SNCC EARLY HISTORY
SNCC was founded in April 1960 by student leaders of the sit-in movement that mushroomed throughout Black campuses (HBCUs). Their strategic actions led to the end of legal segregation in public facilities and public transportation, and an expansion of the right to vote – for African Americans and other marginalized communities of color.
Through its many projects in the Deep South SNCC worked with local organizers, building strong grassroots organizations and often braving frequent acts of state-sponsored terrorism by the Klan and local officials. SNCC leadership drove the 1961 Freedom Rides, 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Challenge, and other successful expansions to our democratic institutions.
SNCC was the only national, southern-based civil rights organization begun and led primarily by young people, most between 17-21 years of age. Its staff members included: Congressman John Lewis (D – GA), Bob Moses (Founder, The Algebra Project), Marion Barry (4-time mayor of Washington, DC), legendary Mississippi organizer Fannie Lou Hamer, James Forman, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), and many others.
As Julian Bond, SNCC’s former communications director and, later, NAACP chair, has written: “SNCC staffers were the first paid [$10/week] civil rights workers to base themselves in isolated rural communities… By 1965, SNCC [had] fielded the largest staff of any civil rights organization in the South. It had organized nonviolent direct action against segregated facilities, as well as voter registration projects in [5 Southern states]; built two independent political parties and organized labor unions and agricultural cooperatives; and given the movement for women’s liberation new energy. It inspired and trained the activists who began the ‘New Left.’ It helped expand the limits of political debate within Black America, and broadened the focus of the Civil Rights Movement. Unlike mainstream civil rights groups, which merely sought integration of Blacks into the existing order, SNCC sought structural changes in American society itself.”
And the vote was always key. At its founding conference in 1960, SNCC stated, “No right is more basic to the American citizen, none more basic to a democracy.”
RECENT SNCC LEGACY PROJECTS AND COLLABORATIONS
Members of the SNCC Legacy Project have been invited by various young activist groups to be mentors and to participate in events in which they could share their deep experiences, so as to enhance the thinking and social justice work done by those groups. These include:
1. August 28, 2019 – SLP Board members Jennifer Lawson and Judy Richardson were invited to a dinner meeting with BYP100’s Washington, DC chapter. The gathering was informal, but included a focused discussion about the direction of their work, the SNCC experiences that might inform their thinking, and about the upcoming 2020 elections.
2. July 13, 2019 – SLP board member Judy Richardson and SNCC vet Freddie Green Biddle were invited by D’Artra Jackson, BYP100 co-chair, to be the panelists for the plenary event at this year’s BYP 100 annual conference. The discussion was moderated by Nnennaya Amuchie, head of BYP100/ DC Chapter.
3. Late April 2019 – SLP Board members Geri Augusto and Jennifer Lawson were invited as guest speakers to a meeting of over 30 Black women leaders from across the country. The gathering was held at the historic Highlander Center, New Market, TN, and was organized by Charlene Carruthers, a Black, Queer, Feminist organizer and a founder of BYP100; Gina Clayton Johnson, founding director of the Essie Justice Group; and Ash-Lee Henderson, co-executive director of Highlander. This retreat was designed exclusively for Black women in executive director (or similar roles) in movement organizations. Augusto and Lawson were invited to talk about collective legacy building, archival work and the importance of documenting and preserving movement work. The importance of the topic and its urgency was underscored by a tragic fire that destroyed the Highlander Center’s offices only weeks before.
4. January 2018 – SLP Board members Courtland Cox and Sharlene Krantz (an archivist) initiated a meeting for young organizers focused on the importance of archiving their materials, even as they worked. As SNCC veterans well understand, it is the only way that the activists themselves can frame how their movement is understood historically… and told “from the inside out”. The meeting was held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
5. May 5-6, 2016 – The Advancement Project invited SLP board members Karen Spelman and Judy Richardson to participate in an intergenerational “Sisters’ Retreat” in Florida. The goal was to bring together Black women movement leaders to heal, rejuvenate and learn from one another, and to help break down the marginalization experienced by some of the participants. Attendees also included Alicia Garza, co-founder of BLM, and a range of Black female activists working on a variety of social justice issues.
6. December 15-18, 2016 – SLP Board member Karen Spelman was invited to participate in a BLM South convening at Highlander Research and Education Center. This two-day convening allowed a number of BLM’s southern chapters and older movement veterans to share their experiences and strategies and to develop and strengthen ties for the long term.
7. Summer 2014 – SLP Chair Courtland Cox was asked by Harry Belafonte to accompany him to Ferguson, IL to speak with a large group of young activists there, after the police murder of 2014 of Michael Brown. The discussion brought up issues familiar to SNCC: the role of demonstrations, self-defense, long-term organizing, etc.
Duke University Collaborations
We have also collaborated with Duke University on a number of projects. They include:
This documentary website, funded by the Mellon Foundation, focuses on the story of the strategic and innovative ways young SNCC activists and local communities worked together to bring about change. SDG was the result of a unique collaboration between SNCC veterans, Movement scholars from Duke and other universities, and Duke’s library sciences and information technology staff.
The site brings together descriptive background information (profiles, maps, timelines), selected primary source materials (digitized historic documents and oral histories), and new analytic and creative works (narrative histories, short documentary films, multimedia pieces, annotated photo essays), as well as videos created by young movement leaders, designed to give younger activists the tools to organize in their own communities.
The site currently has over 11,000 visitors each month and is expected to be available to future generations for years to come.
From its earliest conceptions, the SNCC Digital Gateway had two primary purposes: to tell the history of SNCC from the perspective of the activists themselves and to pass their “informational wealth” onto subsequent generations. The site continues to be used by a variety of audiences, from K-12 educators; higher education instructors in a range of interdisciplinary fields, including history, Africana/Black Studies, and digital humanities; to activists, both domestic and international. The site has garnered positive reviews from the African American Intellectual Historical Society, and the Journal of American History.
Members of the project team have presented at a number of professional conferences, including the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, The Organization of American Historians (OAH), the African American History, Culture and Digital Humanities, and the Association of African American Life and History, the National Conference of Social Studies, and at conferences in South Africa and Brazil. Teaching for Change, an organization based in Washington, DC, continues to widely promote the site to its national network of 125,000 K-12 educators and 275,000 Facebook followers (via Zinn Education Project) as a useful tool to change the traditional “top-down” narrative of the Civil Rights Movement that is generally taught in the classroom.
The SDG created opportunities to build relationships between the Movement veteran and activists in the larger Movement for Black Lives. By creating a digital publication built to be accessed on mobile devices, today’s activists—many of whom see themselves as continuing in the footsteps of SNCC—can tap into SNCC’s experiences, philosophies, and strategies.
The Voting Rights Conference (2015)
Funded by a grant from a Duke alumnus, the Voting Rights Conference brought SNCC veterans and other Movement organizers together with a select group of younger activists from the larger Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) who are currently involved in grassroots organizing (Dream Defenders, BYP [Black Youth Project] 100, United We Dream, Showing Up for Racial Justice [SURJ], NAACP, Young People’s Project (YPP), and several local organizers.). The intense conversations were centered on increasing the vote as a way of expanding democracy for marginalized communities.
Activists appreciated the inter- and intra-generational discussion and the informative plenary sessions and workshops. The Conference was a space that allowed for free and frank discussions about differences. In addition to the formal conference, there were many conversations in the halls that allowed activists to discuss and debate various approaches to voting rights work. The SNCC Digital Gateway includes documentation of the conference.
Critical Oral Histories
Through National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) funding, we convened two sessions of small group discussions related to the nuts and bolts of organizing in SNCC communities. Participants in the history were invited to consider the difficult decisions made and their consequences, as well as other behind-the-scenes information that might be useful to future organizers, since these questions continue to be raised in current organizing. The two sessions were focused on: The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and Freedom Summer and The Emergence of Black Power. Young activists were integrally involved in those discussions, which are now also available on CD’s and the SDG site.
Voting Rights Book
This NEH-funded book project was developed as a guide to understanding voting rights strategies then (1960s) and now, both those that worked and those that didn’t. To ensure that the content will be relevant to current and future organizers, the editorial committee meetings include both SNCC veterans and an even greater number of today’s young organizers. Charles Cobb, SNCC veteran and author (This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed and a forthcoming book on the M4BL) is the executive editor. Duke Professor Tim Tyson (The Blood of Emmett Till) is the author. The book will be published in 2021.
Tougaloo College (2017)
Through Kellogg funding a one-week session was held for 20 Mississippi public school teachers, focused on teaching a grassroots, bottom-up approach to the southern Civil Rights Movement. Judy Richardson, SLP board member, and the director of Teaching for Change were co-directors.
NEH Teacher Institute (2018)
A 3-week institute was held at Duke University for 30 teachers (Gr. 7-12). “The Civil Rights Movement: Grassroots Perspectives (1940-1980)” allowed teachers to learn from both Movement activists and scholars and to use primary documents to construct lesson plans. They also participated in peer group presentations, as well as activities they could carry back to their classrooms. Resources included books, films, websites (e.g. SDG and CRMVet.org). The role of young people and women was highlighted. SLP Board member Judy Richardson and a Duke professor were the co-directors; the Director of Teaching for Change was the Curriculum Specialist.
[NOTE: We will be offering this NEH institute again at Duke University as a result of the success of the 2018 institute and the kudos we received from the teachers. All four NEH evaluators rated us “Excellent” — the highest rating.]
Black Power Chronicles
The Black Power era from 1966 – 1980 resulted in a sweeping perceptual change in how Black people viewed themselves and how the society viewed them. Voters elected a significant number of Black women and men as public officials across the country, including federal, state and city legislators, and mayors. From James Brown to Hollywood to Alvin Ailey, Black culture was reflected on air and on stages. Black scholarly and general interest publications reflected the aspirations of the Black community through a Black Power Lens.
The SNCC Legacy Project created the Black Power Chronicles (BPC) as a community-based, intergenerational, volunteer program. Its mission was to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the call for Black Power in 1966 by documenting the stories, themes and ideas of the Black Power era as told by those activists and supporters who were a part of the movement. The BPC was able to:
- Videotape 24 oral history interviews over the spring, summer and fall of 2017 at UDC Cable TV and in several community locations.
- Produce “ArtSpeaks: It’s a Youth Thing!” a one-day indoor and outdoor Children’s Black Arts Festival where 250 youngsters and their families were treated to music, dance, crafts-making, storytelling, and mural-making, provided by over 30 visual and performing artists.
- Produce 12 public forums at the African American Civil War Museum and one at WPFW, featuring the history, culture and ideas of the Black Power Era in Washington, DC.
SNCC’S HISTORICAL IMPORTANCE
Freedom Rides (1961)
SNCC and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) workers rode two buses to test a Supreme Court decision requiring integrated buses in interstate travel. SNCC’s John Lewis was badly beaten in Alabama and SNCC’s Diane Nash refused a plea by the Kennedy Administration to stop the Rides, even after the buses were burned and the riders were badly beaten in Alabama. SNCC’s mantra was that violence should never be allowed to stop the Movement. The protest led the federal government to issue regulations desegregating interstate bus terminals.
Mississippi Freedom Summer (1964)
in November 1963, 80,000 Black residents resisted decades of intimidation and violence to vote in a Freedom Vote, as a result of organizing by SNCC and other local organizations. Most had formerly been denied the right to vote. That summer, SNCC workers organized the 1964 Freedom Summer Project in Mississippi, which brought over 700 college students to the state to work with local organizers, registering voters and teaching in Freedom Schools and community centers.
Together with local leaders from the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), SNCC organized sharecroppers, teachers, ministers and young activists to form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). As a result of the MFDP Challenge of Mississippi’s all-white delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, the Democratic Party required that future delegations reflect the diverse populations from which they came.
Selma, Alabama Project
In 1961, SNCC began working with high school students and local leaders on desegregation and voter registration. In 1965, when a local activist was murdered by police, SNCC chair John Lewis led the initial protest march on “Bloody Sunday”, where marchers were brutally beaten by state troopers. National outrage against the brutality provided the impetus for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1965, Lowndes County, Alabama had only a handful of registered Black voters although the county’s population was over 80% Black. Local Blacks braved violence and retaliatory actions to register and invited Stokely Carmichael and other SNCC workers to help them form their own political party and seek to win county offices. Their party, the Lowndes County Freedom Party, had as its symbol the Black Panther. This countered the official Alabama Democratic Party’s logo: a white rooster, circled by the words “White Supremacy for the Right”. Over time, the office of sheriff and other county officials were held by Black residents and continued the transformation of Lowndes County away from its frightful and deadly past of racial terrorism when it was known as “Bloody Lowndes.”
The Work Continues (Late 1960s – 1990s)
Even after SNCC no longer existed as an organization, SNCC workers — grounded by their organizing philosophy and experiences — continued to expand the legacy of SNCC, individually and through the institutions they created.
The Algebra Project
Founded in 1990 by SNCC’s Mississippi Project Director, Bob Moses, The Algebra Project uses experiential learning to teach algebra to students who are in the lowest educational quartile. Moses likens this to countering today’s version of a “sharecropper education”. Moses was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in recognition of his groundbreaking work as an educator.
New Communities (Albany, GA)
Founded by SNCC’s Southwest Georgia Project Director, Charles Sherrod and his wife Shirley Sherrod, this grassroots organization has worked for more than 40 years to empower African American families in Southwest Georgia and advocate for social justice by empowering the community through agribusiness and economic development.
Drum and Spear Bookstore and Drum and Spear Press (Washington, DC)
The store was established in 1968 by SNCC veterans to counter the prevailing narrative that people of African descent had neither a history nor a civilization of any value. Drum and Spear became the largest Black bookstore in the U.S. Along with Maelezo Bookstore – its offshoot in what is now the Health and Human Services (HHS) building – the stores offered a large collection of educational materials by and about people of African descent, and about “Third World” countries, as well as a major children’s section. Drum and Spear Press published new works by African Americans, including the first book by acclaimed children’s author Eloise Greenfield.
The Press also produced a popular weekly children’s radio show that presented adapted children’s stories and folk tales to expose young people to their rich history and culture.
The Center for Black Education (Washington, DC)
Established by SNCC veterans in 1970, the Center provided classes in communications, medical and environmental issues (including a community clinic), and was seen as an inspiration by students and educators as they began to form Black Studies programs at colleges and universities. It also produced a weekly public affairs radio program, focused on international issues.
Southern Echo (Jackson, MS)
Founded in 1989 by SNCC veteran Hollis Watkins and others as a leadership education, training and development organization, it seeks to empower communities to fight racism. It also regularly provides educational Civil Rights Movement tours.
Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE)
Begun by SNCC workers Fannie Lou Hamer, Unita Blackwell and others in 1967, MACE helps raise the literacy rates of Mississippians and provides economic opportunity to rural communities.
Other Contributions of SNCC Veterans
SNCC veterans brought the skills, values and worldview they developed in SNCC into many other arenas, including education, theatre, music, political and economic education, union and community organizing, photography and filmmaking, communications, research. [NOTE – Deleted mention of Motor fleet since this is the after-SNCC section]
Over the years, SNCC veterans have published at least 35 books, on both trade and academic presses, in an attempt to correct the top-down, ahistorical narrative still used to frame the Movement. Also, the following SNCC veterans have been honored with MacArthur Foundation Fellowship “Genius” Awards:
- Robert Parris Moses (1982), Founder, The Algebra Project; Educator and Philosopher
- Bernice Johnson Reagon (1989), Founder, Sweet Honey in the Rock; Music Historian, Composer and Vocalist
- Maria Varela (1990) Founder, La Clinica; Community Development Leader
- Unita Blackwell (1992) Mayor, Mayersville, MS; and Civil Rights Leader
And the work continues…