Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories: Chap.4: Summer Folk Songwriting, 1966

Chapter 4: Summer Folk Songwriting, 1966 (ii)

The other non-work activity I became involved in at this time was doing volunteer work in the Student Peace Union [SPU] office at 5 Beekman St. in Lower Manhattan. After working at the Children’s Treatment Center until 3 p.m., I would go down to the SPU office and stuff envelopes or staple and collate leaflets for a few hours each day.

The SPU office was a small room located within the larger office of the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade Committee and the War Resisters League, on the top floor of 5 Beekman St. In July 1966, I felt that the Student Peace Union, not SDS, was going to be the organization that would most readily mobilize masses of students to resist both the Viet Nam War and all other expressions of U.S. militarism around the globe and on campus. I thought about possibly starting an SPU chapter at Columbia that fall. But National SDS had a much better organizational structure of dedicated hard-core activists than SPU had in 1966, so SDS, not SPU, became the organizational vehicle on campus which was able to mobilize anti-militaristic white students in the U.S.

In the SPU office there was one full-time SPU staff person, a white bohemian man in his early 20s who seemed quite dedicated to the cause. He was somewhat elitist in relation to young student volunteers, like me, who walked into his office. Occasionally, a sexually obsessed, male chauvinist SPU member would also be in the office talking, but not doing any Movement shitwork. When he started talking about Judy Collins’ alleged love affair with Tom Paxton in a gossipy, detailed way or started to repeat the latest sexist joke he had heard, the full-time SPU organizer would reply “That’s gross,” in an impatient way.

When the SPU office had no special work for me to do, I would sometimes help out in the War Resisters League section of the office floor, where Ralph DiGia or A.J. Muste would sometimes be working. But after Hiroshima Day of August 1966 passed, I stopped going down to 5 Beekman St. because there didn’t really seem to be enough work for an SPU volunteer to do each afternoon.

In searching for ways to continue to resist the war politically that summer, I also checked out the anti-war Congressional campaign headquarters of Ted Weiss in Manhattan. But his campaign didn’t seem to have an apparatus set up to effectively make use of student volunteers, when I visited his campaign headquarters. In 1966 it appeared to me that Weiss’ election might make a positive difference in Washington, D.C. I had not yet become completely disillusioned with trying to use the left-liberal wing of the Democratic Party to change U.S. foreign policy.

After James Meredith was shot and wounded while attempting to march through the South, SNCC began to popularize its “Black Power” line. Kwame Ture, who was then known as Stokely Carmichael, began to get much exposure on national television news and political interview shows.

Carmichael became one of my idols. He seemed to make more sense than Martin Luther King. I read all I could on SNCC’s new Black Power political orientation. A Black Power orientation sounded logical and righteous to me.

Yet, initially, I felt somewhat uneasy when I heard that all white activists were being asked to leave SNCC and that some African-American SNCC activists had now concluded that all U.S. whites, regardless of their politics, could not really be trusted politically. But Carmichael’s arguments quickly convinced me that it was really necessary for African-American political activists in SNCC to organize autonomously on a Black nationalist basis, without the intrusive paternalistic and stifling presence of even the remaining white activists in SNCC.

By Summer 1966, as Carmichael and SNCC argued, it seemed obvious that white anti-racist activists could most effectively fight in support of African-American liberation by organizing in white communities—among poor whites, white working-class people and white campus youth—in order to attempt to eliminate white racist mass consciousness and white racist political attitudes. The source of the white racism problem of the United States was in the white communities. White activists who sincerely wished to strike a blow against white racism in 1966 could best do so, not by intervening in the internal affairs of U.S. African-American communities in a paternalistic way, but by mobilizing whites enmasse to fight institutional racism in the U.S.

Consequently, if I taught in the New York City public schools after college, I would now seek to teach white working-class vocational high school students or white high school students of Jewish background, not African-American ghetto high school students. My support for SNCC’s new Black nationalist orientation also meant that I became more critical of the white missionary aspects of the P.A.C.T. daycare center program and more inclined to focus on organizing other white Columbia and Barnard students. I supported the nationalist SNCC notion that only African-American activists should organize in African-American communities.

I also supported SNCC’s 1966 shift towards advocating the right of self-defense in response to white racist attacks, instead of Martin Luther King’s philosophical non-violence. The influence of Malcom X’s theoretical writings and Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth book, as well as the lessons of their own personal political experiences in the Deep South, made it quite understandable that SNCC activists were now rejecting Gandhi’s philosophy of social change.

During the long, hot summer of 1966, there were African-American rebellions in cities other than New York. I watched TV news reports of these rebellions and felt they were justified responses to white police brutality and oppressive ghetto conditions. These African-American rebellions, however, did not affect the 9-to-5 world in Manhattan or evening and weekend life in Queens. But I assumed that SNCC, under Carmichael’s charismatic leadership, was soon going to be able to organize this Black mass anger into a mass-based revolutionary nationalist youth movement for Black Power.