“… we must all recognize the fact that if any basic changes are to take place now, we, the people, the masses, must rise up and bring these changes about. We cannot depend on or expect President Johnson or Congress to do it, but we must help them do it.” John Lewis, national Chairman of SNCC, November 29, 1963.
“No one leader, no group of leaders can get you your rights. You have to get them for yourselves.” James Foreman, Executive Secretary of SNCC, December 15, 1963
“Change won’t come from the top. Change will come from mobilized grassroots.” Barack Obama, in Dreams from My Father.
“People, not government, can solve the problems that face our society.” Tweet by Clifford Maloney, President of the Young Americans for Liberty.
“People will try to convince you you’re powerless. It’s a hoax. In a democracy, people have the power and today, we have too many people thinking that that’s not the case. That’s how we lose a democracy. You’ve got as much power and responsibility as anyone else to see that the system is as it should be.” Diane Nash, SNCC leader and co-author of the legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in a 2019 interview.
“They are not going to wait for the government to come and do things for them. They are the Cheetah Generation. They are young, entrepreneurial, agile, fast and their outlook is refreshingly different. George Ayittey, Ghanaian economist
If you have a problem with society, the onus is on you to fix it. Don’t count too much on the elites. You are the one best situated to understand the problem and figure out what you and your allies should do about it. Only you can tell what you personally can do toward solving the problem.
This was the SNCC creed, the message they continually communicated to their allies and followers.
But when the time for rebellion is at hand, don’t expect the people to quickly spring into action. In Serbia and Greenwood, Mississippi, and many other theaters of mass uprisings, the peoples’ state of mind was initially quite the opposite if what a rebel leader would like.
Unfortunately for the rebels, many black communities were not receptive to the SNCC creed. Take Greenwood, Mississippi as a representative case. As Charles Payne writes in Chapter Five of I’ve got the Light of Freedom, SNCC field secretaries were at first not at all welcome in Greenwood, where most people referred to the movement as “dat mess.” Virtually all of the local leaders did not want them there, due in part to the fear that the SNCC people, with their disruptive and confrontational tactics, would stir up the klan, which was very powerful in that area, and then ride off into the sunset leaving the local people to deal with the consequences.
The tactics championed by SNCC were a legitimate and widely shared concern. A Gallup Poll conducted in May, 1961, found that 57% of American adults believed that “‘sit-ins’ at lunch counters, ‘freedom buses,’ and other demonstrations by Negroes” would hurt their chances of being integrated in the South.” “Freedom buses” referred to the tactics of the freedom rider movement, which involved violating traditional customs – blacks in the back of the bus, people sitting next to someone of the other race, using restrooms and waiting areas intended for persons of the other race, etc. – while acting strictly within the law.
It’s called intimidation and is, unfortunately, common in the world. Not so long ago, the nation of Serbia was squirming under the boot of Slobodan Milosevic, a former communist who started three wars and made muck of the nation’s economy. The mood of the people, as described by Tina Rosenberg in Join the Club, was “fatalistic, cowed, pessimistic, and afraid.” The idea of getting rid of Milosevic, in their estimation, was unrealistic. Trying might get you killed. Politics was “dirty.”
Fear is not the only cause of mass passivity. The U.S. is currently stuck in what might be called advocacy mentality.
The 1970’s in the U.S. saw the development of many so-called advocacy organizations. The idea was that political struggles could be professionally managed. Accordingly, advocacy organizations consisted of a paid staff of lawyers, political scientists, lobbyists, pollsters, media people, etc., (or perhaps just a few staff people doing many functions) who would fight for certain policy positions on behalf of the public.
Members, if indeed there were members, had little to do except pay dues and perhaps read a newsletter telling of what the organization had been doing. In a few cases, like Heritage Action and the National Rifle Association, members were asked to help with minor tasks, such as sending a message to lawmakers.
Conservative talk radio, 912 groups (“talk radio without the radio”), and the ironically named tea party groups also fostered the idea that”activism” means passively listening to someone talk about some unpleasant governmental activity or a politician or candidate. Consistently, there was a complete and total absence of talk about what we in the audience can do about the issue. The 912 and tea party groups had a live audience while information is being presented, but almost never was a signup sheet passed around to recruit people.
Sometimes, tragically, the message from these sources, delivered in an outraged and frustrated tone, was a litany of ways we the people are being screwed by powerful leftists, but lack any idea that we might be able to fight back. Performances of this type resemble helplessness training, in which animals are punished indiscriminately until they waste away, starving even though food is available to them by pressing a lever.
Leaders of rebellions have the job, and it might be their primary job, of turning the people around mentally.
The movement built by the Otpor (which means resistance in Serbian) student organization was entertaining and hip. And fun: Otpor tactics were like pranks or harmless college antics that were not entirely harmless, fun with a sting. The group used rock music that had strong political undertones, bands like Rage Against the Machine (the name says it all), musicians in Nazi uniforms that made totalitarianism salient.
SNCC’s movement also profited from the use of music. In the song, “Hit the Road, Jack,” Jack was being kicked out of the house because he didn’t have any money and he was no good. In the SNCC version, Jack was not participating enough in activism events. Being involved in the SNCC was a grim duty, but there was a place for fun.
Both Otpor and SNCC used tools provided by the psychology of self-efficacy. What is efficacy? Two different, but related, things are involved.
First, efficacy means being able to take advantage of political technology, as discussed by Morton Blackwell in his essay, “The Real Nature of Politics.” Political technology means how you choose the messaging for a campaign (perhaps using the Leesburg Grid), how you use social media, how you get a candidate on the ballot, and so on. There are thousands of techniques. Having more activists and leaders who are savvy in political technology, compared to your adversaries, is how you win.
Second, activists and leaders should be high in self-efficacy, a powerful concept developed by Albert Bandura in his book, Self-Efficacy. If it weren’t for the fact that Bandura’s ideas were published after SNCC passed into history, it would be easy to think that SNCC people were Bandura’s most enthusiastic followers.
People who believe they can succeed in a given task are more likely to do well than people who don’t believe they can succeed. People who believe in their ability to succeed will persist through obstacles, setbacks, and adversities, and will try a new approach if one attempt does not work. By contrast, people with low self-efficacy are likely to give up with the first sign of adversity.
Self-efficacy is task specific. A person can be convinced that he can learn to draw a dog without believing that he can become the star quarterback for the Washington Redskins.
Bandura found four sources of self-efficacy, discussed below from strongest to weakest. A fifth source, imagination, has been suggest by Maddux and is discussed after Bandura’s four.
The strongest source of efficacy beliefs, according to Bandura, is a person’s own actions. The idea is to get people to actually do the thing they are loathe to do, and do it successfully. The more often people succeed in the task, the harder it is for them to believe they can’t succeed. The problem is that it’s hard to get people to do something they don’t want to do and think they can’t do.
That’s where Bandura’s snake comes in. Bandura developed a specialized form of psychotherapy for people who fear snakes and for some reason want to overcome that fear. This psychotherapy doubled as a way of illustrating his theoretical ideas.
The solution is to get the client to take baby steps. First the client enters a room at some distance from the snake. Then the client moves closer. Then closer. Then the client touches the snake. Eventually, the client is able to pick up the snake and the fear is gone. It works every time.
For SNCC and the local activist organizations, the klan played the part of the snake. Some of the tactics used during the movement were exceptionally hazardous: sitting in at a whites-only lunch counter, trying to register to vote, and picketing, for examples. Other tactics, like marching, could also be hazardous, while boycotting and attending meetings were relatively safe. SNCC and the local activist organizations usually had several actions going on or in planning, so everyone had a way to take baby steps.
Labor and the left have a more formal ladder of engagement concept (google it) but this idea would probably have been too bureaucratic for SNCC.
An entirely different approach is to simplify and make concrete how the struggle is perceived. It is hard to get your mind around a tyranny like Jim Crow because the topic is so gigantic and amorphous, with many moving parts. Robert Moses, one of the most respected SNCC field secretaries, would tell potential recruits that he and his fellow workers were teaching black people how to vote. Spun this way, winning the struggle seems much more doable.
Anti-war activists in the later 1960’s knew that the task of ending the Vietnam War was too big for students to get their minds around. Instead, the leaders targeted local manifestations of the war, such as the ROTC program and the offices of defense contractors.
A person’s sense of efficacy can often be boosted when they see someone else succeed at the task. The snake was useful here, too. Bandura made a film showing an actor handling the snake without fear. If this treatment didn’t banish the clients’ fear, it at least helped.
SNCC and the local activist organizations had frequent mass meetings (at least weekly in the deep South, according to a report by the Southern Regional Council) at which visitors from out of town might tell about how successes against segregation and discrimination were achieved in their area.
Bandura would give his clients the good news that the snake was clean and smooth, that it did not bite or move suddenly, and so on. It doesn’t work all that well but it doesn’t hurt to try
If you feel butterflies in your gut before you have to give a speech, you might think that you are not very good at public speaking. This is low self-efficacy and it’s not good for you. A good speech coach might tell you that what you are feeling is enthusiasm that will add power and passion to your talk.
James Lawson, who had great influence on SNCC in the early days, reported that young students often had feelings of inadequacy, thinking that nobody would pay any attention to black kids. Lawson told them that they needed to stand up and be seen as a positive example to other black youths. It is easy to believe you can be successful at just being seen.
The Serbian revolt combatted the fear of imprisonment by providing accurate information; SNCC fought it by making imprisonment a badge of honor.
Psychologist James E. Maddux of George Mason University suggested in his article, “Self-Efficacy: The Power of Believing You Can,” an additional possible source of self-efficacy beliefs not considered by Bandura. Just imagining yourself doing something successfully might help build a higher self-efficacy for actually doing a similar action.
SNCC field secretary Bob Moses described in his autobiography, Radical Equations, what he thought was the best approach for persuading black people in Mississippi to try to register to vote. He went door-to-door with reproductions of the official voter registration form and would ask, “have you ever tried to fill out this form?” and “would you like to sit down now and try to fill it out?” Considering that the idea of actually voting would have been a wild fantasy to many blacks at the time, voting in fantasy was perhaps an achievement of sorts.
Most of the research on self-efficacy focussed on individual activity like task-performance and health-related behavior. By contrast, political activism involves interacting with other people in organizations. The theory remains the same and only the practical application is more complicated.
Collective efficacy means believing that you can get what you want through the conjoint actions of you and the other people in the context of an organization. In other words, you have to factor in a lot more than just your own ability in order to make a judgment about how successful you are likely to be in the organization.
High collective efficacy had a lot to do with the success of the SNCC rebellion. Early in the uprising, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) launched the Freedom Ride movement, in which activists would ride interstate buses and defy customs while remaining within the law. For example, waiting rooms, eating facilities, and rest rooms had been legally desegregated although some local people tried to continue enforcing the old segregation policies.
After just a few days one of the buses met with extreme violence, prompting CORE to cancel the project. But Diane Nash, a SNCC field secretary, persuaded the SNCC organization to take control and resume the freedom rides. Her argument was that there would not even be a movement if the adversaries knew that they could stop any action just be being violent. The result was that no SNCC activist would ever wimp out.
SNCC activists who were beat up would return to their work as soon as possible. SNCC activists who were arrested, and virtually all of them spent time in the clink, would rejoin the revolt as soon as they were freed. You count count on SNCC. They wouldn’t let you down.
SNCC got results. They caused lunch counters to desegregate. They caused some whites-only churches to change their policies and welcome black folks into the church. They got some black people registered to vote. They sometimes got sheriffs to return confiscated firearms. You could achieve more working with SNCC than by working solo.