Interview with Cleveland Sellers

Did success in Lowndes County affect SNCC's direction in the election of Stokely over John Lewis?


Absolutely, the, the, the success in Lowndes County gave SNCC another model. We'd come out of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party effort where we made an effort to, to get involved in the democratic party. Ah, now what we were beginning to do is we were beginning to talk about independent Black political organizations and the need for those organizations and how we could develop a model that would work in communities where you had a majority Black community. What, ah, what began to happen was was that as we began to see that opportunity grow we began to, to find it necessary to begin to plant the seeds and open up the frontier where we could begin to let people know that there was a model and it was independent political organizing, ah, independent political organization. Now, when you get to, um, to the, the meeting in Kingston, ah, Tennessee, Kenton, Tennessee, where Stokely defeats John Lewis there are a lot of things that you need to take into consideration, one of which is the fact that the organization had been grappling with direction since it was involved in the National Democratic Convention of 1964 where we had anticipated that we were going to get support from the lib--the liberal establishment for our Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation. We didn't get that support. Um, matter of fact what began to happen was was that a lot of questions began to be raised about the roles of liberals in the Civil Rights Movement. Um, the other part of that is is that we began to kind of look for direction and look for ideas that would move the organization forward and move the movement forward. Lowndes County represented that new thrust and that new idea. Um, the other thing that you look at when you're looking at this, the shift in, uh, in, uh, in leadership in the organization was the fact that John Lewis had become identified with the office, administration of the organization. And as always a--an, an, an antagonistic relationship between the field and the, and the administration in any organizations. So John ended up on the side of being a, an administrative person. And the field staff was saying, "We want a change. We want people in office that's going to represent us and represent our interests in moving the organization forward with programs." So when you get to the point where the vote is taken um, that issue, those issues begin to emerge. And that's when the organization took the, the initiative to change leadership. Um, John had been involved in an effort to get SNCC to commit to a White House Conference. But most of the SNCC orga--SNCC field secretaries did not want to be involved in, but John insisted. John also was involved in, ah, the Sel--the Selma demonstration. SNCC had voted not to be involved in the Selma demonstrations. So there were some things that had happened along the way that made, ah, John's leadership ah, at that point questionable. And the other dynamic is is that the organization itself--SNCC was people-centered, and it, uh, it's, it's body was the group that made decisions. It was not hierarchical and it was not bureaucratic in the sense that the leaders tell folk what to do as traditional organizations are. Leaders were controlled and were constrained by the body, and the policies that were coming out of the, ah, SNCC conferences and out of the executive committee.


I'm going to cut you off for a minute.