Atlanta to Zimbabwe

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 9 No. 1, "Stayed on Freedom." Find more from that issue here.

What is the relationship between movements to change this country and liberation movements in the Third World? How did internationalism come to play a role among organizers in the United States in the 1960s? How important is the concept of a truly international “Freedom Movement?” Charles Cobb, whose experiences since 1961 have taken him from the front lines of organizing rural blacks in Mississippi to covering the liberation movements in southern Africa as a journalist, is in many ways uniquely qualified to shed light on these questions. 

Like so many others of his generation, Cobb gravitated toward the Movement immediately after the Greensboro and Nashville sit-ins of 1960. Within the space of about 18 months, Cobb went from picketing Woolworth’s in his Springfield, Massachusetts, hometown to working as a SNCC field secretary, one of only a handful from outside Mississippi. In 1966, he helped direct Julian Bond’s successful campaign for the Georgia legislature. The next year, he began traveling. As a journalist, Cobb has reported for African World (published by the Student Organization for Black Unity), the National Black News Service, National Public Radio and Africa News

As I came of age, the things that are dramatic in my memory are the 1954 Supreme Court decision, the events in Little Rock, the events in Montgomery, Alabama, and tangled in there are the independence of Ghana and the Mau Mau struggle in Kenya. I remember the Pittsburgh Courier used to run a little box on the front page which talked about the conflict in Kenya, the conflict in Congo, the Sharpsville demonstrations, Lumumba, Tshombe, Kasavubu, all of which were happening when I was in high school. These are things that were part of my consciousness, growing up. 

A lot of us in 1960 and ’61 who were in college were caught in the student sit-in movement, which was more or less a spontaneous movement, though not quite as spontaneous as some historians would suggest. I was living in Massachusetts and had been picketing the Woolworth’s in support of Southern students in 1960. The students who were protesting in Greensboro and Nashville had the greatest dramatic impact; they were shown on television and so forth. People my age were strongly affected by that because it was, for our generation anyway, the first time in the South that we saw blacks taking the initiative themselves. 

By the time the Freedom Rides happened, I was at Howard, and literally sitting on the grass on the campus and reading in the student newspaper about the Howard students that had been involved in the Freedom Rides. Somebody gave me a leaflet about a sit-in demonstration in Maryland, which I picked up, read and went to, and I became involved in that way. 

The name that repeatedly kept coming up was SNCC, simply because that was an organization that the students had formed. There was a discussion going on among a lot of students about whether sit-ins would really change anything, whether you should commit a real chunk of time to working in the South. What made up my mind was a very small blurb in the New York Times which talked about a voter registration project in Mississippi, run by Bob Moses in fact. The story was about the fact that Moses had brought some people down to register to vote and had gotten beaten up. And it struck me that more than sitting at lunch counters, this was probably something important, and I began to cast about, for a way to get into that. 

The first organization I approached was CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, which sent me a letter back inviting me to a workshop they were holding in Houston, Texas. And I decided to go to that, combining going to that workshop with a tour of the South. I took a bus from Washington all the way through the Deep South — Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. When I got to Mississippi it was morning, and I knew that the SNCC people had an office somewhere in Mississippi. I didn’t know where it was, so I called up the NAACP in Jackson, Mississippi, and asked where the SNCC office was. They told me, and I went there — this was August or July of ’61 — and instead of going to Texas I wound up staying in Mississippi. 

At that time SNCC was just in the process of expanding and had made the decision in fact to move into the Mississippi Delta, which is the biggest Black Belt area. In the northwest of the state, many of the counties, even though they were over 50 percent black, had no blacks registered to vote. In the case of Sunflower County, where Ruleville is, I think there were three black people registered to vote in a county that was 66 percent black. That was very typical in the Delta. 

What we were organizing people to do was to register to vote, mainly because that was the most legitimate thing. The law was pretty clear, at least the federal law: all people have the right to vote — Fourteenth, Fifteenth Amendment, all of that. 

But we were also organizing in a deeper sense. Mississippi at that time, Alabama, the Arkansas Delta, the north of Louisiana, the northern Florida panhandle, the whole Black Belt South, southwest Georgia: if you were black and living in those areas, you were really living almost in a state of paralysis. I mean you were frozen, right in place. You worked for some white man on a plantation, you went to segregated schools that afforded very limited opportunities upon graduating, you certainly didn’t ask any questions of the sheriff or the political officials, you certainly didn’t challenge anything, you were just frozen there. As an organizer the idea — the real idea behind organizing — was to begin to get people in motion around something, just to break that paralysis. We thought, while we didn’t have all the answers, that if we could show people that they could question the situation, that they could take some action about their situation, then they would find a correct action to take. Voter registration was the easiest lever to use in terms of doing that. 

It was in ’63 that we really started to become aware of Africa as I remember. What had happened was that Oginga Odinga, who was at that time the vice-president of Kenya, was touring the United States, and one of the places he visited was Atlanta, Georgia. A whole bunch of us went to see him, just because he was an African leader. There was no political assessment of Kenya, or any of that. He was a black guy who was a vice president of a country, and we had just never seen that. He was staying at some posh hotel in downtown Atlanta, and he saw us. We had this talk, and shook his hand; it was a big thing. Afterwards we decided to go have coffee at this restaurant next door to the hotel, and we were all refused service. We were kinda high on meeting this black leader, and so naturally we refused to leave the restaurant, and we all got arrested. Oginga Odinga became a known name. in the organization. There were songs written about him. Because of this incident, discussion started. 

Then in ’64 Harry Belafonte, who was a supporter of SNCC and other organizations, arranged a trip to Africa for some SNCC people. It was a big thing, and built the discussion more and more in the organization. In the media by this time you’re starting to get the whole business with Rhodesia and the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, and all this was filtering into the organization. 


Our expanding consciousness of Africa and the discussions within the organization revolved around two key words: power and alternatives. All along we were asking ourselves whether what we were doing was really going to provide the answers for blacks. You work in a county, or you work in some rural town, and because you’re working some blacks get killed or shot, something like that, and you inevitably ask yourself, “Is it really worth it? If they actually get this vote, what will it really mean for them? Is what we are about, making blacks Democrats or Republicans, is that really freedom, is that liberation?” And that question really became very intense in 1964, in the aftermath of the Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, where clearly, legally and morally, the black delegation that we had organized as the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party should have been seated. By any standard, it should have been seated and wasn’t. It didn’t have anything to do with the merits of our case, it had to do with politics that were at play at that particular convention. As a consequence, coming out of that convention a few people were looking around for alternatives. 

What we had learned essentially was that the things that affected blacks in Ruleville, Greenwood or Sharkey County, Mississippi, didn’t just stop at the county line or the state line, that what we really had was a national structure, that the sheriff and the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Council were all tied into the Congress and the president and that even if we got everybody registered to vote in Sunflower County it really wasn’t going to provide the complete answer for black people. We were beginning to see the relationship between economics and politics. 

Then the question became — which began to lead us into Africa and more broadly into the Third World — where do we find alternative designs for organizing ourselves as a people? So Africa then begins to loom very large, partly because we were meeting poor people from ZANU and ZAPU and ANC, and African students. They would talk to us about their situation, and they knew what we were talking about and we knew what they were talking about, and there was something to share there. We began to talk to people more and more about independent institutions. The question of power - black power — became a discussion. The question of race intensified. 

The work in the counties went on pretty much the same way it always had, but in addition our own broadening consciousness entered into those discussions. For Fannie Lou Hamer to go to Guinea the way she did didn’t lead to some African institution developing in Ruleville, Mississippi, but perhaps it made Africa a little less alien to our friends and neighbors. Julius Lester and I went to Vietnam, people went to different parts of Africa, people went to Cuba, to Puerto Rico. We had taken a position on the Courtesy Africa News Vietnam War, and we were becoming interested in the African liberation movement. 

As a field secretary for the organization, coming into contact with journalists and then seeing what they wrote, inevitably one says, “I can do a hell of a lot better than that.” I traveled widely; I was in south Asia and Africa. It seemed to be important then to begin to figure out ways to communicate what I’d seen. 

In 1969 I was teaching school here and decided to go to an African country long enough to really learn something about it. I chose Tanzania simply because it seemed to be the place where the liberation movements were concentrated and because I just happened to know more Tanzanians than anybody else. And one of the things I started to do was write. 

The thing that I learned in the South, which I didn’t know before going into it, was that what looks simple turns out to be complex. The same thing is true about rural Africa. And if you want to write about it, as I did when I got to Africa, or if you want to organize it, which is what I did in Mississippi, then you have to learn to deal with these complexities. 

You know the real problem with Western journalism, American journalism, is the assumptions that underlie it. American journalism is quite good in terms of facts and data. The problem comes with what the journalist or what the editor assumes about those facts. For instance, during the war in Zimbabwe, you know, you would get a report, say, “in X village 50 people were killed,” and you could go to that village, and there would be 50 dead people, killed in the course of the war. Factually correct. Now, the question is, “Who killed them?” What do you assume about these dead people? 

Now, a lot of journalists would say, “Well, they were killed by terrorists, because after all the government is civilized and it wouldn’t kill 50 people.” And there wouldn’t be any real evidence beyond that. That’s where your problem is. You know the experience in the South helps with avoiding some of those kinds of pitfalls. 

It works in reverse. I mean, what happens here — especially in the black community — of course goes through the same media back to Africa. There really are no African correspondents here in America, and that’s a problem. 

I find two general distortions in terms of the way people in the U.S. have been taught to perceive events in Africa, not necessarily unrelated. First, in Zimbabwe the story is about what happens to the white people. Recently, for instance, the New York Times Sunday Magazine had a long piece by John Burns, who is their correspondent in southern Africa, which essentially said that the critical question in Zimbabwe is what the white people think, feel and do. That is important in Zimbabwe, you know, but I don’t think it’s the essence of the story in Zimbabwe. The consequence of that, of course, is that you miss the real story — which is the African people. 

The other problem, which is reflected in Angola and also Ethiopia, is the assumption — and this is particularly true at the policy level in the United States — that the African issue breaks down to a question of Soviet- American competition. So the Angolan issue becomes important only within the context of superpower rivalry. Which, again, is a distorted way to look at the Angolan situation, because Angola is very, very complicated. 


There are also a number of lessons we can learn by looking at changes happening in Africa. Take Tanzania as an example. Unfortunately, the Tanzanian experiment has never really gotten off the ground from my point of view. But I think the ideas that they articulate are very, very 88 important. At the core of those ideas is the question of self-reliance. Not self-reliance in the Booker T. Washington sense of pull yourself up by your chains or whatever, but selfreliance in the sense that people use their own minds and their own energy to do for themselves, constantly fighting against becoming dependent on external powers. 

Kenya, which the United States and other Western nations point to as an example of progressive development in an African state, will be worse off than Tanzania in the long run in the next decade. Things are really going to get bad. Kenya is beginning to have severe economic problems which may become politicized because there is such great disparity between rich and poor in Kenya. And I think that as that begins to happen, thoughtful people will take another look at Tanzania and see that it is pretty much on the right course. 

There are many fights that have to be waged here to fight U.S. imperialism in Africa. In the broadest sense, of course, one says struggle in this country. There is also the question of policy. How do we minimize the reactionary nature of U.S. foreign policy? What do we do to prevent the United States from completely dumping on Africa or the Caribbean? 

We must pay careful attention to what policymakers are doing or planning in terms of Africa and assist the African nations in fighting against policies that are seen as harmful or fighting for things that are seen as helpful. I immediately say support for the liberation movement in southern Africa, South Africa in particular. 

Then there is the fact that Africa needs an awful lot of things. I’d like to see people with skills and training in this country work for short- or long-term periods in Africa. I’m talking about people who finish their internship or residency maybe practicing medicine for a year or so in African countries. Engineers. Scientists. Teachers. All of that is possible. The continent is open to that. Nobody has ever really organized it from my viewpoint. But I still think it’s a good idea. It’s something people should think about, because that counts for a lot.