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The Political Legacy of Civil Rights : FREEDOM SONG--A Personal Story of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement by Mary King (Morrow: $19.95; 450 pp.) : FREE AT LAST--What Really Happened When Civil Rights Came to Southern Politics by Margaret Edds (Adler & Adler: $18.95; 313 pp.)

August 02, 1987| Harold Cruse | Cruse teaches at the University of Michigan and is the author of "The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual" (1967), "Rebellion of Revolution" (1968) and "Plural but Equal--Blacks and Minorities in America's Plural Society" (1987). and

Despite having a corps of talented and committed "leadership" personalities, SNCC "was built on what you might call an existential theory of organization," says the author. These "leaders," such as John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, Julian Bond, Marion Barry, Bob Moses, Jim Forman, Ella Baker and others, collaborated in cultivating the SNCC mystique of disavowing the necessity of leadership authoritarianism. Because of the flexible eclecticism of its approaches, SNCC had to splinter and fall apart from the inside at the same time that the vicious and relentless pressures of the organized Southern racists assaulted the SNCC forces from the outside.

Interestingly enough, the one black leader the author grants high grades for effectiveness was the black woman leader, Ella Baker. Miss Baker, as she is reverentially called by SNCC's rank and file, had the ability to guide SNCC with "Socratic Insistence" to stop at every turn of SNCC's fortunes or misfortunes and ask the question: "Now let me ask this again. What is our purpose here? What are we trying to accomplish?" In the heat of struggle in the ongoing trials and tests of intent, SNCC was forced at every turn to articulate its assumptions. In this way was the functionally existential character of SNCC made clear. Thus, 20 years later, "Freedom Song" tries, but cannot fully answer the book's main questions: "What brought about SNCC's agony? What killed it? Why did it die so quickly? What transformed a bold, self-confident, highly creative and fearless organization into a floundering, back-biting and paranoid group?" One can agree today that in the face of the violent physical and psychological assault inflicted on its members, SNCC died as quickly as it did because it had to die. Certain social movements, like military movements, must suffer heavy casualties in pursuit of objectives. SNCC died, not because its assumptions were illegitimate, but that its sacrifices were not destined to bear fruit for another generation. It takes youth to make determined protests against superannuated and retrograde traditions, but rarely does youth alone make lasting revolutions by idealism without instruments of force--at least not in the United States.

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