Sewanee’s SNCC history

Henry Clayton
Contributing writer

When Claire Smith (C’22), our editor-in-chief, approached me with an idea for a profile on one Norman Spencer (C’64), a member of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) back in the 1960s here on campus, I wasn’t sure what to expect 1964 was over 50 years ago, but it seems like that decade still has an outsize influence in American culture. Just look how many people walk around this campus sporting a Grateful Dead Tee and jeans. Given the growing interest in the University’s historical entanglements with slavery and institutional racism, it made sense to return to the civil rights period to hear a firsthand account from a former student at the University who challenged the views of his day.

I was interested in Norman, mostly just expecting to hear a story about Sewanee’s racist past, especially after the publishing of the Roberson Project summary that details the role that slavery and segregation played throughout the University’shistory. Plus, a firsthand account from someone who ended up on the “right side” of history would be good to hear. What I found though was a Sewanee that I did not recognize, but one that still seems to have a hold on Norman’s memory of what this place was, and his perception of what it still is. In an email to me, Norman wrote, “To be honest, I gave up on Sewanee and decided to completely walk away.. .” After coming to understand his experiences, I can see how easy it can be to give up hope on the place we call home. 

Norman grew up outside of Washington, D.C., with his father working as a Foreign Service Officer and State Department Official. He spent his formative early teenage years in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he developed an interest in Afro-Brazilian culture and American jazz and blues. He spent his last three years of high school at the racially segregated Marion Military Institute in Alabama. There, he was subjugated to verbal harassment and once a mock lynching for his views on race formed in Brazil. It becomes easy to understand why Norman would pursue his stance on racism in the United States.

Coming to Sewanee, Spencer quickly attached himself to the most progressive apparatus of campus culture, The Sewanee Jazz Society. He joined E. Gray Smith (C’61), the founder, and the poet Richard Tillinghast (C’ 62), helping to organize an integrated concert by the Modern Jazz Quartet where students from around the South, black and white, attended. This level of commitment to the cause still runs in Norman’s blood. He quickly sniffed out my expectations for this article, writing about my assignment from the Purple, “ My impression is they just want some simple information about racial relations at Sewanee during the Civil Rights Movement era. What I got, in the end, through phone conversations and countless emails, was a lot more.

The driving force behind Spencer, his friends, and the progressive Sewanee undercurrent he was a part of in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in many ways starts with the influential Sewanee Professor Scott Bates that the Purple’s own Amelia Leaphart wrote about earlier this semester.

Bates was born in 1923 in Evanston, Illinois, and grew up in what was a more integrated neighborhood than what might have been seen in the South at the time. After being drafted into World War II, Bates spent nine months at the University of Chicago learning French to serve as an interpreter for the army, later participating in the famous landing operations in Normandy. Bates went on to study French literature at the University of Wisconsin, a center for radical thought, before getting his first, and ultimately last, job working as a Professor of French and Film at Sewanee from 1954 until his retirement in 1993. During his time at Sewanee, his impact stretched beyond the classroom and into the famous Highlander Folk School.

Founded in 1932 by Myles Horton, the school was modeled on the Scandinavian folk schools of the early 19th century that emerged in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Horton got to know these schools well, traveling in Europe. The schools were politically oriented to grassroots organization and labor movement. Horton, as a native of rural Tennessee, wanted to bring these organizing tools to Appalachia, one of the poorest regions in the nation. Bates knew about Highlander before he began teaching at Sewanee, as it was well known within progressive intellectual and social activist circles.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Pete Seeger, Charis Horton, Rosa Parks, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy outside of Highlander Library at Highlander Folk School’s 25th Anniversary, 1957.

By the time Bates arrived in Sewanee, however, the Highlander School had shifted its focus from labor to civil rights. Bates was quick to get involved, attending Highlander workshops as early as 1956. Bates was involved in the project that led to the desegregation of Franklin County public schools and was appointed to Highlander’s board of directors by 1958. 

Prof. Bates’ involvement with Highlander occurred at an important historical moment. Highlander’s influence, built through its progressive workshops, had moved far beyond Appalachia. Rosa Parks attended one of those workshops four months before she defiantly refused to sit in the back of a bus and sparked the Montgomery bus boycott. In 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr., attended a 25th Anniversary conference at Highlander, praising the school for its, “noble purpose and creative work” along with its inspiration of, “some of [the South’s] most responsible leaders in this great period of transition.” The famous song “We Shall Overcome” originated at Highlander. The national impact Highlander and Bates were having in many ways inspired students to join the cause in a more serious capacity.

Spencer and Richard Tillinghast made frequent trips to Highlander along with Bates during Spencer’s freshman year. Unfortunately, following accusations of communist sympathies during the red scare, and government investigations that followed, the state of Tennessee revoked the schools charter, and it closed in 1961. By that time, however, a passion had been instilled in the Sewanee students who had become involved. It was just the beginning for many.

Sewanee’s SNCC chapter, according to Norman, functioned more as an “underground” discussion group than an official chapter with ties to the national office. That said, its members openly wore Civil Rights Movement pins during party weekends and made frequent trips to meet with civil rights leaders, a choice that often resulted in several violent incidents here on campus and in the surrounding area.

SNCC pins worn by civil rights activists in Sewanee. Photo courtesy of Norman Spencer.

One was the infamous head-shaving incident that occurred in 1962. Its cause can be traced to Highlander (in its new location in Knoxville), where the SNCC organizers of the Nashville Sit-ins were making preparations to join the Freedom Rides. Legends John Lewis and Angeline Butler were in attendance. Bates, another Sewanee student named Blanch Webber (C ’61), and Spencer joined them for informal discussions. It was at this meeting that Spencer, Webber, and Butler decided to challenge Southern racial taboos and try interracial dating. They had lunch and a dance at the Sewanee Student Union without incident. Later, however, Blanch took Butler to a basketball game and afterward, was violently attacked in his dormitory room for “dating” a Black woman.His head was forcibly shaved by a small group of Sewanee football players, who were eventually put on probation the following semester.

In 1963, Cap and Gown editor Joe Winkelman (C’ 64), a friend of Tillinghast, found a classmate preparing to burn a cross in front of the dormitory of Calvin Williams, one of Sewanee’s first Black students.  He tried to talk him down without success. The perpetrating student was expelled, and Williams left on his own accord shortly thereafter.

These two racial incidents are obviously reprehensible, but according to Norman’s experience, the situation could be far more dangerous at other Southern universities. He described a Vanderbilt University fraternity party he attended in a hunting lodge on the outskirts of Nashville. There, Spencer danced with an African-American college student, a girlfriend of a band member gigging the party. At the end of the night, members of Vanderbilt’s football team were waiting for him with baseball bats outside. He escaped with the help of the bartender who grew up in a small community in the mountains of Tennessee. Even after all events, these men never gave in.

By the summer of 1964, Bob Bailey (C’65) and Michael Waddell (C’65) were Civil Rights activists in the truest sense. They risked their lives helping to register voter African-American’s to vote during the Mississippi Freedom Summer that saw 3 young men (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner) murdered in the fight against voter intimidation and discrimination. The SNCC chapter came into its own, when Bailey, Waddell, Spencer, and Terry Poe (C’65) returned to Sewanee for the fall semester of 1964.

This group of four were supported by other Sewanee students including John Friedel (C’68) who took the photograph of the Birmingham Church Bombing that Newsweek used for its September 30, 1963 cover. 

Spencer, Poe, Bailey, and Waddell’s time in the Civil Rights Movement came to a close by 1965. They attended the national SNCC meeting at Spelman College that year, where SNCC shifted towards the Black Power movement and members questioned the role of white activists within the organization. John Lewis, Julian Bond, and Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) were in attendance, as was the radical historian Howard Zinn. They were unceremoniously asked to leave. All four remained committed to progressive social causes after SNCC and their time at Sewanee.

Terry Poe went on to work for the Civil Rights organization CORE the following summer (1966) in Louisiana close to where he grew up as a child. As a member of Students for a Democratic Society in college, he later got involved in radical movements in Boston and came back to speak to Sewanee students about US imperialism in 1969. 

Norman was drafted into the Vietnam War, but he joined the anti-war movement when he returned from active duty. He participated in the longest student strike in US history as a graduate student at San Francisco State University, which resulted in the formation of the first African American Studies Department in the US. He was active politically while teaching at the University of Cape Coast, Ghanam where he was arrested for his efforts to release the Ghanaian writer Kofi Awoonor from prison. Later he did a Ph.D. at SUNY, Stony Brook with the radical African-American writer and political activist Amiri Baraka / Le Roi Jones. Today he promotes Chinese alternative (underground) culture through his photography and writing.

Norman would rather talk about anything other than Sewanee these days, it seems. 70s films, politics, and Chinese culture are always on his mind. Norman is well-traveled and likes to talk about it. He dresses often in a black hat and dark clothes. An interview he conducted with the Roberson Project is nearly three hours long. I don’t think one of our conversations over the phone has been less than one.

All of this to say Norman is intensely passionate about his work and has become frustrated with Sewanee for not acknowledging what he did. Norman’s roommate and former class president,  Joseph Winkelman, feels similarly. He wrote, “Let’s not waste our time on Sewanee, because Sewanee is on the skids.” Norman responded, “That is a strong statement for someone who was the president for the class of 1964 and has been a loyal supporter and donor for much of his adult life.”

Norman himself recently decided not to attend a Sewanee Club meeting in NYC, in supposed protest of this inaction. He recently sent an email to Vice-Chancellor Reuben Brigety saying as much, expressing his frustrations with the lack of official recognition for the early civil rights activists at the University.  What sounds like rants, in reality, seem more like a desire to correct the past. Norman was harassed, beaten, expelled once, and threatened for his beliefs by fellow students. Nothing could make up for that, but this article is all I can offer.  Through it all, Norman notes, “I don’t regret my Sewanee experience, because I learned so much from it”

We have a tendency to romanticize the 60s. Anti-war movements, the summer of love, rock and roll. What we forget about is the KKK, the racial atmosphere, sexism, and homophobia.  There was a sense of hope before ‘69 sure, a grounded sense of progress in the modern age but do not let this fool you. Standing against a status quo so ingrained in identity, especially in the South, could quickly become violent and dangerous. It was a choice that can still haunt those who lived through it.

Norman said regretfully, “What you don’t realize is that life at Sewanee could be dangerous.” Norman and those Sewanee students who bravely took a stand, who lived through these events,  show us a path forward. Too often we are focused on our school’s mistakes. A positive example is just as valuable. As the global BLM movement, income inequality, climate change, to name a few, become less political backdrop and more issues that each of us has to confront, running towards the future instead of away seems like an obligation, not an option when listening to what those who came before had to face in their fight for progress.

One comment

  1. Thank you for publishing this article. I have one correction. I am concerned that the University refuses to recognize the Sewanee students who risked their lives during Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964.

    Norman A. Spencer, PhD

Comments are closed.