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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Lewis, November 20, 1973. Interview A-0073. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Tensions within SNCC and transition of leadership from Lewis to Carmichael

Lewis discusses offers the background of his decision to leave the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) after he lost the chairmanship to Stokely Carmichael in 1966. According to Lewis, SNCC had been wrought by internal tensions as early as 1964 when the Mississippi Freedom Summer revealed tensions between African American and white participants. Over the course of the next two years, Lewis explains that his relationship with Martin Luther King Jr., his work with the White House and President Johnson, and his continued adherence to nonviolence became points of contention as SNCC began to adopt a more radical stance. Lewis left SNCC shortly after Carmichael assumed control of the organization. The passage concludes with Lewis's reaction to SNCC's adoption of "black power" as its primary stance as something that ultimately limited to the organization's effectiveness.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Lewis, November 20, 1973. Interview A-0073. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
What is the story of your leaving SNCC. I'm not real student of SNCC literature; what I've read are basic stories. I understand that Stokely's chronicle which is a cry for black power. Do you perceive this as an end to non-violent left and that over-simplification of what did happen? Also, how did you perceive black power when it was first viewed and how do you perceive it now?
JOHN LEWIS:
Well, before the SNCC election in May of '66 . . . let me go back a few weeks or a few months. SNCC came through some very difficult periods, the Mississippi Summer Project in 1964, and that created a lot of problems. That was a well integrated attempt to li terally integrate the movement by bringing in both black and white, young people and students, teachers, lawyers, into Mississippi. It created a lot for problems for SNCC through organization. We had many many staff people become very disturbed. Some of the communities they had been working in, some of the local period became disturbed that all of the attention had been geared toward the white students that were coming from New York and California. They had been working in these low communities for the past three years and they had no attention. You may have a-giving just sort of a simplified example-say, in Greenwood, Mississippi in an office there had been a young local girl who had been typing twenty-five words a minute in a SNCC office and then some white student or lady came down and she can type sixty to seventy words a minute and this young girl is replaced because you need to get the work out. And if something happens, the attention goes. That created some problems and there was a great deal of frustration after the Mississippi Summer Project for many reasons. One was the whole thing around the Democratic Convention in 1964. After the Summer Project was over we had organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and a great many of the people in SNCC felt that and really believed the Democratic Party would seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic delegation and outstay the regulars. So you had that period of frustration. Did you expect them to seat them at that time?
JOHN LEWIS:
No, not really. I was hoping, I was literally hoping that it would be done but not really. I didn't think the party was prepared to go that far. I didn't think Lyndon Johnson was prepared to see the regular Democratic Party of Mississippi ousted. And that created a fantastic amount of frustration on the part of SNCC people-saying we played by the rules. We organized this process and later we went into Alabama when some people felt that the period of demonstration, non-violent protest was over. This was probably one of my first sort of breaks with some of my colleagues in SNCC. After SCLC came into Selma, there had been a great deal of debate and discussion about the SNCC role, our role, SCLC. I was in a very strange position because I had been serving on SCLC's board since 1962, before I became chairman of SNCC. I had mixed or confused loyalty because I was loyal to SNCC and at the same time Martin Luther King was a friend of mine and somebody that I admired and we had worked together. I didn't have any problems of the whole question of working with SCLC and working with Dr. King. When it came time to march on March 7, 1965, the night before the march we had a meeting here in Atlanta at a restaurant on Hunter Street. The SNCC Executive Committee and several people said that we shouldn't march; we shouldn't march from Selma to Montgomery; we shouldn't be a part. A lot of people would get hurt. I took the position that the people in Selma that we had been working with since 1962 wanted to march and that we should march with them. So the Executive Committee said, in effect, that we could march as individuals and not as representatives of SNCC. I went to Selma late that night, that Saturday night, and marched on that Sunday. Then the other effort of violence, the people in SNCC including people like Stokely and others, came to Selma and responded to the violence and started supporting efforts there. Some people insisted during that period that we should continue to try to march in spite of what Dr. King had said about getting the court order. Jim Forman and some of the others went on to Montgomery and started organizing and having a series of marches in Montgomery to the State Capital before the march actually got the court order to march from Selma to Montgomery. These are some things leading up to really what happened in 1966. I had been appointed in late '65 to this conference that President Johnson held, "To fulfill the his rights." We had this big White House Conference on Civil Rights and people became very critical, some of the people, with my relationship with Dr. King and also my attendance at the White House meeting. So in May of 1966 when it was time for the new election, Stokely had said to me that he would be a candidate for the chairmanship of SNCC. I said that's good. And at the time I had not planned I would not be a candidate because we never really campaigned. It's not like a student governement. You never went out and literally campaigned. I had been elected each year since '63 and when it was time for the election I was re-elected by a wide margin. Stokely and somebody else ran. Then the election was thrown open again and a guy, an ex-SNCC staff person, walked in and challenged the election saying that we had violated the constitution of SNCC on some basis. At that time, SNCC was not even organized, not even operating under a constitution, and went through this long drawn out debate for many many hours-from about seven-thirty p.m. to about four a.m.-just on and on during that night about the whole question of my relationship with Dr. King, relationship with the White House, Lyndon Johnson, and the whole question of blackness. And the election was reheld and Stokely got the majority of the votes. At that time a great many of the people had left the meeting- many of the strong supporters of my philosophy, I guess, had left, particularly the people from south Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama. These are SNCC staff people. A large number of the white staff people did not participate in the election because at that point they had been really immobilized from participating. That's where the whole question came up-them white students should go workin in a white community. So it was a question of my re lationship with Dr. King, the White House, my committment to the philosophy of non-violence, the whole bit. I stayed on until July and I just felt that between the time of the election and I left. The Meredith March occured only about three weeks later, I think. It must have been like the first week in June or the second week where Stokley chanted "Black Power" in Greenwood, Mississippi on a march. I felt at the time that to advocate a philosophy of black power . . . I think that the words that are used has frightened too many people, scared too many people. And it was just a chant; it was just rhetoric. It was no program and it was doing more to destroy the movement and to desstroy the coalition that I thought we had built. Because in 1965 during the Selma march in my estimation, I thought it was the finest hour for the Civil Rights movement to what happened in Selma. From the religious community to organized labor, to academic community, just black and white people from throughout this country responding not just through moral, political support but through financial support. The people gave all across the country to SNCC and SCLC in particular and I felt to espouse a philosophy of black power at that particular time destroyed a great deal or that it would destroy a great deal of that. Shortly thereafter I left.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Do you think that over-espusal of black power did have that effect ?
JOHN LEWIS:
Well, I think so. Many people in both the black community and the white community did not understand the philosophy for I'm not so sure at that particular time whether there was even a philosophy. It was just words in my estimation, it was rhetoric and there was no program. There was no one, two, three's to be responsive to some of the needs of the people that we were trying to help during the period. I do think it widened the gulf between blacks and whites in this country.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
You think the whole question of black awareness movement grew out of that?
JOHN LEWIS:
Oh yes. That's probably the most positive thing that came out of that period of black consciousness, of black awareness-the sense of pride. Apparently that was a necessary period for black period to vote, hopefully most of the people coming through. Maybe now we are ready to build this type of coalition, this type of community as a country we were seeking in 1965. Also, it was not just that effort. It was not just that black power period, but at the same time we were getting more and more involved in the war Nam. I think that created, helped to enhance, the frustration that existed in the black community and in the liberal community as a whole.