo by Richard Avedon).

This first summer under the Trump regime resembles the long red-hot summers of the past. It has been filled with demonstrations, deadly clashes, and tenuous confrontations between white supremacists and anti-racist protesters. Trump’s inept responses to these moments of national reckoning have only fueled “both sides” garnering praise from known Ku Klux Klan (KKK) leaders and a bevy of white Americans claiming that “#thisisnotus.” The latter is a familiar but unwelcome refrain for many Black Americans who are tired of being comforted by specious hashtags instead of substantive engagement in the insidious nature of white supremacy. Indeed, today’s call for white liberals to “get their people” mirror those of some activists in the 1960s who suggested that white liberals should organize in their own communities and neighborhoods where white supremacy is “most manifest.”

The Atlanta Project—a group of organizers associated with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—were among the most ardent proponents of this claim. As members of the activist group founded in 1960, they were keen supporters of SNCC’s voter registration drives, community consciousness raising, school desegregation, and civic engagement in Atlanta and across the country.  The group, which included Zohara SimmonsGwen Patton, and Bill Ware, among others, worked to re-elect fellow member Julian Bond, when he was denied his seat in the Georgia State Legislature because of his support for SNCC’s anti-Vietnam War position. They also mobilized residents of the working-class Black Atlanta neighborhood, Vine City, to combat poor wages, housing and transportation inequality, and voter suppression.1 The mobilizing struggles they faced, coupled with SNCC’s changing composition, led Atlanta Project members to question the racial politics of political organizing.

In 1966, Atlanta Project members produced a paper that summarized their position on “the future roles played by white personnel” in the movement. The Georgia-based group acknowledged the important role white liberals had played in SNCC, and civil rights protests writ large. However, they also identified ways in which their participation undercut movement goals. Specifically, Atlanta organizers were concerned about white liberals’ “inability to relate to cultural aspects of black society,” “white-sponsored community myths of black inferiority” that come into play during organizing, and the “unwillingness of whites to deal with the roots of racism” within the white community. They also suggested that while well-meaning, a paternalistic ethos undergirded some white liberals’ participation in movement projects.

Gwen Patton speaking at the University of Cuba in Havana. Photo: Trenholm State Community College Libraries.
Gwen Patton speaking at the University of Cuba in Havana (Photo: Trenholm State Community College Libraries).

Their solution: “white people who desire change in this country should go, where that problem (of racism) is most manifest.” Atlanta Project members contended “that problem is not in the Black community. The white people should go into white communities where the whites have created power for the express purpose of denying Blacks human dignity and self-determination.” They stressed that their “position [did] not stem from ‘hatred’ or ‘racism’ against white people, but from a conscientious effort to develop the best methods for solving our national problem.”2 Atlanta Project members’ position paper had a palpable effect on the trajectory of the organization and civil rights organizing. Previously, all-Black organizing had been a “pragmatic judgment” rather than an “absolute principal” within SNCC.3

After the presentation and discussion of this 1966 position paper—along with Stokely Carmichael’s exclamation of “Black Power” that June —Black Power became SNCC’s official ideological strategy and organizing mantra. The group also expelled white members. As Project supporters like Gwen Patton indicated, those who agreed with this shift did not see it “as divisive, but rather complementary.” It had the potential to “transform the powerless black community into one that could exert its human potential to be an equal partner in the larger society.”

This debate among SNCC members indicates that even those organizations that we now uphold as the pinnacle of interracial cooperation had to reconcile the ways in which white supremacy mitigates commitments to liberal democratic projects. Those within the group had to recognize that even if an individual does not personally champion racist ideas, they are interwoven into all aspects of life including movement organizing. To be sure, there were other factors that led to SNCC becoming an all-Black organization. However, the racial dynamics of the group were a persistent issue of discussion.

To be clear, neither SNCC nor activists today are claiming that white allies are not a critical part of the Black liberation struggleRather, it’s a proposal for a re-orientation to the types of movement work that allies and activists adopt.  It’s a call to stop hiding behind in the linguistics of refusal (“this is not us”) and understand this has and will always be “us” until everyone is as committed to dismantling their daily complicity in white supremacy as they are in punching a Neo-Nazi. As Atlanta Project members indicated, this is vital movement work. It means questioning the ways in which white supremacy makes people agents of white paternalism, divesting from forms of liberalism predicated on triumphant democracies that do not account for Native and Black genocides, and applying the same indignation about imperialism abroad as the militarization of local police forces at home.

The Atlanta Project’s debate of the role of white liberals was part of a long ideological and organizing tradition that includes everyone from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Indeed, a rigorous commitment to liberation requires that we simultaneously engage with the ways in which existing interracial organizing for liberal projects reinforces the very forms of oppression that they seek to defy. To do so is to commit to showing up to protests and publicly denouncing racist structures and ideas. But it also means understanding that sometimes being on the “right side” means examining the roots and manifestations of white supremacy closer to home.

  1.  For more information on the Atlanta Project, see Winston Grady Willis, Challenging U.S. Apartheid: Atlanta and Black Struggles for Human Rights, 1960-1977 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006); Stephen G.N. Tuck, Beyond Atlanta: The Struggle for Racial Equality in Georgia, 1940-1980 (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2003)
  2. “Black Power: A Reprint of the Position Paper for the SNCC Vine City Project, April 1966.”
  3. Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 196.
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Ashley Farmer

Ashley Farmer is an Associate Professor of History and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a graduate of Spelman College and holds a Ph.D. in African American Studies and an M.A. in History from Harvard University. Her book, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, is the first intellectual history of women in the black power movement. Follow her on Twitter @drashleyfarmer.