SNCC founder’s parting words on racial justice

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By J. K. Schmid, AFRO Business Writer

Where is the Civil Rights Movement?

It’s a tricky question as politicians and activists, police and the oppressed struggle now in the aftermath of this year’s police shooting of Breonna Taylor and the strangulation to death of George Floyd. It gets trickier still looking back at the murders of Trayvon Martin, Tyrone West and Freddie Gray. Looking back at the arc of US history is an even longer line of brutality.

Julian Bond’s Time to Teach: A History of the Southern Civil Rights Movement does not offer a precise location, politically or geographically, but it does offer a trajectory.

Bond, a civil rights leader, Georgia state senator and house representative, and professor, taught civil rights history at the University of Virginia (UVA) to thousands of students via newsreel, film and lecture.

“Time to Teach” is a compilation of Bond’s lectures covering the southern Civil Rights movement from the Niagara Movement to the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Editing over 20 years of lectures was Pamela Horowitz, Bond’s widow, and Jeanne Theoharis, a Distinguished Professor at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and a former student, teaching assistant and mentee.

Bond’s lectures were constantly updated with new thought, research and literature up until the moment of his retirement from UVA in 2012. Bond died in 2015.

The book, a review copy given to the AFRO, connects 22 chapters of history, testimony and Bond’s lived experience to explain what was won and how in Bond’s earliest years of life 

“Civil rights scholarship over the last decades has changed radically from an emphasis on ‘great men’—Martin Luther King, Presidents Kennedy or Johnson—and a top-down narrative to state and community studies where the efforts of individuals and local groups are prominent,” Bond says by way of introduction.

Bond had helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960 with then Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) director Ella Baker. Baker was a longtime skeptic and critic of top-down charismatic leadership.

“Strong people don’t need strong leaders,” Baker said at the time.

It was SNCC that organized Cambridge, Maryland’s Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee (CNAC), and local ground-up CNAC leadership that turned MLK away as it built its own struggle for fair housing, full employment and equal access to medicine.

The Kennedy administration had been cool towards King and SCLC when it came to demands for support or even just protection. But John F. Kennedy, Jr. singled out SNCC as “sons of bitches.”

President Jimmy Carter, a private opponent of segregation since serving in a desegregated US Navy, flinched and shrank before public questions on his views when he first entered politics.

“If you wanted to scare White people in Southwest Georgia, Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference wouldn’t do it,” Carter told Mary King, a woman Baker handpicked for SNCC. “You only had to say one word: SNCC.”

Bond returns again and again to the fumbles and betrayals of Kennedy and his administration. The White House negotiated with SNCC directly to curb sit-ins and other direct actions and join CORE and SCLC in voter registration drives. Peaceful, normative and pragmatic. In return, SNCC was promised federal oversight and protection from local racist law enforcement.

SNCC complied, only to find Kennedy-appointed judges and other Democrat-appointed judges keep its organizers jailed on trumped up or fraudulent charges, “SNCC could not count on the federal government for protection for their voting rights work and the white violence that would ensue,” Bond concludes. Investigations into murders of other organizers went without arrest.

The book is centered on exploding the myth that collapses The Civil Rights Movement into a few speeches, a few leaders and a few laws, this review cannot distill it down again justly.

But while political elites whinge and whine about “Defund the Police” qualities as a slogan, or answering “All Lives Matter,” to the question “Do Black Lives Matter?” Julian Bond’s A Time to Teach narrates and articulates how and why ground-up grass roots mass movements win.

Julian Bond’s A Time to Teach: A History of the Southern Civil Rights Movement is published by Beach Press and scheduled for release January 12, 2021.