A field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Charlie Cobb was one of the committed student activists from outside Mississippi who came to the state to challenge the system of white supremacy. Charles E. Cobb Jr. was born in 1943, the son of a minister from Springfield, Massachusetts. As a high school student in Washington, D.C., Cobb began participating in demonstrations, and he continued his activities while a student at Howard University. He went to Mississippi in 1962 just as SNCC activists such as Lawrence Guyot and Robert Moses were planning new projects in the Delta.
In 1963, the twenty-year-old Cobb originated the idea of freedom schools as part of the 1964 Summer Project. He imagined that the schools could overcome the poor training African American students received in underfunded Mississippi public schools, teach new lessons about African American history and culture, and provide lessons in citizenship, including ways of organizing and protesting. He hoped the schools would be a way “to challenge the myths of our society, to perceive more clearly its realities, and to find alternatives, and ultimately, new directions for action.” He stressed the need to make education relevant, with considerable emphasis on case studies in local communities. The schools turned out to be more popular than Cobb had imagined. Under the leadership of freedom school director Staughton Lynd, roughly forty-one schools taught approximately two thousand students in the summer of 1964.
Like many activists, Cobb experienced intimidation: he was arrested about a dozen times, and he and other activists faced gunfire in the Mississippi Delta. In 1965 Cobb worked as campaign manager when Julian Bond ran for the US House of Representatives from Georgia, and the following year Cobb helped draft SNCC’s statement condemning the US war in Vietnam. He later worked as a writer, with interests in the civil rights movement and African American migration to Chicago, and has taught in Brown University’s Department of Africana Studies. He has also researched the roots of his great-grandparents, one of whom helped found New Africa, a community near Clarksdale. Cobb and Moses have been involved with the Algebra Project, which teaches math skills to Mississippi children. The two men coauthored Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights (2001). Cobb has also published On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail (2007) and This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (2014).
- Charles Bolton, The Hardest Deal of All: The Battle over School Integration in Mississippi, 1870–1980 (2005)
- Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1995)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (1988); “Oral History with Mr. Charles Cobb” (1996), Mississippi Oral History Program, University of Southern Mississippi, http://digilib.usm.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/coh/id/15294
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (2007)