Today the movement is in a state of impasse. Perhaps by turning to history, exploring the experiences of movements animated by similar values and confronting similar roadblocks, we’ll find some guidance on how to move forward.

On February 1st, 1960, four Black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat down at the counter of a local Woolworth’s, refusing to leave until they were served. Unaware that their actions were to ignite a movement that would radically shake the nation. Similar to Occupy Wall Street, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) emerged out of a wave of direct action that spread almost spontaneously across the country, reshaping the national conversation around inequality and providing space for a new generation of radicals to find each other. The Civil Rights Movement, which had for sometime been stagnating, was given a fresh infusion of new energy. But as the wave passed, the young radicals found themselves in a moment of confusion: the initiative was firmly in their hands, but they were unsure of what direction to go in or how to move forward. Having perhaps reached the limit that style of activism had to offer, they began to shift gears to the longer-term work of community organizing.

Broadly speaking, the Civil Rights Movement can be thought of as containing two distinct traditions of movement building: community mobilizing and community organizing. The former focused primarily on large-scale, short-term public events. This is the Movement of popular memory, best associated with the legacy of Dr. King. The organizing tradition, on the other hand, was animated by a sense of freedom eloquently summed up by Septima Clark as “broadening the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepening the concept to include every relationship.” To this end, more emphasis was placed on the longer-term work of cultivating a sense of leadership, agency, and power of everyday people. The success of campaigns was judged more for how they facilitated the personal transformation of those involved than if they met particular tactical goals. The movement became a kind of training in democracy.

As they would arrive in town, SNCC organizers were often ignored or avoided by local people, often dismissively referred to as “dat mess.” Even folks initially sympathetic to the movement simply had too much to lose by publicly affiliating with it. But the organizers dug themselves in, engaging the community, getting to know people and their struggles, building relationships. Slowly, impressed by their ideas, actions, character, and courage, some local people chose to cast their lot with the movement. Within a year, they would have the capacity to mobilize an entire town; even conservative local leaders felt obligated to express their support. When SNCC organizers would leave town, they left behind lasting autonomous organizations led by local people, who otherwise would never would have thought of themselves as politically engaged. They transformed the South.

SNCC organizer Bob Moses was once asked how you organize a town. “By bouncing a ball,” he responded. “You stand on a street corner and bounce a ball. Soon all the children come around. You keep on bouncing the ball. Before long it runs under someone’s porch and you meet the adults.”

SNCC often thought about organizing and building relationships interchangeably. Canvassing was the prototypical organizing act. It was the first step in engaging and developing relationships with those in the community not already sympathetic to the movement. Anyone who showed interest would be asked to become involved in a single, concrete task. This could be helping to plan a workshop or going canvassing themselves, but it often meant attending a mass meeting. Mass meetings were the means by which curiosity was cemented into commitment. Mass meetings borrowed their form from the Black church. Strategy and tactics were discussed, internal problems aired, educational lectures given, gospels sung, updates given on what was happening with the movement elsewhere. One of the major components of the mass meeting was folks publicly narrating their life story. Mass meetings helped break people out of their sense of isolation by showing them how many of their neighbors had also come out. Citizenship schools aimed to raise people’s basic literacy skills to prepare them to register to vote, but they were taught using a radical pedagogical style that emphasized structural critique, Black history, “community problem solving” (ie, direct action), and ultimately, subjective transformation. Other major tasks of organizing a town were locating co-optable networks (social networks already predisposed to movement values),  and developing informal leadership (those in communities already holding informal leadership roles). Ultimately, this organizing allowed SNCC to move communities of ordinary people into sustained political action.

Much of what has become common sense in Occupy Wall Street and contemporary anarchism has its origins in SNCC. Skeptical of traditional organizations, SNCC experimented with consensus decision making, horizontal structures, and group-centric leadership. They developed a kind of independent radicalism, untethered by dogmas or established political ideology. They developed a try-and-let’s-see style of organizing, open to experiments and learning from experience. To borrow a phrase from the Zapatistas, SNCC attempted to “walk while asking questions.” SNCC found their way out of their own impasse by shifting their emphasis from dramatic events to the steadier work of community organizing. It seems today that a similar shift is needed: toward radical community organizing.

Shyam Khanna

Originally published in Tidal.