Saturday, June 29, 2013

Open Letter From Curtis Muhammad on Upcoming Civil Rights Movement Anniversary Commemorations

Below we are reposting an open letter from civil rights movement veteran Curtis Muhammad, a founder of People's Hurricane Relief Fund and the International School for Bottom-Up Organizing, among many other projects and initiatives.

Dear friends and comrades,

We are fast approaching the time for the 50th anniversary of many important events and movements, including: Mississippi Freedom Summer; The murder of the three civil rights workers in Neshoba county Mississippi and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge of the Democratic Party in Atlantic City New Jersey to name a few. The below pated document was written four years ago as we prepared to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). What was at stake then and now is whether or not these events being planned will honor the primary role of the poor southern black communities and individuals who made this history possible. It is my hope and my prayer that those of you who are planning these events will make it your mission and mandate to bring forward the true history of our great movements fifty years ago. I and my comrades encourage you to credit and honor where credit and honor is due: The poor black communities of the south should not be ignored in order to further promote the elite.

Curtis Muhammad
International Organizing Trainer and Veteran of the Civil Rights Movement

Please read below:

Dear friends and comrades,

Some of you know that I have been writing a book on my life experiences for a few years now (since 2003). I spent about six months in 2003 living in a black community in Mexico writing on my book and collecting stories from some 300 black communities along the Pacific Coast (called “Costa Chica”) covering three states. 

Last night I opened the manuscript to begin adding this dialogue we are having about our SNCC experience and the 50th Anniversary to the manuscript. I re-read something I had written in 2003 as a forward to my book. I found it informative and interesting and thought I would share it with you in the context of the discussion about the 50th Anniversary conference.

I copy it here, and have a few further comments below it.


I believe elitist, arrogant people who look down on those with little access to the goods and services of the society have motivated me the most to write this story. Mississippi, where I grew up, was and is the poorest state in the union. It has the highest rate of illiteracy in the country, then and now. The rate of college graduates is and was the lowest in the U.S. Mississippi has the lowest number of black professionals of any state in the country. At the time of my growing up we had three black lawyers and less than twenty black doctors in the whole state. Mississippi’s education system is and was the worst in all of the U.S.A. So when SNCC came to Mississippi, I think most of the Northern students considered those of us who had grown up in Mississippi as poor little dumb uneducated black youth. 

I remember thinking that the students that had come to Mississippi were the smartest, most intelligent folk in the world. They spoke so beautifully in “correct English”. They also seemed to know so many words I had never heard spoken. I, who had been one of the most outspoken young folk in my school and community, was muted by this fantastic display of “genius”. I soon found myself becoming part of the voiceless, not because someone demanded it, but because I did not think I knew enough words to match the “genius” of the other SNCC folk.

The Northern students bought into the European notion that “genius” is based on your ability to grasp the “King’s English” and body of knowledge. I don’t blame them any more because I realize that they too are a product of American white dominated culture. Or as we used to say, they were products of the “white power structure”. At the time, we didn’t understand that the long legacy of struggle and self-sufficiency we came from was an even more worthy body of knowledge that we had inherited.

I think most of us from Mississippi found our comfort zone singing freedom songs and telling stories about our work, but often we were very quiet and frequently absent from SNCC strategy sessions. I remember going on a trip with more educated SNCC staffers to Washington DC, New York, Hamilton College and Yale University. We spoke at large gatherings at all of these places. After each time I spoke, one of the SNCC staff would sit me down and talk to me about the way I needed to talk. He suggested that I was trying to be some kind of intellectual instead of being myself. Another organizer was his favorite spokesperson and he pointed out that what that person was doing was talking about Mississippi and the work we were doing while I was trying to explain why we were doing the work; that I was trying to explain the movement to people who knew more about it than I did. I remember getting so angry that I refused to talk anymore. I remember being very traumatized by this. I wondered, did this person talk to Julian Bond, Marion Barry, James Bevel, Diane Nash, Paul Brooks, Dionne Diamond, Chuck McDew, Tim Jenkins, Reggie Robinson, Ruby Doris or any of the others like this? I finally figured out that what he wanted was to put on display a stereotype of what young Mississippians looked, acted, and talked like. 

This feeling of voicelessness and inferiority would later compel me to drop out of Tougaloo College in Mississippi and go to school at Roosevelt University and Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago seeking the “genius” I thought was only to be found outside the South.

The books that have been written about SNCC mention my name in about four or five different stories: 
1.The Bob Moses letter from the Magnolia jail where others and I are “talking mostly about girls”
2. The student walkout at Higgins High in McComb, Mississippi 
3. Hollis and I are mentioned as being the first Mississippi students to join SNCC’s staff after all but Bob left following all the violence in McComb. 
4. There’s sometimes a one liner about Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
5. There is a girlfriend story in Greenville, Mississippi with Charlie Cobb. 
And that’s about it: nothing serious about the organizing work I was doing. I can’t be sure but I would guess the index of most SNCC books have similar numbers and kinds of statements about SNCC folk in Mississippi. Guyot may be an exception because of his Chairmanship of the MFDP and his ability to add prefixes and suffixes to simple words to make them sound big. Can you imagine what will happen to our stories if we don’t find our “voice” and tell them?

So by now you’ve guessed why I am writing this story. I am writing to give hope and confidence to my children and children’s children; to encourage others who have shared in this struggle for freedom, but heretofore not heard from because they have been convinced that they didn’t have words good enough to speak. I write to give confidence to those who believe they are not writers, not educated, not intellectuals, not scholars, not professionals, or whatever “box” that has been placed around them by the “white power structure”. I say here and now, I am a writer because I choose to be a writer. I will write my story on these pages because I believe my story is important to the freedom and justice movement. 

My story is about my struggle to contribute to the liberation of my people and I will not allow the society any longer to hold me in bondage with the thought that I am unqualified to tell my story in a book, written by my hand. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Thank you

I have reprinted this for you to read not because I think my own experience is so important, but because the voicelessness I felt as a youth in SNCC still afflicts our people and our telling of history. SNCC folk had different roles and experiences, all of which were necessary to the Movement. My particular experience was on the ground organizing in my own home state, and most of the people we were organizing felt the same lack of voice. Their experience, their thoughts and ideas, even their very humanity, were not and are not respected by the society at large. And yet, SNCC organizers went about the task of organizing with great respect and humility, guided by elders within the community who knew the legacy of the struggle of these descendants of slaves. We collectively found, cultivated and developed new leaders and spokespeople from amongst them, people like Fannie Lou Hamer and Victoria Gray, among many others.

It was the heroism and martyrdom of these grassroots people that is at the core of what’s valuable about SNCC history, not so much the heroism and martyrdom of the organizers. It was the “bottom”, the poorly clothed, the illiterate sharecroppers standing up in their thousands, refusing to be intimidated, and demanding to be heard and respected that truly changed history.

There was a SNCC organizing model. It was a model of organizers who lived extremely simply and relied on the people of the community for food, housing and protection, and who took nothing from the community for themselves. It was a model of recognizing, respecting and lifting up the genius of the people, contained in a legacy of struggle flowing forwards in an unbroken river from the days of slave rebellions and the Underground Railroad, from Black Reconstruction to resistance to Jim Crow. It was a model of patience, of unglamorous days after days spent knocking on doors and sitting on porches.

I do not regard the SNCC 50th as primarily an opportunity to be nostalgic. I regard it as an opportunity to share that organizing model with those who recognize that the battle in which we were engaged 50 years ago is far, far from won, that our people still suffer the chains of racism, that they still contain within them the genius of how to create a just, new world.

History can be told in many ways, and there are many “histories” of SNCC. For example, there is the view that Freedom Summer, made up of Northern students and led by students brought in from Howard and elsewhere (not by the Mississippi SNCC staff, which was not regarded as competent for that task) changed history. And there is the view that the sharecroppers of Mississippi, with the assistance of SNCC organizers, rose up and changed history. Which view will be dominant in the planned conference? 

If this Anniversary conference reduces us to a sweet group of dedicated folk who paved the way for the ultimate victory represented by a black man in the White House, it will leave our people, once again, voiceless.

Which is why I am raising my voice in this conversation.


Rachel S said...

Hi, where was the original letter published?

Editor: said...

It was originally sent as an email from Curtis Muhammad. This site may be the only place it was published.