Monday, April 19, 2010

In Watermelon Sugar (Again): A Letter From A Friend Looking Back At The Summer of 1972 And The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee

Anyone alive today who is roughly 60 or older remembers in sadness and pride, the sit-ins in the 1960s that began in Greensboro, North Carolina, in early 1960. They were a feature of our childhood when television still had the capacity, through its pictures, to speak truth to power.

For those younger, you have to imagine a world where there were segregated swimming pools, lunch counters, libraries, transport facilities, museums, art galleries, parks and beaches, rest rooms, lodgings, and even water fountains. Looking backwards, it is horrifying to remember that such things as fundamental as viewing works of art and drinking public water were forbidden to a large potion of our fellow citizens.

The SNCC grew out of the early sit-ins, first called the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and later the Student National Coordinating Committee. Activists such as Stokely Carmichael, Julian Bond, and future - now current - Congressman John Lewis were founders and proponents. It originally was formed by youth, for youth, for the future. The full history of SNCC movement is available through a simple Google search.

By the early 1970s SNCC had broadened its appeal to embrace white college and post-grad students with consciences.

Chip Hughes, my good friend and old comrade in arms - or more accurately comrade against arms - at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, heartily involved himself in the movement and on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the birth of SNCC, wrote this poignant letter about his experiences to his friends, old and new.

The professor who Chip references is Hilda Hein, the first tenured woman professor at Holy Cross, an institution that had been almost exclusively male from its founding in 1844 through the late 1960s and 70s. A note on Professor Hein appears at the end of this entry. Chip's letter:

Little did I realize that when my philosophy professor suggested in the summer of ’72 that we go pick watermelons in southwest Georgia that it would turn out to be a good career option. This weekend, the SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) 50th Anniversary in Raleigh has been a great opportunity for renewal and reflection on how far we have come and how far we still need to go.

At dinner last night, to our own little family of SNCC veterans with the Institute for Southern Studies (ISS), I wanted to say thank you for helping to create the space for me to make my own life change. It isn’t always easy or evident for us to understand history in the moment as we live it. It also isn’t that easy to take what we know and believe in our hearts and pass it on to the next generation. In both of these instances, I was blessed by either serendipity or a grand design to become part of a caring and loving family where the personal could become the political and vice versa.

When I bent down in the fields of Albany, Georgia to hoist a watermelon in the hot sun in 1972, I never realized that I was a small part of a much larger dream for societal transformation. Rev. Charles Sherrod helped found Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was jailed in Rock Hill, South Carolina in February of 1961 after a sit-in and spearheaded SNCC's efforts in southwest Georgia. He started New Communities as an agricultural cooperative, which at the time, was the largest piece of black-owned land in the nation.

The watermelon fields of Georgia opened up whole new vistas for me to understand that complicated dynamics of societal transformation, as vexingly slow and plodding as that inexorable process may seem to the young and impatient. It is small caring communities like ours that can be the engines of larger societal transformation. History is for all of us to live, and to make.

I want to give a shout-out to my ISS family (Sue Thrasher, Leah Wise, Bob Hall, Julian Bond, Jackie Hall, Howard Romaine and Joe Pfister) for passing on the life truths that they learned to me, a young, impetuous student of life.

I now know that we can make a difference in the world; that we can hold on to our dreams; and that we don’t have to be satisfied with the status quo.

These are the lessons that I learned picking watermelons. These are the lessons that need to be passed on to the next generation.

Hilde Hein was born in 1932 in Cologne, Germany, and was the first tenured female faculty member at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, serving as professor of philosophy from 1970 until 1999. She was also part owner of Annapurna, an Indian restaurant in Worcester. Hein’s academic focus is the philosophy of museums and the philosophy of women, and one of her main achievements at Holy Cross was to teach a groundbreaking course on the philosophy of women. She currently does research work and some teaching at Brandeis University at the Women’s Studies Research Center. Hein was raised in Berkeley, CA, part of a Jewish immigrant family closely related to Robert Oppenheimer, one of the developers of the atomic bomb.

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