Episode 13, Season 3
In this episode, we talk with movement veteran Courtland Cox about lessons from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and his own development as a young organizer of the Emmett Till generation. We join Karlyn Forner and John B. Gartrell to tour the resources available through SNCC Digital Gateway. And we hear from student organizer Kaia Woodford about the lessons from the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements that inform her activism today.
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Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights MovementEdited by Hasan Kwame Jeffries
Own the book from the University of Wisconsin Press that inspired and informs season three of the Teaching Hard History podcast!
- Learning for Justice Lesson Defining Activism (grades 6-8, 9-12)
- Learning for Justice Lesson Identifying the Need for Activism (grades 6-8, 9-12)
- Learning for Justice Lesson Who Are the Activists in My Community (grades K-2, 3-5)
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The civil rights documentary film series Eyes on the Prize premiered on public television in January, 1987. I was in the ninth grade at the time. I knew about the civil rights movement, but I didn’t know much, just what I had learned from family members. You see, in grade school, my teachers had barely broached the subject. Eyes on the Prize hooked me from the beginning—from the opening montage. The black and white archival footage of the desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas, was spellbinding. The rendition of “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” sung by Fannie Lou Hamer was soul stirring. And the velvet voice of narrator Julian Bond radiated truth.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I watched every episode, absorbing as much movement history as I could. I was especially taken by the activism of members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I was excited by Diane Nash’s bravery during the Nashville sit-ins. I was moved by John Lewis’s courage during the Freedom Rides. And I was inspired by Bob Moses’s determination during Freedom Summer. Three years later, when I was a senior in high school, Eyes on the Prize II aired. The new series picked up where the first left off, with the transition to Black Power ushered in by SNCC activists in Lowndes County, Alabama. I had known about Black Power, and I had known about the Black Panthers, but I hadn’t known about their Alabama roots. I would not forget.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In 1997, I was in my third year in graduate school, teaching in Atlanta, and thinking about a dissertation topic. I wanted to explore youth activism and grassroots political organizing, but I didn’t have a good angle of entry. Then I remembered the story of the Lowndes County movement and the original Black Panther Party that I had first learned about in Eyes on the Prize. I actually had that episode on video cassette, and after watching it again, I knew I had found the story I wanted to tell. I spent the next dozen years researching and writing about the freedom struggle in Lowndes County, trying to do justice to the incredible work done by the young SNCC activists in the heart of Dixie and far beyond. Like the producers of Eyes On The Prize, I knew that their story needed to be told, that the story of SNCC needed to be told, to inspire people, young and old, who knew about the civil rights movement, but needed to know a whole lot more.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and this is Teaching Hard History. We're a production of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Learning for Justice project—formerly known as Teaching Tolerance. To learn more about Learning for Justice and meet our new director, visit us at LearningForJustice.org. This season, we'll be offering a detailed look at how to teach the Black freedom struggle, or the US civil rights movement. In each episode, we'll explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was one of the most important national civil rights organizations of the 1960s—and the only one led by young people. Guided by the steady hand of veteran activist Ella Baker, SNCC members embraced her mantra that “Strong people don't need strong leaders.” And they applied this understanding of grassroots organizing to their work with local people throughout the South.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In this episode, SNCC veteran Courtland Cox shares organizing lessons that he learned on the frontlines of the freedom struggle as a young organizer starting in the 1960s. Student activist Kaia Woodford talks about how studying the Civil Rights and Black Power movements shaped her own activism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. And historian Karlyn Forner and archivist John B. Gartrell take us on a tour of the SNCC Digital Gateway, an online portal for exploring civil rights history. I'm glad you could join us.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It is truly a delight and an honor to welcome a veteran of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the president of the SNCC Legacy Project, Courtland Cox. Brother Courtland, welcome to the podcast. Thank you so much for joining us.
Courtland Cox: Well, thank you for inviting me.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Absolutely, absolutely. Couldn't tell the story of SNCC without having you share your insights with us. So we're really excited to have you. You know, Courtland, I don't know if I ever told you this, but I remember first really becoming familiar with you and your involvement in SNCC when I was first doing my research on Alabama. But of course, you're not from Alabama, you're from Harlem, New York. Harlem, USA. So could you tell us a little bit about how a youngster growing up in Harlem in the '40s and '50s winds up in Alabama in the mid-1960s?
Courtland Cox: I was born in Harlem, at Harlem Hospital. But actually, I'm the first of my family to be born in the United States. When I got to be four years old, my mother sent me back to Trinidad where my grandparents were. So I spent the next eight years, from 4 to 12 in San Fernando, Trinidad. In 1952, I came back to Harlem, and then moved to the Bronx. And then two years after I got back to the United States, you had Brown versus Board of Education, which ended segregation as the law of the land in a lot of ways. Right after that was the murder of Emmett Till which impacted my consciousness. I was probably 14 years old at the time.
Courtland Cox: The other thing that impacted me was watching the bus boycott on my black and white television, watching the people in Montgomery, Alabama, walk and carpool, and beginning to listen to a 26-year-old Martin Luther King about the whole concept of Gandhian nonviolence. And then in 1957, beginning to see Ernie Green and a number of other people integrate Little Rock High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. And I remember talking to a number of people in the projects about what was going on. Also listening to jazz, and beginning to understand the world around me. So by the time I got to Howard University in 1960, I had probably six years of influence of all those things happening.
Courtland Cox: I got to Howard in January, and the sit-ins began in February of 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina. And it was a spark that really lit the imagination of a lot of students. So I was ready to join the things that were going on in Greensboro with the sit-ins. So in support, we would go picket Woolworth's up here in Washington, DC, and then the freedom rides started happening. And so, in support of the freedom rides, we would go picket the White House, we would go picket Trailways. And then as a result of that, there was a group formed at Howard University as a campus group of SNCC called the Nonviolent Action Group. Stokely Carmichael was part of that group with us. Ed Brown and Hubert Brown— Rap Brown—Mary Lovelace, and a number of people were there at that time, a very strong group of people.
Courtland Cox: And we did a lot of things in support of what was going on in the South. And then we looked around and saw that Washington itself was segregated. The route from Washington to New York, Route 40, was segregated. Segregation existed all around us in the Washington metropolitan area. So we just started a number of demonstrations that started trying to desegregate lunch counters, trying to end housing discrimination, trying to end all sorts of discrimination in banking and so forth here. And we continued that as the Nonviolent Action Group. And then probably in 1962, I started going down to Mississippi and to Southwest Georgia.
Courtland Cox: So SNCC started out as a group of campus organizations at Morehouse, at Spelman, Howard University, Tuskegee, Hampton, in Mississippi at Tougaloo and so forth. But in 1962, because a number of people started going, and people like Bob Moses and Marion Barry and others had gone to Mississippi to try to deal with voter registration, SNCC eventually became an organization of organizers. And so after I left school at Howard University, I went first to work in Mississippi for the Freedom Summer, and worked there in 1964. And after the Selma to Montgomery March, I decided, you know, when Stokely and other—Frank—Ralph Featherstone and others decided to go to Lowndes County, which was 80 percent Black, and in fact had no Black people registered to vote, we decided to go change that situation. That's when I decided in 1965 to go to Alabama. So that's—it took a long time to get there, but I eventually got to Alabama.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: As we've been exploring in this podcast the civil rights movement beyond King, so not only putting King in proper historical context, but saying look, the movement obviously was about more than King. When you do that, when you look beyond King and his coterie of advisers, and you incorporate organizations like SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, then the movement begins to look different, right? Could you just share with our listeners sort of SNCC's operating culture? What SNCC brought to the table that made the organization unique in the 1960s civil rights movement?
Courtland Cox: SNCC was very, very different because we did not basically believe in a top-down leadership. We had a view that everybody is a leader, everybody can contribute, everybody who had a problem had to work to solve it, because they are the people who could make the decisions about when that problem is solved. And when I say the problem, I'm saying that, you know, if you had people in Mississippi who could not vote, while you could help them work through a number of issues and be supportive, the leadership had to come from there. We come out of an organizing tradition that says that the people who have the problem are the people who must be engaged to demand the solution. Because that's the only way change will come: from the bottom up.
Courtland Cox: You know, people mistake visibility with leadership. They reduce it down to a person. I think there is a prejudice to look at the great person history as opposed to really understanding the movement that made history change.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It's kind of the easy way out.
Courtland Cox: It's a kind of laziness, because I mean, if you're going to understand what really determines change, it's not just a great person. There are a lot of factors. There are a lot of people. A movement, a movement of history is really about, how do you get the people to move and make the decisions about their lives? You know, King was 26 years old. I mean, clearly a brilliant person, and clearly a person who was able to work and bring the Gandhian concept of nonviolence to the United States, along with James Lawson and others. You've got to also understand that, while King was visible, you know, he was riding a wave that started in 1945.
Courtland Cox: I mean, when you really look—anybody who understands the civil rights movement, particularly starting in 1945, you have to look to, you know, those soldiers who fought in World War II, and who came back. And a lot of them joined the NAACP. And they were—they were the people who were—they've helped—they were the generation before us. They were the people like Medgar Evers, and people like Ella Baker who was not in the war, but I mean, worked with the NAACP. And then there were people like Bayard Rustin, who was really with the peace movement. There were people like Amzie Moore, who was in Mississippi. I mean, there were so many people who were, you know, this—the generation that put, you know—Nixon, E.D. Nixon, and people like that who were—understood that things had to change. That if we're going to fight, they were going to ask me to fight for freedom overseas, that when they came back to the United States they were going to make a difference. So they were the people who, in fact, really were the basis of the civil rights movement.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Who were some of the local people and veteran activists that you encountered? You already called a couple names: Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin who you worked with. And what were some of the things that they taught you?
Courtland Cox: The thing I like about people in the rural areas, I mean, I would say you had classes, not only individuals, but classes of people. And I would categorize them in three classes. The first are young people who were in rebellion against the status quo. And I would characterize them as really at high school and maybe beginning college. And then you had the people who were part of the middle class. You know, the—you know, whether they had a little farm, whether they had a little drug—I mean, a store, whether they were professionals or doctors and teachers or funeral directors. And a lot of them belong to—on the down-low to the NAACP, because carrying a—carrying a NAACP card at that time was subversive.
Courtland Cox: And then you had, I think, the dynamic, you know, group that nobody really knew until you started moving. Like the Mr. Jacksons and, you know, Miss Hamers and people like that who once the movement was in force, they had great strength, and they showed you how strong they were in terms of their support. And actually a number of them became leaders in that. I would also say people like Hollis Watkins and Charles—Charles McLaurin and people like that. Those were some of the young people.
Courtland Cox: The thing about the people in the country, they're really—their perceptions are really great and they're able to say things in a way that, you know, gets people to the point. I remember I was in Mississippi, I was—I was traveling in Mississippi, so there are two things, two stories that tend to be interesting. So I was passing out leaflets in Mississippi. And so—and I passed out this leaflet to this woman, and she was reluctant to take it. And she said, "Boy, the sheriff know you here?" And I was kind of off, saying, "Well, you know, I guess so. He knows I'm here." And she said, "Boy, you ain't dead yet." I mean, because she understood the danger that, you know, I was in. You know, and there was another time. In fact, I use this for the Lowndes County comic book I did later on. And a woman got up in a mass meeting and she said, "You know, us colored people been using our mouths to do two things: to eat and say, 'Yassuh.' It's time we said "No." It's time we stand up."
Courtland Cox: And that, you know, encapsulates the kind of strength that was necessary to move, and it impressed me so much. I mean, I just used that and created a whole comic book and a whole idea about people saying no and standing up. So I mean, I just was impressed by a lot of people, people whose names I don't even know. I mean, people—but when they were at the mass meeting or I'm having a conversation with them, their perceptions and their intelligence was so great that I mean, I just remember what they have said, you know, 50, 60 years after I have left the South.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Music was vital to the civil rights movement, and continues to be critical to global freedom struggles today. In this installment of "Movement Music," historian Charles Hughes explores the role of music in grassroots organizing during the civil rights movement and the ways it connected activists and local communities. Here's Charles.
Charles Hughes: Music helps us understand the grassroots nature of the movement. The calls to community, the insistent pulse, and the celebrations of everyday life—or as Sly would say, "the everyday people"—reveal the decentralized, local structure of movement activity. The grassroots-led SNCC was committed to the "beloved community" and the music of the period reflects that feeling. The artists and the activists existed in conversation, whether Bob Dylan traveling with SNCC workers in Greenwood, Mississippi, or the SNCC Freedom Singers performing in concert halls throughout the world.
Charles Hughes: One of SNCC's most important "local people," Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, drew an even more direct connection. She linked her visionary activism with her powerful singing, as she became central to campaigns in Mississippi and beyond. Her voice soundtracked movement campaigns throughout the '60s and early '70s.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Fannie Lou Hamer: I remember 10 years ago today, as I had walked about 10 or 12 feet out of Wynonna Jail, Reverend James Belvy informed me that Medgar Evers had been shot in the back. It was six of us that had gotten out of jail in Wynonna. Some of us [weren’t] able to sit down. But I keep saying, Burley, and keep asking God to hold my hand, Charlie Evers. Because I know if he hold my hand, everything will be all right.]
Charles Hughes: Mrs. Hamer was as gifted a singer as she was an orator and organizer. And she used the call-and-response practice of gospel to intensify the movement's message. Recorded at a mass meeting during the tumultuous Mississippi summer of 1963, Hamer's version of "This Little Light of Mine" resonates with that message.
Charles Hughes: She tells her community, her collaborators, that each of them has "the light of freedom" to carry with them "everywhere they go," which, for SNCC workers in Mississippi in 1963, was usually someplace very dangerous.
Charles Hughes: As Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, then of the SNCC Freedom Singers, later noted, rather than relying on a singular leader, "This Little Light Of Mine" asserts the importance of each voice, contributing and committing their particular talents to the cause. As Dr. Reagon and Mrs. Hamer both knew, music didn't just echo the movement's goals, it helped turn those goals into reality.
Charles Hughes: But the soundtrack of the struggle could be heard beyond freedom songs and mass meetings. Ben E. King's 1962 "Stand By Me," which he co-wrote with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, bridged the elegance of early-'60s pop with the deep yearning of the gospel standard that King based it on. "Stand By Me" became a classic, a beloved anthem of personal devotion.
Charles Hughes: As scholar Craig Werner wrote, "Listeners unaware of the violence facing the beloved community can hear the song as a plea for romantic connection. But if you imagine a lone SNCC organizer on a Southern back road, the song grows even deeper."
Charles Hughes: King's calls to "stand by him" when the night has come and danger grows near confirms not only the need for community support, but also the way that all the "little lights" of SNCC and the movement stood together in times of triumph and tragedy. In the solo voices and the call-and-response choruses, we can hear the movement happening. All we need to do is keep listening.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Fannie Lou Hamer said it true. Fannie Lou Hamer sang it true. Local people had a little light inside of them. And SNCC helped them let it shine. SNCC stood by local people, and local people stood by them. And together they transformed America.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Be sure to check out our latest Spotify playlist. Dr. Hughes has curated dozens of songs that amplify even more of the ideas raised in this episode. Just follow the link in the show notes at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Let’s return now to my conversation with movement veteran Courtland Cox.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What would you say were SNCC's major accomplishments?
Courtland Cox: I would say probably the following: I would say the first thing is breaking fear. And that really moves around the freedom rides. When—and I'm talking about the group really that came out of Nashville, the SNCC people who came out of Nashville. I would include John Lewis and Diane Nash and Bernard Lafayette, and those people who came out with Jim Law—under Jim Lawson. There was a SNCC group out of there. And they were—when it was clear that the people in Mississippi and Alabama and all these other places were going to use force to destroy people who came on the freedom rides, you know, Martin King and CORE, and other people who were doing the freedom rides, when they faced—saw that violence, they backed up and started calling off the freedom rides. And the SNCC people—and particularly John Lewis, Diane and Bernard, decided that they were going to continue the rides into Mississippi regardless of the threats of fear.
Courtland Cox: And in fact, the story is told that when Bobby Kennedy sent word to Diane Nash that these people were prepared to kill them, Diane said, "Yes, we know. And we've already made out our wills." So I mean, so the sense that—that I think the first thing was to stand up to the kind of violence, and not be afraid where others were prepared to be afraid.
Courtland Cox: I think the second thing in terms of that fear discussion, is that when people were put in jail, and Bob—in Mississippi in Parchman Penitentiary, and Bobby Kennedy agreed to that with the people—with the governor of Mississippi, as opposed to being intimidated by being put in jail, they decided to take no bail and call for others to come to jail. And so it broke the concept of fear because, you know, in any war, the major objective is to destroy the enemy's will to resist. And they were prepared to destroy our will to resist, and we decided we were not going to—our will was not going to be destroyed. In fact, it was going to be amplified. So I think that's the first contribution that SNCC made.
Courtland Cox: The second contribution that SNCC made was voter registration. And voter registration, the kind of patience it took to work in the communities, to live in the communities, to live in the kind of same kind of threat of violence, to be able to bring resources, to be able to take the patience to work with people, and to really have a long view that, you know, this was—you know, we didn't—it wasn't just a demonstration. We worked in a community two, three years. I mean, before the Selma March we were in Selma for three years. So we understood that it took a long view. And the kind of voter registration ideas we brought to the conversation, I think that's the next thing we contributed.
Courtland Cox: I think the third thing we contributed is the whole concept of Black power. And I think, you know, it was really important, because one of the things that's really important for some—a community to be able to really stand on its own is the ability to define. And one of the things that Black power did is that it helped Black people define themselves as good, as worthy, as people of credibility. Because before Black power, you know, we were all trying—we were Negroes. If you called somebody Black, they were ready to fight. You know, and we used Nadinola cream to lighten our skin. We used congolene in our hair to burn it to make it look straight. So I think that whole concept of defining yourself what is beautiful, what is worthy, what is of value, was—you know, was something. So I think the three things that we contributed—well, I guess the way we worked, our style was to work in the community from the bottom up, but I think, you know, breaking fear, the voter registration along with the whole question of working in a community from the bottom up, and the question of Black power, the ability to define who we were and how we were to be respected in the United States.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, when I think about those accomplishments that you identify, I'm struck by the fact that those accomplishments did not just influence the moment, but we're still very much impacted by those accomplishments today, whether we're talking about Black power and Black consciousness, grassroots organizing, voter registration and the like. Could you say a little bit about the importance of, not just those accomplishments in the 1960s, but the legacy that SNCC left as a result of having done those interventions? What would you like young people, especially young activists who are just embarking upon their—a lifelong struggle, much like a life long in the struggle, much like you were as a youth in Harlem and then at Howard University with NAG, what would you like them to know about SNCC?
Courtland Cox: You know, just before I got on this podcast, I met with a group of young people. And I tell young—I tell people these days, anybody who's not an AARP member is a young person. At least to me. So there are two or three things that they need to know. The first is that they have to be present. They have to be in the communities to be relevant. You can't be on the streets just fighting, you know, the government about X, Y and Z. That's good for a time, but if you want to be meaningful, you've got to be in the communities working with them on a day-to-day basis. And this is not about you individually, this is about the community as a whole. And I think that, you know, getting away from the individual kinds of things, and activists talking to each other as opposed to talking to the community is something I would encourage.
Courtland Cox: You know, the second thing that I think that's important is that this is gonna be a long-term struggle. And you know—and I understand just as a young boy, when I was a young person, you know, I had to believe that the energy and time I put into it was gonna make all the difference in the world, and I would see the things that I wanted to advocate, you know? And I think, you know, that is something that people need to understand that they need to pace themselves and to begin to understand that this is a long-range struggle. The most humbling thing that I realized being engaged in the movement, you will do all that is necessary but it won't be sufficient. I mean, every—even everything that—every contribution you think you've made, and the contributions could be valuable and they will be valuable and they are valuable, but the issues that we face are so big that you have just made it easier for some other people to do what's necessary, but you did not do what is sufficient to get what has to be done. Once you begin to realize that, it's important to stay engaged and stay active with a number of young people.
Courtland Cox: The third thing that I think needs to be said, the point that Miss—Miss Baker used to make to us all the time. This struggle is for more than a hamburger. I mean, that's when we were talking about the sit-ins. I mean, and what she meant by that is that the struggle is much more than what you see in front of you. Let's take for example the police—you know, the killing of the policeman of the murder of George Floyd and other things like that. You know, that is not just the action of a individual, a police person. You have to ask: what is the mission of the police person? What is the infrastructure that supports that mission, and why does that infrastructure exist, and why does that mission exist? So if you want to deal with the question of police brutality, it's not only just the police. You've got to deal with the political mission. What is that supporting? What is the economic infrastructure behind that? And you've got to understand all those things in order to deal with the police violence that you see in front of you. It's more—as Miss Baker says, it's more than a hamburger. You would have to say it's more than just a police action or a police shooting. There are a lot of things that go behind that that allow that to happen, you know?
Courtland Cox: And I also think I would say to young people today, they are at a point that we could not even imagine. When we started out, given all the barriers we had, all that was really open to us was protests and those kinds of actions. We have now reached a point where, you know, young Black people and Black people, Black community in general, you see that we now are a political force. We used to be a minority force. We used to be the minority force. Now we have become the majority force. So at the end of the day, we have now understood our ability to make a difference politically. Now we have to begin to think: how do we now use that political power to serve the economic interests of the Black community? So we don't have Black poor people, you know, in what they call food deserts, they're hungry. How are they dealing with their health issues, dealing with their housing issues? How do we now use our political power to make a difference at the state, local and federal level? That's something we could not even imagine because there were no—we didn't have any political handles to deal with it.
Courtland Cox: So I think that young people have to understand what moment they're in, what power they have and what they have to do in order to serve the Black community.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When you think about the challenges that you and your SNCC comrades faced then, what do you think about when you think about the challenges that young people as organizers face today? And how do you suggest that they meet those challenges?
Courtland Cox: Right. The level of violence that we faced in the 1960s, not only from the state apparatus, the police, the state troopers, you know and so forth, but vigilantes is over—was—I mean, it doesn't—nothing today compares to what we had to face. I mean, when I go back and look at the Watts Reports and look at the violence that, you know, every day we reported, I mean, the kind of violence we faced was like, you know—you know—you know, it was like, okay, today is Tuesday and these things are gonna happen, but we've got to keep moving forward because we cannot be paralyzed by that particular incident. Because the violence was not the issue. The violence was not the issue. I mean so—I mean, so my sense is we faced overwhelming violence that today's organizers don't face. I think that we also did not have, I would say, the opportunities that today's organizers would have, as I mentioned in terms of the political sophistication and political offices that we hold.
Courtland Cox: The other thing I would say to young people, is that you got to focus on the big issues in the community. People don't come into it with a great analysis. They see something that is wrong and it bothers them. This is not fear, and they think that it needs to be made right. And as they begin to try to solve that problem, I think a process begins. So when I look at—you know, when I look at the people who started out with Trayvon Martin, you know, the people, the Dream Defenders and people in the early Black Lives Matter movement and stuff like that, "Hands up, don't shoot." I mean, I began to see that they have moved from their initial thing, which says—response is this is wrong, this is not fear, to understanding that they must be engaged politically, and that they're dealing with some big economic issues. You know, this may be a bit controversial but I mean, I think this is the way I feel. So we have focused on maybe the 400 people who have been shot by the police. And it has a great deal of visibility and sucks a lot of oxygen out of the room. But at the same time, 50,000 Black people will die from COVID because they face economic situations where they're considered essential workers, but they're being forced into situations where they are likely to die, forced into factories where they're likely to die. Forced into circumstances where they're likely to die.
Courtland Cox: So if we're going to look at the problems of the Black community, it is not just about particular individuals who are visible. It is about the fundamental problems that we have in our communities where we face hunger, where we don't have the jobs, where we don't have the health care. You know, even right now, and the people want to tell about the Black people being scared of needles, that's not what's the problem. What the problem is, is there's limited amount of vaccine, and when they put the stuff up on the computer for where you can register to get your vaccinations, people who have computers go ahead and do it, and people in the Black community who don't have it can't get it, so they're not getting the vaccinations.
Courtland Cox: So my sense is, I think for young people, they have to see the problem as a much bigger problem than just police violence, because the problems facing the Black community are much bigger than the issues of just an individual being shot.
Courtland Cox: And even if you want to focus on the individual being shot, you cannot just focus on that actual incident, you've got to focus on why they got shot, what's the mission of the police, which will get you back to the problems of the Black community. So I just think that I would say to them they have to think much bigger, and because they have much bigger opportunities and much bigger responsibilities at this point.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Brother Courtland Cox, thank you so much for blessing us with your time, for sharing your experiences, for your commitment to freedom for all people, and this lifelong journey that you have been on. I can't thank you enough. We are forever in your debt.
Courtland Cox: All right. Thank you.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This season of Teaching Hard History is based on the book Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement, recipient of the 2020 James Harvey Robinson prize for the most outstanding contribution to the teaching and learning of history, from the American Historical Association. And this podcast is produced in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Press, publishers of this collection of essays—which I edited. From now until the end of April, they are offering a 30 percent discount to listeners who order this collection. You'll find a link to purchase the book at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Just use the promotional code: CIVILRIGHTS—all one word.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In 1955, the murder of Emmett Till had a profound impact on Courtland Cox and a generation of young activists who shaped the civil rights movement in the 1960s. In 2012, the shooting of Trayvon Martin sparked the engagement of young people who are now leaders in the Movement for Black Lives. And last year, in 2020, a new generation of organizers began mobilizing in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Among them was Kaia Woodford. Kaia is a sophomore at The Ohio State University. She is the president of the Bexley Anti-Racism Project in her hometown of Bexley, Ohio. And she is also a student of mine. I asked Kaia to join us for this episode, to share how the lessons she has learned about the Black freedom struggle have influenced her own activism.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Kaia Woodford, it is great to have you joining us for this episode of Teaching Hard History. Welcome.
Kaia Woodford: Thank you for having me. I'm very excited to be here with you.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So tell me about Bexley, Ohio, which is a suburb of Columbus. That's your hometown. You grew up there, correct?
Kaia Woodford: Yes. I am a product of the Bexley school system, and graduated from Bexley High School in 2019.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What is Bexley like? What's the demographics?
Kaia Woodford: There is an approximate seven percent population of Black community residents relative to an 89 percent population of white community residents. So there's definitely a huge racial discrepancy. Growing up, there was—[exhale]—it was an experience like no other, being Black. I was a high-performing student, so I was placed in advanced placement courses, AP classes, and I found that I was typically the only Black student in the room, so I felt a burden to perform to the height of academic perfection in order to positively reflect on my respective community, since I was the point of entry for a lot of white students in regard to their engagement with Black members of their community.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What was it about that moment following the killing of George Floyd that led you to want to join the demonstrations?
Kaia Woodford: I remember I was actually on a trip with my best friend, and she's white and everyone on the trip was white too. So the news broke, and we were driving home from Massachusetts together. And I remember silence, I remember a lot of avoidance of the issue, lack of confrontation. And it just didn't sit right with me. I felt like we needed to have an honest conversation about this tragedy. Open dialogue, that's central to your teaching style in all of your courses, and I just took so much away from that. Having honest discussions, using explicit terminology to describe the injustice that we were learning about. And so, in that moment on the ride home, it was like multiple hours, so I had a lot of time to sit with myself and think about the weight that I felt in response to this injustice.
Kaia Woodford: I began demonstrating in local protests downtown at the State House. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. I've grown up in Columbus my whole life. I'd been in that place so many times and it felt foreign to me. It was dark, there was tear gas, my eyes were, like, burning. We were running, people were screaming. It was just a state of destruction. But I mean, ultimately, that exemplifies the current state of our reality. It's just broken.
Kaia Woodford: Demonstrating downtown at the State House, I started to speak up on behalf of my community and my personal experience as his death impacted me as a Black person, and what it said about police brutality and just the system of injustice in our country.
Kaia Woodford: My message was disseminated across my community through, like, I think it was just a recording on an iPhone that was spread about the community. It reached the hands of graduates of the class of 2017 from Bexley High School. They came to the conclusion that Bexley needed a change and reached out to me and said, "We saw your video. We would like to partner with you and found an organization in Bexley." So together, we founded the Bexley Anti-Racism Project, and we looped in a number of students of color from Bexley, and now we are running this organization, and we have an official high school club that operates within the Bexley High School now.
Kaia Woodford: The Bexley Anti-Racism Project is a student-led organization dedicated to actively combating racial inequality through education, mobilization and the amplification of Black student voices to create a support system for Black students in the Bexley community, as well as to be a resource for students across the nation.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What were some of the goals of the Bexley Anti-Racism Project?
Kaia Woodford: So we actually met with the superintendent and director of community engagement and a couple of members of the school board in July, and we presented them a letter which included our written demands and changes we wished to see from school administration. And they included more diverse hires, so that students of color would be taught by educators of color, because that's so important to see minorities in positions of authority. Other demands were to create anti-racist or equity policy, which we're in the process of doing now, and to be included in decision-making processes with the school. Just to be respected as a voice because Bexley is predominantly white and students of color are largely ignored and their concerns are neglected. Also encouraging students to enroll in advanced courses.
Kaia Woodford: I think another issue with Bexley isn't necessarily the fact that there is a lack of diversity alone, it's the fact that our diverse student populations are encouraged to perform to the same academic standard as white students, and they don't receive the same support and resources as well. And we also advocated for the re-evaluation of our curriculum to be more comprehensive and include African-American studies as well, and also to conduct an equity audit to provide data to inform our policy. And also to standardize disciplinary measures so that students of color weren't impacted disproportionately on account of their race. So just a number of different things, all to support Black students in the district.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. I love the specifics of it, and obviously people were mobilizing around the call for justice for the victims of police violence. But there are still so many other issues on the table that needed to be addressed, and clearly you and your comrades had a good sense of what needed to be done to pave a way for those coming up behind you to be more successful in the classroom themselves. Let me ask you, Kaia, so when you were in my class, was there anything in there that you thought about, reflected on, as you were beginning your activist journey?
Kaia Woodford: Definitely. You introduced me to so many figures that I now almost idolize. They just serve as role models for me in the work that I do now, like Ella Baker.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Shout out to Ella Baker.
Kaia Woodford: I just am amazed by her work, and also just the modesty she has. There's a quote from her. She says, "I have always thought that what is needed is the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership in others." That has been a guiding force in the way I function through the Bexley Anti-Racism Project. It's definitely a collaborative, collective community organization, and we empower our student members to speak their truth to power.
Kaia Woodford: With the demands that we presented to the administration of the school, we substantiated them with lived experience of students of our project, as well as academic research. In approaching conversation and meeting with people in positions of authority, we found it best to identify ourselves as the experts—because we are. We are the ones with the first-hand experience of being a Black student and walking the halls of a school that is predominantly white and currently failing its Black student population. It's dismantling the power dynamic, because those individuals don't have that same understanding, Oftentimes they are white and sometimes they're male, but as a Black woman, I have a unique individualized experience and perception of the world around me, and it's valuable to them since they're in the position of enacting that change structurally.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Let me ask you something, Kaia. How did being a Black woman shape your experience as an activist?
Kaia Woodford: I was definitely reminded of the fact that our culture is pretty sexist, still. All of the founders of the organization are female. In communication with media outlets, it was assumed that one of our members of our organization was one of the founders because he's a guy, and lots of interview requests on that basis, which is really interesting how people externally power map and assume males to be in positions of authority. It was also empowering to a certain degree, because I feel like oftentimes women of color aren't really heard. And providing a platform for myself, for other students, other female students of color to again speak their truth to power was empowering for me because I could identify with so many of the stories that they were telling, and it's just so important for them to voice their experience and allow that to resonate with people who don't share that experience. And hopefully, we have been able to change the hearts and minds of some of those who have been following our project.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What's the value of learning about the civil rights movement in the classroom?
Kaia Woodford: Learning about the civil rights movement provides students the opportunity to have a dialogue that's on the basis of factual information. In other discussions I have regarding civil rights, there are many uninformed opinions. You presented us with the facts, this is the history, and then we debated or we discussed different points, but at the root of it was the factual basis. And I think when you get away from that, you perpetuate misinformation that can be really damaging to progress and understanding our nation's history as well. So I feel like informing me about the past allows me to better perceive, more aptly perceive current happenings.
Kaia Woodford: Growing up in Bexley, the default is white history. So I learned about white people, I would learn about European history. Enrolling in your civil rights and Black power movement course at Ohio State was really my point of entry with African-American history. And I just realized there was so much that I didn't know and so much I was excited to learn about, and I can't believe I wasn't taught about the Black power movement when I was in high school, and how the government intervened to destroy that movement, how the white authoritative power structure in this country actively works to combat any type of resistance from a people who deserve to resist a system and structure that was implemented to oppress them. Also, just understanding how this country was founded, the labor force that enabled mass production. I just wasn't taught that. It's not only that I wasn't taught, it was the frame that I was taught this content in. It's from the perspective of the white man, but I'm not a white man, so I don't fit into that narrative and don't identify with that narrative. I'm a product of the slave, and the fact that that's one unit in AP United States history is disheartening, because the implications of slavery are present now and have shaped our entire country and all of its institutions. I think we're doing a great disservice to the legacy and lives of those people by not teaching them in proportion to the extent they shaped how we engage in day-to-day life.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So Dr. Martin Luther King's last book is entitled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? So let me ask you King's question: one, where do we go from here as a nation? And then also where does Kaia Woodford go from here?
Kaia Woodford: Part of me believes that we have to take a radical approach and dismantle the system entirely, and rebuild it on the premise that everyone in this country is equal and is American on the basis of their being American and doesn't have anything to do with their race. But also, the realist in me understands that I don't know how to go about an undertaking like that when we have 70 million people who voted for Donald Trump. I mean, how do you overcome that discrepancy and radical belief? I mean, we have extremists walking among us in positions of authority. It's hard for me to conceptualize a radical transformation of the state, but I believe that's necessary in order to establish an equal system of justice. In the meantime, I think educating comprehensively and inclusively in regard to the true founding of our nation and genocide and racism, how that has influenced present-day institutions and practices, I think that's a start. Once we educate everyone in that way, it will be easier to undertake a radical response and hopefully revolutionize our state of affairs.
Kaia Woodford: Personally, I am studying political science and African-American, African studies. I intend to go to law school. I don't know what type of law I want to practice, but hopefully be an advocate on behalf of members of my community experiencing discrimination on the basis of their race. I think that would be a really cool profession to go into, and a way to hopefully impact people in a positive way that's in line with my passion.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thank you Kaia Woodford. Great talking to you, and keep up the great work. Proud of you.
Kaia Woodford: Thank you.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Hey everybody! We’ve cooked up something new. Educators can now earn a certificate—issued by Learning for Justice—for one hour of professional development just by listening to this episode. All you have to do is go to LearningForJustice.org/podcastPD—PD for professional development. That's "podcastpd," all one word. Then enter the special code word for this episode: "action"—all lowercase. You'll also find a link in the show notes.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The SNCC Digital Gateway is a documentary website that tells the story of how young SNCC activists partnered with local people in the South to build a grassroots movement that empowered Black communities and transformed the nation. It was created in close consultation with SNCC veterans and offers a wealth of online resources for teachers and students. We asked historian Karlyn Forner, who was the project manager, and archivist John B. Gartrell to take us on a tour of the many resources. Here are Karlyn and John.
Karlyn Forner: Hi, I'm Karlyn Forner.
John Gartrell: Hey, I'm John Gartrell.
Karlyn Forner: The SNCC Digital Gateway is told from the perspective of the movement veterans themselves. They were involved in every aspect of the site, in terms of shaping the structure all the way down to who's going to be profiled and what those profiles look like.
John Gartrell: The SNCC Digital Gateway is a documentary website that seeks to tell the story of the civil rights movement through the lens of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Karlyn Forner: It's really engaging in civil rights history from the people who were on the ground doing the organizing.
John Gartrell: So we want to sort of walk you through the different sections, what you're going to find there. When you come to the site, the very first thing on the menu is the "People" section, where you can view profiles of some of the critical people to SNCC and the SNCC story. You will see it organized with categories of SNCC staff, local people, mentors and allies, but you'll also see geographical designations for people, so you can see people who were influential in Alabama, Arkansas, and you'll also be able to see a full list of SNCC staff and volunteers from the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.
Karlyn Forner: You can just go ahead and click on any of the profiles, and you're going to get a story about who that person was to the movement, and links to related content on the site. You'll also see on the right hand side of the page, there's a red side bar in the profiles that also include links to other primary sources that tell you more about this person. Like, if we go to Fannie Lou Hamer's profile, there's an interview with Fannie Lou Hamer from 1965 from the KZSU Project South Interviews at Stanford. There is an interview with Mrs. Hamer from the University of Southern Mississippi. There's a number of primary documents that are located at places like the Wisconsin Historical Society. And then at the bottom of each of the pages for the profile, there's a "Sources" section that includes sources that were used in writing the profile, but also related sources. So you can really use the sources as a jumping-off point for further resources.
Karlyn Forner: Let's turn to the "Timeline" section next. John, would you be up for giving us a sense of the structure and what you can find in the timeline section?
John Gartrell: Yeah, absolutely. The timeline is really designed to give visitors to the site a sense of how the movement flowed for SNCC and SNCC's activism. And a great place to start would be April, 1960, at the founding of SNCC. On the left hand side you're going to see the essay about what took place at the founding of SNCC meeting, and on the right hand side of the page, you're going to see a carousel of primary sources. There's an embedded link of an interview with Charles or Chuck McDew, who was a student and protest leader at South Carolina State, and he's reflecting on the founding meeting in an oral history that was done by the Library of Congress.
John Gartrell: There is the "Call for Youth Leadership” broadside that was put out to advertise this meeting that ultimately became the founding meeting for SNCC. So you can view that document. This was the actual document that led young leaders to come to Shaw University and really have a discussion about a new generation of leadership, of activism, that would essentially dominate an entire decade in our country's history and really globally. This document reflects the spark of youth activism in the 1960s. And when you put it in that context, that document and the hundreds of other documents on the SNCC Digital Gateway are really, really powerful, and help shape students' and researchers' understanding of how the movement unfolded.
Karlyn Forner: Let's go to the "Map" section.
John Gartrell: Yeah. So the great thing about the map, it adds a little bit of a visual flair to a lot of the written content that we have on the website, right? If you click on the "Map" link from the homepage, you're going to jump right into a map of the United States. There's going to be these little markers, just like if you were using, like, a Google map and you were dropping in a pin for a location, but if you were to click on that McComb, Mississippi pin on the map, that's going to take you to a description of what McComb's place in the movement was, and how SNCC was activated in that particular place, and then you're going to see the people and events that are also linked throughout the website that are affiliated with that place.
John Gartrell: One of the things that we really learned as we were pulling the site together from the SNCC veterans was that the movement in McComb looks very different from the movement in, say, Lowndes County, Alabama, right? They apply different organizing approaches based on the place that they were embedded. And clicking on each of those pins and digging into the story of the people and events that unfolded in those places will give you a little bit more insight on how the movement is different in those different places, even though it's all SNCC.
Karlyn Forner: So one of my most favorite sections on the site is the "Inside SNCC" section, which is a whole section about how the organizers organized. When we were working with the movement veterans, they didn't just want to tell the stories of the people in the movement and the events of what happened, they wanted to get at the thinking and then also the structure that let the organizers organize.
John Gartrell: One of my favorite parts of this section is the "SNCC Culture" section. You'll actually see clips of SNCC veterans talking about what SNCC culture was.
Karlyn Forner: I can still go back to these and crack up. They are just hilarious. There's this Ivanhoe Donaldson one that's called "A car ride and $25." Let's listen to that one.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ivanhoe Donaldson: You know, SNCC was one of these organizations that I guess sort of assumed anybody could do anything. And I was in Atlanta, you know, I don't even know if I was old enough to vote. And Foreman told me, "Well, you need to go to Louisville and help out up there." And I just dropped off some books at Miles College and came over to Atlanta, was figuring out what my next mission was gonna be. I'd never been to Louisville, in fact I don't think I'd ever been to Kentucky except to pick up things in Louisville to take south, you know, to Clarksdale. But Reggie Robinson and Bob Zellner drove me up to Louisville, Kentucky, and I'd seen her before in Atlanta, but I met Anne Braden and Carl Braden. I stayed in their home. And we proceeded—I think SNCC gave me, like, $25 and said go forth and organize a movement. And you know, it was just the way things worked. You know, I got a car ride and $25. Anne gave me a home, fed me and, you know, the rest was just history. So we went down to the West End ...]
Karlyn Forner: So the SNCC culture section has all of these clips that are like that.
John Gartrell: It's hilarious.
Karlyn Forner: Ivanhoe Donaldson is telling that story, but that's not just his story. Other SNCC folks have stories just like that. And so in this section, you really get a sense of kind of the style and the flavor of SNCC and how the SNCC folks interacted with each other and moved throughout the world.
John Gartrell: Yeah, and you know what? I'm always struck by how matter-of-fact they are about things that, I think from our perspective in the 21st century, we go "How in the world did you all do this?" And they're like, "Oh well, like, you know, they just gave me $25 dollars and I decided to change the world." Like, it doesn't—they don't really think much about, you know, themselves, right, in that context. But their voices and their experiences in these clips is really special.
John Gartrell: Especially if you're an educator or you're working with young students, SNCC folks believe and preach that young people today have as much capacity as they did when they were young in the '60s to change the world. You can learn from these stories that are shared by these SNCC veterans. They didn't view themselves as superheroes or aberrations of humanity. They were just people who saw a wrong in the world and wanted to help, and wanted to change. And I think that's one of the great things that you get out of the SNCC culture.
Karlyn Forner: Mm-hmm. And I think in working with the SNCC veterans on this website, certainly one of my takeaways is that the SNCC folks, they approach things with humor. They're serious and they get things done.
John Gartrell: Yeah, absolutely.
Karlyn Forner: But there's not another group of people who can get things done as well as the SNCC folks, but they have a good time when they're doing it. And that really comes out in this section of the website.
John Gartrell: Yeah, yeah. And I think that's a perfect way to talk about the "Our Voices" section, right?
Karlyn Forner: Mm-hmm. We brought together small groups of activists who worked together, either in a particular location or were connected via a certain theme in the movement. And we brought those folks together in Durham for a couple days of recording conversations amongst themselves. And SNCC veteran Charlie Cobb was the facilitator for these conversations. You know, at the heart of it is the SNCC veterans talking about their organizing and their work with their peers and from their own perspective. These are very different than oral history interviews. It's really like a back-and-forth that happens here, and that there's so much knowledge that comes out of that exchange between peers in SNCC.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm your host Hasan Kwame Jeffries. To continue making this podcast a valuable resource, we need your input. You can help us by taking a few minutes to complete our brief listener survey. Just click on the link in the show notes, or visit LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. It's only 10 questions, and your feedback will help us make each episode even more impactful for educators just like you. Now, let’s learn more about the SNCC Digital Gateway with Karlyn Forner and John Gartrell.
John Gartrell: One of the sections that I really enjoy under "Our Voices" is the Black Panther section. It's a conversation that's broken up into five different parts, and that conversation takes place between Jennifer Lawson and Courtland Cox, and facilitated by Charlie Cobb, helping users to understand the development of the Lowndes County Freedom Party in Lowndes County, Alabama.
Karlyn Forner: In order to reach out to folks in the community and help people understand the role of these County positions like the sheriff and the tax collector and members of the Board of Education, the SNCC folks, including Jennifer Lawson and Courtland, created comic books that they gave to people in the county to help people understand what these roles were. So you can look at the comic books that SNCC created.
John Gartrell: So there's a comic on the sheriff, Mr. Sidney Logan, right? And if he was to be elected, what are some of the things that are in his power? The sheriff keeps peace in the county, right? And that's his responsibility. He can suppress riots. And so there's this sort of a different image of a Black sheriff. If he's elected, he can stop a group of white men who are wielding guns who might cause harm or danger to a Black community. He can suppress unlawful assemblies. And here again is the Black figure, the Black sheriff holding a gun, standing in front of a group of hooded klansmen with a burning cross in the background.
John Gartrell: And he can also have a posse. So he can ask other Black men in the community, you know, it says, "I need five men," and they respond, "We will help," right? So just that visual aid of how power can be flipped on its head when there's a Black sheriff versus a white sheriff, that now he has the power to—as a Black man to suppress the riots of white, gun-wielding members of the community, or can drive away the Ku Klux Klan, who we know has a fraught history of violence amongst the Black community. This graphic, this comic that was put together by Jennifer and Courtland as an organizing tool to get the folks in the community in Lowndes County to really marry this idea of what Black power really looks like is really, really important, and one of the gems on the SNCC Digital Gateway.
Karlyn Forner: You have parts like that, like the "Black Panther" section, but you also have sections like "Song and Music in the Movement." John, do you want to talk about that section at all?
John Gartrell: Man, this section was amazing to pull together. It's curated parts of conversations about how they use music as a tool for organizing. We had conversations privately, but then we had a public event at North Carolina Central University where the panelists were talking about how influential the songs were on their activism. And so this particular clip from Bettie Mae Fikes where she talks about the meaning of "This Little Light of Mine" really gives you an insight on her story.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bettie Mae Fikes: And to get ourselves ready to go to jail. Have you ever prepared yourself to go to jail? We even prepared ourselves to die for mankind. And to get hyped up in the basement of First Baptist Church. They were hollering. I'm sure you heard them many many times. "What you want?" "You haven't heard it. Freedom." We used to scream. 15, 16, 17, 18, 19-year-old students from R. B. Hudson High School. And we'd scream out, "What you want?"]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, audience member: Freedom!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bettie Mae Fikes: Thank you. They don't know yet. You're still looking for freedom. "What you want?"]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, audience members: Freedom!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bettie Mae Fikes: What you want?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, audience members: Freedom!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bettie Mae Fikes: And when you want it?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, audience members: Now!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bettie Mae Fikes: [singing] This little light of mine. I'm gonna let it shine.]
John Gartrell: You can almost feel yourself transposed, right, into the movement in that clip.
Karlyn Forner: Oh, it's so good.
John Gartrell: I mean, I was watching it last night, and I was just like, this was amazing. And I was there that night, right? But every time I hear it, it's just—it's so powerful, right? And, you know, her voice is obviously tremendous, but she really gives you a sense of, like she said, they had to sing to prepare to go to jail. And if you're gonna go into a war, right, against racism or oppression, having that song in your heart as a weapon, as an organizing tool, was something that was critical to the movement.
John Gartrell: So I think one of the legacies of SNCC is reflected in the movement today. There are young people who view themselves as the scion of SNCC, and the SNCC veterans wanted to give space to the voices of young activists today. That is what the "Today" section of the site is all about. When you click on the "Today" section, what you'll find are videos of young people answering questions. One is—and Karlyn, you can talk a little bit more about this—which strategies and tactics are relevant today?
Karlyn Forner: Mm-hmm. Yeah, the questions were questions that the SNCC veterans thought were enduring questions in the movement. They were interested in making these questions relevant to this current moment, and they’re questions that SNCC folks asked of themselves. So the framing of this entire section is around questions that are enduring movement questions, whether, you know, this is in the 1960s or the Movement for Black Lives is facing right now. Some of the pieces in the "Today" section bring together just a really diverse range of people. Like, one in the 'Which strategies and tactics are relevant today?" there's a piece called "Listen to the People." And this includes Derrick Johnson, who's the head of the NAACP. There's Phil Agnew who was with Dream Defenders, and then there's Zoharah Simmons who is a SNCC activist.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Phillip Agnew: The important thing is that I know y'all know the joy of knocking on doors, right? That's, for me—look, for me, that's one of the most—we called it K.O.D. If y'all know—in Miami, that has a special meaning. So we call it K.O.D.—knocking on doors. And it's one of the most amazing—it's one of the most amazing, amazing experiences. And let me tell you why. Let me tell you why it's so important.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, poet: My pen is the fire, my mouth is the fumes, the spark of revolution through education and dedication, we can save our Black schools ...]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Derrick Johnson: Local people are at the center of our work. Chokwe Lumumba, “You don't love the people, you can't lead the people.” Organizational identity is irrelevant in local communities because local communities define what's in their best interest. And it's our role to work through that to support their work for the outcomes they seek.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Zoharah Simmons: We thought the first thing we had to do was to begin building a sense of community. We held cookouts outdoors when weather permitted. We blasted rock and roll music, jazz, blues. People would dance and mingle. We would intersperse the music with consciousness-raising, heavy doses of Black history. We saw that that really was an important part of sort of waking people up. We had voter registration tables at all of these gatherings with literature, and talked about the importance of voting for changing the conditions that they were faced with.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Phillip Agnew: This is an intentional process of listening to each of the communities that we are part of. We'll be doing the basic organizing things. Nothing revolutionary, but canvassing, mapping local terrain, hosting local community ciphers that we're gonna build with community squads to build our base and prepare for our future campaign work. So [the] underlying point, the elephant in the room is that I'm not presenting our campaign work. That's gonna emanate from a process over the next six months of developing that with the communities that we're working in.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Derrick Johnson: We also had to build a program of work. How we came up with those five primary areas, we did a listening tour of local people to find out what were the things that they were concerned with, and that is what informed our strategy.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Zoharah Simmons: These things are operable all the time. Listen to the people. Love the people. Be open to constructive criticism. Remain flexible and open to course corrections in your work towards your goal.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Phillip Agnew: Last year we told everybody, last year we told everybody to boycott Black Friday, right? And this was one of the learnings that really got us to a place where we had to re-evaluate ourselves individually and organizationally. And so everybody was saying "Boycott Black Friday." So I was talking to one of my homeboys. So I said—the brother said, "Look, man. Why are y'all telling people to boycott Black Friday?" I said, "Listen, man. The corporations are running this country. Walmart don't love you. Macy's don't love you. So don't go to the store. Don't spend your money with these organizations." He said, "I feel that. I feel that, brother. Yeah, that makes sense. Walmart don't love me." He said, "So you're gonna tell me that I got to buy the game. I got to buy the toys. This is non-negotiable, my brother. I gotta do it. So you're gonna tell me that not going to the store on the cheapest day of the year, knowing I gotta go—I gotta go a week later. So that's not a boycott to me, that's like an embargo. Because in a week, I'm gonna spend more money for that TV. So why don't you tell everybody to shop on the cheapest day of the year? That'll make them lose some money." I tell that story just to say it really re-grounds even the campaigns that we do, the things that we have to—and obviously, we got to get his brother greater political education to say "You don't gotta buy the TV." But that's an example of the conversations that we're able to have. And I know everyone in here has stories, but I'm happy to have a story like that. Because a year ago, when we was doing all that other bull and I've been talking to y'all about it and traveling around and doing the things that aren't real, I didn't have those stories to fuel me.]
Karlyn Forner: So one thing that I love about that clip is that these three folks are coming from very different places. Derrick Johnson organizing with the NAACP in Mississippi, and Phil Agnew organizing with Dream Defenders based out of Miami. And Zoharah Simmons talking about organizing and SNCC, which she was organizing in Mississippi and Atlanta. And so all of them are coming from very different experiences, but there's this through line that they're talking about in different ways about how they listen to the people, and how that shaped their organizing, and reflecting on how their organizing grew out of what they learned from listening to the people, and how that's just a throughline in the movement work.
John Gartrell: What I would say to any educator who is considering the SNCC Digital Gateway as a source is simply that our civil rights education needs a refresh. And I think the SNCC Digital Gateway presents a more than viable option for that refresh. If you feel your students are in need of hearing, reading, understanding the voices of everyday people, they might not see themselves with the possibilities of, say, a Martin Luther King, but I can guarantee you that they can see themselves in Fannie Lou Hamer, or they can see themselves in a Charlie Cobb. It's relevant not just for the past but for contextualizing what's going on today, and we encourage you the listener to visit SNCCDigital.org, and hopefully you'll find yourself returning again and again and again.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: John B. Gartrell is the Director of the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History & Culture in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Dr. Karlyn Forner is the former project manager of the SNCC Digital Gateway project. She is also the author of Why the Vote Wasn’t Enough for Selma.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Kaia Woodford is a Political Science major and African-American and African Studies minor at The Ohio State University. She is a Morrill Scholar who serves on the Executive Board of the Politics, Society, and Law Scholars program. Ms. Woodford is the president and co-founder of the Bexley (Ohio) Anti-Racism Project.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Courtland Cox is a SNCC veteran and the Chairperson of the SNCC Legacy Project, which is conducting intra- and inter-generational sessions to document the last 10 years of grassroots youth activism and to strategize about the future. This summer, the SNCC Legacy Project will be holding trainings for secondary teachers. And later this year they plan on a virtual celebration of SNCC’s 60th anniversary, which had to be cancelled last year.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Learning for Justice provides free teaching materials about slavery and the civil rights movement that include award-winning films and classroom-ready texts. You can find these online at LearningForJustice.org.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the civil rights movement and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. We began by talking about slavery for two seasons. And now we're tracing that legacy of oppression—and resistance—into the present.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks to Mr. Cox, Ms. Woodford, Dr. Forner, and Dr. Gartrell for sharing their insights with us. This podcast was produced by Mary Quintas and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. "Movement Music" is produced by Barrett Golding. And Gabriel Smith provides content guidance. Amelia Gragg is our intern. Our managing producer is Miranda LaFond. And Kate Shuster is our executive producer.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Our theme song is "The Colors That You Bring" by Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble, who graciously let us use it for this series. Additional music is from their album Where Future Unfolds. And from Wendel Patrick's JDWP Tribute.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If you like what you've heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University—and your host for Teaching Hard History.
- NYU Press, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt
- PBS and Blackside, Eyes on the Prize: Seasons 1 and 2
- Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966
- SNCC Legacy Project, Teaching for Change
- SNCC Digital Gateway, Courtland Cox
- SNCC Digital Gateway, Nonviolent Action Group
- Medgar Evers College, Life of Medgar Evers
- Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Who Was Ella Baker?
- NAACP, Education
- Learning for Justice, Nonviolence vs. Jim Crow (Bayard Rustin, 1942)
- PBS The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, Bayard Rustin, the Gay Civil Rights Leader Who Organized the March on Washington
- SNCC Digital Gateway, Amzie Moore
- King Institute, Edgar Daniel Nixon
- PBS American Experience, Fannie Lou Hamer
- SNCC Digital Gateway, Jackson Family
- PBS American Experience, Charles McLaurin - "The Foot Soldier"
- SNCC Digital Gateway, Charles McLaurin
- SNCC Digital Gateway, Hollis Watkins
- Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Songs My Mother Taught Me
- The Guardian, Diane Nash: 'Non-violent protest was the most important invention of the 20th century'
- King Institute, James M. Lawson
- The New York Times, Who Were the Freedom Riders?
- The Sixties Project, SNCC Position Paper: The Basis of Black Power
- National Humanities Center, Freedom's Story: Pigmentocracy (Nandinola Bleaching Cream ad)
- St. Louis American, ‘Dyed, fried and laid to the side’ (congolene)
- Online Archive of California, Report of the Governor's Commission on the Watts Riots (1965)
- The Atlantic, 50,000 Black Americans Have Died of COVID-19
- M4BL, The Movement for Black Lives
- Kaia Woodford (BHS ‘19), Bexley Anti-Racism Project
- Bexley Anti-Racism Project
- King Legacy Series, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?
- SNCC Digital Gateway, Fannie Lou Hamer
- Stanford Libraries, KZSU Project South Interviews
- KZSU Project South, Oral history interview with Fannie Lou Hamer
- SNCC Digital Gateway, Founding of SNCC
- SNCC Digital Gateway, Call: Youth Leadership Conference (1963, PDF)
- SNCC Digital Gateway, Map
- SNCC Digital Gateway, Inside SNCC
- SNCC Digital Gateway, SNCC Culture
- SNCC, Ivanhoe Donaldson: A Car Ride and Twenty-Five Dollars (video)
- SNCC Digital Gateway, Our Voices
- SNCC Digital Gateway, Charlie Cobb
- SNCC Digital Gateway, The Black Panther: From Protest to Power
- SNCC Digital Gateway, Jennifer Lawson
- SNCC Digital Gateway, Lowndes County Freedom Party
- SNCC Digital Gateway, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
- Civil Rights Movement Archive, Us Colored People (comic book, PDF)
- Civil Rights Movement Archive, Sheriff, Mr. Sindey Logan” (comic book, PDF)
- SNCC Digital Gateway, Song and Music: Bringing People Together
- SNCC, Bettie Mae Fikes: This Little Light of Mine (video)
- SNCC Digital Gateway, Today
- SNCC Digital Gateway, Which strategies and tactics are relevant today?
- SNCC, Listen to the People (video)
- NAACP, Derrick Johnson
- Philip Agnew, Harvard University DACA Seminar
- Dream Defenders, Our Story
- SNCC Digital Gateway, Zoharah Simmons
- The New York Times, Chokwe Lumumba, 66, Dies; Activist Who Became Mayor in Mississippi
- Duke University, John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History & Culture
- The Ohio State University, The Morrill Scholarship Program
- SNCC Legacy Project, SNCC’s 60th Anniversary
- Karlyn Forner, Why the Vote Wasn’t Enough for Selma
- John Gartrell, John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History & Culture, Duke University