Stokely Carmichael, Charlie Cobb, and Courtland Cox discuss the SNCC ; part 2
BROADCAST: Jul. 23, 1965 | DURATION: 00:34:47
Stokely Carmichael, Charlie Cobb, and Courtland Cox discuss civil rights and African Americans in politics. Discussing the philosophy of SNCC.
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Charlie Cobb And that [operated?], that happened, you know, on and on. So I had a feeling I was used. Then I finally decided I couldn't be used cause I was thinking about it, I [saw?] I was aware of all this, so, if I'm aware of it, I'm obviously not being used. It's only when I'm not aware of it that I may be being used, and wrote it off and went on my own bag. I left school and I came back to school after a year. I was 16 then. And during that year I was moving in New York, in Harlem. I was living up there, working, you know, seeing the housing. So all that had some effect on me. And then when I graduated the sit-ins broke out. And that, see, now that was--that was, you know, because the one thing that I knew from a very early age, that no matter what Negroes did, that white folks were running it. I couldn't get away from that. That was just a hard fact--that no matter what Negroes, I don't care what Negroes said--I never saw a Negro that said anything, you know, that white folks weren't behind it, unless he said it over a bottle of beer or something. But he didn't say it on TV, he didn't say it in the newspapers, or anything. You know, unless white folks [unintelligible]--except for the sit-ins, you know. And the reason was because, I thought, that they had decided to do the sit-in on a spur of the moment. That was what I guessed. So I figured white folks really weren't behind that. And that was a good thing, and then it started happening all over the South. And, again, like Courtland, you know, see, I was looking, I had decided the country had to be changed. And the question was, you know, whether or not, you know, I wanted to jockey myself in a position up top, see, to run the country and change it my way, or whether I wanted to fight it from the outside. And, you know, all the way up from high, through high school, even during the first year or so when I came South, I was still wrestling with that question. I wasn't sure whether or not I should go back to college, say, and get a master's and a Ph.D. and become a qualified Negro. And then, when I got up top, then I could change the country like--cause I was sure, see, that I could get to the top and run things. I mean--
Charlie Cobb And, oh, I was convinced that once I decided, if I decided that I wanted to run the country that, then I would move in a position to run the country. I mean, it was just a reality. But I had questions about whether I wanted to go through all the crap that took to get up there, because you have to manipulate your way up there, see. And, so, and then the work in the South really has an effect, I think. I mean, cause you--at least I was fairly bitter in my own way, you know, with a lot of things that I'd seen. You know, you see the brutality, you know. So you feel like--you see a cop hit a woman, you feel like snatching the billy club from the cop. You see one guy blocking you from coming back from the county courthouse, you feel like just hauling off and hitting the guy in the stomach, and give him a chop on the neck, and laying him out, and walk over him. You know, because you figure you can do that. You know, but I didn't know how long I could do that. So, I just had to keep that out. And where the reason I don't think I exploded like that was because I had all these people around me. What Stokely describes as getting up in the morning to see sharecroppers is exactly right because you had all these people around you that you could really talk to. Most people talk on the periphery and never talk to people. But I had all these people that I could talk to about something very real, very concrete, so I could let a lot of that--I really think it acts as a softening agent, in terms of, say, potential explosion in yourself. I mean, that talk you have with sharecroppers and all that. So then I spent the last three years doing exactly that and found out, you know, to learn there were some very basic truths. Because what I had to do then, I had to ask myself, I think, you know. Now, I knew Mrs. Hamer, you know, when we canvassed the plantation and got her to go down to register to vote. And I know her now three years later, you know, after she's come back from Atlantic City, she's in the FDP--
Studs Terkel Perhaps we should say a word--I didn't mean to interrupt--perhaps say a word about Fannie Lou Hamer--I think she's been mentioned twice now. Perhaps, even more specifically about this remarkable woman, I know people saw her on television during the Democratic convention and, but this [unintelligible], she represents something, obviously, quite powerful and profound in the South, doesn't she? We'll come back to ourselves, you know, and beginnings.
Charlie Cobb And we got her to go down in August of '62 to register to vote in Sunflower County. Then when she got back home the plantation owner knew about it, in that space between the time it takes to get from the courthouse to, back to the plantation 30 miles away. I mean, and she was told to get off the plantation that night. Well, she did. The house she moved into was shot up. I mean, 16, 17, it was just riddled with bullets. She wasn't there, nobody was there. And she, at that point, became very active. I mean, it was like, people in Ruleville, where she was living with them, were absolutely terrified because the shooting and the violence, and what it acted to do, that terror, was just stop people from doing anything. They wouldn't go down to register. And, like, you know, all we could do was just talk, you know, we'd talk about anything under the sun. But just show that we were there. And, like, Mrs. Hamer was a very strong figure in that. I mean, because there--and there's a difference between, you know, a local person talking, to, say, a SNCC person talking, I mean, that's somebody they know and can plug into, and all that kind of--it was a big help. She did that, you know, then moved into the Freedom Democratic Party. You know, again, with all that energy she has. And intelligence, you know, that just never had a chance to be used by her or by other people. I mean, there was no way for her to use what she had and--which is a real problem for people anyway--people can't use what they have. And that she has worked out, her, a way, through the Freedom Democratic Party, to use and give what she has to other people. And that's exactly the thing that I had to deal with. I mean, I think, in thinking about what I was doing in Mississippi, in terms of whether or not to leave and move to some top position or stay, was, what was it in the time between, say, Mrs. Hamer lived on the plantation that day we first canvassed it and, say, ending with and from that time to, say, the Atlantic City Democratic challenge? I mean, what was, how had Mrs. Hamer changed? I mean, how was she living in comparison now as compared to then? What was she doing, and whether or not it was possible to extend that, in terms to other people--
Studs Terkel Well, this leads to, obviously, the next step. Here are the three, the insights each of you had from childhood on: Courtland Cox, Charlie Cobb, and Stokely Carmichael. And then this question of whom do you see in the morning--here's a change in Fannie Lou Hamer that you saw, something was happening. Then your big job, then, was to--aside from yourselves, your own development, you know, the natural instincts you have, you say, to sock, you know, when you're hit and not to--to the nonviolence of it. But also to instill in these people a sense of personal worth. Isn't that it, you know? That is, they accepted the lot, isn't that it?
Courtland Cox Well, I think that our main function is to develop opportunities or exper--I mean, or situations where people can experience and act. That, I think, that they instill in themselves when they act. I mean, what Charlie was saying was that, Mrs. Hamer was able to use her energy, and to act, and to move, and therefore she was able to develop. And that was the one thing that, I mean, that--
Stokely Carmichael See, on a broader scale, I mean, like, I find it very funny when people talk about the new South. I don't know what that means. They say about the changes that go on in the South. Now, I know that there have been no real structural changes in the South, but there has been a change in the South, and the change is within the people. Now, the change that I know about is the change within the Negro community. Now, there has been some change in the white community, I assume. I can't speak to that. But I can speak to the Negro community. And that's the type of change that's, of course, exemplified by Mrs. Hamer.
Charlie Cobb Yeah, that, see, there's two kinds of changes. See, now I think that, say, in terms of the way the country's structured, or the way the country allocates what it's to give to people--say, the government allocates what it's to give to people--there can be changes in that. People obviously need decent housing, food, health facilities, and all that, and that there can be changes in what the people who have things to give, give to people and they can give more. And maybe that's part of the change in Mississippi, in addition to the change in attitude, in a sense, say, that you have the poverty program, see. And, so, some people--they're very few people--some people in the state are getting more than they usually got as a result of that program. But I don't think that, in terms of really meeting people's needs, that that's going to be the significant thing. That--and this is the one thing that the structure, say, absolutely remains absolutely rigid on--and that's the way decisions are made to give. The way the plan is laid out to decide who's to be given what, and how much it.
Charlie Cobb triplicate. And the question is, I mean, whether or not the people, or the things, or the whatevers that make up the structure are going to be ever prepared, you know, to change in terms of its decision making apparatus and what it's going to take [unintelligible]--
Stokely Carmichael Now, I think that's the difference between SNCC and the other organizations. Because what I found out from my readings in revolutions, and they certainly haven't been in any depth, but what I found out from things I've been reading--
Stokely Carmichael Both. What I found out is that you have a bunch of bad guys, and they're doing things bad, and they're robbing people, the poor people. So then the group, a bunch of good guys get together and they say we have to take over the bad guys and do things for the people, see. And, so, these bad guys and good guys, they go ahead and they start fighting, and the good guys start involving some of the people in the fight. But they are still always on the top, see. And then they take over the bad guys, and then they become the good guys, and they may do good things but then--
Stokely Carmichael Yeah, these are traditional revolutionary groups. But then, inevitably, the good guys somewhere along the line become bad guys again. And another guy, another group of good guys gotta get up and fight. See, now, what I found about all that fighting is that the people who do those fightings are the qualified people. And that's what I found out about some other civil rights groups, and some what you called "would be groups on the left." I don't like to label groups but--they all had a blueprint for freedom.
Stokely Carmichael Packaged revolutions. Yeah, they had their packaged revolutions and they were going to give it to the Negro people, see? And Negro groups are going to do the same thing. Now, what we found out is that what you do is that you get those people in motion--the people we work with. And once they get in motion that they, themselves--see, you've got to have the faith in people that they don't have. Like when Charlie says about the intelligence of Mrs. Hamer. What I found out when I go across the country and speak to people, and they talk about Mrs. Hamer compared to Dr. King, let's say. They say, Dr. King is an intelligent man, a brilliant leader, a profound man, a man of great intelligence and moral character. And then they say about Mrs.--and they always say he's brilliant, he's intelligent, he's an author. Then they say about Mrs. Hamer, they say she is so soulful, she is so honest, she's so good, she's so--
Stokely Carmichael Right. Now, they never say that Mrs. Hamer is as intelligent as is Dr. King. Now, I know both of them, and I've moved in both those circles, and I'd say that Mrs. Hamer is just as, if not more intelligent, than is Dr. King. Now, my own thinking, she's more intelligent because she hasn't been in that circle that Dr. King's been in and she hasn't had to move in that circle. But nobody across the country has ever said to me that Mrs. Hamer is an intelligent person. And that's because Mrs. Hamer is illiterate.
Stokely Carmichael In the book sense. Oh, yeah. And what the people who call the packaged revolutions, they didn't trust the Miss Hamers because the Miss Hamers were illiterate. The Miss Hamers didn't fulfill the criteria for the society which they were filling. But what they didn't realize, well, they were caught in the same trap because they were making those exact same criterias for their groups, and they were excluding people, too.
Courtland Cox See, I think that Miss Hamer doesn't have the procedure. See, I think education is like a procedure. It's like the form that you have to fill out six times, I mean, you know, in order t--and if you don't use the correct words as you're using the correct forms, or fill them out enough times in terms of the amount of verbiage you can use and so forth, that you're not considered intelligent. People look not at the substance but at the procedure. And that's important. I mean, that goes back to what--I, my feeling is that there have been no revolutions that I've known of, and I'm a history major and I went to Negro schools so that might be my [definition?]. [laughter] But I think that, I mean, they, exactly the--
Courtland Cox A plantation. What happens is that, I mean, that, in terms of revolutions, what happened, especially, I mean, traditional things like people talk about the Russian Revolution, French Revolution, Mexican--
Studs Terkel American.
Courtland Cox American, so forth, is that there were few people who acted in their own interest. And that they continue to act in their own interests after that fighting was over. And it seems to me, like in Vietnam, or in the whole question of revolutions, that you fight to kill people. You can never fight to bring freedom, or housing, or justice, or anything. I mean, you work on justice to bring justice. You work on housing to get better housing. You work on education to get better education. I mean, you kill--you go to war, or have revolutions to kill people. And that, I mean, that if we really, I mean, that's, I mean, that's my feeling about how those things develop. And I think that if we really want to, if we really want to start having some things that, I mean, in terms of what we feel that people need and so forth, is that, number one, we have to stop--I mean, start working on a specific thing when we start working on it. And number two, stop looking for the procedure, I mean, and listen to the substance.
Studs Terkel So it's the substance. Now, don't we come now to the core of what the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is about--the substance. That there is, that in each--in short, you want to [even?] enough, quote unquote, to have faith in people. Basically, this is what you're saying. It's the opposite of, you know, and, thus, also aren't you saying also that the means you use, the means is directly connected with the end? That it is nonviolence, [the means?], that you do not kill people. But through your particular technique--being human, having tremendous conflicts within yourself, somehow I'm--this is, of course, always amazing to me--how you are able to sublimate that. I don't quite understand.
Charlie Cobb Well, it's a question that, very clearly, if--in my own mind--if you're talking about say, change, say in the country, then you're talking about people and getting them involved in changing things which means that you have to, you're, it seems to me, that you're talking about getting them to decide, you know, what has to be changed, you know, in what ways. And, you know, and what it's going to take to do that. Now, and what's implied in all of that, or implicit in all of that, see, people are different. I mean, and so, people have different things they're interested in doing and all of that. And that there's, like, conflicts and all that. And then there's you, you know, and you're wrestling with, you know, whether or not you're going to impose, you know, what you think the change should be on people. I mean, you want things changed, too. You're not satisfied, you know. You have ideas, you know. Now, how much of that do you impose on people, you know? How much, you know, are other people who get involved with you gonna impose what they think on other people? How do you resolve, you know, all the conflicts in that? And that I think that, maybe, the one thing, I mean that, I think the thing to change this country lies in, is people learning how not to impose. I mean, I think that's where real violence is. Which is why I say politics is the most violent thing in the country.
Studs Terkel Imposition?
Charlie Cobb Right. I mean, it's just, it's just violence and violence doesn't have to be, you know, in a shotgun slaying, you know, in a rural county in a Southern town. I mean, violence, I've seen more violence in Chicago in the last week than I've seen in three years in Mississippi. And it's all--stems from the impositions that are placed on other people by other people at all levels, I think. It just doesn't come from, say, the President, you know. He sort of does it nationally. It also has its specifics locally, too. And I really think that that's the--there's a lot of specific kinds of work we do, you know, in that but that's like one of the contexts in which the specifics of our work is set in.
Stokely Carmichael You can develop that much further. I mean, in terms of my own thinking on the whole question of nonviolence, is that what happens, particularly within the Negro movement, is it's going to become isolated. And that the people you blame for that are Negroes. See, I'm convinced that if tomorrow morning I got up, and Negroes said, we're not going to--in the movements--said we're not going to be non-violent anymore, I would never blame them. I'd blame the whole American society because they isolated them. I don't see how you can take a person who lives within a contextual society, a violent society, and expect that person to be nonviolent. And within respect to every other issue that's violent. I mean, if Cuba says something and we don't agree with Cuba then we just blow 'em the hell off the map. I mean, we're the biggest and the baddest. We can do that. If we have trouble in Vietnam, why, we just send a million soldiers over there and shoot them up and drop bombs, cause we can do that. Of if there's a problem in the Dominican Republic we do the same thing. And, so, our answer to all of these questions is always one stock answer: shoot 'em. The same thing [unintelligible] then on a local level: there's a policeman--shoot him if he does something wrong. And then you bring it down to even more, within the whole political structure, when you talk about that violent thing. I mean, just how they view that--everything in this society is violent. It's vicious. Except for one thing I find, that all people in the country stand stock on: when you talk about the Negro movement. They must be nonviolent. Now I don't see how Johnson can call me to fight in Vietnam and then tell me that I should shoot somebody who I don't know, who I'm not in any way related to, except in the fact that we're all mankind, and I am related in that sense--and I'd like to talk about that, too, a later on.
Stokely Carmichael In terms of what--Charlie wrote a poem and it has to do with uniforms, and I've related that in my own mind to what it means. But on the stock answer of the Negro, they all say the same thing: you have to be nonviolent. And, so, the only people who are talking about nonviolence is a little group of people in the movement, and they've just been isolated. Now, if the country was serious about nonviolence, then what it would have to do is to open up channels and really talk about that across the board, for everybody. That would mean that Johnson would have to talk about nonviolence not only in the civil rights movement but in Vietnam.
Charlie Cobb It's more than that even, see, it's--one of the interesting thing that I've noticed, say, about SNCC is that my own--I think that, say, in terms of our day-to-day work that, see, that the country defines in its own mind what that work is, you know. Puts that in a little slot and labels that, you know, so therefore, you know, we're just kids, say, and, you know, we can't last or something like that. Anyway, they define us, you know, within its own terms and then let us go on and do that work. You know, until the work starts to threaten them then they move to control. Now, they do the same thing not just for SNCC, they do it for the civil rights movement, see? I have my own views about what civil rights is, and what it's about, and all that. And I don't think that it agrees, say, with what President Johnson, who I think essentially articulates the country's attitude toward civil rights. I don't think it agrees with that. And I say that in order to be nonviolent, to be nonviolent and to be aspiring as Negroes to what Johnson and white America would have us aspire to, is contradictory. And that, if I was aspiring to that, that I couldn't be nonviolent because everything that this country has acquired has been acquired violently. The way you move to the top in this country is by exploiting and destroying other people one way or the other. I mean, that's the way you move to the top. The way you run things in this country is by, you know, controlling other people. I mean, just everything, you know, is contradictory to the whole concept of nonviolence. Now, if we as Negroes, I suppose, even that applies to the vote. And that vote, the way it's used, and misused, by the politicians is violent. And the Chicago ghettos speak to that. So, in terms of what Johnson says that we're doing, there's just absolutely no way to be nonviolent, you know, and that he really, you know, I assume, see, that in the press there's been, you know, this really hostile attack towards SNCC'S radicalism, quote, irresponsibility, quote, disruptiveness, etcetera.
Stokely Carmichael Disorganized.
Charlie Cobb Disorganization, depending on what area of the political spectrum you're in. And it really all, you know, in terms of violence or nonviolence, that the country ought to be thankful, I mean, for our radicalism, or for our refusal to accept their definitions. And they might learn from it in terms of being able to look at what things are, rather than what they are told things are.
Studs Terkel You know, Charlie Cobb, as you're talking I can't help but think of what Stokely said, oh, it must have been about 45 minutes ago, about thankful for your true responsibility, of these white guys who were taking these tickets, these drab jobs replaced by machines. In a sense, what you're doing is seeking to give them a meaning to their lives, too, eventually, through this. Isn't this what it amounts to, really?
Courtland Cox Well--
Studs Terkel Courtland.
Courtland Cox I think that, in that sense, we, we're ultimately trying to do that. I mean, we have to talk to human needs. And I'd like, in that instance, to relate something that happened to me in Detroit about two weeks ago. I was walking, I was walking down the street and the police sirens came from all around, and there was one guy who was sitting on the car, who was, I guess, drunk. And the police told him to move, and he didn't move fast enough, so they began to beat on him. And then another guy they threw down the stairs because he protested. And then this happened to a third guy--he got beat up, too. And I was walking on, and when things that Charlie was talking about--aspiring to be on top in the society--I mean, one of the things that flashed through my mind, and said--I said to myself, suppose I wanted to go to law school and pass the bar; I should stay out of this situation, and be silent, and be quiet. And that in order for me to aspire in this society, even if I wasn't violent, I would have to watch the violence go on and be silent. And, so, I decided to talk to the police officer who had just been involved in the situation, and tell them that as a person, as a human being, I disagreed with what he was doing, and I didn't like it, and that I thought that was wrong. And, I mean, he just couldn't understand that. He just thought that this was, I mean, giving him lip, and that I had to be arrested because I was resisting and disturbing a police officer in the performance of his duty. And one of the things that the Detroit papers did was said, well if this was a civil rights issue it would be all right, but these are nothing but hoodlums and these people's civil rights, quote, just happen--quote, in quotation marks--and that they were just around to stir trouble up. And throughout that, throughout that scene, I mean, there are a number of things, I mean, that--I mean, the police kept saying--Well, if I was out there, you'd be in the morgue, or the hospital. I mean, they just, I mean, just, I mean that whole thing about, that how you stop people, control people, is to shoot them, I mean, and to--and, I mean, one of the things that I learned in ROTC class when I was going to school was that the purpose of any army is to destroy the will to fight. And the, a cop I was talking to in Washington D.C. said, I mean, you're told to treat everybody as a criminal. Anybody. I mean, when you look at them. And the thing that I was reminded of was once, in Itta Bena, Mississippi, where guy got up, you know, after sitting down, listening to the discussion, and he got up and said, "Us colored people have been using our mouths to do two things: to eat, and say, 'Yes, suh.' It's time we said no." And I kept thinking about that in terms of, I mean, what do you have to do when you see things like that in society? I mean, too often we just use our mouths to eat and just say yes, sir. I mean, many of us [don't?] feel that we can act, and do.
Stokely Carmichael I wanted to pick up a little with some of the things Courtland and Charlie are talking about and go back to uniforms and isolation. I mean, talking about Charlie's poem, and that's what we called it when we published it. You talked about - -
Courtland Cox It's--
Charlie Cobb "The cops, that have shot all the people, white and Black, that they have shot, have shot because they were given guns, and told it's all right to kill people, sometimes. And we have been taught, it's all right, for people to be killed, by the cops, and the U.S. Army, like in Vietnam, where our interests are being threatened, by the disorder of the people in Vietnam, who don't like us, and don't want us, and who think they can run their own country. And besides, they're not even white, those people in Vietnam, who don't want us to fight, in their country, and blow it up with bombs, like Birmingham, also a place, where little children, come down, blown apart, into pieces, because they're the enemy, too." That's just part of it.
Stokely Carmichael Now see, the thing that's very relevant in the whole poem is about uniforms, and how you respect uniforms. I was taught when I was in college, and I guess they still talk about it in history books, that the best thing that happened to civilization, Western civilization, was nationalism. Is that it? Yeah. What, Disraeli, was it? Or who was the--Bismarck? No, who was that famous German cat? Bismarck? With nationalism? Hey, I forgot I remembered my history! Yeah, I thought I'd forgotten my scholarly stuff! [laughter] Get to me!
Stokely Carmichael We all turned the school upside down. Well, what I learned about nationalism was that I thought at that time that it wasn't really the greatest thing because it segregated man. Now, this is how I view the whole thing in Vietnam. I don't think that a man could kill another man if he thought of him as a man like himself. But I think a man can kill a man if he didn't think of him as a man. Now that isn't as complicated as it sounds, really.
Stokely Carmichael If I put on a uniform, and I'm called an American, then everybody views me as an American. And if somebody else puts on a uniform, and they're called a Viet Cong, then they're viewed as a Viet Cong. I never see their faces, I never look into their eyes, I see the uniform and they're labeled a Viet Cong. And then you've got other people dressed up in uniforms and they're labeled Russians. And then you say, "The Viet Cong are your enemy. The Russians are your enemy. The Chinese are your enemy," and whoever. And you learn to distinguish these guys by their uniforms. Now you can't ever look at their faces because they're man, and you can't destroy a man because that's sort of a self-destruction thing. But you can destroy the Viet Cong, and you can destroy the Russian, cause you're not destroying men, you're destroying a Viet Cong, you're destroying a Russian. Now, if we didn't have that nationalism, let's say, if we had, in reality, mankind, it would be hard for someone to go to Viet Cong and kill a man. And then the problem would be even more complicated if they didn't wear uniforms. I mean, if they were just men. Now, you might be able to differentiate it, as you do in America, by race, see? So that a white man in Mississippi, a state trooper in Mississippi, can shoot, or a state trooper in Alabama can shoot a Mr. Jimmy Lee Jackson. And that that can be dismissed, because he's a uniformed man, too. And that Jimmy Lee Jackson wears another kind of uniform.
Stokely Carmichael His skin. But he is the enemy. So what you have to do--see, now it really goes way across lines. I mean, that's something that this country can never start to talk about under the foreign policy that it now has. And now that comes down to also isolation, see. So, you can isolate people according to the uniforms they wear, you can isolate a Viet Cong, you can isolate a Russian. And, now, how do you do it within the system? Now, within the country itself, you isolate people by a couple of things.