Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee

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Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee

As a focal point for student activism in the 1960s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, popularly called Snick) spearheaded major initiatives in the Civil Rights Movement. At the forefront of Integration efforts, SNCC volunteers gained early recognition for their lunch counter sit-ins at whites-only businesses and later for their participation in historic demonstrations that helped pave the way for the passage of landmark federal Civil Rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. SNCC made significant gains in voter registration for blacks in the South, where it also ran schools and health clinics. Later adopting a more radical agenda, it ultimately became identified with the Black Power Movement and distanced itself from traditional civil rights leaders, before disbanding in 1970.

SNCC grew out of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led by martin luther king jr. On Easter 1960, SCLC executive director, ella j. baker, organized a meeting at Shaw University, in Raleigh, North Carolina, with the goal of increasing student participation in the civil rights movement. Students were already taking action on their own: in February, they had staged a sit-in at a Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina, refusing to leave the whites-only lunch counter. One hundred and forty students met with Baker and representatives of other civil rights organizations at the Easter conference, where SNCC was conceived and founded. SNCC soon set up offices in Atlanta. Among its earliest members were john lewis, a divinity student; Marion S. Barry Jr., a future mayor of Washington, D.C.; and julian bond, a future Georgia state senator and liberal activist leader.

In its statement of purpose, dated April 1960, SNCC embraced a philosophy of nonviolence:

We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of non-violence as the foundation of our purpose, the presupposition of our faith, and the manner of our action…. By appealing to conscience and standing on the moral nature of human existence, nonviolence nurtures the atmosphere in which reconciliation and justice become actual possibilities.

One method of non-violent protest adopted by SNCC was the sit-in. Used to integrate businesses in northern and border states as early as 1943, this tactic was a risky undertaking in the segregated South of 1960. What SNCC met at lunch counter sit-ins was far from a spirit of reconciliation: whites taunted the demonstrators, poured ketchup and sugar on their heads, and sometimes hit them. SNCC volunteers persevered, and by late 1961, sit-ins had taken place in over one hundred southern communities.

The pressure brought by these actions soon increased as SNCC rallied white and black students to a number of causes. In 1961, it joined members of the congress of racial equality (CORE) in a series of Freedom Rides—interstate bus trips through the South aimed at integrating bus terminals. Over the next three years, in states such as Georgia and Mississippi, SNCC began a grassroots campaign aimed at registering black voters. It also opened schools in order to teach illiterate farmers, and it established health clinics. In a 1964 project called Freedom Summer, it sent hundreds of white and black volunteers, mostly northern, middleclass students, to Mississippi to test the newly passed Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000a et seq.). Throughout these endeavors, volunteers were met with beatings and jailings, and three civil rights workers were slain in Mississippi during Freedom Summer.

By the mid 1960s, tensions had developed within the civil rights movement. Under King, SCLC stayed its course. Frustrated by the pace of civil rights gains and doubtful of traditional methods, SNCC and CORE became increasingly aggressive. In 1965, after the nation watched televised footage of black marchers being beaten in Selma, Alabama, SNCC decided to hold a second march, in which King chose to participate. More assaults and a murder followed. In their wake, President lyndon b. johnson appealed to the nation for stronger civil rights legislation. Consequently, the Selma marches hastened the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1973 et seq.).

SNCC took a more radical course under the leadership of activist Stokely Carmichael. As a dramatically successful SNCC field organizer in Lowndes County, Mississippi, Carmichael had increased the number of registered black voters there from 70 to 2600. He was elected chairman of SNCC in 1966, the year in which he coined the term black power. According to the organization's position paper, titled The Basis of Black Power, its message of political, economic, and legal liberation, rather than integration, for blacks marked a turning point in the civil rights movement: "In the beginning of the movement, we had fallen into a trap whereby we thought that our problems revolved around the right to eat at certain lunch counters or the right to vote, or to organize our communities. We have seen, however, that the problem is much deeper." SNCC, which now called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) reactionary and white U.S. citizens 180 million racists, was joined in espousing harsher views by CORE and the newly formed black panther party for self-defense.

Along with the new rhetoric came new policies. SNCC purged white members from its ranks, declaring that they should work to rid their own communities of racism. When SNCC members began carrying guns, Carmichael's explanation drew a line between the old guard and the vanguard: "We are not King or SCLC. They don't do the kind of work we do nor do they live in the same areas we live in" (Johnson 1990, 71). The organization subsequently deepened this division by pulling out of the White House Conference on Civil Rights.

Toward the end of its existence, SNCC was torn apart by troubles. In 1966, clashes with the police in several cities began when 80 police officers raided SNCC's Philadelphia office, charging that dynamite was stored there. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which had been Wiretapping SNCC since 1960, targeted the group in 1967 for a Counterintelligence Program effort aimed at disrupting it. Critics blamed Carmichael's inflammatory speeches for causing riots, and he left to join the Black Panthers. Amid growing militancy and an expanded vision that included antiwar protest, financial support began to dry up. SNCC disbanded in 1970 shortly after its last chairman, H. Rap Brown, went underground to avoid arrest.

Further readings

Carson, Clayborne. 1982. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

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

Harris, Janet. 1967. The Long Freedom Road: The Civil Rights Story. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: McGraw-Hill.

Johnson, Jacqueline, and Richard Gallin, eds. 1990. Stokely Carmichael: The Story of Black Power. Parsippany, N.Y.: Silver Burdett.

Levy, Peter B. 1992. Let Freedom Ring: A Documentary History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement. New York: Praeger.

Martinez, Elizabeth, ed. 2002. Letters from Mississippi. Brookline, Mass.: Zephyr.

Zinn, Howard. 2002. SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press.

Cross-references

Carmichael, Stokely; Civil Rights Movement; Integration.

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