Document 42: [Mike Thelwell], Position Paper #4, "SNCC's Goals and Bourgeoise [sic] Sentimentality," Waveland, Mississippi, [6-12 November 1964], Elaine DeLott Baker Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Introduction

   This paper is thought to be authored by Jamaican-born Michael Thelwell. A graduate of Howard University, Thelwell was prominent in the Washington, D.C. office of SNCC in 1963 and helped recruit volunteers for Freedom Summer. After Freedom Summer, he returned to Washington, D.C., where he worked for SNCC at the time that the Voting Rights Act was passed. After leaving SNCC, Thelwell became the founding chairman of the Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass Amherst in 1970 and Professor of Literature and Writing. In the 1980s he was active in the anti-apartheid movement. He is the author of a noted novel, The Harder They Come (Grove Press, 1980), as well as numerous essays and fiction in literary journals. He also edited for publication Stokely Carmichael's memoir, Ready for Revolution (Scribner Press, 2003). See Document 92 for Thelwell's talk at the 1994 SNCC reunion.

   In this position paper, the author identifies the need for "radical political and economic change," condemning what he sees as "romanticizing" the actions of a group of disruptive local youth in one of the projects. The large number of whites who remained in the state after Freedom Summer created tense situations in many of the projects. The hostile tone of the critique, calling out whites for their ineptitude in dealing with the local black population, was emblematic of the growing criticism of white participation that was becoming more prevalent after Freedom Summer.

SNCC'S GOALS AND BOURGEOISE[sic] SENTIMENTALITY

    The writers of this are very concerned with what they perceive as a sinister fuzzy-mindedness on the part of whole factions of the staff as to what our role in this society and the south has got to be. We think that the only useful and creative function that we can have is to mobilize and educate people so that they can use their organized power to change the basic ills in the society. Our orientation must always be towards eliminating causes rather than trying to make their effects more bearable for a few. This is what makes us different from a goddamn social welfare agency or the Salvation Army.

    Let us be more specific: We exist as a group because this society functions in such a way as to cripple, maim, oppress and dehumanize huge blocks of human beings, especially negroes. These deprived and stifled and hopeless people exist in such numbers that we cannot hope to cradle each one in our healing arms and personally wipe away the tears, soothe the troubled heart, and heal the wounds inflicted by generations of oppression and privation. All we can hope to do is to change the structures, institutions, and social dynamics of the total political body that the society itself heals these wounds and stops inflicting more. This means radical political and ecnomic change.

    Apparently some of the good sisters and brothers are of a different persuasion. They think that our business is the spreading of "the redemptive warmth of personal confrontation," "emotional enrichment" "compassionate and sympathetic personal relationship" and other varieties of mouth to mouth resesitation derived from the vocabulary of group therapy and progressive liberal witch doctors. But we aint got enough redemptive compassion and cultural enrichment to go round. And as moving and personally rewarding as it may be, lavishing all of this well-meaning good-will on two or three kids for four or six weeks, is not any more socially honest than when one white philanthropist selects one Negro kid to educate. Or for that matter, when the Salvation Army has a free Christman dinner for 100 needy families. That about the other 10,000 families and the 364 other days in the year?

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