Without question, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was an organization essential to the Southern-based civil rights movement of the 1960’s. If SNCC had not come forward, that movement never would have won the victories that it did. SNCC was youth-based and youth-led. It was the most uncompromising, most risk-taking, most participatory and democratic and most radical of all of the civil rights organizations working in the 1960’s in the deep South.
SNCC grew most directly out of student sit-ins at segregated public restaurants in early 1960; most of the local groups which came together at its founding conference in April of that year were involved with that classic nonviolent tactic. But within months, emerging out of the perceived needs of the movement, SNCC began to shift to a grassroots organizing approach. In the words of Charles Cobb in an article to be found at the SNCC Legacy Project:
“By the fall of 1961 SNCC had established two significant organizing projects: Southwest Mississippi and Southwest Georgia. Both regions, rural and containing majority Black populations, were characterized by violent and vicious opposition to Black voting rights with terror and reprisal encouraged and supported by state and local government in response to any civil rights activity. . . Black people had the numbers; if they could get the vote they could begin to dismantle the system of oppression that had dominated Black life for all of the 20th century; indeed, since the abandonment of Reconstruction in 1876. Mississippi NAACP leader Amzie Moore put this on the table at SNCC’s second conference in October 1960. And SNCC’s black belt organizing efforts increasingly revolved around voter registration. . . Out of this work emerged new voices from the grassroots like Mississippi’s Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper who became a powerful national spokesperson for civil rights. She was also, at 46-years-of-age in 1962, SNCC’s oldest field secretary. This kind of close relationship with people at the grassroots would characterize SNCC during its entire existence.”
As a result of SNCC’s work, as well as that of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other groups, growing numbers of African American grassroots people began to step forward. Groups of people would go together to the local voter registration office to attempt to register. Usually this led to violence, arrests and/or other forms of repression on the part of the local white power structure or local white racists. But the movement just kept growing despite, even because, of this repression. The right to vote—the right to be treated equally—freedom: these were ideas whose time had come.
I was reminded of this history recently when reading an excellent article just published in The Nation magazine, “The Grassroots Battle Against Big Oil,” by Wen Stephenson. It is an article about the evolution of the Tar Sands Blockade, a group based primarily in Texas. Begun two and a half years ago by Rising Tide North Texas and others, they have developed from a group primarily taking action to physically disrupt the building of the southern Oklahoma-to-Texas leg of the Keystone XL pipeline to something different, if similar, today. In the words of Ron Seifert, one of Tar Sands Blockade’s founders:
“The idea that you have to go into where the problem is worst—like Mississippi during the civil rights era—you have to get in there and get a foothold. We hope we can empower local-led action and resistance [already happening with groups like Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services]. In Houston itself, there are literally millions of people who are being poisoned. We should be able to empower folks here to rise up and defend their own homes.
“The industry has shown every intention of escalating the climate crisis beyond certain tipping points, and people in these communities are affected by the industry right now, in desperate ways. We need to ask ourselves as organizers, ‘What does escalation look like? What could possibly be too escalated?’ Physically blockading infrastructure is a great place to start that conversation. We can still build and cultivate a culture of resistance and action, capable of escalating to the point of shutting this stuff down in the future.”
It’s not either/or. It’s not serious nonviolent action vs. day-to-day, longer-term work with local people. It has to be both/and, with the objective of not just small-group civil disobedience but mass cd, with hundreds or thousands taking part.
Another immediate front of the climate movement is in Michigan where a group similar to Tar Sands Blockade needs our support right now. The group is the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands (MI CATS). They’ve been combining community education with direct action to fight the unpermitted expansion of a major tar sands oil pipeline, the Enbridge pipeline. Enbridge is doing this under the guise of rebuilding from their disastrous 2010 spill of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River. Local activists believe that Enbridge plans to double its capacity. This summer, Chris Wahmhoff of MI CATS used a skateboard to wedge himself into the pipeline and shut it down for a day. A month later, other MI CATS locked down to construction equipment to shut things down again.
As Tim DeChristopher has explained, “All of them have been charged with felonies for this nonviolent civil disobedience, and Chris along with Vicci Hamlin, Lisa Leggio and Barb Carter from the second action have all decided to take their cases to a jury trial. Civil disobedience has recently been embraced by the mainstream of the climate movement, but these brave four in Michigan remind us that civil disobedience is about more than a photo op. In addition to being a tactic for putting pressure on those in power, when it is carried through all the way civil disobedience is one of our most powerful tools for education and movement building. I know from experience that a jury trial is a fantastic organizing opportunity, but it takes resources to be able to take advantage of that opportunity. These four are fully committed and willing to sacrifice, and they need our support now.”
Join Tim (and me and others) in contributing what you can the the MI CATS Felonious Four by clicking here. Checks can be sent to MI CATS, 12149 Commerce Rd., Milford, Mi. 48380, and they can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The idea of getting off of fossil fuels and onto a serious, jobs-creating, renewable energy path is an idea whose time has come. Our job is to accelerate this process by effective, determined, persistent, cutting-edge activism and organizing among everyone who we can reach, particularly those most impacted by the fossil fuel industry. Let’s remember the lessons of history and organize!