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«How Democracy Travels: SNCC, Swarthmore Students, and the Growth of the Student Movement in the North, 1961-1964 IN THE FALL OF 1961, black and white ...»

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How Democracy Travels:

SNCC, Swarthmore Students, and the

Growth of the Student

Movement in the North, 1961-1964

IN THE FALL OF 1961, black and white students launched a series of sit-

ins on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. They targeted restaurants that

refused to serve African Americans, precipitating a series of volatile

confrontations. As Penny Patch, a student at Swarthmore College in south-

eastern Pennsylvania, recalled, "amob of white people gathered, shouting at us, waving sticks. It was very threatening."1 The 1961 clash in Maryland was not the first example of how civil rights agitation in the South generated by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had begun to affect northern students. For instance, in February 1960, when television news showed segregatiorists pouring ketchup and hot coffee on the heads of integrated groups sitting-in at southern restaurant counters, college students in the North and West set up sympathy pickets at northern branches of Woolworth's and Kress. Newly formed groups like the Northern Student Movement (NSM) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) coordinated northern student action.

Seeking to learn more about the movement, these northern students began to come south to see SNCC in action. For their part, SNCC workers began to travel outside of the South to draw publicity and funds. These contacts taught people in other regions of the country how to replicate SNCC's pathbreaking democratic initiatives.2 'Judy Richardson, telephone interview by author, Aug. 20, 2000; Penny Patch, telephone interview by author, Nov. 19, 1999.

2 For the purposes of this piece, New Left movements include but are not limited to the Black Power movement, the student movement, the Latino movement, the draft resistance movement, the anfiwar


Vol. CXXVI, No. 3 (july 2002)


The confrontation at the restaurant on Maryland's Eastern Shore was part of this activist education process. It was a newsworthy public impasse typical of movement strategies in the early 1960s. But the Eastern Shore sit- ins also constituted the building blocks of popular politics, an aspect of northern movement history that scholars routinely overlook Prior accounts, particularly those by Clayborne Carson and James Miller, have provided invaluable intellectual histories of SNCC and SDS respectively. Kirkpatrick Sale, who has written the most comprehensive account of SDS to date, argued that SNCC influenced SDS a great deal, though Miller vehemently disagreed. Despite differences, these interpretations remain credible and authentic explanations. But these important studies leave unexplored the crucial question of precisely how democratic forms can develop in one locale and spread to other parts of the society 3 The history of movement growth in southeastern Pennsylvania, nearly astride the Mason-Dixon line, exposes these sequential dynamics to analysis.

Swarthmore College, founded by Quakers in 1864 and located southwest of Philadelphia, became a significant point of contact between SNCC and the emerging student movement in the North. In fact, Swarthmore students' experience in Cambridge, Maryland, and Chester, Pennsylvania, laid out a movement, the women's movement, the gay liberation movement, and the environmental movement.

The sit-in that launched others across the South occurred in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960. For northern support, ace, for example, Boston's Emergency Public Integration Committee--a group combining the Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston, CORE, NAACP-Boston Branch, ILGWU, IUE, United Packinghouse Workers, American Veterans Committee, the Fellowship of Reconciliation and student groups from Harvard, Brandeis, Boston University, Tufts, Emmanuel, Northeasten, MIT, Episcopal Theological School, and Holy Cross. EPIC, as it was called, launched a 4 Don'r Buy in Northern Woolworth As Long As Southern Woolworth Discrimindtes Against Negroes," nad. [spring 1960J, frame 909, reel 4, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Papers, microfilm (Sanford, N.C., Microfilming Corp. of America, 1983; hereafter, SNCC Papers); originals are at the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta. Early correspondence between SNCC and northern-based students can be found in the papers of SNCCs executive secretary. See, for example, Al Haber to Charles Jones, Charles McDew, Diane Nash, Charles Sherrod et al., Sept. 14, 1961, frame 1150, reel 4; Janes Forman to Al Haber, Oct. 17, 1961, frame 1149, reel 4; James Forman to Wayne Proudfoot, Nov. 15, 1961, frame 910, reel 7; James Forman to Dave Campbell, Dec. 7, 1961, frame 762, reel 5; all SNCC Papers, 'Clayborne Carson, in Ssngele: SNCC and the Black Awakening ofthe 1960s (Cambridge, 1981);

James Miller, 'Democracy Is in the Streets: From PortHuron to the Siege of Chicago (New York, 1987); and Kirkpatrick Sale's SDS (New York, 1973). Both Miller and Sale treat SDS primarily as a creation of a group of young intellectuals under the influence of scholars such as Albert Camus, C.

Wright Mills, and Paul Goodman. The role of the civil rights movement in generating SDS's move toward activism has been actively challenged by Miller.


blue-print for the Economic Research and Action Projects (ERAPs), the SDS's "first steps toward activism" in 1964. The ERAPs were the centerpiece of the outreach organizing efforts of SDS, the largest student group of the decade. After 1964, the ERAP projects became significant, if flawed, outposts of democratic movement culture. The group of people who supplied the initial experience, energy, and vision that fundamentally shaped these projects were students from Swarthmore who had worked with SNCC since 1960; many of them worked in Cambridge, Maryland, between the sitins of 1961 and the momentous summer of 1963.' Swarthmore students became enmeshed in the South-North network that had sprung up around SNCC, SDS, and the northern student movement in ways that at first seem merely to replicate patterns elsewhere. Young people began to create personal links between South and North, as SNCC activists traveled around the country between 1961 and 1965, and many northerners went south to see what SNCC was doing. Mimi Feingold, a white New Yorker, joined the Freedom Rides in the summer of 1961. Started by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Freedom Rides involved blacks and whites riding together on interstate buses, testing the willingness of the federal government to enforce its own laws prohibiting segregation. The tactic drew enormous attention and, though nonviolent, it also drew violent retribution. When Feingold returned to Swarthmore in the fall of 1961, she took with her a thorough understanding of nonviolence as a tactic in the struggle gained from her participation in the Freedom Rides. Furthermore, over weeks spent in Mississippi's Parchman Prison with people of similar mind from around the country, she had acquired a new group of contacts nationwide. Seeing others beaten in prison and publicly humiliated for their ' Cambridge erupted in the summer of 1963: Governor Tawes called in the national guard after cowds ofwhites and blacks threatened one another. For more on Cambridge, see Peter Levy, 'he Black Freedom Struggle and White Resistance: A Case Study of the Civil Rights Movement in Cambridge, Maryland," in The New Left Reexamined, et John MeMillan and Paul Buhie (forthcoming, Temple Univ, Press). What follows is not a comprehensive history ofthe Cambridge movement; my purpose, rather, is to trace the experiences of those at Swarthmore who participated in that movement. SNCC people and those from the Northern Student Movement, Annette Brock has found, 'played a big role in the beginning of the Cambridge movement." Students came from nearby Morgan State, Howard, Maryland State, and Swarthmore, as well as Skidmore, Brown, and Harvard, Annette K. Brock, "Gloria Richardson and the Cambridge Movement," in Women in the Civil Rights Movement Trailblazersand Torchbearers, 1941-1965, a]. Vicki L, Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods (Bloomington, 1990), 123-27. The quote "frst steps toward activism" comes from an SDS pamphlet entitled "December Conference," n.d. [fll 1965], box 515, J. B. Matthews Collection, Duke University.


skin color, Feingold began to do something quite out of the ordinary for young white women in 1961. With considerable poise and authority, she began speaking at Swarthmore and at other area campuses about the southern struggle. She also looked for ways to stay active once she was back in the North.

Along with her friends in the Swarthmore Political Action Club (SPAC), she continued to develop contacts made in the spring with young black members of the NAACP Youth Group in Chester who were employed by the Swarthmore food service. Chester in 1963 was a depressed industrial city of 63,000 on the Delaware River, south of Philadelphia and two miles from Swarthmore. Forty percent of its population was black.5 After a series of initial meetings between the NAACP members and SPAC, Richard James, a young black man who worked in the Swarthmore food service and in the local NAACP, suggested that the two groups test a local roller rink reputed to have "white nights" and "black nights." On a white night, two black youths tried to buy tickets and were told the rink was full. Then, two white Swarthmore students went up to the window. They were sold tickets. This became the basis of an NAACP lawsuit against the roller rink. After the rink integrated, the contingent from Chester and Swarthmore returned, in integrated groups, to skate together in the winter of 1961 and 1962. It was frightening, recalled Penny Patch, a freshman from New York. Hostile whites yelled at the group, threatened them, and tripped them up. But the Chester and Swarthmore groups continued to test local accommodations. Often these political actions would be followed by parties, 6 turning political alliances into social friendships.

During the 1961-62 school year, black SNCC students from Morgan State in Baltimore, Temple University in Philadelphia, and Howard University in Washington put out a call for white students to join them in sit-ins along the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Some of these black studentsincluding Stokely Carmichael, Reggie Robinson, and Dion Diamond-were active members of SNCC's national coordinating committee. A small group Miriam Feingold Papers, State Historical Society of Wisconsin (hereafter, Feingold Paperas);Judy Richardson interview Oh Fein, telephone interview by author, May 19,2002; Danny Pope, Alainjehien, and Evan Metca, with Cathy Wilkerson, "Chester, PA: A Case Study in Community Organization," box SDS Papers (coil. M96-081, unprocessed), State Historical Society of Wisconsin (hereafter, n.d., 1, SHSW).

6 Penny Patch interview Judy Richardson interview; Ohi Fein interview.


of students from Swarthmore, two hours from the Eastern Shore, were particularly responsive. Most of these students were white, and many came from parents with liberal or even Left backgrounds. "Contact with SNCC people, or simply hearing about the work SNCC people were doing in the Deep South, was totally inspiring," Penny Patch recalled. When she and others had the opportunity to work with SNCC in the sit-ins along the Eastern Shore, they jumped at it eagerly!

Despite its proximity to several northern states, the Eastern Shore in 1861 resembled a pocket of the Deep South. Cambridge, Maryland, a small town of 12,000, became a key civil rights battleground in 1962 and 1963. All public facilities in Cambridge, including schools, housing, and health care, were segregated. Though the schools were officially desegregated from the fourth grade on, the three black students who enrolled in Cambridge High School in 1962 withdrew after a few days of intense harassment. The city refused to hire blacks for white-collar positions in the city government.

Watching the 1960 sit-ins from Cambridge, local leader Gloria Richardson found the students brought "something direct, something real" to the local struggle in this nonviolent war. "This was the first time I saw a vehicle I could work with. With SNCC, there's not all this red tape-you just get it done." Richardson, a charismatic Howard University graduate a bit older than some other SNCC members, ultimately led the Cambridge NonViolent Action Committee (CNAC), the local committee that emerged to challenge these conditions in March 1962. CNAC asked the Cambridge Board of Education to include commercial courses at the black high school to prepare more students for good jobs, and demanded that the city institute fair-housing practices and pave the streets in black neighborhoods SNCC sent field secretaries to Cambridge to assist CNAC, but it remained independent. Richardson was, as SNCC chairman John Lewis later ' During that time SNCC worked both as an organization that enabled cooperation among local direct action movements, and as an organization that ran its own voter registration projects. While not all of the Swarthmore activists were Red Diaper babies, Carl Wisunan, Jerry Geller, and Michael Manove were (Oli Fein interview). Penny Patch interview Brock, "Gloria Richardson," 123; See also correspondence between James Fornan, ew. sec. of SNCC, and Peter Countryman, head of the Northern Student Movement, frames 570-75, reel 8, SNCC Papers.

Gloria Richardson, remarks, "'We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest': Ella Baker and the Birth of SNCC," conference, April 15, 2000, Raleigh, N.C., notes in the authors possession; OCAC Summary of the Conditions in Cambridge, Maryland," [1963), Feingold Papers; Brock, "Gloria Richardson," 125;

"Baltimore Civic Interest Group/Northern Student Movement Prospectus Eastern Shore Project," frame 718, reel 8, SNCC Papers.


described her, "fiercely independent, very militant, and very articulate," and her family had been part of the town's black elite for generations. Students in the nearby SNCC affilte at historically black Howard University, the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG), led by Stokely Carmichael, Bill Mahoney, and Ed Brown, came up from Washington, D.C.-sometimes on weekends, sometimes for longer-to participate in the Cambridge movement.

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