Black Politics and the Establishment: An Interview with Charles E. Cobb, Jr.

Charles E. Cobb, Jr. is a distinguished journalist and former member of National Geographic magazine’s editorial staff. From 1962-1967, he served as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi. He currently is Senior Writer and Diplomatic Correspondent for, the leading online provider of news from and about Africa. His latest book, published in January 2008, is On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail.
Rakim Brooks recently sat down with Cobb to discuss black politics in the United States, from Cobb’s days with SNCC to today. (The interview has been edited for style and length.)
Rakim Brooks: If we’re trying to think about what black politics looks like today, we need a point of comparison, and what better point of comparison is there than the 1960s, which many consider to be the height of black political engagement in this country.
Professor Cobb, let’s start with your involvement as a field secretary in SNCC. What exactly was a field secretary meant to do in the Mississippi movement and how did you carry out that role?
Charles Cobb, Jr.: The short answer to that question is that a SNCC field secretary was a grassroots organizer. In the 1960s, for the first time, you begin to see young people taking on leadership roles via sit-ins through, at first, the development of SNCC and then through the transformation of student protesters into grassroots organizers. This has a lot to do with the influence of Ella Baker, one of the great figures of twentieth-century political struggles. Ms. Baker taught us to organize from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.
Perhaps because we were young, and again Ms. Baker’s influence had a lot to do with this, we chose to go into rural areas in some of the toughest places in the South: the Mississippi Delta, Southwest Georgia, the Arkansas Delta, central Alabama. In those places, we attempted to organize people to see their own potential, to see that they had rights, and the right to assert those rights. As field secretaries we, to use a term that took on a different meaning during the Iraq War, “embedded” ourselves in these rural communities. We lived in the homes of poor people. This was, in many ways, a new approach and certainly a radical approach, in the sense of the people we chose to work with: sharecroppers, maids, cooks, day laborers, factory workers.
We did the patient, even boring, day-to-day work of sitting on porches talking to people amid a lot of fear. There was a lot of white terror, and people weren’t going to get up and register to vote just because you asked them to. You had to sit down and talk to people, give them a chance to judge you, to know you, because they were going to be putting their lives, their jobs, and their families at risk.
RB: What was Ms. Baker’s view of leadership and how did you understand the black freedom struggle, given her influence on SNCC?
CC: Ms. Baker had this vast body of experience that extended back before we were born. Ms. Baker had been, as a younger woman, the director of southern branches of the NAACP. She became, after the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, the acting executive director of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In fact, she played a major role in organizing the SCLC. She was acting director because she was a woman, in an organization of black preachers that had a lot of trouble with women in leadership roles.
When the sit-ins broke out in February 1960, Ms. Baker realized immediately that something significant was happening in the black college community. She persuaded MLK to put up the money to bring student leadership from these movements—almost 200 of them—together because none of the students from different sit-ins knew each other. King gave the money because he was looking for a student arm to his organization, but once students got together, Ms. Baker told us, “You don’t need to be a part of this organization. You need to have conversations among yourselves about the kind of organization you want.” Out of that came SNCC.
Ms. Baker stressed the need for grassroots organizing because that’s what she had done with the NAACP. She was frustrated with MLK’s organization because it was very hierarchical and wasn’t particularly interested in her notion about organizing. She saw that the students might work with her and put her ideas into practice.
Gradually, students decided to commit, for various lengths of time, to this work, and using Ms. Baker’s contacts began to spread across the South. SNCC began its project in Mississippi. Ms. Baker sent a student, Bob Moses, to Mississippi civil rights leader Amzie Moore, who said, “I like those sit-ins, I admire those sit-ins, but I’m not interested in that here. I want a voter registration project because there are enough black people that, if you could get them registered to vote, we could get rid of some these sheriffs and mayors who have been brutalizing us for the past century.”
Those were new ideas to us. We hadn’t thought about voter registration or organizing people for political power or, as a friend of mine says, for regime change. Ms. Baker was planting all of those ideas, and in doing so shaping the direction that SNCC would continue in.