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Ford Scholars Project Analyzes Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Documents

When civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael popularized the term “Black Power” 47 years ago, his message resonated with a generation of young African Americans.  But Carmichael’s increasingly militant stance also cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from white liberals and contributed to the decline of his organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Assistant Professor of History Quincy Mills and Ford Scholar Alexandra Deane ’15, holding a SNCC fundraising poster.

That’s the conclusion Alexandra Deane ’15, of Nashville Tennessee, reached this summer after she and Assistant Professor of History Quincy Mills analyzed SNCC’s financial records for a research project under the auspices of Vassar’s Ford Scholars Program. Deane is one of more than two dozen Ford Scholars engaged in original research in the humanities on the Vassar campus this summer. “Without question, the shift in [Carmichael’s] language in his speeches led to a reduction of funding from whites in the North,” Deane says.

During the eight-week project, Deane studied more than 2,000 financial documents, letters, and other SNCC records contained in a database at the Vassar Library. Those documents show that between 1960 and 1966, SNCC not only collected donations from southerners who supported SNCC’s humanitarian programs and protests in their communities but also raised substantial sums from predominantly white liberals in New York and other northern states.

Then, quite suddenly, donations from northern white liberals, including many Jewish donors who had taken part in earlier civil rights marches, began to decline. And the drop in donations came shortly after Carmichael first used the term “Black Power” in a speech in Berkeley, CA, in July 1966. Over the next several months, as Carmichael’s speeches took on an increasingly militant tone, Deane and Mills say SNCC’s financial records show donations from whites continued to dry up.

Deane found some letters from some of these longtime donors who responded in 1967 to SNCC’s appeal for more money.

“In the past, I have given to SNCC because I believed in what it stood for—the nonviolent approach to an integrated society,” one former donor wrote. “Today, you have made it a misnomer, if there ever was one, Mr. Carmichael …”Another ex-donor wrote, “I am tired of your futile efforts to promote the cause of civil rights by emotional appeals to violence and racial hatred.”

A third former donor told Carmichael, “I cannot support the unreasoning, hysterical reverse racism which you represent. I have no quarrel with Black Power. That the Negro needs. But I want no part of hate.”

Mills says some of the most virulent letters came from Jewish contributors. “They were particularly offended at being lumped in with other whites [by Carmichael] after all they had done to take up the civil rights struggle in the past,” he says.

Mills says he also believes some of Carmichael’s references to violence came in response to “the white violence against blacks that had been going on in the South for generations.” And he says some of the shift in support away from Carmichael was also happening to other civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he began to speak out on issues other than race, including economic injustice and the war in Vietnam.

Mills and Deane say internal memos and other documents found in the SNCC papers showed many in the organization were urging Carmichael to tone down his rhetoric. “There was a lot of dissension in SNCC about the alienation of these white contributors,” Mills says, “but others in the organization said Carmichael was merely responding to conditions he was finding.”

Mills will use much of the data Deane compiled this summer for a book he plans to write on the civil rights movement. He says he’s impressed by Deane’s work. “For a faculty member to obtain this kind of help from a student, you need someone who is independent and doesn’t need a lot of hand-holding, and Alex is definitely that student,” he says. “I needed someone I could trust to do the research and analyze and synthesize it, and I had faith in Alex that she could accomplish that.”

Deane, who is involved in social justice causes both on and off campus, says she enjoyed learning how “a bunch of young people with no experience built a grassroots organization.” And she says she’ll use the skills she gained as a Ford Scholar as she continues her education. “This project is really unique to my Vassar experience so far because I was able to delve so deeply into my subject matter, and in many ways, that’s a more satisfying way of learning,” she says. “It made me realize how much time and work it takes to learn something this thoroughly.”

Mills says he enjoyed watching Deane learn those lessons. “It was great to introduce Alex into the world of academic scholarship,” he says. “It gave her a snapshot into that world.”

—Larry Hertz

Photo, Vassar College-Buck Lewis

Posted by Office of Communications Thursday, August 1, 2013