Young activists and organizers with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (pronounced “SNICK”), represented a radical, new unanticipated force whose work continues to have great relevance today. For the first time, young people decisively entered the ranks of civil rights movement leadership. They committed themselves to full-time organizing from the bottom-up, and with this approach empowered older efforts at change and facilitated the emergence of powerful new grassroots voices. Before SNCC, with only a few exceptions, notably the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) during the 1930s and 40s, civil rights leadership always meant grownups. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) founded in 1942, grew during the 1960s because of a significant influx of young leadership into its ranks; but in that decade, there were more SNCC field secretaries working full time in southern communities than any civil rights organization before or since. Speaking on February 16, 1960 at the White Rock Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledged the emerging importance of young people: “What is new in your fight is the fact that it was initiated, fed, and sustained by students.”
Back to topWinds of Change
SNCC, of course, did not come out of nowhere. The Black Freedom Struggle began when, after a long and brutal “middle passage” across the Atlantic, captured Africans were enslaved on American soil. Memory of freedom struggle and the need for continuing struggle has been passed on from generation to generation.
Understanding the impact of World War II is an essential starting point for understanding SNCC. More than a million Black men served in that war, many of them southerners, and more than any single group, they changed the climate of the South. When these soldiers returned home after having fought for democracy overseas, many were unwilling to accept an undemocratic and white supremacist way of life in the United States. Both individually and collectively, they stood their ground in various ways, some taking on community leadership roles, particularly as leaders of local NAACP branches. Veterans in Clarksdale, Mississippi, for example, organized a Progressive Voters League. In Georgia, Black veterans organized the Georgia Veterans League, and in Birmingham, Alabama on February 1, 1946, Black veterans marched on the Jefferson County courthouse demanding the right to register as voters. The number of Black voters in the South increased modestly. At the beginning of WW II, only 2 percent of eligible African Americans were registered voters in the old Confederacy. By 1947, that number had increased to 12 percent, largely due to Black activism.
However, other factors also contributed to a new climate for struggle and change during and after the war. The Supreme Court in 1944 ruled all-white primaries unconstitutional. The migration of millions from the South to northern cities accelerated during the war and fostered a Black political presence in urban Democratic Party strongholds and greater power to challenge and begin loosening the “Dixiecrat” grip on the party. Anti-colonial struggle unfolded in European colonies, and the increasingly visible racism at home handicapped the U.S. in its Cold War competition with the Soviet Union for influence with emerging new nations of Black and brown people. Meanwhile, many prominent southern politicians began urging use of a less coarse language of white supremacy in order to gain support from white non-southerners by appealing to fears and prejudices – anti-communism, unions, states’ rights, potential Black power, “social equality” and “mongrelization.” In a 1948 press statement, Mississippi Senator John Stennis declared, “we must divorce our thinking from (a) the so-called racial question, (b) the war between the states, (c) the South as a geographic region.”
White southern leadership, nonetheless, remained firmly committed to white supremacy and especially to the denial of voting rights for Black people. Although the Ku Klux Klan was now embarrassing in some quarters, Citizens’ Councils organized in the mid-1950s by the southern political and economic establishment pursued what historian Charles M. Payne describes as, “the agenda of the Klan with the demeanor of the Rotary.” New laws restricted Black voting rights. New agencies such as Mississippi’s State Sovereignty Commission intensified surveillance of Black leadership, and especially after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision on schools, Black leaders came under greater assault and many were driven out of business, out of the South, or were assassinated. Although some leaders, like Medgar Evers, hung on and continued the struggle for change, a period of suppressed Black political activism characterized the bottom half of the 1950s.
Back to topBirth of SNCC
Then, on February 1, 1960, Black students in Greensboro, North Carolina launched sit-ins challenging segregation in restaurants and other public accommodations. Similar “direct action” lit by this spark in Greensboro spread like wildfire across the south. SNCC was founded just two and a half months later – on Easter weekend – at an April meeting of sit-in leaders on the campus of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Ella Baker was the gathering’s organizer. She had immediately recognized the potential of this new student activism and persuaded Martin Luther King Jr. to provide $800 to bring them together at her alma mater. The sit-in movement was “bigger than a hamburger,” she told the students addressing them at the Shaw conference. And in an article published a month later, she wrote of the young activists, “[They] are seeking to rid America of the scourge of racial segregation and discrimination – not only at lunch counters, but in every aspect of life.”
Her network across the South was extensive; in the 1940s, she had been the NAACP Director of Branches. After the 1955-1956 Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott, she had been instrumental in organizing Martin Luther King Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and was its executive director when the sit-ins erupted. “Strong people don’t need strong leaders,” she stressed to SNCC. She provided office space for the new organization in a corner of SCLC’s Atlanta headquarters. Jane Stembridge, a white Baptist preacher’s daughter who had grown up in Georgia, left her graduate studies at Union Theological Seminary and became SNCC’s first staff person.
Within the year, a few other students left their college campuses to commit to full-time movement work. Although SNCC was still primarily engaged in protests aimed at desegregating lunch counters and restaurants, Ella Baker maintained a conversation about grassroots organizing, especially with Robert “Bob “Moses, a Harlem, New York native who in the summer of 1960 had come to Atlanta as an SCLC volunteer. She and Jane Stembridge sent Moses on a journey through the Deep South to recruit students to participate in a SNCC conference being planned for October 1960, in Atlanta. Ella Baker provided Moses and Stembridge with a list of her contacts, and Jane Stembridge wrote letters of introduction to them.
One of the southern leaders she sent Moses to was Amzie Moore, president of the Cleveland, Mississippi NAACP branch and vice president of Mississippi’s state NAACP. Moore, a tough World War II veteran, had worked with Medgar Evers and other Black activists to form the Regional Conference of Negro Leadership (RCNL). In 1951, the RCNL held a conference that drew over 10,000 Black residents to a conference in all-Black Mound Bayou, Mississippi that focused on voter registration and police brutality. Though he admired the sit-ins, Moore did not want them in Cleveland. He wanted a voter registration campaign and introduced Moses to that idea. “Amzie,” remembers Moses, “was the only one I met on that trip giving the student sit-in movement careful attention, aware of all that student energy and trying to figure out how to use it.” Moses promised Moore that he would return to Mississippi the following year and work with him.
Back to topWhere Do We Go From Here?
Amzie Moore attended SNCC’s October 1960 meeting and put voter registration on the table. The response was lukewarm. SNCC’s priority remained direct action. “Jail Without Bail,” and how to spread the sit-in movement dominated discussion. “Only mass action is strong enough to force all of America to assume responsibility and . . . nonviolent direct action alone is strong enough to enable all of America to understand the responsibilities she must assume,” the invitation to the October conference had stated.
After his election the following month, President John Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, soon made it clear that they were hostile to direct action, and began pressing the student activists of SNCC and CORE to abandon such protests and turn to voter registration. The two brothers thought that the white southern response to such an effort would be less violent and thus less dramatic and embarrassing to the United States than demonstrations. SNCC was suspicious of their overtures. The Kennedy administration seemed indifferent to enforcing existing civil rights law and far too willing to compromise with southern bigots. Many in SNCC thought that the Kennedys were trying to co-opt them and that organizing for voter registration was selling out. They wondered what such an effort meant for the radical, systemic change in the country that they were increasingly coming to believe was necessary. Others, however, saw voter registration as an important step toward the acquisition of real power for meaningful change.
Ella Baker stepped into this debate and helped the young SNCC organizers to reach a consensus decision that prevented a split within the group. SNCC would establish both a direct action wing and a voter registration wing. She knew that the distinction was largely meaningless. In the Deep South, voter registration was direct action. As SNCC field secretary Reggie Robinson later put it: “If you went into Mississippi and talked about voter registration they’re going to hit you on the side of the head and that’s as direct as you can get.”
This debate begins the process whereby SNCC, which began as a protest organization conducting and coordinating sit-ins and Freedom Rides, slowly evolved into an organization of organizers – “field secretaries” – embedding themselves in rural communities across the Black Belt where they gave special emphasis to voter registration.
The influence of the Black vote particularly applied to the Black Belt, where Black people made up 60-80% of the population. As Amzie Moore told Bob Moses in their early meetings, if Black people in the Black Belt were allowed to vote, they could elect officials at every level who could represent their concerns.
The convergence of young SNCC organizers with politically-experienced adults like Ella Baker, and especially with veterans like Amzie Moore and other strong local leaders the age of their parents and grandparents, was crucial to the foundation on which SNCC stood and began developing its work. These adults gave access to networks they had built and been part of for years: not just NAACP branches, but also social organizations like the Prince Hall Masons, Elks, and church groups. They taught SNCC organizers how to move and stay alive in the dangerous environs of the rural Black Belt South.
Much of the work was simply demonstrating that violence could not drive them away. Indeed, SNCC’s young organizers brought something rare into the local communities they entered. “[They] hadn’t been conditioned by people who blew their mind about . . . you can’t do this, you can’t do that,” recalled Amzie Moore who was 49-years-old when he first encountered Bob Moses and SNCC. “They didn’t think they were under slavery . . . You’d go to the courthouse with ‘em – an 18-year or 20-year-old youngster, got on a pair of tight-legged blue jeans and a blue shirt – that was something boy, and he’s walking out there in front, and putting him in jail wasn’t nothing . . . This was an outstanding example of determined leadership in young people. I had never seen it before.”
Back to topInto the Field – First Steps
SNCC’s first voter registration effort began in McComb, Mississippi in the late summer of 1961. Amzie Moore who lived in the Mississippi cotton plantation country known as the Delta was not quite ready for Bob Moses when he returned to the state, so he sent him to McComb NAACP leader Curtis Conway “C.C.” Bryant. McComb is located in Southwest Mississippi then the most Klan-ridden region in the state. Nonetheless, supported by Bryant and a small core of local adults, Moses began conducting voter registration workshops. Few people of voting age were willing to make the attempt at registration, given reprisals ranging from murder and violent assault to retaliatory job loss. However, what he was doing had two unforeseen effects: local young people, excited first by just the fact of Moses’s presence in town and soon by other incoming SNCC workers, felt that “Freedom Riders” had come to their town and wanted to be part of the Movement that they had only heard about. Some began working with Moses, canvassing the Black community for those willing to put their lives on the line to try to register to vote. Other young people began organizing their own student protest movement.
The other effect of the McComb project was to bring SNCC’s work to the attention of Black leaders in the surrounding counties. Soon, residents “out in the rural” came to McComb and asked SNCC to begin projects in their counties, which were, if anything, even more dangerous than McComb. In Amite County, Moses began holding a “voter registration school” at a church on the farm of Eldridge Willie “E.W.” Steptoe, who in 1952 had organized an NAACP branch in the county. SNCC soon encountered violence at a level it never had before. A key supporter in Amite County, NAACP leader Herbert Lee, was gunned down and killed in broad daylight by E.H. Hurst, a white state legislator. SNCC workers were attacked and beaten at county courthouses. As Moses would put it years later, SNCC, “had, to put it mildly, got our feet wet.”
Meanwhile, Charles Sherrod, who was the first of the student sit-in leaders to leave school to work as a SNCC organizer (Moses already had a Masters degree when he went South), began a second project in Southwest Georgia in the fall of 1961. He based the project in the regional capital of Albany. Against the backdrop of mass protest initiated by students at Albany State College (now University), Sherrod and a core of SNCC field secretaries began organizing for voting rights in the surrounding rural counties. These Georgia counties were no less violent than the Mississippi counties where Moses and SNCC had begun working a few months earlier. Blacks formed a majority of the population in Southwest Georgia, but few were registered voters. And, as in Mississippi, whites greeted SNCC’s work with violence and reprisal. However, as was also true in Mississippi, there were strong adults who seemed to have been looking for them. The small farm of Annie “Mama Dolly” Raines in Lee County, for example, became a base of operations for SNCC’s organizers, and often she would sit up at night with her shotgun keeping a protective eye out for nightriders. These were unexpected people, not on the radar of the civil rights establishment or the nation in general.
What also emerged from this organizing process in both Southwest Georgia and Southwest Mississippi was a core of young people who would fan out into rural communities as SNCC field secretaries. For the most part, they were local young people.
Back to topChallenging White Power
One result of SNCC’s work in Mississippi was revitalization of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). It had been organized in 1961 to assist released Freedom Riders, but on the initiative of NAACP state president Aaron Henry, in the fall of 1962, it took on the mission of coordinating voter registration activities in Mississippi. Henry became president; Bob Moses COFO program director; and David Dennis of CORE, which had begun organizing in central Mississippi, assistant program director. SNCC and CORE field secretaries became COFO staff.
In both Southwest Georgia and Mississippi, SNCC organizers were now successfully digging into an increasing number of communities. While the number of those attempting voter registration remained small, new leaders, many of them women – like Fannie Lou Hamer of Sunflower County, Mississippi and Carolyn Daniels of Terrell County, Georgia – also emerged. So, too, did violence and other reprisals. Still, the federal government provided little help. In April 1963, for example, in Greenwood, Mississippi, where COFO was making its largest effort, the government withdrew its request for an injunction ordering county authorities to stop interfering with Black voter registration attempts.
More than any single thing, reprisals on every level kept Black people from trying to register to vote. To go to county courthouses and attempt to register was to enter the heartland of hostile white power. Whites argued that the low numbers proved that Blacks were not interested in voting. To refute this, COFO workers launched a “freedom registration” in Mississippi’s Black communities. Some 80,000 Black people registered. A “Freedom Vote” followed that fall, offering as candidates, Aaron Henry as Governor and Tougaloo College Chaplain Edwin King, a white native of Natchez, Mississippi, as Lt. Governor.
In April 1964, COFO workers organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and decided to challenge the legitimacy of the all-white “regular” state party. Key to getting the party and the challenge off the ground was the presence during the summer of 1964 of nearly a thousand out-of-state mostly student volunteers. What has become known as the 1964 Freedom Summer was violent and bloody. Eighty of the volunteers were attacked and beaten; 37 churches bombed or burned; another 30 Black homes and businesses bombed or burned; three COFO workers, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney of CORE and Andrew Goodman, a summer volunteer working with them, were killed. During the search for their bodies, the unidentified bodies of five Black men were pulled from Mississippi rivers. Scores of the volunteers and COFO organizers were arrested and beaten. The state blamed the Movement, claiming the voter registration activities had caused the violent white reactions.
In August, an MFDP delegation went to the Democratic Party national convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to challenge the legitimacy and seating of the all-white Mississippi delegation there. Although there was sympathy for the plight of Black Mississippians, they were not seated. President Lyndon Johnson did not want to challenge the Dixiecrat wing of the party, and threatened those in the party who did. Dixiecrat power triumphed.
Back to topThe Black Panther
SNCC was understandably embittered by the rejection of the MFDP in Atlantic City. But it was not paralyzed. As was traditional in the organization, new ideas bubbled from the bottom and were pursued. The MFDP set aside its disappointment and campaigned for Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Party in the November election. After the November elections, they also mounted a challenge to Mississippi’s congressional delegation. That too, they lost. Others in SNCC began discussing the need for an independent Black political party that would aggressively pursue the interests of Black people. To attempt this in Mississippi would mean fighting the MFDP, which was still led by local community leaders, and SNCC was not willing to do this. “You can’t say that people have a right to make the decisions affecting their lives and then turn around and fight them because they made a decision you disagree with. The MFDP belongs to the Mississippians, not SNCC,” reflected one SNCC organizer.
So, in March 1965, another SNCC group used the Selma-to-Montgomery March to locate interested Black residents and begin organizing in Lowndes County, Alabama. SNCC workers had been organizing in nearby Selma since February 1963 but had not expanded into Lowndes County, a county that was 80 percent Black, but with no Black registered voters. A handful had successfully completed the application about two weeks prior to SNCC’s arrival, but they were still waiting to hear if they had been registered.
This group, led by Stokely Carmichael, was determined to organize an independent Black political party. They found a willing partner in John Hulett, who, with a small group of other Black Lowndes County residents, had already organized the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights. Together with SNCC, they now organized the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), with Mr. Hulett as its chair. The party’s symbol was a pouncing black panther. Within a year after passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a majority of the voters in Lowndes County were Black. John Hulett, who had been part of the group attempting to register to vote two weeks before SNCC arrived, was elected the county sheriff in 1970.
Back to topLegacy
First, by putting their lives continuously at risk through committed grassroots organizing, this relatively small group of young people broke the back of a racist and restrictive exclusionary order that was tolerated at the highest levels of government.
Second, the right to vote was gained not because Lyndon Johnson and the U.S. Congress woke up one morning and decided it was the right thing to do, but because Black people, denied the right to vote, struggled to gain it … and they won.
Indeed, the MFDP and that party’s 1964 challenge not only led to a two-party system in Mississippi and the South, but also forced changes in political practices through the 1972 “McGovern Rules,” that have permanently expanded the participation of women and minorities within the Democratic Party. As a result, Dixiecrats fled to the Republican Party. This realignment, plus the dramatic increase in the number of Black registered voters, is what made possible the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency. Even more importantly, though less visible, is the increase of local Black elected officials.at every level. Mississippi, for example, has more Black elected officials than any state in the nation. The importance of this increase is evident in the recent statement of U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves, who in 2010 became only the second Black federal judge appointed in Mississippi. In sentencing three young white men who killed a Black man in Jackson, Mississippi, by running over him with their truck, then yelling “white power” as they drove off, Judge Reeves read a long statement from the bench. He noted the murder was part of the group’s reign of terror within Jackson’s Black community over a period of months. In his widely-publicized remarks, he noted this “irony”:
Each defendant was escorted into court by agents of an African-American United States Marshal, having been prosecuted by a team of lawyers which includes an African-American ,… from an office headed by an African-American U.S. attorney – all under the direction of an African-American attorney general, for sentencing before a judge who is African-American, whose final act will be to turn over the care and custody of these individuals to the BOP [Federal Bureau of Prisons] — an agency headed by an African-American.
Also, all-white juries are now largely a thing of the past.
Third, nationwide, student struggle was inspired by the Southern Movement, and these movements expanded and accelerated in the decade of the 1960s. Organizations such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Northern Student Movement (NSM) are examples of this.
Fourth, other movements gained strength from the pool of ideas found in SNCC; Chicano farm workers, who were facing sheriffs and going to jail in the late 1950s, invited SNCC workers to help with their efforts in the late 1960s. Discussion of sexism and women’s rights within SNCC – as well as SNCC’s real life examples of empowered, respected women who led local movements and held key positions in the organization — encouraged and reinforced a burgeoning feminist movement.
Lastly, the work of SNCC in particular taught an abiding lesson: that while protest is often necessary, it is not sufficient. The long, hard job of organizing at the grassroots is what empowers communities.