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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Julian Bond, November 1 and 22, 1999. Interview R-0345. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The perils of organizing and the growing divide among SNCC activists

The stress of organizing took its toll on activists—mentally, physically, and emotionally. As single people, living communally bonded organizers together, but also enhanced tensions among each other. Bond argues that black power stemmed from these tensions among organizers. He describes the sharp divisions between SNCC members over inviting whites to Mississippi in 1964. Interracial relationships emerging from the white influx into SNCC merely heightened the pre-existing frictions and increased gender conflict among activists.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Julian Bond, November 1 and 22, 1999. Interview R-0345. 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

ELIZABETH GRITTER:
I've read that SNCC members felt "battle fatigue" after a while. If you could speak about what you observed with that, both others, personally.
JULIAN BOND:
Well, imagine this. You're twenty, twenty-one years old. You're doing work that is not only physically taxing, but physically dangerous. And you're not paid well, so you're not eating well. So your diet is poor. You're working under enormous strain—mental, physical strain. You're just not operating under the best circumstances. And quite a few–I started to say a lot but I couldn't say a majority—but quite a few people obviously suffered from this, either physically because they'd been beaten and physically hurt or mentally because they'd been physically beaten or just because the strain was too much for them. We had a lot of casualties. One person who went insane. They killed someone. A guy named Dennis [he muttered something about forgetting his name] killed Allard Lowenstein. Dennis was married to Mary, and they got divorced, and his mental condition deteriorated and he shot and killed Allard Lowenstein. He just got out of the mental hospital a couple of years ago. What was his name? I can't remember. Anyway, and other people who didn't go to that extreme but obviously just weren't functioning well. When we could, we would give them some money and say, you know, "Go away." I remember sending a guy to Mexico for a vacation because it was just obvious from talking to him that his mental state was not well. So a lot of people were hurt by this—the combination of bad diet, stress, strain, physical beatings, or just living on the edge all the time. Just rough on a lot of people.
ELIZABETH GRITTER:
How did it affect you?
JULIAN BOND:
I went nuts too. Can't you tell? I don't know. It surely didn't affect me the way it affected some others because for one, I was married and had a home life that most other people didn't. Almost everybody else was single. We lived communally. So you're living with people who are sharing the same experience, which on the one hand makes it easier, on the other hand makes it worse. [END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A] [TAPE 2, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE B]
JULIAN BOND:
My parents lived in Atlanta too. So I was at home. None of these other people were at home. That takes a strain on you when you're young. So I don't think it affected me. [He again jokes by acting like he's crazy].
ELIZABETH GRITTER:
The stability. Yeah. Yeah. Kind of segue into how it became so much more of a black power change and kind of what your opinions were. I know you eventually resigned from SNCC and why that happened.
JULIAN BOND:
I think probably—. I never thought about it before. But probably a portion of the black power thought stemmed from the tension. People's tempers become short. You become angry at people you would not have become angry at ordinarily. A couple of things happened and these are big generalizations. We had had a big argument about bringing whites into Mississippi for the summer of '64. The argument usually went like this. The people who were in favor of it said the country is more interested in. [interruption] Where were we?
ELIZABETH GRITTER:
You were saying about, I asked you about the tensions and then—.
JULIAN BOND:
Oh yes. So the people who wanted white students to come said, "The country values white life more than it values black life. So if we bring these white kids down here and they get beat up and they get arrested, then the country will pay more attention to what we're doing." The people opposed to it said, "That's exactly why they shouldn't come because we're trying to say to the country, 'You should value black life as much as white life.' Bringing these white kids down argues against that." But anyway, the proponents won. The white kids came. Now on top of this, there had always been throughout history a strong stream of nationalism in black America. Sometimes it's very strong; sometimes it goes down. But it's always there. What this says essentially is that black people have to do things for themselves, by themselves because unless they do, we'll never be strong and we'll never be independent. If we depend on help from white allies, then we'll always be weak. We'll always need that kind of help. So the combination of these sentiments comes together. Then other things enter the mix as well. There begin to be romances between white women and black men. The black women say, "Hey! Those are our men." Of course, that's kind of a possessive thing. Nobody is your man. We are all independent people. We can be whomever we want to be and with whomever we want to be or whomever wants to be with us. But it caused an enormous amount of tension. "These women are stealing our men." They would say the black men, you've bought into the American idea of beauty: blond hair, blue eyes, narrow noses, thin lips, Caucasian features. You don't like black features: thick lips, broad noses, kinky hair. You hate yourself. So enormous, enormous tensions. All this come to a head, I can't remember the dates well, at a staff meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The staff meeting has been characterized as the expulsion of whites from SNCC, which is not really what it is. It's nearly that, but it's not that. What happened is that there's a great deal of debate about who ought to work where. The argument goes: the problem of racism in America isn't in black communities. It's not black people who are doing these things. It's white people. So if you want to solve the problem of racism, you have to work in white communities. Black people cannot work in white communities, but white people can. So why don't you [he points to me] go work in this white community over here? I'll keep working in this black community over here. We'll be working toward the common goals, but it doesn't make sense for you to work over here. I can't work over there. Why don't you go work over there where you can? Some of the white people said, "Yeah, that makes sense. That's a good idea." Some of them said, "No, I want to keep on doing this." The end result was that this sharp line was drawn between black and white people in SNCC. It was extremely painful for many people on both sides because there were friendships going back three, four, five years, shared experiences, shared terror, shared danger. It was just rough for people to make an accommodation to this, and not everyone made an accommodation. It eventually helped to destroy us.