Charles E. Cobb, Jr. is a distinguished journalist and former member of National Geographic magazine’s editorial staff. From 1962-1967, he served as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi. He currently is Senior Writer and Diplomatic Correspondent for AllAfrica.com, the leading online provider of news from and about Africa. His latest book, published in January 2008, is On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail.
Rakim Brooks recently sat down with Cobb to discuss black politics in the United States, from Cobb’s days with SNCC to today. (The interview has been edited for style and length.)
Rakim Brooks: If we’re trying to think about what black politics looks like today, we need a point of comparison, and what better point of comparison is there than the 1960s, which many consider to be the height of black political engagement in this country.
Professor Cobb, let’s start with your involvement as a field secretary in SNCC. What exactly was a field secretary meant to do in the Mississippi movement and how did you carry out that role?
Charles Cobb, Jr.: The short answer to that question is that a SNCC field secretary was a grassroots organizer. In the 1960s, for the first time, you begin to see young people taking on leadership roles via sit-ins through, at first, the development of SNCC and then through the transformation of student protesters into grassroots organizers. This has a lot to do with the influence of Ella Baker, one of the great figures of twentieth-century political struggles. Ms. Baker taught us to organize from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.
Perhaps because we were young, and again Ms. Baker’s influence had a lot to do with this, we chose to go into rural areas in some of the toughest places in the South: the Mississippi Delta, Southwest Georgia, the Arkansas Delta, central Alabama. In those places, we attempted to organize people to see their own potential, to see that they had rights, and the right to assert those rights. As field secretaries we, to use a term that took on a different meaning during the Iraq War, “embedded” ourselves in these rural communities. We lived in the homes of poor people. This was, in many ways, a new approach and certainly a radical approach, in the sense of the people we chose to work with: sharecroppers, maids, cooks, day laborers, factory workers.
We did the patient, even boring, day-to-day work of sitting on porches talking to people amid a lot of fear. There was a lot of white terror, and people weren’t going to get up and register to vote just because you asked them to. You had to sit down and talk to people, give them a chance to judge you, to know you, because they were going to be putting their lives, their jobs, and their families at risk.
RB: What was Ms. Baker’s view of leadership and how did you understand the black freedom struggle, given her influence on SNCC?
CC: Ms. Baker had this vast body of experience that extended back before we were born. Ms. Baker had been, as a younger woman, the director of southern branches of the NAACP. She became, after the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, the acting executive director of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In fact, she played a major role in organizing the SCLC. She was acting director because she was a woman, in an organization of black preachers that had a lot of trouble with women in leadership roles.
When the sit-ins broke out in February 1960, Ms. Baker realized immediately that something significant was happening in the black college community. She persuaded MLK to put up the money to bring student leadership from these movements—almost 200 of them—together because none of the students from different sit-ins knew each other. King gave the money because he was looking for a student arm to his organization, but once students got together, Ms. Baker told us, “You don’t need to be a part of this organization. You need to have conversations among yourselves about the kind of organization you want.” Out of that came SNCC.
Ms. Baker stressed the need for grassroots organizing because that’s what she had done with the NAACP. She was frustrated with MLK’s organization because it was very hierarchical and wasn’t particularly interested in her notion about organizing. She saw that the students might work with her and put her ideas into practice.
Gradually, students decided to commit, for various lengths of time, to this work, and using Ms. Baker’s contacts began to spread across the South. SNCC began its project in Mississippi. Ms. Baker sent a student, Bob Moses, to Mississippi civil rights leader Amzie Moore, who said, “I like those sit-ins, I admire those sit-ins, but I’m not interested in that here. I want a voter registration project because there are enough black people that, if you could get them registered to vote, we could get rid of some these sheriffs and mayors who have been brutalizing us for the past century.”
Those were new ideas to us. We hadn’t thought about voter registration or organizing people for political power or, as a friend of mine says, for regime change. Ms. Baker was planting all of those ideas, and in doing so shaping the direction that SNCC would continue in.
RB: You’ve mentioned SCLC and SNCC. There was also the NAACP and the Regional Conference of Negro Leadership (RCNL). What happened to these organizations after 1968 and what did those transitions mean to black political strivings in the United States?
CC: There are two separate issues here. One question, why didn’t SNCC continue to exist? And the other is about these local organizations that SNCC and other groups organized—what happened to them?
After we got the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, a lot of groups that we had cultivated were absorbed into the Democratic Party. That’s essentially what happened to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and Alabama’s Lowndes County Freedom Organization, two organizations that SNCC had a big hand in organizing. This is a great irony. All of the attention that we brought to these areas of the Deep South led the nation’s establishment to realize that it better not leave SNCC alone in these places, and SNCC didn’t really have the capacity to block that.
Prior to 1965, the attitude of a lot of people, the NAACP for instance, was that these places were too difficult to work in. Plus, the white leadership of southern states—the “Dixiecrats”—was politically powerful, part of the national ruling establishment. I think the key moment is the challenge by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to the all-white Democratic Party of Mississippi. Once it became apparent that powerful voices and forces were developing in this state, like Fannie Lou Hammer or Annie Devine, the establishment decided to step in.
At the same time, a lot more money came into the states we were working in. A lot of the people we were working with became a part of Head Start and various kinds of poverty programs. We were too young to really know how to respond effectively. How could we tell poor sharecroppers or maids making a few dollars a day to walk away from poverty program salaries or stipends?
Further, we were struggling to figure out what to do with our own organization. We were struggling with what to do with success, what to do with victory. We had accomplished what we set out to do initially—to get a voting rights act and bring down the racial barriers in public accommodations. So the question was, as MLK put it in the title of his book in 1967, where do we go from here? We never really solved that problem.
RB: Did anyone solve that problem?
CC: It depends on who you talk to. There are people who would say yes. Then there are others, like me. We still haven’t figured out how to provide quality public education; we still haven’t figured out how to deal with the poorest of the poor in our communities. There’s an expanding divide between those who have and those who have-not.
RB: Is your view common among SNCC alumni?
CC: I think so, yes. A lot of us are still struggling with that question in various kinds of ways—some as teachers, some as activists, like Hollis Watkins, who was the first student in McComb, Mississippi to sit in. He has his own organization, Southern Echo, which does good work. Marian Wright Edelman, who comes out of the Atlanta student movement, is a major advocate for children and among other things has built a freedom school program within her Children’s Defense Fund organization. I can point to other people in the South and in the North who were associated with SNCC and who still continue in the struggle.
I would say a majority of the people who were involved in SNCC apply what they learned, and what they were committed to, today.
RB: Do you and other former SNCC organizers still have regular conversations about the state of black politics in general, and grassroots organizing in particular?
CC: Yes. As just one example, in Mississippi there is an organization called the Veterans of the Mississippi Movement. They meet and have a big conference every year.
There’s another veterans group in the Bay Area and another in Chicago, and people in other cities like Washington come and see one another. We actually have organized a SNCC Legacy Project that we’ve incorporated as a tax-exempt educational foundation; we’re trying to develop a website and encourage writing about the movement and oral histories.
It’s a continuing conversation. And it’s a different conversation. We’re all a lot older [laughter] so obviously the conversation has a twenty-first-century bent, which is different than a conversation from the mid-twentieth century. But it’s still a conversation about what black people need.
RB: What is it that black people need? What comes out of these conversations?
CC: Different kinds of projects; there’s no general answer. One big topic is education. It’s the one issue we never really tackled. Can you get for kids in inner cities—primarily black and Hispanic kids and maybe to a certain degree poor whites—can you actually guarantee quality schools that provide a quality education, so when students come out of the twelfth grade they can enroll in the colleges they want to without having to take remedial courses? That’s an organizing task, just the way voter registration was an organizing task.
Another big conversation is the erosion of civil liberties in the name of national security. We have to fight, to protect civil liberties. That was part of the fight of the civil rights movement and it is a continuing fight now.
RB: Let’s go back to how those earlier organizations got absorbed into the Democratic Party. There are similar conversations going on at this moment about how organizations that were doing their own work became institutionalized through their integration into Obama for America. Occupy Wall Street is having its own conversations about how not to become a tool of the Democratic Party, even though labor and other institutional forces have tried to figure out how to incorporate it into the structure.
CC: That’s a constant struggle. If you do something progressive, then establishment forces will try to incorporate it into their operation. You have to constantly be on the alert for that.
This raises one of the weaknesses of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The best protection against being absorbed by the establishment against one’s will is deep roots in the community. OWS never reached out to the community. There were encampments in downtown areas. They had conversations among themselves, but nobody was knocking on doors in the neighborhood, no one was speaking to churches. That’s where the real work lies—then and now. And without it, you will get absorbed by the establishment. And even with deep roots, it is very, very difficult.
At the same time, this interaction always happens. OWS has forced a conversation in Washington, D.C. about the influence of money. The labor unions and the Democratic Party will try to use that. There’s no escaping that.
RB: You seem to have your thumb on the pulse of black institutions that are fighting the good fight on behalf of the black community. Are those groups as numerous as they were in the 1970s? Today we have the sense that you all had many more groups.
CC: Two things: one, you have more blacks now in powerful establishment positions than you had in the 1950s or 1960s: the Congressional Black Caucus, Barack Obama as president, blacks on corporate boards, blacks at schools like Brown, where I’m a visiting professor. Unfortunately, blacks in those positions don’t use those positions as militantly as they should. The CBC really doesn’t take enough advantage of its position. They confuse position with power.
Second, there are probably more black and student activist organizations than there were in the 1960s. Back then, there weren’t a lot of those groups once you got past the sit-in groups. What is interesting to look at is the interaction between the community and black student activists. There is very little today, by comparison. Maybe it will occur. I’m watching it to see and I’m encouraging it.
RB: Let’s take up the point about militancy. What would it look like for the CBC to be militant and what would they be militant in service of?
CC: There are three issues that you can pick from. The CBC should pick up Bob Moses’s call for quality public education as a civil right and a constitutional right. Launch a fight to have that guarantee placed in the Constitution! The CBC should take the lead in fighting this assault on civil liberties in the name of national security. And the CBC should take the lead in forcing legislation to protect us from the corporate power that keeps so many people poor.
RB: Are there any forces in American life that do any of those things?
CC: There are certainly activist groups that take these things on. Taking on money and corporate power, that’s what drove OWS. In southern communities, you see other kinds of activism. What you don’t see, in the black establishment, is a lot of militancy. I’m not sure if that’s the right word; the point is that they get cozy up there. They got money and they got position and they get comfortable.
RB: Is the president comfortable, by this measure?
CC: Certainly. This is not to doubt his sincerity. He is who he is. He tends to be conservative, by which I mean cautious. You don’t get to be president without being conservative in your approach, whether you’re white or black. But obviously he’s comfortable, both materially and in his own mind. I think Obama wants to do good things. But he’s never going to take a radical approach to anything. He’s not made up that way.
RB: Does it require a certain level of discomfort to do what you’re talking about?
CC: I think so. Something has to grate on your system. In a sense, it was easier for us because what grated on our system was so blatantly wrong.
RB: The prison industrial complex and police brutality are blatantly wrong to most in the black community. Being murdered while being handcuffed is as bad as having dogs attack you. Why then is there not…
CC: Public outrage? Well, every now and then you see an outbreak of outrage over this. But take, for example, Prince George’s County in Maryland. When I was a kid in Washington, Prince George’s County was farm country, where the redneck cops on the D.C. police force came from.
Today, Prince George’s is the center of black power in Maryland and maybe the richest black community in the United States. It also has one of the highest instances of police violence. You’d say, “Wait a second, these are black people,” but they’re in the establishment.
I’m really oversimplifying, but people at the top, whether they are black or they are white, don’t much care for people at the bottom. In fact, they feel threatened by people at the bottom. I think that’s almost a rule. The reason we have such trouble in public schools in inner cities populated by black people and governed by black people is that most of the black establishment does not send their children to those public schools. So one question you have to ask is, how do we apply pressure on that establishment?
In some ways that’s a different kind of question than the one we were wrestling with in the 1960s, though in other ways it’s the same kind of question.
RB: There’s been this proliferation in my generation of multiple notions of blackness. Multiple black identities have always existed but there’s a certain insistence in this moment to accentuate these differences. Touré has his Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness and Baratunde recently released How to be Black. I’ve noticed throughout this conversation how you talked about “the community,” which seems to implicitly refer to poor blacks as constituting the community.
CC: In some ways, I’m ambivalent about this trend. The black community I grew up in as a kid doesn’t exist today. I’m there, in my community, with the numbers runners, the doctors, the teachers, everybody was there. That’s not true today. You have rich black communities and poor black communities. What do they have in common? I’m still trying to think that through, what the black community is.
At another level, I don’t sweat it too much. I don’t think about how to be black and who is black. I just don’t. I trust my gut on this. You’ll never see a book by me on “How to be black at Brown University.”
RB: I raised this issue because I’ve wondered if the conversation about blackness is indicative of this divide. Does it demonstrate that elite blacks are not as frustrated by society, that they have different concerns from previous generations, that they can be included without too much fuss?
CC: The ways blacks were affected by racism prior to the mid-1960s cut right through class. It didn’t matter whether you had a Ph.D. and a high-paying job and a chauffeured car; if you tried to pee at the wrong Alabama gas station, you got shot down. That’s how raw things were. It affected everybody, and because it did it molded a kind of bond. You could sit down and talk with the richest black person on earth and, if you were in Mississippi, you have something in common: what the white people are doing to us.
That’s really not true now. Although racism still exists, as anybody watching the various assaults on Obama can see, moneyed blacks are cushioned from the large effects of racism. This is a much more complicated conversation than what I’m saying to you. But, increasingly, black elected officials see their futures as being bound up with the policies of the establishment, and don’t see themselves explicitly as black politicians. Again, Barack Obama is a great example of this now. He’s not the black president and never claimed to be. And even the CBC, which is on one level an explicitly a black caucus, functions as a part of the Democratic Party establishment. They are not connected to the “black” community organizations much beyond getting elected and re-elected.