Interviewed by Gavroche Allen.
I was privileged to have an moment to talk with a person who participated in one of the turbulent if not inspiring times in recent U.S. history. Prof. Charles Cobb Jr. was one of the community organizers in Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the South during the civil rights era of the 1960s. Professor Cobb is now a part time teacher in the Africana studies at Brown University and now resides in Florida. He relates to me some personal accounts during that time. He also gives some insight on how we as activists can move forward.
Professor Cobb, can you tell me about your life before you joined SNCC?
When the first sit-ins happened in the early 1960s I was in high school in Springfield, Mass. When I first saw what happened to them on television, my first reaction was that they look like me. Not in a racial but in a generational sense. They were young and engaged in Civil Rights activities.
If you were black in the 1960s, you planned to go to a historically black college. Only a handful of blacks went to white schools like Brown. Most blacks went to black schools, and the odds were overwhelming that you were going to the South. That meant you were going to sit in segregated public places. The question was: what you going to do about it?
My family was a politically active family. I was predisposed. When I got to Howard, I become involved the sit-in movement. It is through that involvement that I got into SNCC. It was Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which was also active in the Civil Rights Movement, that invited me to a workshop in Texas and handed me some money for a bus ticket. This bus ticket gets me all through the South, and I decided to see all through the South. I get off the bus at Jackson, Mississippi, to meet with the students sitting in. The reason I get in Mississippi is that it is entirely associated with Emmett Till’s murder. To make a long short: I thought the state was so dangerous I wanted to meet these students. They convince me to stay in the state.
Can you describe SNCC and how they played a part in the Civil Rights Movement in the South?
They are three important things you have to understand about SNCC that made it unique in its time. First, it was an organization of young people. First time you got to see young people working 24/7 for change. Second, it was a movement of a grass-roots organization. It was an organization of organizers from student protest. Third, it was a radical organization. Not radical in an ideological sense but in the people we worked with. They were maids and sharecroppers. The poorest of the poor, in the most racist of societies.
What were the main goals of SNCC during the 60s? Do you think SNCC succeeded in accomplishing those goals?
We saw ourselves as organizers, not leaders. Our goal was to help people speak with their own voices instead of being spoken for by others. And also to organize for themselves. In some ways we were successful but not entirely successful, because there is still a struggle in this country.
You had such dynamic leaders such as Stokely Carmichael and Ella Baker in the movement back then. How did these leaders shape you as a community organizer?
Stokely Carmichael and Ella Baker were two key components of SNCC. The key person in SNCC was Ella Baker. She, of course, was from an older generation. But she recognized when the sit-ins erupted that the student energy was important. She was the one that pulled us together. As a result, thus began the creation of SNCC. She was the one who steered us into grassroots organizing. To quote her, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”
What are the similarities and differences between movements in the 60s and the Occupy movement today?
The obvious similarity is the issue of protest. The kind of protest Occupy is making resembles some of the protests in the 60s. So far the differences outweigh the similarities. I can’t know every single Occupy movement in every city. It seems to me so far this movement has not figured out what it wants in regard with community organizing. It has not figured out how to find a language or a method to begin to speak in organizing in the communities. These communities may not understand or agree with the Occupys.
Look at the evolution of SNCC. It evolves from an organization of student protestors into an organization of organizers impeding in the communities. You cannot sustain a movement with protest.
By assessing the last six to seven months, where do you see the Occupy movement heading?
Simple answer: I don’t know. I can’t know its real internal dynamics. Unless Occupy figures out how to really organize in the community, they will be marginalized.
There has been a spark of interest about people of color and abuses of law enforcement, for example, the murder of Trayvon Martin and the wrongful execution of Troy Davis. Do you think this recent outrage will develop into another Civil Rights Movement?
Again, I don’t know. First, we need to see these things are not uncommon. The whole issue of violence of authorities directed at young black males has been with us for decades. You see the Trayvon protests and do you know who I see speaking: old men. Maybe it is my prejudice, but I do not believe you get a movement out of old men like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. You get a movement when young men and women take leadership on this issue.
What final advice do you have for the new generation of young activists?
Take the lead! It’s your future. People talk about passing the torch. No! Take the touch!