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date: 23 July 2021

Atlanta Project of the SNCCfree

Atlanta Project of the SNCCfree

  • Winston A. Grady-Willis

In February 1966 the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) formally launched an experiment in urban field organizing in the Vine City neighborhood of Atlanta. Initially called the Vine City Project, it quickly became known as the Atlanta Project. It began as an informal organizing initiative to mobilize support for SNCC activist Julian Bond's campaign for the Georgia state legislature. In a matter of weeks, however, the scope of the project grew rapidly under co-directors Gwendolyn Robinson (Zoharah Simmons) and Bill Ware, both veteran SNCC activists with prior leadership experience in frontline human rights struggles in the Deep South. Robinson and Ware—along with other Project activists, including Michael Simmons, Larry Fox, and Donald Stone—argued that work in rural Georgia held little value without concomitant organizing in the state's capital. The group established a newspaper, Nitty Gritty; began neighborhood organizing; sparked the black consciousness movement within SNCC; and offered an audacious critique of the Vietnam War. Although in existence for only one year, the Atlanta Project played a pivotal role in hastening the transition between the nonviolent direct action and Black Power phases of the larger black-freedom struggle.

Urban Fieldwork

After establishing their base of operations at Freedom House, a small apartment in Vine City, Project activists confronted the issue of tenants’ rights in the segregated neighborhood. After a series of meetings, area residents had agreed to launch a rent strike. SNCC workers joined with other community activists in providing food and housing for the growing number of residents who faced eviction in the wake of the strike. Additionally, SNCC activists took affidavits from several tenants who lived in dilapidated buildings owned by a notorious white landlord. The affidavits spoke of rodent-infested, ramshackle quarters without heat and running water. Conditions were so deplorable that the housing crisis drew the attention of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) president and Atlanta resident Martin Luther King Jr., who visited residents. For their part, Atlanta Project activists endeavored to move the discussion of deplorable housing beyond a critique of individual landlords by arguing for governmental culpability. Specifically, the group designed leaflets that asserted that the government encouraged the building of expensive private homes by providing tax breaks to local contractors, yet discouraged quality low-income private housing. When authorities began evicting striking tenants, they arrested several SNCC activists who had attempted to block them.

Atlanta Project activists engaged in field organizing around a range of issues. In addition to coordinating a successful second election bid for Julian Bond, Project activists continued to press key issues from his campaign. For instance, Bond had called for an end to capital punishment, and his SNCC comrades continued to highlight the disproportionate impact that the death penalty had on blacks in the state. Prefiguring a later wave of activism in the city on behalf of the working poor, Project activists also championed the importance of a two-dollar minimum wage and assisted employees who demanded safer working conditions at a local laundry.

Some fieldwork in the urban context had clearly been informed by earlier experiences in a rural Mississippi context, including planning for an SNCC freedom school. Atlanta Project activists had lengthy discussions regarding the most effective way to promote critical thinking for area students. Prefiguring a key argument of the Africana Studies movement on college campuses, Project co-director Bill Ware insisted that one of the most important aspects of the proposed freedom school was that it would challenge existing notions of pedagogy that refused to confront the impact of institutional racism in society. The group moved the freedom-school initiative forward, enlisting Atlanta University Center students and Project activists as teachers and soliciting black publishers for complimentary books.

Black Consciousness

The freedom-school initiative was part and parcel of an interrogation of constructions of race and racism that Atlanta Project activists engaged in during this transitional period in the freedom movement. Initially, a growing number of black SNCC workers began reassessing the respective relationships of black and white activists to the larger movement. In the process, the group argued for a black-consciousness movement within SNCC that anticipated the work of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko a decade later in South Africa. Project activists met regularly at Freedom House, where they studied transcripts and a range of political education materials. Project co-director Gwendolyn Robinson noted that this process led to the argument that white activists should confront their white-skin privilege by working exclusively in white communities, a concept called “parallel organizing.” Several Project activists, including Revolutionary Action Movement member Rolland Snellings (Askia M. Touré), drafted position papers that affirmed that parallel organizing for blacks and whites was just one component of a larger agenda that stressed black organizational self-determination.

Atlanta Project activists had been criticized initially by some in SNCC's leadership for making an explicit argument for black self-determination; nevertheless, at a national SNCC meeting several weeks later, black consciousness dominated the agenda. Members of the Project did not attend the meeting; however, the sentiments raised in the Project's position papers reflected a burgeoning consensus among black SNCC workers to champion black self-determination. The impact of black nationalism on SNCC reverberated nationwide when Willie Ricks (Mukasa Dada) and the organization's new chairman, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), raised the explicit call for “Black Power” during the March Against Fear in Mississippi in June 1966.

White activists in SNCC, including Sue Thrasher and Gene Guerero, formed the Southern Student Organizing Committee (SSOC), a group that black SNCC workers affectionately called the White Folks’ Project, and engaged in parallel organizing work in white communities. Robinson noted that the positive working relationship between Atlanta Project and SSOC activists was evidence that progressive Southern white activists were more willing to challenge white-skin privilege than their Northern counterparts.

Some Atlanta Project staff members attended the volatile early December 1966 SNCC retreat in upstate New York, where the issue of white involvement in the organization came to the fore. Respected white activists such as Bob and Dottie Zellner had devoted years of uncompromising work on behalf of SNCC, often risking their lives in the process. Nevertheless, Bill Ware and several other black activists contended that the only way to realize the full expression of black self-determination was for the few whites who remained to cut formal ties to the group. After days of grueling debate, nineteen SNCC activists voted for expulsion, eighteen voted against it, and twenty-four abstained, including those whites present at the meeting.

Critique of the Vietnam War

In January 1966 SNCC's executive committee released an antiwar statement that declared the organization “has a right and a responsibility to dissent with United States foreign policy on any issue when it sees fit.” SNCC information director and newly elected state representative Julian Bond became the center of a firestorm because he supported SNCC's statement. Members of the Georgia state legislature refused to seat Bond, who supported the SNCC statement on principle although he had not been present at the meeting to endorse it. Soon after the release of the antiwar statement, Atlanta Project workers Larry Fox and Michael Simmons began coordinating black antiwar protests nationwide, essentially attempting to build a formal black antiwar network that sought to link military violence abroad with institutional racism in the United States.

Proving that local activism was central to their work, however, the Atlanta Project launched a bold, yet thoughtful, propaganda campaign in the streets of Atlanta. Led by Dwight Williams, the SNCC activists inundated bus stations, corner stores, barbershops, and hair salons that targeted working-class and poor blacks with leaflets that asserted that men in their communities “believe they have the right to choose which war they fight in. These young black men believe that their first duty is to work for and with their own people here in this country.” In August 1966 the SNCC activists confronted military personnel directly, picketing the induction center at the Twelfth Army Corps Headquarters. Although police had arrested Project activists months earlier when they attempted to block evictions in support of the struggling tenants’ movement there, the antiwar demonstrations represented a different level of engagement altogether. Following a violent confrontation between Army recruiters and SNCC activists that spilled out into the street, police arrested twelve Project workers on a range of charges that included an 1870 insurrection law that carried the death penalty. The SNCC activists spent two to three months in jail before obtaining bond, the longest period of political incarceration for activists in Atlanta since the sit-in protests of 1960.

The protest, arrest, and imprisonment of Atlanta Project workers temporarily quelled tensions between members of the Atlanta Project and certain members of the SNCC executive committee. Stokely Carmichael made frequent visits to see his jailed comrades. The most poignant demonstration of solidarity, however, took place daily in front of the Twelfth Army Corps Headquarters and later at the downtown bus station. Women of the Atlanta Project—fully clad in long black dresses, veils, and head coverings—conducted silent picketing each weekday for nearly four months, until the last incarcerated SNCC activist won his release from jail.

The feud that still simmered within SNCC over the Project's agenda boiled over when Atlanta Project activists refused to return a car to the national SNCC office in January 1967. Stokely Carmichael and fellow executive committee member Cleveland Sellers reported the missing car to the Atlanta police. Project co-director Bill Ware responded with a telegram in which he lambasted Carmichael for contacting the police in an effort to settle an internal dispute between the SNCC national and Project offices. With the exception of Donald Stone, the national office suspended all Atlanta Project workers, signaling the urban field project's demise.

Legacy

For several reasons, the Atlanta Project of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee has been undervalued in the scholarly discussion of the black-freedom movement. One, the group's brash activists were at odds with key members of the SNCC executive committee throughout the urban field project's brief existence. Two, its members were among the most strident proponents of the exclusion of whites, a controversial political position that has caused some scholars to marginalize the group. Three, because of its early demise, the Atlanta Project did not capture the media and subsequent scholarly attention that engulfed charismatic male members of the SNCC executive committee, such as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown (El-Hajj Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin). However, a reexamination of the scholarly evidence confirms that the Atlanta Project made an indelible mark on African American struggles for fundamental human rights.

Atlanta Project activists helped provide a framework for the burgeoning Black Power movement. By crafting theoretical position papers and conducting activism on the ground, the activists sought to come to terms with fundamental questions of black self-determination at the local, national, and international levels, lending form and definition to black-freedom struggles during a critical transitional period. As Project co-director Gwendolyn Robinson has noted, the group was central to the radicalization of SNCC not only because it served as a key site for the expression of radical black nationalism, but also because its policies had been informed by both earlier rural struggles for voting rights and current urban struggles for quality affordable housing and against police brutality. The Project's critique of white-skin privilege within SNCC anticipated key arguments by critical race theorists over a decade later. Finally, the Atlanta Project of SNCC crafted a sophisticated critique of the Vietnam War that highlighted issues of institutional racism at the intersection between U.S. public policy and foreign policy. Such antiwar activism—punctuated as it was by confrontational demonstrations downtown—helped lay the foundation for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s public opposition to the Vietnam War the following year.

Bibliography

  • Brown-Nagin, Tomiko. Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Comprehensive in scope and detailed in its examination of sources, this book highlights the interplay between established and grassroots activists, as well as among legal strategy, public policy, and on-the-ground activism in Atlanta from the World War II era through the contentious desegregation struggles of the 1970s and 1980s.
  • Carmichael, Stokely, and Ekwueme Michael Thelwell. Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003. One of the most significant and captivating books in the great tradition of radical black autobiography.
  • Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. Remains the bedrock foundational text for anyone interested in the place and importance of SNCC.
  • Dittmer, John. Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1994. This book is absolutely indispensible for understanding how grassroots and established activists courageously challenged the crucible of white supremacy.
  • Grady-Willis, Winston A. Challenging U.S. Apartheid: Atlanta and Black Struggles for Human Rights, 1960–1977. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. A more gendered examination of the transition from nonviolent direct action to Black Power, it represents a departure from earlier interpretations of the Atlanta Project of SNCC.
  • Joseph, Peniel. Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America. New York: Macmillan, 2007. Comprehensive and engaging, this groundbreaking book provides the first narrative analysis of the black-power era.
  • Kelley, Robin D. G. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003. An intriguing analysis of seldom-discussed visionary black radicals (such as those of the Revolutionary Action Movement) who have shaped the trajectory of black-freedom struggles.
  • Sellers, Cleveland, with Robert Terrell. The River of No Return: The Autobiography of a Black Militant and the Life and Death of SNCC. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1973.