In the battle for social justice there are some warriors who cry out, “Fight fire with fire!” As I reflect on the lives of my fellow black human beings Melba Pattillo Beals and the eight other children who integrated Central High School; Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till Mobley; Ann Moody; and all of the people we have met in the pages of the books we have read so far in our class, I am thinking about the way they were dehumanized and oppressed by white people. I am also thinking about the way they “turned the other cheek” so many times to that dehumanization and oppression, the way they hoped they could touch the humanity in those white people through suffering love. They turned the other cheek over and over again until they were beaten beyond recognition. In most cases the humanity of white people was untouched. The hearts of white people grew harder and harder while the hearts of black people were being crushed in the dust. It is in the context of this dehumanization, oppression, beating, and crushing that I understand the reaction of Cleveland Sellers and SNCC when they cry out, “Enough! It’s time to fight fire with fire! Burn baby burn!” One question that grows out of this understanding, though, is, “If you choose to fight fire with fire, what happens if you have a match and the person you are fighting has an inferno?” This seemed to be the reality for SNCC when it chose to fight fire with fire – SNCC had a match and the white society against which it fought had an inferno.
I understand with my heart why Cleveland Sellars, Stokely Carmichael, and James Forman led SNCC in a militant direction to fight white supremacy with black power. As I think about that militant direction with my mind with the benefit of hindsight I have some thoughts and questions about that decision. One thought is – their plan could have succeeded. What are examples of small groups that fought against large, oppressive powers and won? The only way these groups succeeded, though, was to gain the popular support of the masses and then the military to help overthrow their oppressors. In the case of SNCC, the plan of the militant, black power group could have succeeded only if they had won the support of the masses and the military and this could not happen. Even if the entire black population of America had supported their goals their numbers would have been miniscule compared with the number of non-black people in America. White people dominated the military, as they still do today. How could they not see this? Another thought is – “fighting fire with fire” allowed the militant, black power group to hold their heads high and say, “We might die in a fight against white supremacists but at least we will die with courage in our hands and pride in our hearts.” But can a more human society be built on pride and courage alone? My final thought is – the militants rightly saw the struggle of the black person in America not as a struggle for civil rights but as a struggle for liberation. But when I look at the lives of the militant, black power members of SNCC after Sellers would say, “SNCC is dead” I do not see liberation. The thought of Sellars pan handling for food is far away from my idea of liberation. So, what is the meaning of liberation and how can a people be free? (Wow, I sound like one of the “floaters” in SNCC, huh?)
I think the end of SNCC came at their staff meeting in New York in December, 1966 when the organization decided to fire Bob Zellner. Sellars help us understand the context in which Zellner was fired and so helps us understand the logic behind the firing. I can understand the logic as it relates to black people being in control of black organizations and being responsible for their own liberation. I think, though, their rigid ideology caused them to miss an opportunity that could have opened wider the window of social change that could have led toward the building up of “beloved community.” Zellner’s work as a staff member of SNCC could have helped to build a bridge between poor whites and poor blacks and could have helped these two social groups join together and work toward a more just and human society in America. It was in fields like this that social change could have taken deep root and could have grown to bring about the changes SNCC worked for according to their statement of purpose declared at the Mount Moriah conference – a social order of justice permeated by love; courage instead of fear; love instead of hate; acceptance instead of prejudice; hope instead of despair; peace instead of war; faith instead of doubt; mutual regard instead of enmity; justice instead of injustice; redemptive community instead of gross social immorality. If SNCC had kept Zellner and white people like him on the path with them then I think their stated purposes would have had a greater possibility to be reached than if they turned their backs on him and them. I think they made an unwise choice.
In the end this book helped me think again about the question, “Will societies naturally move toward justice and peace at it’s own slow pace or should people with struggle try to hurry up the beloved community?”