A gateway to the wisdom of civil rights activists

Writer: 
June 12, 2018

At a lectern in the White Lecture Hall on East Campus in March, civil rights activist, professor, and journalist Charlie Cobb admitted to his audience that activists mistrust how they’re represented by those not on the front lines. “Many of us have long been dissatisfied with the historiography of the movement,” he said. He raised an eyebrow and quoted activist and legislator Julian Bond: “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, and then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.” He got a laugh—a laugh of recognition, not of surprise. Though perhaps also of satisfaction, since he addressed a room full of people involved with a project that worked hard to do a better job. He spoke at closing events surrounding the creation of the SNCC Digital Gateway, a vast multimedia website and repository that was a joint project of the SNCC Legacy Project, Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, and the Duke University Libraries.

The Gateway gives a permanent home to the stories and documents of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”), founded in Raleigh in 1960, on the campus of Shaw University. The only national, Southern-based, student-led civil rights group, SNCC focused on direct community action, sending “field secretaries” to communities and working with locals on projects of their own choice. The Gateway makes SNCC interviews, photographs, histories, videos, and other materials constantly available, without charge, to all who wish to use and learn from them. “Learn From the Past, Organize for the Future, Make Democracy Work” is the slogan the Gateway uses, and now the SNCC stories will help people do that as long as there’s an Internet.

Mainstream historiography of civil rights has tended to focus on the larger-than-life moments: the Greensboro Sit- In, the March on Washington, Bloody Sunday in Selma. But attendees at the event, many of them SNCC veterans, knew the reality was far more complex—smaller grassroots events, individual efforts by SNCC field secretaries, community efforts made by countless people in hundreds of places. SNCC looked at the famous nonviolence of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as one tool among many, not as its only approach. Which makes the SNCC Digital Gateway all the more important, given the mistrust members of the movement have felt toward historians who seemed to miss the point.

Wesley Hogan, director of the Center for Documentary Studies, described receiving in the mail from one participant “an eighty-one-page single-spaced document called ‘Slander Panderers,’” about previous attempts to tell the SNCC story. According to Cobb, that was simply representative. “There was a deep suspicion, trust me,” he said.

Which was why the success of the Gateway is so satisfying to SNCC members. “The most lacking thing in the historiography was the thinking of the people who gave shape to the movement,” Cobb said. Speakers at the event described the collaboration of SNCC veterans, historians, scholars, librarians, and students to tell history “from the bottom up and inside out,” according to a white paper the project released. The SNCC Digital Gateway worked with SNCC members to tell their own stories, worked with them to write the history, all parties working hard to make sure that people retained control over the stories they lived. A page called Understanding a Community, for example, documents a 2016 conversation between two SNCC field secretaries with recordings, photographs, documents, and, always, links to other pages, other media, other stories. “Think of it as guerilla history,” Cobb said.

The project began when at its fiftieth anniversary, in Raleigh, SNCC created the SNCC Legacy Project. That led, through funding by the Mellon Foundation, to partnership with the Duke University Libraries and the Center for Documentary Studies, which itself had evolved from an oral-history program about black activism. The SNCC activists commonly talk about the leaders who taught them, and they see the Gateway as an opportunity to share what they learned with, and encourage, today’s student activists. For example, demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, which took place at night became violent. SNCC learned long ago, one audience member noted, that night demonstrations were prone to violence.

Chuck McDew was at the founding meeting of SNCC and served as its chair for three years. “SNCC was action-oriented,” he recalled. “If you joined SNCC, you did something.” And he sees the Gateway as a resource reminding today’s activists that talk—and social media—is cheap.

“Every group of young people planning to change this society,” he said, “should look at the work being done here.”

  • Scott Huler is the senior writer at Duke Magazine.