Early in 1966, the people of Lowndes County, Alabama formed an all-Black, independent political organization called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO). Organized with the support of activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the LCFO fought the disenfranchisement of Black voters against the palpable threat of white violence. The LCFO was a crucial chapter in the early history of Black Power, providing not only the blueprint for Kwame Ture’s theory of Black Power but also the black panther imagery that would inspire Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale to form the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in Oakland just a few months later. Former SNCC organizers Jennifer Lawson and Courtland Cox join The Marc Steiner Show to offer an oral history of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Lowndes County Freedom Organization.
Jennifer Lawson joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1966 and was elected to its central coordinating committee. She designed the Black Panther symbol and campaign materials for the Lowndes Country Freedom Organization. Lawson continued her civil rights work for several more years before becoming an executive and producer in public television. She currently works with the SNCC Legacy Project to preserve the history of the movement and to encourage young activists to document their stories.
Courtland Cox joined SNCC as a student at Howard University in 1960, and appeared as the representative of the organization’s central committee at the 1963 March on Washington. He helped organize the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi, and was also one of the organizers of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. Later in life, he served as Secretary General of the Sixth Pan-African Congress in Tanzania, as well as on the Board of TransAfrica. He was appointed by President Clinton to serve as the Director of the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) at the U.S. Department of Commerce. He currently serves as board chair of the SNCC Legacy Project.
Studio/Post-Production: David Hebden
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have y’all with us.
The Civil Rights Movement in the late ’50s and early ’60s is celebrated mostly as a non-violent movement that broke the back of segregation through the power of its moral persuasion. Its public image being the mythic interpretation of the great late Dr. Martin Luther King. And that’s true, in part. It was also a violent struggle. Armed racist organizations and mobs attacked and killed those involved in the struggle. If you were in the movement in the South organizing, you were always in the midst of danger. It was ever present every day of your life there. Dozens of civil rights workers were either murdered, injured, jailed, or tortured.
And one of the main organizations that stood up, not just demonstrating, but organizing resistance, fighting for political power, working to end the domination of racist power was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, as it was known. Most of the SNCC workers were young, college-aged people, men and women, Black and white, who faced down death and broke the back of legal segregation. Today, I’m joined by two people who were at the heart of that struggle. Part of Lowndes County, Alabama, known then as Bloody Lowndes, they organized throughout Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. And we’ll explore in-depth that moment in our history and how it speaks to this moment when we are faced with the resurgent racist right wing seizing power across the country.
Jennifer Lawson first marched as a civil rights worker as a teenager in 1963. She was a student at Tuskegee University who left to work full-time for SNCC in Lowndes County. She was raised in Fairfield, Alabama. Her dad owned a repair shop, her mother was a teacher. In 1963, she was part of the children’s march in Birmingham, Alabama, and got expelled from high school for it.
During SNCC she wrote a comic book as an organizing tool and painted the iconic image of a Black Panther as she and our other guest, Courtland Cox, and others organized political resistance in Lowndes County. She continued her civil rights work for several years more before becoming a producer and executive with public television. And currently works with the SNCC Legacy Project, have preserved the history of the movement and to encourage young activists to understand their history and take part, and to document their stories.
And Courtland Cox is with us. He was on the executive committee of SNCC, was a representative on the steering committee, the historic 1963 March in Washington. He helped organize the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi. In 1965 was one of the organizers of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. Served as secretary general of the Sixth Pan-African Congress in Tanzania, as well as on the board of TransAfrica. He was appointed by President Clinton to serve as Director of Minority Business Development Agency at the US Department of Commerce. He’s currently board chair of the SNCC Legacy Project.
And let me also add that both of my guests are here in Baltimore because we’re about to lecture and present a seminar entitled The Civil Rights and Black Power Movements in the Global Context at the University of Baltimore. That was organized by UB’s history professor and author, Dr. Joshua Clark Davis. And they’ll be joined by Daphne Muse, another former SNCC worker who couldn’t join us for this conversation. But let me welcome you both. Good to have you here.
Courtland Cox: Thank you.
Jennifer Lawson: Thank you.
Marc Steiner: Great to see you both. So, I want to start back in the day, in the early ’60s when you all decided you had to be in the midst of this struggle. That may make an interesting place to start just for a moment, why and how you both got into that. You were both in college, you were young. You, I understand, wanted to be a doctor?
Jennifer Lawson: Yes. I was not yet even in college [Marc laughs] when I first became active in civil rights. It was the reality of growing up in Birmingham and where everything was segregated, where the racism was so palpable, so visible. And there were incidents where people were kidnapped and tortured. And these were things that I had experienced during my childhood.
So when Martin Luther King was in jail in Birmingham, and there was the call by Reverend Bevel and some others to say, please, we need more people coming out to support Dr. King. The adults were saying, oh no, let’s not get involved with this. Let’s be careful. We’ll lose jobs. And we young people decided, no, we need to do something. We don’t want to live like this forever. We want change in our lives.
And we thought it was worth the risk to leave school, to go and march. And this was the march where Bull Connor came with the dogs and the fire hoses. I did not experience that because the police arrested us before we could even get to downtown Birmingham [Marc laughs]. And they arrested so many young people, so many young people turned out that they had to use the fairgrounds to house us.
Marc Steiner: Wow. And Courtland?
Courtland Cox: Yeah, I started at Howard University in 1960, and we were going in two directions. The first was to support what was going on in the South, particularly Freedom rides, and we would picket the Greyhound and Trailways bus stations in Washington DC.
But Washington DC was also a very segregated place. And also, in fact, a lot of the Northeast was segregated. So Route 40 between New York and Washington DC, which was there before the I-95 was built, was also a very segregated place. I mean, Baltimore was segregated – We used to come over here and demonstrate – And the rest of Maryland was segregated. So I started out really on two levels trying to deal with what I saw in Washington, but also trying to support what was going on in the South, particularly around the Freedom Rides. Because we were conducting our own sit-ins here, so we were really supporting the Freedom Rides, the Freedom Riders as they went South.
Marc Steiner: So you both came at it from different places. I mean, yours was really experiential, Jennifer in Alabama, feeling that. You grew up in New York, right?
Courtland Cox: I grew up in New York.
Marc Steiner: Your father was American and your mother was Trinidadian?
Courtland Cox: No, I know both of them from… One was from Trinidad the other was from Grenada.
Marc Steiner: Got ya. So West Indian to the core.
Courtland Cox: Right. Period.
Marc Steiner: But I want to take our listeners back to getting a feel for what it was like to be at the heart of the struggle, to break the back of segregation in the South in the early ’60s. Because in this world we kind of white-wash it in a way. It is all about Martin Luther King and love and peace and the rest. But that really wasn’t the story. Courtland, we don’t you start, then, Jennifer, jump in.
Courtland Cox: Yeah, it wasn’t, I mean, my sense is that what you really… People have to understand that the Ku Klux Klan marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC and was applauded. Wilson, who was president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, really began to segregate the federal government.
I think really, if you wanted to sum it up, it was the statement by the chief justice in the Dred Scott decision, that Black people had no rights, that white people need respect. I think if people want to get a sense of it, everything that they fear about a society that’s not democratic in terms of what you read, who you are able to marry, where you’re able to drink water, what kind of jobs you have, what schools you go to, everything was limited and controlled.
So we are the ones in the United States that faced the totalitarian government. That’s what we really face. So if we wanted to sum it up, we had a totalitarian experience in the United States. We talk about the United States as a democracy, but if we wanted to talk about what really happened in the Black community, it was a totalitarian state, really dominating every aspect of our lives.
Jennifer Lawson: And that’s every aspect of our lives. It was just incredible. And that we were tax paying citizens. So we paid taxes, but the schools, the institutions, the libraries, any public benefit went to the whites, not to us. Our schools would use hand me down books, hand me down band uniforms. We never got new instruments. We could only get the ones when the white school in the same community was going to get its new instruments.
But it was much, much more devastating than that. It was a time of terror. And so we lived in an atmosphere of fear. And so it wasn’t as if we weren’t having great conversations in our homes and in our churches and in our community groups about change. But there was an atmosphere of terror and fear that led people to restrict themselves from being active in unions or being very active in groups that might then signal change. Even though you always had some courageous women and men who were defiant and who decided that they didn’t care, they were going to try and achieve some change regardless.
Marc Steiner: And so that in some ways leads into… There’s a couple ways I could go with this, I’m going to start here. What you all did in starting SNCC, and you were there at the beginning, I really want to explore that. I think this was… When people think of the Civil Rights Movement, they think of marches. That’s the common thing, marching for civil rights, but there’s the horrendous march of Selma or just picketing around restaurants or whatever that was. But it was much deeper than that.
And I want people to get a sense of the depth of that and what you all faced in that. In Baltimore, in the Civil Rights Movement, we had a hard time and everything that was happening in Cambridge, we used to call it Maryland’s Mississippi. But it wasn’t like Mississippi. So why don’t you start it off, Courtland?
Courtland Cox: Yeah. I think when we really talk about the Civil Rights Movement, we really have to talk about the veterans who came back from World War II.
Marc Steiner: Yes. Yes.
Courtland Cox: And they decided they were going to do Double V. If they were going to have victory abroad, they were going to have victory at home. And so what they did was build organizations of resistance. So you’re talking about the Medgar Everses of the world, you’re talking about people of that generation. You were talking about Ms. Hamer, they were talking about Ella Baker, you’re talking about all those people who really put together the legal strategy, Brown v Board of Education.
Now, we were lucky because we had people like Ms. Baker who, when we started out to do a number of things, to really now say, this is wrong. We are not going to stand for it, to help guide us. So we were able, while we continued to do things we did, the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides, we also had Amzie Moore who came from Mississippi and said if we really wanted to be impactful, we need to go and really organize to get the vote. And the big battles. And the big fight was around the vote because that really talked about power.
So we are talking about the Steptoes, we’re talking about Mr. Turbo. We’re talking about all… So, if you look at SNCC, the phases that people try to celebrate are the sit-ins or the marches or stuff like that. But the real fight and the real violence centered around who should vote, who should exercise power.
And we see the same thing happening today. The big fight is who should vote and who should exercise power. So, while we were victorious in the ’60s and so forth, people are now trying to come back to the essential power, essential question of how power is exercised and who participates politically to exercise that power.
Marc Steiner: And then for you, I mean, both of you were in Lowndes County, right?
Courtland Cox: Right.
Jennifer Lawson: Yes. Yes. I came to Lowndes County later, after Courtland had been there for a while.
Marc Steiner: Because you were younger.
Jennifer Lawson: Yes.
Marc Steiner: [Laughs] Sorry.
Jennifer Lawson: But after high school I went to Tuskegee. And Tuskegee was known for the Tuskegee Airmen and for many other… It was an independent Black community in many ways. And there was enormous wealth, a lot of sophistication. And it was a very cosmopolitan place.
However, it was in the state of Alabama. And so it was subject to the same kind of racism, segregation, and violence that other places in Alabama and throughout the South were subjected to as well. And so as a student at Tuskegee, I had hoped that I would be able to pursue a career. Eventually I was going to study and eventually go into medicine. And I found myself, though, unable to focus entirely on my studies when constantly, right around the campus, you could just put one foot off of the campus and be subjected to some of the worst things that were happening in the state of Alabama.
So I then became active with the student group there at Tuskegee. And in 1965, late ’65, early ’66, I decided to leave school to work full time with SNCC. And part of what led to my decision was the fact that one of my close classmates, a young man named Sammy Young Jr., was brutally murdered.
Marc Steiner: Yes.
Jennifer Lawson: Right there, a short distance from the campus. And I just thought, what good is it to talk about being a doctor and healing people if we are going to die in this way, if we can just be killed and then the murderer be acquitted immediately and people laugh? I thought, no, I’d rather put my time and energy into civil rights. And so I decided to join SNCC.
Marc Steiner: So that does lead me to this. You give people a sense of that moment, what it was like and what you just described with that murder. And there were many other murders. I remember in Montgomery, there’s this entire museum built around the people who gave their lives in the Civil Rights Movement. And it’s a pretty profound place to walk through and feel.
But I think people don’t really have a sense of what you all really faced in the Deep South in that fight and segregation, facing these racist mobs and this racist danger of being hurt and killed. I mean [inaudible] it’s like every day. You didn’t know every day whether or not you were going to walk, whether you were going to breathe the next morning.
Courtland Cox: Yeah. That was a reality. I think that if people were to try to understand what we felt, it’s that we were in a warlike situation. When I say warlike, you were not only facing soldiers you knew, that is to say the police who were geared to kill you and so forth. But you were also facing vigilantes who you didn’t see. So that every white man or every white woman had the feeling that, in fact, whatever they did to you would be defended by this society.
I think if people are trying to imagine it, what they need to understand is what they saw on Jan. 6 is what might happen, and the people behind that, and why they did that, and if they ever got in charge, what would happen? Because these people believe that, in fact, they are correct, that they will use violence and any other means to maintain what they think the order needs to be. And therefore, the people on the other side of that order would be suffering any abuse that they choose to put in place.
Jennifer Lawson: And it was just unbelievable abuse. People just innocently walking down a street. And there were people, if you didn’t step off the sidewalk when a white person approached on the same sidewalk, if you didn’t step into the street, then you could be in danger of being attacked by white people because you were being disrespectful to the white person who was on the sidewalk.
There was a man, his name was Aaron Judge, who was castrated. He was kidnapped. He was just walking down a street in Birmingham, and he was kidnapped and castrated. He fortunately survived, but in such a maimed fashion. And that was just some guys having fun. But you were being told in so many ways that your life didn’t matter, that you didn’t matter.
Marc Steiner: And this was just like, wait, people here don’t understand we’re talking about just 60 years ago. This is 50, 60 years ago. It’s not like it was 100 years ago.
Jennifer Lawson: And these are things that, in addition to those things, there are all of these other things that sometimes go unnoticed and are sometimes a little more subtle. For example, when they decided to put the interstate highways into places like Birmingham and many other cities around the country, isn’t it interesting that they chose to go through a route that then destroyed the middle-class or upper middle-class homes of Black people? So the homes, the wealthy people of Birmingham, their homes, their community was destroyed by a process like that.
Courtland Cox: The mindset that governed, really… I’ll take it to football. It’s just in the last 10 or 15 years that Black quarterbacks were able to play that position.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Courtland Cox: Because the basic view was that Black people could not think fast enough in order to play football at the quarterback position. So a great quarterback coming out of college would either be made a wide receiver, he would be made a running back, or a cornerback. So the mindset is there.
I’ve looked at the news today where the Department of Justice said Louisville, Kentucky, the police department was engaged in a way of treating Black people and characterizing them as monkeys and boys and so forth. And therefore, once they had that mindset, they were able to kill them and to act in a way that did not have any accountability.
So my sense is while there was the great volume that existed in the ’60s, what we saw in the ’60’s is still happening today in various places. But also the people who benefited from the ’60’s, what MAGA means: make America great again. Take us back to where we were dominant and had no accountability for our actions in terms of the Black community. And MAGA is being supported by one party that says that is the right way to go. So, my sense is the sense of terror that some white people feel today in terms of the MAGA thing is what we felt on a constant basis.
Marc Steiner: I want to go to Lowndes County, let me circle back to Lowndes County for a minute.
Courtland Cox: Okay.
Marc Steiner: From what you just said. So I think about all the sacrifices people made to end segregation and to build Black political power and to build a humanistic political power and to try to build a new world in this country. And actually, many of us actually thought we were getting there in the early ’70s. We actually thought it was going to happen. It could happen.
But now we’re seeing this huge reaction. And when I say to people – And not everyone agrees with this, let me just throw this out and see what y’all think – So, I keep likening it to 1877, the end of Reconstruction, when after enslaving people felt that there was a Black political power rising and there was a possibility of change and people learning to read and write, and something was happening. And it was crushed by this racist mob that started lynching and killing people and terrorizing the Black world in the South.
And I feel like, in some ways, we are there now in some other different way. It was not quite the same dynamic, but it is a similarity. What do you think is going on politically that allows this to be happening at this moment?
Courtland Cox: Well, let me just say a couple of things. I think in 1877 with the Hayes and Tilden compromise –
Marc Steiner: Yes.
Courtland Cox: Which was done by the president and federal government. Black people had no, they had no power. They had no tools. In Lowndes County, in particular using the Lowndes County example –
Marc Steiner: Alabama. Yeah.
Courtland Cox: Lowndes County, Alabama, example, we decided that we were doing voting rights and people could vote. But basically, the concept of exercising power over your lives was really born in Lowndes County, and that you should be standing up and creating alternatives. So now you have Black Studies programs at various universities and colleges, Black people have been in every department and cabinet or minister in the United States. So right now we have tools and access we didn’t have in 1877. So basically now the people… So the coalition that was built over the last 75 years established a sense of power.
What you have now with the MAGA crowd is a sense of resistance. They are now beginning to do what the klan tried to do in 1877, that is they want to destroy the established order. So you have people like the governor of Florida talking about “woke” and, we going to get rid of this book, and we going to beat up on transgender. We’re going to beat up on the Black people. We’re going to beat up on Hispanic people. They’re now running to try to destroy the established order. And I think what we now have to figure out is how the established order maintains itself and exists.
Because, when you look at the last election, which had more votes than any other election in the history of this country, the MAGA people got a number that was never, I think I forgot what the number was, but it was I guess 70 million, close to that?
Marc Steiner: Yeah.
Courtland Cox: And then because established forces got seven more million than that. And I think the fight has to be understanding that we now need to coalesce in… And because the power, this is a power, a fight that really tries to get back to where we were before. And we have to make that fight.
Marc Steiner: So let’s talk a bit about how that happened in terms of thinking about what you all did in Lowndes County. There were few other places in this country that you can compare where the danger was really that intense. We had the majority of people in Lowndes County being African American. Was it 80%?
Courtland Cox: Over 80%, yes.
Marc Steiner: And it’s white domination. And you all went to that county and organized a political power.
Jennifer Lawson: And I think it was something that we saw, one, it was so fundamentally who we were as SNCC, too. Because one element that makes SNCC very special as a civil rights group is its respect for local communities. It’s respect for the community. So it wasn’t as though we said,oh, we are leaders and the camera is on us, and we will now go to this place and help those people. But instead, we usually went to places where we were invited. We were invited to come into Lowndes County and to work with the local people there to create the opportunities that they were seeking.
And at first, that was centered around the right to vote. Because, even with over 80% of the population being African American, there were only what, four, I think at one point? There was zero, and then they got up to the number of four registered voters. And the ridiculous polling questions or other ways in which people were denied the right to vote were absolutely… And a lot of it based upon terror and threats of losing jobs. Many people were sharecroppers, and it meant that they would lose not only their livelihood, but also the place where they were staying. So you had all of this going against the people in Lowndes County.
But, there were people who said, no. We want a change. We want a change. We want the right to vote. And what I think is so important about what happened in Lowndes County is that we all went beyond that. We in SNCC and the people there went beyond that to talk about, what’s the value of the vote? What are we going to do with the vote? The sheriff has been a problem, are we going to elect the same sheriff or his brother or cousin? What are we talking about here?
And it was really quite interesting to encounter people who have been so traumatized by violence and also so denied a proper education that they couldn’t read and write. And this is not just the Blacks in Lowndes County, the whites and in Lowndes County as well. And that was one of the reasons that people had political symbols.
The political symbol in Lowndes County when we went in there was for the white Democratic Party, The Dixiecrats, was a white rooster, and it had the motto around it that said, “White supremacy for the right.” That was the image. And so when we talked with the people in Lowndes County and said, well, what would you like as your symbol? And we’ll then create a symbol so that you’ll be able to identify your candidates to vote for. They said, we need a mean black cat to run that white rooster out of this county. And that became the Black Panther.
Marc Steiner: And you drew that, you drew that.
Jennifer Lawson: I did not draw the original Black Panther. We appropriated it from [Jennifer and Marc laugh] –
Courtland Cox: From Clark College.
Jennifer Lawson: From Clark College in Atlanta.
Marc Steiner: Oh y’all were talking about that.
Jennifer Lawson: It was their football mascot [laughs].
Marc Steiner: Yes. Gotcha.
Courtland Cox: But I want to say a couple other things.
Marc Steiner: Please do, please.
Courtland Cox: When people have images in their mind about civil rights, they think about the marches and –
Marc Steiner: Right.
Courtland Cox: But the thing that was different is that we lived in the community. Every day. So whatever they faced, we faced. Whatever they ate, we ate. Whatever the housing situation, we faced it. So the place that we lived in had no running water, they had a pump in the back. They had no indoor plumbing or bathrooms, we had to deal with that. The roof leaked. So we lived in the conditions that they lived in, so they saw us every day. And so that was very important, they saw us every day. So it was not a march and then you go home. No. Every day you were there.
The second thing that was also important is that the people, as Jennifer pointed out… I remember a woman named Ms. Strickland. Ms. Strickland was one of the best people getting people registered to vote. But just when the soap operas came on between 11:00 and 1:00, she was gone to watch her soap operas [Jennifer and Marc laugh]. But it was part of her being in her life.
Lillian McGill, same thing. She was a person who graduated from Alabama State and could not get a job, so she had to become a domestic worker. In 1955, she was one of the people who was part of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and then moved to Lowndes County. So when we got there in 1965 – She moved in 1964 – There were people in there who had strength. And I remember Mr. Jackson who gave us a place.
My sense is that what we brought – And I think I must say this, both Jennifer and I brought a creativity because we created the comic books to get people to understand, because you are not taking people politically from 0 to 60 miles an hour. You’re not saying, just register to vote. You’re saying, you should be in charge. So you’re going from 0 to 60. And how do you do that? What are the vehicles?
I was at the time 24 years old, and Jennifer was maybe 16 or something like that [Marc laughs]. We created comic books because we understood that you needed to have an education process. And also the thing about SNCC is that we had a guy named Jack Minnis who did the research. So we weren’t just making stuff up. We did the legal research, we had the research, we did the legal understanding. We had a photographic department, we had a –
Jennifer Lawson: Printing department.
Courtland Cox: Sojourner Motor Fleet.
Jennifer Lawson: Yeah.
Courtland Cox: So my sense is you are looking at people who are between 18 and 24 having a sophistication to survive in an environment that allowed them to transport the desires of the communities that they lived in. And I’m thinking, as people say, nothing focuses the mind like the possibility of an execution, so our minds were very focused in those circumstances [Marc laughs].
Jennifer Lawson: Very focused. And I must say that, as Cortland was mentioning, the people like Ms. Strickland or Ms. Lillian McGill, or the Jackson family who then had given us… They had built a home. They were landowners. They were a handful of people who were landowners, and that they had built a home for one of their kids. But that person had gone with the great migration. And so they had it as a vacant place, and they allowed us to use it as our Freedom House where we could stay, where we could make an office and make us a place for our work.
And they also fed us. There were times when we… Some of our work, when people say, well, what do you mean about organizing? for example. We would then be dropped sometimes in a cotton field. And that was because we wanted to talk to the people who were working out in the field. So we would go and work alongside them or talk alongside them while they worked to talk about why we were having a mass meeting at a particular church the coming weekend. So that was our way of being able to talk to people outside of an organized meeting.
And when we would then, they would tell us, okay, you better move on now because see that pickup truck coming down there? I know who that is, and you don’t want him to catch you here. They looked out for us. And when we were back in our Freedom House, then they wanted us to know that they had heard that there were some threats being made in the courthouse or some other place. And that they encouraged us to think that, don’t worry, however, because we’ve got you covered, we will protect you. We are non-violent, but we believe in self-defense.
Marc Steiner: And we have shotguns as well [laughs].
Jennifer Lawson: And we have shotguns, and we killed many a deer and a raccoon with them, and we can use them. And so they would encourage us to make sure that we knew, give them a signal when it was us returning home so that they would know that we were fine and that they could then be on the lookout for anybody that might have been following us or anything.
Courtland Cox: One of the things that Frantz Fanon said is that an organizer has to be like a fish in the sea. We have to be not distinguishable. So as Jennifer’s saying, we ate what they ate. Now, one thing that was good about that, on Sundays, we were able to load up on fried chicken [Marc laughs], collard greens, potato salad on Sundays, because people after church had that, so you could load up for the week. Because one of the things, we were paid $10 a week when we got paid.
Jennifer Lawson: When we got paid.
Courtland Cox: $9.64.
Marc Steiner: You say, when we got paid?
Courtland Cox: Oh, no, no. $9.64 after taxes. And the lesson that stuck with me throughout life is time and energy is much more important than money. Money supports what you want to do in terms of time and energy. And I think we were very lucky because SNCC was able to put time and energy above what money could get. Because we believed fundamentally that we would be better because we could work harder and do things better than anybody else. And so there was a fundamental belief in ourselves, a fundamental belief that what we wanted to do, we could make happen.
And when I look back at it now, we had a fundamental belief that we could end segregation in public accommodations. It ended. We had a fundamental belief that we could deal with the vote. We were able to do that. Not because of Edmund Pettus Bridge but people, day by day by day, every day, taking some action.
We believed we could change the mindset in the Black community, and we did that with the concept of Black Power. And we now have to understand that what we learned in the ’60’s and what tools and lessons we had in terms of the resistance to being considered human beings now has to be employed. We can’t be fearful. We have to be able to be seen as fighters.
Marc Steiner: So we only have a few minutes. I know y’all have to go to the University of Baltimore and do the seminar that you’re doing tonight. But let me just conclude with this then, from what you just said, Cortland.
The lessons that you learned from the ’60’s, the community, especially the organizing, translate that both of you for a moment into what America faces now, and what you think has to happen to confront what is coming at us. Right now, the far right literally controls 26 states in this country, and they have power and money and weapons, literally. So, the lessons from our time in the ’60’s, what does that say about today and what has to start happening? How do you confront what we’re facing?
Jennifer Lawson: Well, I think part of it is that we have to have a vision for ourselves. We have to talk among each other and have a true vision of what we would want our future to be so that we know what we are fighting for, in a sense. And that we have to organize. We have to use all of the resources that are at hand. I’m envious of the young people nowadays with social media, because we spent time running off on mimeograph machines. And to get the message out, we made billboards that we could place on the lands in Lowndes County to be able to alert people to be careful. There are so many tools and opportunities that are available, but I think we have to be clear about what we want, and then we have to ally ourselves with others who want very much that same kind of thing.
I think there are so many of us in this country who really want to live in a true democracy. And I think we want a place where people are not suffering when they need healthcare and just the basics of life. And other people are gloating because they are billionaires and spending $150 million on a boat. So I think we have to balance these things, and we have to have this clear vision so that we know what we are going for and don’t get caught in just reacting to what is taking place.
Marc Steiner: Courtland?
Courtland Cox: Yeah, I think what Jennifer just said, I think I would put it this way. I think the first fight is really for the hearts and minds of people, in terms of what America should look like. And I think programs like this, or whether you’re doing comic books, or whether you’re writing a book, or whether you are on the Twitter, basically having a view of the world that is spread as far and wide because of our hearts and minds.
The second, I think, politically, and Jennifer just said, is that we have to connect the reason people go out to vote. And it has to be that your economic interests will be served. If you look at the top of America, they put millions and millions of dollars into it because they want to protect and advance their economic interest.
The third thing that I would say is that we need to understand that in this fight, the fight is between billions of dollars and millions of votes. And so the question is, how can you mobilize and organize millions of votes to benefit the bottom, as opposed to allowing billions of dollars at the top to manipulate and brutalize people?
So people are brutalized, so you see the Black community being brutalized. You see women, in terms of the whole question of abortion, being that. You see the gay community and the LGBTQ community being… I mean, these guys are passing laws because they think people are weak, against the transgender community. So basically the question is, is the few at the top going to win and dominate or the many at the bottom? And so the way I just put it in, billions of dollars versus millions of votes, who will exercise power in this country? And that’s basically what I think we’ve got.
Marc Steiner: And the lesson that you both bring, I think of the movement that SNCC brought and a lot of groups is, part of the key was organizing.
Courtland Cox: Oh yeah.
Marc Steiner: That is [crosstalk].
Jennifer Lawson: It’s organizing. And organizing means connecting to people.
Marc Steiner: That’s right.
Jennifer Lawson: It means that it’s not just your idea. You can’t be a leader on a soapbox.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Jennifer Lawson: You must connect to people and connect to the issues that mean so much to them.
Courtland Cox: Yeah. Let me just say one last thing here.
Marc Steiner: Sure, please.
Courtland Cox: We can’t be in a situation where we are always reacting to somebody. Just learning from what I said earlier, day by day, minute by minute, we have to have a view of where we want to go and organize to get that. We can’t wait for a Trump to come along to get us active. We can’t wait for a DeSantis to come along to get us active. We can’t wait for something that Tucker Carlson does to get us active. We have to see what’s happening in the lives of our people. And that should be the motivator, not something stupid that these people do.
Marc Steiner: In conclusion here, we have to be the Ella Bakers and Howard Zinns.
Courtland Cox: No question.
Jennifer Lawson: Absolutely.
Marc Steiner: Everyday, right?
Jennifer Lawson: Absolutely.
Marc Steiner: So the young Courtlands and the young Jennifers and the young Marcs in today’s world.
Courtland Cox: Oh yeah.
Marc Steiner: This has been a great conversation. Courtland Cox and Jennifer Lawson, thank you both so much for taking time – I know you’re rushing to get to this event – To be here with this conversation. It was really important.
Courtland Cox: Well, thank you for inviting us.
Jennifer Lawson: Thank you. Thank you very much for inviting us. It’s been a pleasure.
Marc Steiner: It’s been for me as well. So thank you both for joining us. And I want to say to all of you listening out there, while you’re listening to this, you’re listening to it on The Real News Podcast, you need to go to firstname.lastname@example.org, write to me, and I’ll write right back to you. And also while you’re there, make a contribution to The Real News so we can keep building and growing this organization and bringing these stories out to the public, which is really important.
And I want to thank the folks who helped make this possible today, like Kayla Rivara, who did all the producing and organizing for this. And David Hebden and Cameron… Cameron back there too? Yeah, Cameron Granadino is back there as well. So, I want to thank all of them for making this happen. And I’m Marc Steiner here with The Marc Steiner Show at The Real News. Thank you all for joining us. Take care. Stay involved and stay in touch.