Friday, June 1, 2007

Joseph reviews Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC's Dream for a New America

MANY MINDS, ONE HEART: SNCC's Dream for a New America (Univ. of North Carolina Press) by Wesley C. Hogan was reviewed yesterday in the Washington Post by Peniel E. Joseph, currently of SUNY Stony Brook, moving to Brandies. Joseph writes:

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick") evokes no special meaning for most Americans today. That is unfortunate. As Wesley C. Hogan's impressive "Many Minds, One Heart" reminds us, SNCC engaged in the tedious work that gave meaning to the better-known clashes, marches and civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Mentored by veteran organizer Ella Baker and nonviolence guru James Lawson, SNCC workers such as Diane Nash, Charles Sherrod and Bob Moses became part of an early group of activists who imagined the impossible: equal rights for black Americans in some of the most racially repressive parts of the South.

At first, SNCC activists did this through a combination of daring and brio that included confronting Nashville's mayor about the immorality of segregation and rescuing the Congress of Racial Equality's stalled Freedom Rides, which featured groups of interracial volunteers traveling by bus across the South to protest racial segregation in interstate travel. SNCC projects in rural Mississippi and semirural Georgia forged the sketchy outlines for what became a new type of community organizing. Burrowing into the backwoods of plantation counties armed with voting registration literature, SNCC workers were inspired by the dignity and courage of sharecroppers, strengthened by networks of community activism and brutalized by systematic acts of white terror.

For Hogan, who teaches history at Virginia State University, the core of SNCC's approach, which sought to allow blacks and whites to participate in a shared civic life of voting, discussion and even disagreement, can be found in the nonviolence workshops directed by Lawson in 1959. Intense, philosophical and practical, the workshops buoyed participants such as Nash, Lewis and James Bevel, who composed a wing of SNCC that held on to nonviolence as a forceful repudiation of Jim Crow. Stokely Carmichael, a Howard University student, Freedom Rider and Black Power icon, represented another cadre, one that viewed nonviolence as an effective tactic in the service of democracy....

"Many Minds, One Heart" does a fine job of analyzing how SNCC combated racism in some of the worst parts of the nation and, for a brief moment at least, allowed sharecroppers, students and other ordinary folk -- both black and white -- to believe that a deeper, richer, more democratic culture was possible in America. While offering eye-opening analysis of SNCC's heroic years (1960-64), Hogan sticks close to the conventional script regarding the group's demise. SNCC's "loss of democratic patience" is traced back to unnamed ideologues and rabble-rousers who sound suspiciously like Black Power militants. This attribution is surprising in light of the spate of new scholarship on the Black Power era, as well as Hogan's sincere, painstaking and refreshing efforts to question received wisdom elsewhere.

Ultimately, in my view, SNCC and the larger civil rights movement were beset by political and personal crises that made them painfully aware of the limits of defiantly imagining a world free of racism.

To read the rest, click here.