How SNCC lit the spark

October 26, 2012

Khury Petersen-Smith tells the story of an organization whose history is bound up with the struggles of the civil rights movement.

THE STUDENT Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)--one of the central organizations in the struggles of the civil rights movement--was formed in April 1960.

It emerged as part of a new wave of civil rights activism that came out of the impasse experienced by Southern Blacks. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled Jim Crow segregation unconstitutional in law. But it remained a reality in fact. Through its leading role in direct action protests, civil disobedience, voter registration drives and other activism, SNCC became a vehicle out of the impasse.

The immediate catalyst for the organization's founding came on February 1, 1960, when four students at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro decided to sit in at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter and demand service. They changed the course of history.

Six years earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled segregation unconstitutional in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. Up to that point, apartheid-style Jim Crow laws imposed segregation on every aspect of public life in the South--movie theaters, swimming pools, parks, restaurants, buses, schools, government services and everything else.

The History of Black America

The Brown ruling established the idea that segregated facilities couldn't be equal, and therefore segregation was unconstitutional. But it would require struggle achieve desegregation--something that became clear in 1957 when Black students attempted to attend Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas in 1957. They faced an opposition so violent that the Republican Eisenhower administration was forced to send soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division to protect the students.

By 1960, little actual desegregation had been accomplished, and a new generation of Black Southerners was growing impatient.

The response to the February sit-in showed the sentiment for action. Within a period of weeks and months, tens of thousands of students took part in similar sit-ins across the South. By April, student activists from a number of cities felt the need to come together to discuss the new movement and how it could be broadened.

THE FOUNDING meeting of SNCC took place in Raleigh, N.C., and was facilitated by Ella Baker, the executive director in Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Baker would be a crucial adviser to SNCC, but she also insisted that the group should make its own decisions and not subordinate itself to established organizations like SCLC.

A year later, SNCC became involved in the Freedom Rides, which involved Black and white activists sitting together on segregated interstate buses as they traveled from city to city in the South.

The first Freedom Ride was supposed to travel from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans as a way of implementing, by direct action, the 1960 Supreme Court ruling in Boynton v. Virginia that legally desegregated interstate transit.

The Freedom Rides were launched by another civil rights organization, the Northern-based Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), but CORE activists were attacked so brutally across the South that the original Freedom Riders decided to stop their trip in Birmingham, Ala.

SNCC activists stepped in to take over. Diane Nash, a SNCC leader in Nashville, argued that the movement would be set back if the racists were able to stop the Freedom Riders, so she organized a contingent of students to go to Birmingham to resume the journey.

They traveled by bus, and when they arrived, they were immediately arrested by the Birmingham Police under the direction of notorious chief Bull Connor. In jail, the students continued their protest, singing freedom songs. Connor eventually drove the students to the Tennessee state line and abandoned them in the middle of nowhere. "I just couldn't stand their singing," he said.

The SNCC members from Tennessee, along with others, made their way back to Birmingham and finally started the trip again--the Greyhound bus was escorted toward its next stop by the Alabama State Highway Patrol. But the police abandoned the bus when it reached Montgomery, and another mob attacked the Freedom Riders, along with reporters and photographers.

The savage violence was broadcast around the world, shining an international spotlight on Jim Crow. Still more Freedom Riders traveled to Montgomery to finish the trip. Eventually, the activists prevailed. All told, 60 different Freedom Rides criss-crossed the South, involving hundreds of arrests.

As SNCC chapters mushroomed across the South, the organization took on new projects. For example, joining a years-long effort by African Americans in Mississippi to register to vote, SNCC activists got involved in that cause.

SNCC ultimately spearheaded what the organization named Mississippi Freedom Summer, a campaign in 1964 to register Blacks to vote and mobilize a challenge to the racist Mississippi Democratic Party. Students from the North were recruited to work with local activists on voter registration. The Freedom Summer volunteers endured deadly violence.

Activists also organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), and traveled to the Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, N.J. Delegates of the MFDP demanded to be seated in place of the segregated Mississippi party. The challenge before the convention's Credentials Committee was televised nationally.

The testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper turned activist, galvanized the civil rights cause: "[I]f the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives are threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings--in America?"

In all its various campaigns throughout the South, SNCC became a lightning rod for young activists--Black and white, from the North and South--who thirsted for equality.

WE NEED to recall the history of organizations like SNCC in the face of people like Robert McDonnell and Haley Barbour--people who would rather forget the civil rights insurgency altogether. But we also have to reclaim the history of the movement from those who claim to honor it, but who actually sanitize it.

The standard story of the civil rights movement that we get in school--if we're lucky enough to hear about the movement in school at all--goes like this: the South was segregated, Dr. King gave his "I Have a Dream Speech," the nation was moved, and segregation ended.

The truth was very different. The late historian Howard Zinn captured the effect of events like the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides in his brilliant book SNCC: The New Abolitionists, written from the front lines of the struggle. "What had been an orderly, inch-by-inch advance via legal process," Zinn wrote, "now became a revolution, in which unarmed regiments marched from one objective to another with bewildering speed."

By organizing at the grassroots, SNCC was able to unleash the determination of much larger numbers of people than ever before to fight for their rights, and this catapulted the struggle for Black freedom into the national spotlight in an entirely different way.

The response from the Southern power structure, presided over by the Democratic Party, was savage violence. Being a SNCC activist involved a tremendous personal risk, but their commitment to the cause was greater.

Marion Barry, who was the first chairman of SNCC, described his conviction in the face of his first arrest at a sit-in: "I took a chance on losing a scholarship or not receiving my master's degree. But to me, if I had received my scholarship and master's degree, and still was not a free man, I was not a man at all."

When the sit-in movement reached Nashville, prestigious Vanderbilt University expelled James Lawson, a divinity student who led civil disobedience workshops attended by the young activists. When a dean at Vanderbilt resigned in protest of Lawson's expulsion, one newspaper editorialized, "good riddance...Vanderbilt University will be better off."

A prominent Black attorney in Nashville named Z. Alexander Looby took up the activists' cases in court--his home was bombed at 5 a.m. one morning. Half of the house was destroyed, and a school across the street was damaged as well.

Meanwhile, from northern Democrats, like the Kennedy administration, the SNCC activists discovered they would be faced with indifference at best. John Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, pressured the activists to confine themselves to moderate activity--sometimes using leaders of mainstream civil rights organizations to send the message.

But SNCC only grew in energy and dynamism, drawing strength from its ability to mobilize masses of people to confront Jim Crow. As Zinn wrote, "While they have no famous leaders, very little money, no inner access to the seats of national authority, they are clearly on the front line of the Negro assault on the moral comfort of white America."

The scale of the resistance was so great that the tide turned--slowly but surely--against Jim Crow. Five years after the lunch counter sit-ins swept across the South, the Johnson administration and a Democratic Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

SNCC WAS at the heart of the political radicalization of a generation of Black activists.

While some radicals were present in the organization from its founding, the dominant sentiment among the student activists at first was that conviction in the face of injustice would be enough to defeat Jim Crow.

Jane Stembridge, one of many courageous, white activists who dedicated themselves to SNCC, described the movement in 1960 as one that would win through interpersonal experience. "The student movement is not a cause," she said. "It is a collision between this one person and that one person...Love alone is radical. Political statements are not, programs are not, even going to jail is not."

But the experience of endless arrests, beatings, bombings and even murders of SNCC and other activists changed those involved. Organizers became convinced that love alone was not enough to challenge Jim Crow--political vision mattered, too.

Like others in the civil rights movement, such as Martin Luther King, SNCC activists hoped that the liberal federal government would come to their aid in the face of racist brutality. But they were betrayed again and again.

At the height of the violence against the Freedom Rides, for example, the Kennedy administration struck deals with the governors of Alabama and Mississippi: The governors would quell the ugly mob attacks, and in exchange, the administration wouldn't interfere with the arrest of activists by local police--even though this violated the Boynton ruling.

It was through reflection on experiences like these that activists drew new conclusions. Responding to those who accused SNCC activists of being manipulated into falling for radical ideas, Zinn wrote in 1964, "SNCC's new radicalism comes from nowhere in the world but cotton fields, prison cells and the minds of young people reflecting on what they see and feel."

Thus, the crimes committed against SNCC, like the murder of civil rights workers during Freedom Summer, led many activists to question the principle of nonviolent civil disobedience in all circumstances. Many SNCC members concluded that armed self-defense in the face of racist violence was a right for Black people--an idea that was gaining ground in the South and elsewhere throughout the country.

The radicalization in SNCC gave a name to the next phase of the struggle for Black freedom--during a march in 1966 after the shooting of James Meredith in Mississippi, SNCC's Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) began using the term "Black Power" in his speeches. It immediately got a strong response.

"Black Power" spoke to the desire for self-determination. According to Carmichael, "It is a call for Black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations."

In general, SNCC activists were drawing radical conclusions about the fundamental inequalities that they saw in the U.S. As Charles Sherrod said in 1964:

[O]ur country is sitting on a powder keg...It makes me mad that some of us have to sweep and wait tables and work all night and go to school, and they got thousands, yea, millions, yea, billions of dollars...We may have to demonstrate for jobs. You know, we may have to bring some bones up from the South and say: Johnson, feel my bones. You know--I'm hungry, Johnson, feel my bones!

Today, America is still sitting on a powder keg. We face inequality that deserves a struggle as unrelenting as the one that SNCC focused on Jim Crow segregation. As a new generation grapples with injustice, we can look to the history of SNCC for lessons and inspiration.

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