Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)

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Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)


After an initial protest on February 1, 1960, that attempted to integrate a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, black college students spearheaded a sit-in movement that spread rapidly through the South. Reacting to this upsurge of student activism, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) official Ella Baker invited student protest leaders to an Easter weekend conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. The student leaders, believing that existing civil rights organizations were overly cautious, agreed to form a new group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, or "Snick"), and elected Fisk University graduate student Marion Barry as chair.

Originally a means of communication among autonomous local student protest groups, SNCC gradually assumed a more assertive role in the southern civil rights movement. In February 1961, four students affiliated with SNCC traveled to Rock Hill, South Carolina, to join a group of protesters arrested at a segregated lunch counter. The arrested students utilized a "jail-no-bail" strategy that was designed to demonstrate their militancy and independence from the NAACP and its legal-assistance staff. In May 1961, after a group of Freedom Riders organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) encountered violence in Alabama, SNCC activists insisted on continuing the protests against segregated transportation facilities. Dozens of black students rode buses from Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi, where they were arrested, quickly convicted of violating segregation norms, and then incarcerated in Parchman Prison.

From the fall of 1961 through the spring of 1966, SNCC shifted its focus from nonviolent desegregation protests to long-term voting rights campaigns in the Deep South. Full-time SNCC field secretariesmany of them veterans of the Mississippi Freedom Ridesgradually displaced representatives of local protest groups as the organization's principal policymakers. Initially dominated by advocates of Christian Gandhiism, SNCC increasingly became composed of secular community organizers devoted to the development of indigenous black leaders and local institutions.

SNCC's ability to work closely with local leaders was evident in the Albany, Georgia, protests of 1961 and 1962. Under the leadership of former Virginia Union University student Charles Sherrod, SNCC workers in Albany mobilized black student protesters and spearheaded marches that resulted in hundreds of arrests. Neither the group's brash militancy nor the more cautious leadership of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. overcame segregationist opposition in Albany, however, and SNCC's voter-registration campaign in nearby rural areas also achieved few gains in the face of violent white resistance. By 1963, SNCC staff members in southwest Georgia and elsewhere had become dissatisfied with the failure of the federal government to protect them. John Lewis, who replaced Barry as chair, expressed this growing disillusionment in a controversial speech given at the massive 1963 March on Washington.

By the time of the march, SNCC's most substantial projects were in Mississippi, where its community-organizing efforts encountered fierce white resistance. After launching the Mississippi effort in McComb in 1961, Bob Moses, a former Harvard University graduate student, became voter-registration director of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a SNCC-dominated coalition of civil rights groups. Although SNCC's staff was composed mainly of native Mississippians, the campaign for voting rights in the state attracted increasing support from northern whites. Acknowledging the need for more outside support, COFO sponsored a summer project in 1964 that was designed to bring hundreds of white students to Mississippi. The murder of three civil rights workers, two of them white, during the early days of the project brought unprecedented national attention to the suppression of black voting rights in the Deep South. SNCC staff members, however, became ever more disillusioned with their conventional liberal allies. In August, this disillusionment increased when leaders at the Democratic National Convention refused to back the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party's effort to take the seats of the all-white regular Democratic Party delegation.

During 1965 and 1966, the gulf grew larger between SNCC and its former liberal allies. A major series of voting rights protests in Alabama during the spring of 1965 exposed the group's increasing tactical differences with the SCLC. After the killing of Jimmy Lee Jackson in Marion, and a brutal police attack in March on a group marching from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery, SNCC militants severed many of their ties to the political mainstream. Stokely Carmichael and other SNCC organizers helped establish an independent political entity, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. In May 1966, SNCC workers' growing willingness to advocate racial separatism and radical social change led to a shift in the group's leadership, with Carmichael replacing Lewis as chair. The following month, Carmichael publicly expressed SNCC's new political orientation when he began using the Black Power slogan on a voting rights march through Mississippi. The national controversy surrounding his Black Power speeches further separated SNCC from the SCLC, the NAACP, and other elements of the coalition supporting civil rights reform.

Confronting increasing external opposition and police repression, SNCC also endured serious internal conflicts that made it more vulnerable to external attack. In 1967, executive director Ruby Doris Robinson's death from illness further weakened the organization. After H. Rap Brown became the new chair in June 1967, Carmichael traveled extensively to build ties with revolutionary movements in Africa and Asia. Upon his return to the United States, he led an abortive effort to establish an alliance between SNCC and the California-based Black Panther Party. The two groups broke their ties in the summer of 1968, however, and Carmichael remained with the Panthers, leaving James Forman as SNCC's dominant figure. By this time, however, SNCC's Black Power rhetoric and support for the Palestinian struggle against Israel had alienated many former supporters. In addition, its leaders' emphasis on ideological issues detracted from long-term community-organizing efforts. SNCC did not have much impact on African-American politics after 1967, although it remained in existence until the early 1970s.

See also Al-Amin, Jamil Abdullah; Barry, Marion; Black Panther Party for Self-Defense; Black Power Movement; Carmichael, Stokely; Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); Freedom Rides; Lewis, John; Lowndes County Freedom Organization; Moses, Robert Parris; Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)

Bibliography

Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Forman, James. The Making of Black Revolutionaries. New York: Macmillan, 1972. Reprint, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.

Greenberg, Cheryl Lynn, ed. A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

Lewis, John, with Michael D'Orso. Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Sellers, Cleveland, with Robert Terrell. The River of No Return: The Autobiography of a Black Militant and the Life and Death of SNCC. New York: William Morrow, 1973. Reprint, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.

clayborne carson (1996)
Updated bibliography