An excellent resource on the topics in this chapter is I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, by Charles Payne, a professor (emeritus) at the University of Chicago. Chapters Four and Five give a clear description of how SNCC people built a movement in Mississippi under what seem extremely hostile conditions.
One person can start the work of creating a local activist organization. A person who does this work by our method will be called, in respect to tradition, a field secretary because this is the title used by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Field secretaries can perhaps be best described as expert specialists in startups. Their main job as the instigators of an uprising is to go into a community (or campus), find the right people, and get them talking together in a meeting. This is the nucleus of a local activist organization (LAO). SNCC’s distinctive approach to meetings will be discussed later.
The LAO eventually takes over. It recruits more and more people, decides on goals and objectives, determines strategies and tactics, and does everything else required by a rebellion.
The field secretary also provides knowledge about how to be effective as a rebel organization. Today, organizations like the Leadership Institute, Young Americans for Liberty, Students for Liberty, and the Foundation for Advanced Conservative Leadership offer excellent training for how to be effective as an activist. Additional information about how to increase organizational effectiveness will be discussed later in this manual.
When the LAO is up to speed the field secretary is no longer needed, so that person can start over in a different community or stay with the LAO as an ordinary member. So, in theory, a field secretary is more concerned with how to develop the organization than with what it should do.
The newly born LAO is autonomous. The civil rights uprising had no commander.
Mass uprisings are usually started by a small proportion of the local population. Typically, the vast majority of the people will not participate, at least initially. In fact, most people in the community might initially be quite hostile to the rebellion. As field secretary you will try to find just 15 or so people who are open to the idea of creating a mass uprising, are not afraid of disruption and confrontation, and are willing to do the work of building the LAO.
Obviously, an LAO can decide to do things any way they like, but the field secretary champions a particular approach, described in this manual.
Again, an organization is a group of people who work together to achieve a common goal. If you and the people you found in the community can talk together, decide on a course of action, and effectively carry out that action, you have a basic organization. It is probably best to defer decisions on bylaws, election of officers, “snowflake structures,” procedure manuals, and other bureaucratic ephemera. William Z. Foster advised against “mechanical blueprint methods” and stressed the need for flexibility. SNCC also spent little time on the development of bureaucracy. To them, developing an organization meant recruiting more and more people and helping to make the organization more and more powerful.
The standard approach for a SNCC field secretary was to start out by talking to people in a get-acquainted way. Talk to people in laundromats, in line at the grocery store, in pool rooms, at the student union building, wherever people congregate.
One of the most important parts of your job as field secretary is canvassing, going door-to-door to talk with people. It is common today for people doing work called “canvassing” to spend only a minute or so talking to a resident. A SNCC field secretary, by contrast, might spend an entire half day at one house if they thought it worthwhile. Freedom does not come out of the barrel of a gun; it comes from the conversations of activists and organizers.
Think of your recruiting job at any moment as recruiting one person who is just like you. If you and your “clone” each continue to find clones at the rate of just one each month, at the end of a year 4,096 people will have been recruited. This we call rabbit math. In his pamphlet, Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry, William Z. Foster says that his ambitious strike plan, calling for up to a million strikers, could succeed only if thousands of workers could be organized to help in “individual recruitment.”
Whenever you recruit someone, leader or not, into the movement, impress on that person the importance of talking to their friends, relatives, neighbors, and other contacts, in order to recruit even more people into the movement. William Z. Foster used the term “chain method” to describe this process of milking social networks.
Whenever you find people who want to get involved, consider suggesting to some of them that they take canvassing as their job. High school students are good at canvassing. They can canvass after school, on weekends, and during breaks. Teenagers are good at getting adults involved, and they are sure to talk to other students about their work for the movement.
SNCC field secretaries usually scoped out an entire community and tried to reach each and every individual in that community regardless of their level of interest in the movement. As Bob Zellner, the first white SNCC field secretary, put it, SNCC would attempt to engage “entire communities from the wino on the street and the cab driver, right on up through all the preachers and the teachers and the funeral home directors. I mean, when we had a movement in a city or in a town it involved everybody from the bottom to the top.”
Be aggressive but not too aggressive. If no one comes to the door, try again later. If someone slams a door in your face send in another face. Pester people.
Do not ignore or dismiss people whose ideology seems opposed to yours. In the first place, some of these people can be turned. It has been said that most communists were not communists; many fed-up people worked with the communists because they seemed to be the only group fighting for change. In the second place, you might be able to use or at least learn from ideological adversaries. SNCC field secretaries tried to think up ways to use even their enemies.
Many people involved in rebellions have found that people typically do not complain about big issues but instead focus on one small issue - the pebble in their shoe - about which they feel strongly. Try to find that pebble and use it to frame future discussion with the person.
Consider combining canvassing and petitioning. Asking people to sign a petition might help break the ice, establish rapport, and reveal the person’s political or social leanings.
Try to recruit students. They have time for activism, a high stake in the future, and not much to lose. Since they are concentrated geographically, recruiting and being recruited are easy. Probably the best place to organize a mass uprising is a large city with many colleges.
At the end of your visit ask the person to do something - attend a mass meeting, for example. If they are not willing, consider asking for something smaller. Robert Moses, one of the most respected members of SNCC, told an interviewer, “Now, the technique that we found best useable, I think, was to simply present the form to them and ask, “Have you ever tried to fill out this [voter application] form? Would you like to sit down now and try and fill it out?” If people are reluctant to act physically, maybe they would at least act in imagination. That’s a start.
In the beginning it takes effort and patience to find recruits. When the organization starts scoring successes more people present themselves to the organization wanting to get involved. The organizers should have face-to-face conversations with them, which takes time. There might be more interested people than the organization can handle, so the organization should look for ways to capture as many as possible.
The most important factor determining whether a person will join a movement is whether or not they were asked. So ask.
You are going to provoke hostility, violence, and maybe even official malfeasance. Be prepared for this even in the early recruitment period.
The job of recruiting never ends. The organization cannot be too big.
You can “recruit” resources as well as people. Read Chapter Five in I’ve Got the Light of Freedom,” which is about the uprising in Greenwood, Mississippi, an area where the locals were at first extremely hostile to the movement. SNCC nevertheless succeeded in getting office space, cars, free room and board for its activists, even free medical care. It is important to ask.
The most valuable recruits are the organic leaders, the people who are looked up to and respected but might not have a formal position or title.
- They have followers, by definition, and might be able to bring many of them into the LAO.
- They are probably more able to win new followers.
- They can vouch for other members, increasing their effectiveness by lending credibility.
- They probably have an above-average understanding of the problems of the community and how to motivate people to solve them.
- They probably have above-average number of contacts and their contacts might be more suitable as activists.