In the 1960s, Howard Zinn, along with Ella Baker, served as advisers to SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
For teaching about the Civil Rights Movement in Selma, here is Zinn’s first-hand account from Selma’s Freedom Day on October 7, 1963. “The idea was to bring hundreds of people to register to vote, hoping that their numbers would decrease fear. And there was much to fear,” Zinn writes.
The following excerpt is from Chapter 5 of Zinn’s autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train and is followed by related resources about Selma’s voting rights campaign, Freedom Day, and SNCC.
By Howard Zinn
I traveled to Selma, Alabama, in October 1963 as an adviser to SNCC, to observe its voter registration campaign there, which had been accompanied by a number of acts of intimidation and violence. The town was the seat of Dallas County, whose population was 57-percent black, with 1 percent of those registered to vote. (Sixty-four percent of whites were registered.)
My experience in Albany had made me especially conscious of the federal role in keeping the institutions of racism going. A systematic failure to enforce civil rights law had marked every national administration since 1877, whether Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. Racism was not southern policy, it was national policy. Selma was an American city.
SNCC had declared October 7 as Freedom Day. The idea was to bring hundreds of people to register to vote, hoping that their numbers would decrease fear. And there was much to fear. John Lewis and seven others were still in jail. Sheriff Jim Clark, huge and bullying, had deputized a force that was armed and on the prowl. To build up courage, people gathered in churches night after night before Freedom Day. The churches were packed as people listened to speeches, prayed, sang.