Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Movement at the Crossroads: SNCC, Yippie! and Position Paper #24

All my life I've been sick and tired. Now I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired. -- Fannie Lou Hamer
The materialist presentation of history leads the past to place the present in a critical condition. -- Walter Benjamin
I went to the crossroad
Fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad
Fell down on my knees
-- Robert Johnson 
During the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago, demonstrators being assaulted by the police chanted "the whole world is watching, the whole world is watching." This was before the English translation of Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle was published but after Marshall McLuhan's The Medium Is the Massage had achieved best-seller status.

What the "whole world" watched on television news from Chicago in August 1968 was later described by the Walker Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence as a "police riot," provoked by some rather inchoate political theatrics conducted by the erstwhile Youth International Party (Yippie!) founded eight months earlier by Abbie and Anita Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Nancy Kurshan and Paul Krassner.

Four years earlier, at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., Fannie Lou Hamer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) gave her dramatic testimony to the credentials committee about the violence she had endured and witnessed in attempting to register to vote. The 1964 convention refused to seat the MFDP delegation but at the 1968 convention in Chicago, Hamer was seated to became the first African-American delegate from Mississippi since reconstruction and the first woman ever from that state.

Before Abbie Hoffman became a Yippie, he had been the founder and self-appointed chairman of Worcester Massachusetts chapter of the Friends of SNCC, a group dedicated to raising funds to support the activities of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. namely the Freedom Summer activities of 1964.

Hoffman traveled to Atlantic City in 1964 to join demonstrators supporting the Mississippi Freedom bid for delegate recognition and in 1965 traveled to Georgia and Mississippi, where he met Jesse Morris, a SNCC organizer who was setting up a Poor People's Corporation to fund worker-owned crafts co-operative. Back in Worcester and, later in New York City, Hoffman operated stores to sell crafts made in Mississippi.

In December 1966, SNCC staff voted  -- by a margin of 19-18 with 24 abstentions --to exclude whites from the organization. Hoffman was incensed and wrote a scathing (and scurrilous) denunciation of the decision and SNCC leadership for the Village Voice. The Village Voice article was Hoffman's first as "Abbie" employing his characteristic slangy hipster style. In one provocative passage Hoffman confided, "Now I feel for the other whites in SNCC, especially the white females. I identify with all those Bronx chippies that are getting conned out of their bodies and bread by some dark skinned sharpie over at the annex." Reportedly, his earlier drafts were even more outrageous.

The response to Hoffman's Village Voice piece demonstrated to him that if he wasn't afraid to be offensive and break taboos he could get attention, which was what the whole Yippie thing was about: getting on TV so the whole world could watch. Hoffman was a showman, an exhibitionist.

Still, Hoffman outed unspeakable tensions that undoubtedly did exist in the 1960s movement. For a brief moment in the mid-1960s people spoke of "the" movement as if the affinity of civil rights, anti-war and student protest -- perhaps even counter-cultural "lifestyles" -- was inevitable. "Love, trust, brotherhood, and all the other beautiful things we sang about," as Hoffman phrased it, in rebuttal to Stokely Carmichael's Black Power.

Those unspeakable tensions could be called "intersectional," to use a later terminology, They sprang from from sexual relationships and taboos as well as from organizational hierarchies and racial and sexual stereotypes. "There was a lot of sex in SNCC," staffer Jean Wheeler Smith, an African-American woman, recalled, "we were twenty years old... what do you expect?" Penny Patch, a white activist remembered:
We were young, we were living in wartime conditions. We were always afraid; we never knew whether we would see one another again. We were ready, black and white, to break all taboos. SNCC men were handsome, they were brilliant, they were brave, and I was very much in love.
But "not all sex was equal":
Since Black men had historically paid with their lives for intimacy with white women, dating white women in SNCC could be a form of liberation. For Black women, sex with white men did not have the same effect. White men had a three-hundred year history of sexual assault and rape of Black women in the South (and North) without fear of consequences, so the opportunity for intimacy with white men did not manifest as a form of freedom for Black women.
The chance discovery in 1994 of boxes of old letters, journals and political manifestoes sent home during Freedom Summer by Elaine Delott Baker became the impetus for a document collection that focuses on a "pathbreaking feminist manifesto" -- the Waveland Memo or Position Paper #24. It would be more accurate to call that paper paths-breaking, in context it documents simultaneously clearing the way for and the breaking up of multiple paths. The authors recall different motivations for, attitudes about and responses to the paper. In her account of the writing of the paper, Casey Hayden recalled that "Mary King says we were asking SNCC to broaden its concerns, to take women's roles on as an issue. I don't believe I ever felt SNCC should do that. The movement had enough to do."
The purpose of the writing was more diffuse than that, as I recall, more like everyone was writing about whatever their gripes or problems or positions were and, hey, let's put ours out there, too. In late 1965 I did feel the time was right and drafted a memo ["Sex and Caste"] which Mary and I signed and sent to our black and white women friends in SNCC and the new left.
The Waveland Memo archive "How and Why Did Women in SNCC Author a Pathbreaking Feminist Manifesto, 1964-1965?" contains such an incredible collection of insights, remembrances and analysis that am reluctant to summarize from it more than I already have. As Elaine Baker noted in her comments on contextualizing Waveland Memo, "to understand anything we must understand everything, and that to understand everything we must know everything. Tough job." The archive's introduction is compelling, informative and concise. The timely relevance of its historical account might be gauged by the following snippet:
SNCC was in crisis before and after the Waveland conference, its scope and vitality waning as staff sought an alternative to reforming the Democratic Party. The women's memo was part of a process designed to air all discontents, the main ones being well- known before the conference...  Underlying many of the issues raised at Waveland was the growing friction between white and Black staff. Anticipating the theme of Black Power, which emerged later, many Black staff members questioned the role of whites in the movement, making white activists unsure of their place in SNCC's future.

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