82: Clay Carson’s In Struggle

Clay Carson’s In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s uses the trajectory of SNCC’s radicalism in the 1960s both to analyze the black civil rights movement as a historical struggle and to draw conclusions based on this struggle about social movements more generally.  He divides SNCC’s history into three broad segments: formation of a grassroots organization around the dual foci of non-violent protest strategies and socioeconomic programs to help poor rural Southern blacks; organizational centralization and internal strife related to a deepening understanding of the extent of structural racism in the United States and conflict over whether separatism or interracial collaboration would best address it; and a turn toward generating black power ideology and away from social programs that resulted in the failure of SNCC and a dissipation of the civil rights movement more generally.  As Carson assembles oral histories, meeting transcripts, newspaper accounts, and other sources into this general narrative, several historically contingent conclusions emerge.  First and foremost, Carson argues that the black civil rights movement (as SNCC) was most successful at effecting social change early in the movement, when it was able to balance individual interests with collective rights – hence Ella Baker’s “group-centered leaders” instead of “leader-centered groups.” Further, developing an ideology is important for sustaining a mass movement, but this ideology has to come from the ground up, not from the top down.  Hence, SNCC lost its constituency when it moved away from localized social and economic programs and toward flashy Black Power rhetoric.  And finally, Carson argues that radical separatism will not achieve social equality as well as interracial cooperation or cooperation with more liberal groups, both because it overemphasizes individualism and because it has little basis in the material reality of most potential constituents.  Carson’s history thus makes a compelling argument for grassroots activism and a federated structure as two characteristics of a successful social change organization.

Carson’s careful construction and interpretation of SNCC’s history is thus in many ways a strong analysis of the complicated historical relationship between a single civil rights organization and the larger civil rights social movement.  Although it is written partly out of a personal investment in SNCC, it is NOT a celebration of SNCC, but rather a critical approach to a complex organization with an even more complex reputation and legacy, and an attempt to explicate its historical import, both for better and for worse.  As its title suggests, In Struggle focuses on conflict and exposes the messiness of a particular organization in a particular historical moment.  Thus, Stokely Carmichael is at times brilliantly perceptive (the HUAC investigated civil rights activists as a way to dissipate the movement, 105) and bizarrely misogynist (the proper place for a woman in SNCC is “prone”, 148); SNCC workers both need and reject wealthy white volunteers from the north for the Mississippi Summer Project; nonviolence is variously interpreted as no violence at all to carrying weapons for self-defense to “just a tactic,” and so on.  Further, although Carson’s (and SNCC’s) primary focus is on the black civil rights movement, Carson also pays ample attention to other social divisions, particularly those of class, and shows how SNCC dealt (or could not deal) with the tangle of structural inequalities associated with race, class, and gender.  And perhaps most fascinating to me, he downplays the “great man” narrative of the civil rights movement in favor of a more subtle contextual analysis, which allows him to more fully address the “social” aspects of the movement and to examine links between MLK, SNCC, the rural South and the industrial North, Black Power, the HUAC, the Vietnam War, and the Feminist movement.

Despite these strengths, the book does suffer from a few weaknesses.  First, for those readers who are not as familiar with the civil rights movement, Carson’s chronology is sometimes difficult to follow, especially as his emphasis on contextualization downplays the more canonical events of the time period.  Second, while I generally agree with Carson’s thesis that historical struggles produce leaders and that leaders don’t incite struggles, his attempt to fit historical events into this framework are sometimes a little thin – particularly with respect to Carmichael (his transition from an integrationist to a vehement black power advocate/ press magnet/ black panther is handled somewhat awkwardly.)  Also, I would have liked a little more exploration of the feedback loop between leaders and movements, or at least a clearer acknowledgement that leaders influence history even as they are produced by it.  Third, and somewhat more problematically, he tends to downplay the violence espoused by SNCC and the Black Panthers  – yes, he obviously mentions guns and bombs to show that non-violence became complicated, but grappling more directly with violence and agency would have deepened his discussion of the ideological disagreements behind it.  And finally, although he often cites a lack of clear ideology as a problem for SNCC, and although he generally argues that ideology is good as long as it is produced from the ground up, he remains ambivalent as to the role ideology should play in an organization attempting to effect social change.  Further elucidation of these points would greatly clarify both his analysis and his political position regarding an organization’s role in effecting social change.
However, despite these relatively minor weaknesses, this book is well-regarded for good reason and connects (for me, at least) to several other works.  Carson identifies a tension between individualism and the greater good that is discussed at length in Hardt & Negri’s Commonwealth, though he would likely disagree with their call for exodus as a solution to society’s problems.  His discussion of black power as an empty signifier that articulates differential demands resonates with Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason, especially as Laclau doesn’t require individuals to subsume their identities into a single undifferentiated mass, though Laclau doesn’t fully address the problem of media co-optation and restructuring that Carson sees in the Black Power/ Black Separatism articulation.  The idealism and militancy Carson ascribes to SNCC throughout its history relates to more recent studies of fanaticism, and I keep thinking in particular of Toscano’s Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea, where Toscano argues that single-minded pursuit of a goal is a key element of a successful social movement.  Carson, however, argues that what is actually key is a balance between single-minded fanaticism and careful attention (a la Judith Butler’s “Competing Universalities”) to economic and social issues at the local level.  As SNCC discovered, that balance is a hard one to maintain; whether (and how) anyone could do it successfully is one of the central questions of Carson’s book.
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