by Howard Kohn
Photos courtesy of Larry Rubin
For the fiftieth reunion of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), held in North Carolina a few weeks ago, Larry Rubin produced a 176-page scrapbook. It was at once a personal history and a look back at a group that perhaps more than any other lived out the full dilemma of black-and-white race relations during the civil rights era.
On page 93 of the book is a reproduction of a clipping from the July 30, 1964 edition of the South Reporter, a newspaper in Holly Springs, Mississippi, where Larry, a white college kid from Philadelphia, was then going door-to-door for SNCC to register a population of people who had never been allowed to vote.
The article appeared under the headline, “Local Civil Rights Worker Has
Communist Background,” and included a photograph of Larry. It had the
effect of painting a bull’s-eye on him a few weeks after two other
young white northerners and a local black kid had gone missing in
Mississippi. They were later found buried in an earthen dam, savagely
beaten and shot.
“I had survived through a certain amount of anonymity, but once my
picture was published I was scared shitless,” Larry said on a recent
morning over breakfast at Mark’s Kitchen. “I could get disappeared,
The fact you could risk your life simply by signing up voters seems,
half a century later, surreal. Yet the Mississippi enclave known as
Freedom House, where Larry stayed with other SNCC canvassers, bore the
markings of drive-by shootings. Larry, now a local union activist who
served four terms on the City Council a decade ago, looked up from his
plate of French toast.
“Basically, when I think about it, I lived in fear that whole time,” he said.
Zeal and high spirits carried him through. He continued to knock on doors, albeit by himself.
SNCC’s insistent philosophy in favor of black-and-white collaboration
stood it apart from most civil rights groups in those early years, but,
as Larry explained, “out in the field it was too dangerous, too
provocative, for a white person and a black person to team up. You
would definitely get noticed.”
As it was, he had been noticed. Police had seized his address book and
handed it over to James Eastland, the senior U. S. senator in
Mississippi, who then held it up on the Senate floor and read aloud the
names, attributing Commie sympathies to many of them. Hence the
Larry had grown up in one of of Philadelphia’s bare-bones sections, the
son of a construction worker. In 1962, while studying at Antioch
College, he met Chuck McDew, the SNCC chairman who was on a recruiting
mission. Larry followed him to the South and was assigned at first to
boycotts and sit-ins in the less hostile precincts of Georgia. By 1963,
though, he was stationed in the center of white resistance in
The next year he was part of a campaign aggressively proclaimed Freedom
Summer. On June 30 he took a beating from police, a case that received
publicity farther north and set in motion Eastland’s accusations
against him in Washington.
Soon afterward he was arrested in the town of Oxford for driving his
car without a truck permit. He had been towing a trailer of children’s
books for delivery to summer camps called Freedom Schools. The books
had been donated from home libraries in the North and were in the genre
of the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys, but a second charge was tacked
on–possession of “revolutionary literature.”
Upon his release–“they could only hold you for 48 or 72 hours”–he
overheard the Oxford police alerting their counterparts in Holly
He was jailed again as soon as he arrived there. This game of arrest,
trumped-up charges and release persisted for more than a year and upped
the ante on Larry’s state of well-being. It was well known that the
three murdered civil rights workers had been in police custody
immediately before their disappearance.
In 1965 a federal judge dismissed the litany of charges hanging over
Larry and scores of other civil rights workers. By then Congress was in
the midst of momentous legislation, including the Voting Rights Act,
and SNCC was beginning to undergo a backlash from the Black Power
Movement. Original ideals were set aside. John Lewis would give way to
H. Rap Brown, who changed his name to Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin.
“It’s too simplistic to say that whites were kicked out,” Larry said,
reflecting on the upheaval. “The essential decision was that blacks
should organize in their communities, and we should organize in ours.”
Larry was moved by SNCC to color-coded territory in Kentucky, and a
year later he left the group behind and returned to life in the North.
In 1984, still a self-described “political agitator,” he and his wife
Fran Tall bought a house in Takoma Park and proceeded to adopt a
daughter of African descent. Over the years, while immersed in union
politics (he is the Washington political director of the Mid-Atlantic
Regional Council of Carpenters), he kept in touch with Chuck McDew and
others from his past.
This year’s seminal reunion, though, broke the dam on a number of things that had gone unsaid.
It took place over three days at Shaw University and reunited the young
idealists who had come of age politically with SNCC. “Everyone was
there,” Larry said. “All the luminaries like Harry Belafonte, and all
the main organizers, Chuck and John Lewis and Marion Barry. And H. Rap
Brown’s son, though not H. Rap himself, of course.” (The senior Brown
is serving a life sentence for killing a sheriff’s deputy in Georgia.)
“We stayed up late every night. We had a chance to talk about things
that had been on our minds for 50 years, some of the bad, some of the
tensions, some of the regrets, but all of the good, too. That was the
beauty of it.”
The reunion also brought back a memory of the night a sheriff’s deputy
had taken Larry from Freedom house and driven him on country roads into
a woods of scrub trees. “I was beyond afraid,” Larry remembered. “I
thought my time had come.”
Instead the deputy had encouraged Larry to keep trying to unionize the
Holly Springs Brick and Tile factory. “He told me his brother worked
there and that the white workers would vote for the union along with
Larry said. “Which, in the end, they actually did, even though the company never officially recognized the vote.”