Civil Liberties

The Inspiring 'Freedom Movement' That Paved the Way for Obama

The 50th anniversary celebration of SNCC's "Freedom Movement" is a reminder that power yields nothing without demand and the guts to back it up.

I wasn't at Valley Forge or Gettysburg or at other historic American battlefields that we continue to venerate. But I was in Albany, southwest Georgia, in the explosive 60s when, led by religiously oriented, singing-and-shouting youngsters of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an entire black community in Albany, hitherto subjugated and (for good reason) afraid, rallied to find its own collective voice in self-taught non-violent tactics that beat The Man who had (literally) beaten them for so long. This week, a 50th anniversary celebration of black and white "Freedom Movement" veterans – survivors, actually – is taking place in Raleigh, North Carolina. Without the incendiary, uncompromising, "jail, no bail" militance of the SNCC volunteers I doubt if the battle for civil rights would have prevailed as rapidly or as – relatively – peacefully.

SNCC didn't live very long – a few years at best before fatigue, stress, the FBI's spy-and-disrupt CoIntelPro and Black Power swallowed it up. But not before it had accomplished its historic mission which went way beyond even black voter representation and desegregation of bus terminals and lunch counters. Under fire (of real bullets), it lived its dream. "Power yields nothing without demand!" was a favorite slogan. Unwilling to wait for a Promised Land, the young women and men, black and white soldiers of SNCC created their own transcendent personal relationships and, in a system of workshops, developed leaders "from the bottom" among pool hustlers and choir singers, delinquents and respectables. SNCC's genius – which set it apart from more conventional civil rights groups like NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Core etc – was to have confidence in the capacities of previously uninvolved, fearful, formally uneducated black people.

Death – murder - lay around every corner. "If you're not prepared to die here in Albany then you're not facing reality," a 19-year old SNCC girl told me one day. (A little later, just across the state line in Neshoba, Mississippi, three young Freedom Movement workers – James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, one black man and two whites – were savagely murdered by local law enforcement in league with the Ku Klux Klan.) In the heat of battle – beatings, deliberate humiliation, terror, jail as a daily fact of life, legal defeats, disillusionment with celebrated "leaders" – a genuine redemptive community was created. The "beloved community" was a fact not a phrase.

I'd come to Albany in 1963, a lone white man toting a portable typewriter in a racially tense town. My luck held, because a previous visit by a sympathetic Guardian reporter, WJ Weatherby, had created such good feelings in the aroused and suspicious black community, that the positive energy he left in his wake automatically rubbed off onto me. "He's English … feed the man!" was the welcome I got in the first black household I called on.

Although I was on assignment there was no question of standing aside from "the struggle". This meant sharing a floor in a sharecropper's shack to sleep on, cleaning toilet bowls and cooking meals when asked to, standing night guard at a firebomb-threatened home, riding rattletraps deep into the rural backwoods to hand out voter registration forms to people who had been prevented from voting for generations, keeping nervous watch out the car's back window not knowing if the dark trees sheltered a KKK-style shotgun blast, doing all kinds of donkey work. Along the way we'd pass burned-out churches.

SNCC may not have invented the mass meeting and mass demonstration, but I'd never before seen them employed so dramatically and effectively. The mass meeting itself, often held in sweltering country churches, was an exercise in pure communal power. Sitting alongside semi-literate maids and farm labourers, children and grandmothers, singing the old prayer songs now adapted to the movement, you could hear the rhythm of the feet and clapping of hands and feel the positive energy bursting from the throats of people who were no longer waiting but affirming and demanding. In the name of Jesus, a new south was being born amid Albany's cotton fields and pecan groves.

I always knew that like the Guardian's Bill Weatherby I'd be moving on. Charles Sherrod, a young Baptist SNCC (currently chaplain at Georgia state prison), took me down to the Trailways bus station. Charlie shook my hand and looked me in the eye. "You should stay here and fight with us. But if you can't, remember that we love you."

I was stunned. I'd been expatriated in England so long I wasn't used to open emotion so openly expressed. I'm not a spiritual person. But to this day I have carried with me that feeling, that sense of transformative, redemptive – and yes, angry – love.

In those inflamed days, of lynchings and bone-breaking beatings instigated by local white power structures, someone as conciliation-prone and slap-my-other-cheek as Barack Obama simply would have been trampled over by the thousands of impatient SNCC volunteers who demanded their "Freedom - now!". President Obama is too young to have been personally involved with SNCC. He is sending his black attorney general down to Raleigh to speak to the 50th anniversary conference. Yet somehow, he recently found found six hours out of his busy schedule to descend on the troops in Afghanistan. It's a pity he can't spare a little extra time for the youngsters, now grey-haired, who were so responsible for making him our first black president. If he came to Raleigh he might get taught the SNCC lesson that power yields nothing without demand and the guts to back it up.

Clancy Sigal, is a screenwriter and novelist in Los Angeles. Chicago-born, he has worked precincts for Democratic candidates since his teens.