In the summer of 1964, hundreds of volunteers from across the country descended on rural Mississippi to register African-Americans to vote at time when poll taxes, intimidation and violence robbed them of the franchise in the South.
Fannie Rushing was one of the young activists with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who braved white supremacists and violent mobs opposed to the voter registration campaign. She had become involved with SNCC as a teenager growing up in Hyde Park. She later left college to become a full-time staff member of the organization. Now a professor of history at Benedictine University in Lisle, Rushing is a key organizer of a three-day conference that explores the legacy of the Mississippi Summer Project and features several former SNCC organizers.
The conference seeks to build a bridge between two generations of activists – members of SNCC and today’s young organizers for racial justice.
“It’s not a history that gets known,” Rushing said of SNCC. “In many ways, the young movements today, what they call rapid response movements, are in a posture very similar to where SNCC was after the success of the student sit-in movement.”
The Chicago Reporter, a co-sponsor of the conference, interviewed Rushing about her experiences in SNCC, the principles guiding its work and why the organization is relevant today.
SNCC’s voter registration campaign culminated with the Mississippi Summer Project in 1964, but the group spent several years organizing around voting rights in the South. What do you think inspired activists to take on the risk of physical danger to do this work?
If you want to understand the question you’re asking better, there’s a book by Cleveland Sellers called River of No Return, which is about just that. How did young people in that moment decide to excuse school, work and very much excuse social life? Because most people were not interested in doing the things that we were interested in doing … If you went to a party, you were going to raise money, and often in defiance of people’s parents. Both of my parents are from Mississippi, and my father could not even begin to imagine why somebody would want to go to Mississippi.
What was your family’s reaction?
They were terrified. Of course, I did not understand the terror at the time because I didn’t grow up there. I grew up here with a different sense about terror, about protest, about social movements, and one of the things that emerged from the whole experience for me of course was just an extraordinary respect for the local people who engaged in the struggle [in Mississippi]. They knew what the dangers were. Everyone had a member of their family who had either been lynched or had been tortured, or had been brutalized in some way. So they knew what was at stake, they knew they could lose their jobs, their homes, everything. And yet they were committed to doing this.
For us, I mean you’re young, you’re 17, 18, 19 years old. You don’t have any fear of death. You don’t have any fear of anything. You think you’re invincible, and the other thing is, the movement became your entire life. I mean it was not only all-consuming, it was where you worked, it was where you prayed, it was where you socialized, it was everything. And it was also family, because for some people, their families had said, ‘You know, if you go there and do this, don’t every come back here again.’ Well I mean people get over that but nevertheless at the time, it’s sad. You don’t know and so you come to rely on SNCC for everything.
How did you sustain yourself while doing this work?
Well, that’s just it, we worked full time for the organization. People in the South got $10 a month, and in the North, you got $27 a month. I can still remember when we got the check. You put your money together to make dinner. You put your money together to buy groceries. And if somebody had some money, they chipped that in. It was a very communal experience. And of course it was a very different time. I mean people were wonderful. People would invite you for dinner, make you food, and in the South, people lived in the homes of sharecroppers, and even though [the sharecroppers] had nothing, they would see that you were fed. The purpose of the Friends of SNCC office was to raise money to pay the salaries, but there were only 250 people on staff. It was the bare minimum, and the idea was that you were supposed to give your whole life to what it was that we were doing.
What were the most daunting moments for you when you were working in the South?
The day we arrived [in Mississippi], we were told a young black man had been arrested for allegedly saying something to a white woman and the plan was to take him out of the jail that night and kill him. Well, this changed the equation because here we are with two buses full of kids. Local people had agreed to house us, and the local church had agreed to let us use the church for the Freedom School. But now people were terrified. They were terrified for this young man, they were terrified for possible reprisals against them, and they certainly realized even more that housing civil rights workers was only going to cause people to be more agitated.
So the question was are [the locals] going to honor their commitment and if not, what are we going to do?The community decided that they were going to honor their commitment …
So it’s time to leave the church and go home and the Klan is outside. People were walking down these dirt roads. People are singing to give yourself courage. You were singing to unite yourself with others, and as you go your separate ways, you realize this may be it. … I remember the house I was staying in along with another SNCC person. The Klansmen surrounded the house and started the usual chicanery of burning the cross, and they were shooting into the air. And I remember we were lying on the floor and I wanted to call my parents because I wanted to say goodbye. [The Klansmen] were just up to trying to frighten us … But from about 9 o’clock that night until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, nobody had any idea whether or not they were going to come out or not.
What advice do you have for the current generation of young black activists?
I try not to give advice because as Miss [Ella] Baker said to us, this is not our time, it’s not our movement and we have to respect their time, we have to respect their tactics. They have to shape the movement in the context of their realities. We can’t really give them any advice. We appreciate what they are doing, try to be a support when necessary but don’t give them advice. First of all, young people don’t listen to advice and they shouldn’t. You have to make your own history. We did ours and fortunately we had elders like Miss Baker who could say to us, you know, don’t become the youth wing of the SCLC, don’t become the youth wing of the NAACP – something all of the national organizations wanted. She said you know this is your time. You create your own organization and fortunately we did.
In many ways, in the young movements today, what they call rapid response movements are in a posture very similar to where SNCC was after the success of the student sit-in movement because in a very short period of time, the sit-in movement produced the total desegregation of lunch counters throughout the South. But the question was where do you go from here? Bob Moses [a SNCC leader] went back to Mississippi and asked people what is the thing you want and to almost a person they thought it was very nice that we had desegregated lunch counters and everything but that wasn’t their issue. What they wanted was the right to vote.
The Mississippi Summer Project mobilized volunteers to come to the South to work on voting rights. Can you talk about the participation of groups that were not directly affected by the issue and how that affected organizing efforts?
What does the presence of outsiders, be they white, be they black Northerners, black middle-class people—who certainly could share some things with rural people in Mississippi and they weren’t as bad as whites — but you know their eyes were pretty, too. So it was an education for everyone and certainly there were tensions around that. Everyone knows there came to be a moment when SNCC said to whites, you have to leave the organization and [that was devastating], particularly for those people who had been beaten, who had been threatened and certainly been cut off from their families and friends … So for those whites who came to work under those circumstances, when they were told that they had to go home, some of them didn’t get over it for years. Now many of them did, and they came to realize that it was a moment in the struggle when indeed that was what had to happen.
It was a very uncomfortable moment but most of them are the better for it. They have a different understanding of political process, they have a different understanding than your traditional white liberal who has never been confronted with a situation where you are told if you are coming to Mississippi to work on the Summer Project, you need to understand that you are not there to direct the project. You are going to be taking direction from people who are sharecroppers, people who have never been to school but who are extremely intelligent and know what they want. … And if you can’t do that, we’ll send you home right away – and lots of people got sent home. And I mean they were good people, but they just were not accustomed to being told what to do by poor sharecroppers. And so it was a difficult adjustment, some people made it other people couldn’t make it, and like I said, for those people who did, they are better people for it.
“Black-only” organizing continues to be method used by activists today. Can you tell me more about how and why SNCC came to embrace that approach?
These tensions had been brewing before the Summer Project. There had been some big discussions that led to the Summer Project about whether or not this was a good idea [to include whites]. Interestingly enough one of the people who is coming to the conference, Hollis Watkins, opposed the idea of bringing white volunteers to Mississippi. He thought it was a terrible, terrible idea. He was a native Mississippian. Mrs. [Fannie Lou] Hamer, on the other hand, thought it was a great idea. And so since 1963, really, these discussions had been going on about the role of whites in the movement, and by ’65, it had really blown up into a major major issue and a major determination that ‘Yeah, you’ve got to go.’
There were two [reasons]. There was always this fear that getting people to recognize their own power in a situation such as Mississippi was a slow process. I mean, you know, it wasn’t that [black] people just automatically started thinking ‘Oh, I can do anything I want to do.’ It’s a long slow process and the fear was that if there were large numbers of whites there it diminished the ability that poor blacks had the right, the ability, the responsibility to make their own change, and that you couldn’t do it without white help.
That was one side of it. Many of the people who came stayed even after they were told to go because they had become quite happy [in Mississippi] and in many ways it was very rewarding. But what people were told was ‘Look, you need to go and organize your own community, OK?’ which is far more difficult than organizing in this community. But the argument was who would whites hear better? Other whites? Or blacks? And so the argument was really you come here, you learned all these things, now take that message, take those things that you learned and go organize white people. They’re the ones that need help.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
The conference on the legacy of SNCC is this Thursday – Saturday, February 25 – 27, 2016. Thursday’s sessions are at Benedictine University in Lisle; Friday and Saturday’s programming are at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Here’s the full conference schedule. Please register online.