ABSTRACT

After the series of violent episodes that comprised the Selma Movement, an embattled James Forman addressed a gathering of civil rights supporters. SNCC’s news periodical, COFO News, did not focus on what Forman said, but how he looked: “His outfi t that day was super Snick: blue overalls which looked brand new. He had a stubble of growth on his chin and he needed a haircut. The uniform you wear should depend on the battle you’re fi ghting”.1 In 1965, at the high point of the civil rights movement, Forman’s body is a crossroads of symbols. SNCC members wore the blue overalls because that was what the farmers wore. The black farmers embodied the legacy of white domination. Slaves worked the fi elds. Although the system of slavery was replaced by sharecropping and Jim Crow, blacks remained in the fields. For SNCC, the black farmer was the ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ form of blackness that the entire civil rights movement should represent. However, Forman’s unshaven face and unkempt hair symbolized a change within SNCC. Indeed, in May of 1966, a year after the Selma Movement, a young black nationalist activist named Ulysess Everett wrote a letter from his Boston home to Gwen Robinson of the Atlanta Project. Besides contrasting his experience in Boston to the South, noting that he still had to ask “Charlie”, or whites, for a job instead of doing things for himself, he lamented over the shaving of his mustache: “Would you believe that soon I will be able to grow my beard, long hair, and also grow my mustache back. Since January, my upper lip has been shaved. Maybe I should not have mentioned this to you”.2 Everett’s lamenting of his physical features and the denial of a mustache, however trivial to contemporary readers, weighed heavily on the young activist because it represented how little the national gains were impacting everyday black life.