Reflections on Tony Doerr’s undergraduate research

Daniel Levine, Bowdoin’s Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of History and Political Science Emeritus, was one of Anthony Doerr’s professors. Here, he recalls Doerr’s honors project on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. For Professor Allen Wells’ Q&A with Doerr, go here.

“Tony Doerr’s senior honors paper illustrates how the techniques and research methods he employed in his honors project have come in handy in his future career as a writer of fiction. The thesis is a study of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from its founding in 1960. As its name indicates, SNCC’s founding statement of purpose emphasized non-violence and love. While most of its members were black, it had some dedicated white members and initially it was explicitly color blind. SNCC’s method was not to work inward from the border states to the center of racism in, say Mississippi and Alabama, but to attack racism at its most dangerous core. For example, SNCC was the chief organizer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in the summer of 1964, open to all, but in fact, entirely composed of black members. The purpose of the MFDP was to challenge the all-white segregated Mississippi delegation to the Democratic national convention that summer. Lyndon Johnson, the nominee-to-be would not agree to that, but offered the MFDP two seats “at large,” that is, not representing Mississippi. After many hours of internal debate the MFDP rejected that compromise. After that, SNCC slid away from its non-violent, inter-racial principles, and came to adopt the slogan of Black Power and to expel its white members.

Tony’s argument is that the MFDP experience was not the turning point that other historians have viewed it as, but that the seeds of its “radicalism” had surfaced much earlier, and that change was already in the works. He read all the memoirs and articles that were available at that time by SNCC’s chief actors, such as Stokely Carmichael, John Lewis and James Forman, and also used the SNCC papers, which the Bowdoin library has on microfilm. There is modest reference to secondary sources, that is, other people’s interpretations, and that is mostly to disagree with them. Some may not be entirely persuaded of Tony’s argument, but he carefully marshalled his evidence and defended his argument well. Moreover, the paper is well written and a pleasure to read, a hallmark of all of Tony’s future writing.”