On Making Yourself Right: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Andrew Breitbart
In the mid-1960s, SNCC, one of the most important civil rights groups of its era, began to split at the seams. Since its inception, the group had committed itself to the eradication of white supremacy strictly through the twin pillars of nonviolence and integration. SNCC members, like their fellow activists throughout the South, endured threats, beatings, bombings, and shootings, all of which they greeted with Bible verses and song. The tactic ultimately succeeded by cutting through centuries of hate and accessing a basic sense of human decency.
Andrew Breitbart, 1969-2012
But nonviolence exacted a price and, in 1966, its success was not assured. That was the year Stokely Carmichael assumed leadership of the organization. Carmichael had spent much of the early 60s subjecting his body to beatings, tear-gassings, and water-hoses. Committed to integration and nonviolence, he had driven down dark and lonely Southern roads accompanied only by the knowledge that people of his ilk were being vanished there with some unsettling regularity. When Carmichael came to power he, and much of SNCC’s membership, had changed their politics. They expelled whites from the group and rejected nonviolence. Eventually there was a quasi-merger with the Black Panther Party and a full-throated embrace of revolutionary violence.
Among the SNCC members to reject that path, were Shirley and Charles Sherrod. Shirley Sherrod had every reason to follow Carmichael. Her cousin Bobby Hall had been lynched. Her father had been killed in cold blood over a land dispute with a white neighbor. Neither killer was punished. Instead, white supremacists regularly visited Sherrod’s home intent on terrorizing her widowed mother in silence. But when SNCC split, Sherrod, and her husband, rejected violence and nationalism, despite having every reason to embrace revanche.