Charlie Cobb is truly an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. He is one of the organizers of the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi. His is not a household name, but it should be. I met Charlie several years ago after he and his wife, Ann, moved to Jacksonville. He is a friend, and I proudly claim him now as an honorary native of Jacksonville. I knew about Charlie prior to meeting him. Certainly, his incomparable background and exceptional reputation preceded him. He is Truly a Civil Rights legend.
Charles E. Cobb Jr. is a former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and has taught as a visiting professor at Brown University. An award-winning journalist, Charlie is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame and is a 2018 Distinguished Carnegie Fellowship Award Winner. He will teach a class on civil rights this year as a visiting professor at North Carolina Central.
In 1962, Charlie Cobb became a field secretary in the Mississippi Delta region for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), for whom he wrote the original proposal for the Mississippi Freedom School, an education initiative that was launched during Freedom Summer in 1964. As a field secretary for SNCC, Charlie was a grassroots organizer; he lived in the homes of the people he worked with, as did other SNCC field secretaries, staying with sharecroppers, janitors, cooks, maids, factory workers, and day laborers and learning their perspective firsthand.
According to Charlie, this concept had a lot to do with the influence of Ella Baker, one of the great Icons of the Civil Rights Struggle. As Charlie put it, Ms. Baker taught us to organize from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. I sat down with Charlie to talk about his experiences and asked his motivation to join the Civil Rights Movement. Charlie began:
“Mississippi was chosen as the site of the Freedom Summer project due to its historically low levels of African-American voter registration; in 1962 less than 7 percent of the state's eligible black voters were registered to vote. First, you can struggle against great odds, as evidenced by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party forcing the creation of a two-party system in the South. Sit-ins, and the student sit-in Movement, not only challenged the infrastructure of racism but empowered the free speech movement at many traditional universities and is where the roots of Black Studies departments can be found. The Civil Rights Movement changed people, their lives and the eventual paths they would take. The civil rights experience literally changed lives.” He also felt that the Civil Rights Movement saw the emerging leadership of young Black high school students and Black college students, who took the initiative fighting segregation and racism through direct-action demonstrations. Black students established going to jail for a principle, which at the time was quite new and revolutionary. Finally, he commented that Black World War II veterans were a very important part of the movement—Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer, Aaron Henry, to name a few. Fighting for freedom in foreign countries and then coming home to bigotry and blatant Jim Crow laws did not resonate at all.
We talked about Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, and, although there are many who know of her leading the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, few know about a savage beating she took the year before. Charlie gave me this account: “On June 3, 1963, after returning from a civil rights workshop in South Caroline, Fannie Lou Hamer and other civil rights workers arrived in Winona, Mississippi, by bus. They were ordered off the bus and taken to the Montgomery County jail. Later that night while in jail, three white men came into her cell with two Black prisoners. They made her lay down and ordered the Black prisoners to beat her with a blackjack. They savagely beat her until they got tired. When she was released three days later, it took her more than a month to recover, but we never felt she ever fully recovered. Though she died fourteen years later apparently of breast cancer, she continually had kidney complications from the beating she sustained that night in 1963, which I am convinced contributed to her death.”
In June 2014, Charlie spent several weeks in Mississippi with SNCC colleagues as they commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom Summer. Charlie Cobb was the the first activist-in-residence of the SNCC Legacy Project, a partnership between Duke University and SNCC. The SNCC Legacy Project is designed to document SNCC’s major role in the struggle for freedom and to allow young activists to draw on the hard-won experiences and wisdom of those who marched before them.
Charlie is a part of the heritage of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Freedom Movement, and the Civil Rights Movement. Like many veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, he understands that America’s founding fathers did not have the equality of Black citizens in mind when they originated the country’s founding documents. Many will argue that America still does not. Yet you fight anyway. Charlie understands the unpaid debt. Experiences from the Civil Rights Movement eternally affect your life. I did not have to ask Charlie; I knew from my experiences. Charlie Cobb Jr. has spent a lifetime simply working to get America to pay its debts. They remain overdue. Charlie Cobb calls Jacksonville Home. I am glad.