Mike Miller: A SNCC veteran reflects on what strengthens community… and what can tear it apart.

Lynn Burnett
7 min readDec 29, 2023

Lynn Burnett: On our SNCC panel the other week, you told a powerful story about Bob Moses. You were talking with him shortly before he died, and he was reflecting on what might have kept SNCC together after the crushing defeat of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Can you talk about the sense of defeat and the bitterness and division within SNCC afterwards, and Bob’s reflections on that?

Mike Miller: Well, as you said, the defeat of SNCC’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge to the 1964 Democratic Party Convention was crushing. Most of us in SNCC at that time anticipated that we were going to win. We did not understand Lyndon Johnson’s power and his ability to peel off votes that we thought we had in the credentials committee. I personally think that our not knowing how to deal with defeat was even more important than our mistaken analysis of what would happen.

It was a time of difficult emotions; of bitter arguments and divisions. During difficult moments earlier in SNCC, one of the Black staff members would get up and start singing one of the freedom songs and then she or he would be joined by the others, and there’d be a break and everybody would get in a circle, cross our arms. The way we used to do it… we’d take the hand of the person on either side of us and just kind of rock back and forth singing. Those were healing moments. After the defeat in ’64, the capacity to create those healing moments pretty much disappeared. It was the beginning of the end, with exceptions here and there, like the Lowndes County Freedom Organization.

You’ve got to remember, during the Freedom Summer leading up to this defeat… people had been killed in this struggle. The defeat was especially painful because of the sacrifices that had been made. The people who were the worst affected got into alcohol and drugs. Other people just quietly left. And others turned to militant ideology. There were different expressions of the alienation that people felt, but they were all rooted in the sense that we were no longer a band of brothers and sisters, no longer a circle of trust. At the January 20, 1967 SNCC leadership meeting, Program Director Cleve Sellers said, “We don’t have anybody out in the field organizing, nor doing anything.” Except for Lowndes County, I think he was right.

Bob Moses told me, shortly before his death, that we should have gone off on a retreat, and taken as much time as was needed to heal the wounds and to reweave the fabric of community that had united us. We needed to sing freedom songs. We needed to link arms and rock back and forth together. After that bitter defeat we needed a time of healing. The fact that we weren’t able to restore that sense of sisterhood and brotherhood… that was the fatal thing for SNCC. You need strong community as a foundation for organizing… and when that community begins to fray, it’s essential to take the time to rebuild community. Building community takes care and attention, just like tactics and strategy do.

Lynn: I’m struck by how physical this is: the power of standing shoulder to shoulder, linking arms, rocking back and forth together, singing together. It feels so deeply human, and like something that humans have probably done forever to bond and to create a sense of connection and belonging. And I’m struck by how someone just stands up and starts singing, and creates that moment, rather than saying something like, “Ok, I think we need to pause and regroup,” or the group making a decision to, say, sit in a circle and talk things out. There seems to be a deeply human wisdom in simply creating the moment.

A follow up question I have is: when organizations are dealing with that sense of defeat… do you have any thoughts or comments about how to handle defeat well? How to handle defeat in a productive way that helps take you to the next step, rather than falling apart?

Mike: Well, you have to have already formed a pretty deep sense of community to begin with. If you don’t have that… if you don’t have experiences that bond people together, then you don’t have a human basis of relational feelings and thinking upon which you can fall back. If you have that precondition, then if you’re wise, you take a timeout and analyze and learn, and think about what to do differently next time.

Lynn: How had SNCC built their strong sense of brotherhood and sisterhood, in the years leading up to this defeat?

Mike: A lot of it was not conscious. You know, when you’re on the front lines of what in effect is a war — a nonviolent one for the most part, except for the other side — well, it’s not an accident that soldiers remember as some of the most significant moments of their lives times they were in battle with other soldiers. It’s not an accident that in those situations, people do heroic things that they wouldn’t imagine themselves capable of.

I also think our ability to take timeouts from the movement was essential. And the SNCC staff retreats were very important. Reading, and putting what you’re doing in a context where you can see how other people have — either successfully or unsuccessfully — dealt with parallel situations is important. Having comrades with whom you talk and analyze and reflect is extremely important.

Having time outs allowed us to learn from our experiences. After the MFDP defeat, some people turned to ideology. You had Marxist Leninists, you had Black Nationalists, you had other views that were heatedly debated and had little to do with what was going on on the ground, and that had nothing to do with the experiences of the local people and what they understood and wanted. That hurt SNCC’s ability to organize… and to build community.

Lynn: Can you say more about how rigid ideology contributes to the fracturing of community? And why people sometimes turn to rigid ideology in moments of pain and fracturing and division?

Mike: Well, it’s very difficult to examine one’s failures. Ideology can become a rationalization of defeat: if you find what you think is the correct understanding of the world, and that what was done doesn’t fit into what should have been done according to the correct understanding of the world, then you have a way of rationalizing how you failed.

As for community, if you assume that you have the truth, that makes it hard to listen to other people’s points of view and to work together. In any organizational context, I would say that who we have now is who we are. We’ve got to listen to each other. There may be rare cases, like when someone is really undermining our purpose, that it may be important to ask people to leave. But you’d better take time to come to that kind of decision.

Lynn: When people aren’t listening well to one another… that’s a huge problem. And it makes me wonder what Bob Moses would do? To facilitate people hearing one another?

Mike: Well, I think Bob did most of what he did one-to-one, or in small groups. He would sit in meetings full of intense debates, and not say a word. But then he would go and have that personal conversation.

Lynn: Listening and hearing is such a huge part of belonging and feeling like you’re really a part of something. People will stay in a place where they feel like they belong. They’ll be committed to a place where they feel like they belong. And if you feel like you don’t belong… your time in that space is probably limited. Any thoughts on how to create spaces of belonging?

Mike: Celebrate one another: give recognition to people, lift them up, acknowledge their contributions! Education — what did we learn together — is a very important bond. Making space for reflection — connecting deeply held values to specific activities to infuse them with meaning.

Lynn: I want to close with a question that came up when I was talking with Phil Hutchings the other day. I asked him about the meaning of SNCC people signing their correspondence to one another by saying “Yours in the struggle,” or just “in struggle.” Phil said that saying “In Struggle” evoked a deep togetherness. In his words, “We’re acknowledging that we’re in deep relationship, through struggle, and are being shaped together, through struggle.” The word “struggle” often has a negative connotation to it, but for him, in this context it was enormously positive.

I’m wondering if you have further thoughts about the meaning of SNCC folks saying, “In struggle”?

Mike: I think Phil captures it well. It means that we’re in this together.

“Struggle” is an important word to break down, because it differs from other forms of engagement with the world. You can be engaged with the world and building community through, say, participating in a community garden or a co-op or a mutual aid effort. But those aren’t engaged in conflict with the world around them. They’re not engaged in direct confrontation with dominant institutions, and they don’t have to ask the same questions of tactics and strategy. If you’re wanting to bring about larger change, institutional change, then almost by definition you’re engaged in conflict with the world as it is. That can be very emotional, and there can be strong disagreements… but that struggle also binds us together. All we’ve got is one another… so we’d better take care of each other.

As SNCC field secretary in Northern California, Mike Miller played an important role in mobilizing the West Coast to support the Black Freedom Struggle in the South. Mike also organized in the Mississippi Delta, and was co-coordinator of the first farm worker’s boycott. In 1972, he founded the ORGANIZE Training Center in San Francisco, where he has led trainings on community and labor organizing ever since. You can find his books and writings here and here. He can be reached at mikeotcmiller@gmail.com.