The Birth of SNCC

Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee

Wanting to become part of the fight for civil rights, students from around the country began to protest and create waves. These waves would become larger than anyone expected and eventually played a significant role in not only the Civil Rights Movement, but also in American history.

The Incident: On Feb. 1, 1960, four black students at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro sat down at Woolworth’s “white-only” lunch counter and refused to move until they had been served. This event snowballed and caused more than 54 sit-ins all over the country.

A Plan of Action: The incident caught the attention of black students across the country along with Ella Baker, an activist and the first executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). After hearing about what was going on, Baker organized a conference calling all student protesters to discuss ways to expand the sit-in movement and fight other forms of segregation.

Giving Birth: After two months of deliberations, students met at Baker’s alma mater, Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., in April 1960 to form the historic Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Pronounced “snick,” the political civil rights organization would be headed primarily by black students in efforts to overturn segregation in the South. Originally thought to be the student leg of the SCLC, SNCC wanted to remain independent.

The Issues: Founded on Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of non-violence, SNCC members felt it necessary to uphold this belief for it was essential to the organization’s success. By practicing non-violent action under the harsh brutality of whites, it would create a distinct impression of moral superiority. SNCC would also eventually come out against the Vietnam War and form opinions on white liberalism, feminism and black power.

From Sit-Ins to Freedom Rides: After the sit-in movement, SNCC moved on and focused its attention on efforts such as freedom rides, freedom ballots, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the March on Washington. In 1961, the organization became involved with freedom rides and voting rights in the south. The freedom rides took place after the Supreme Court ended segregation through travel and at bus terminals.

To exercise this new right, SNCC members boarded two buses from Washington, D.C., headed through states where segregation and discrimination was most evident. Making it through Virginia and North Carolina without incident, the buses and its occupants would eventually encounter the racism they’d been protesting. The Greyhound bus was mobbed in South Carolina and burned to the ground outside of Alabama. The Trailway bus was forced to stop until the passengers sat segregated. After refusing to comply, they freedom riders were beaten and arrested for breaking “Jim Crow” laws. Through it all, the rides continued and eventually President John F. Kennedy was forced to send in federal protection to prevent protesters from being mobbed.

Marching on Washington:In 1963, SNCC participated in the March on Washington. At the march John Lewis, chair of SNCC and now a member of Congress, spoke and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. As SNCC members looked on, many did not agree with SCLC members on how the government was being portrayed as being helpful in the fight when they felt as if it was doing nothing to help those in the Deep South. This would not be the first or last time they would bump heads.

Freedom Ballots:By fall 1963, SNCC was organizing a Freedom Ballots campaign in Mississippi. SNCC set out to create a mock campaign, wanting to prove to Americans that if blacks were given an opportunity to vote, they would. Volunteer candidates Dr. Aaron Henry, a NAACP leader, and Rev. Edwin King, a white civil rights activist, ran under a platform to end segregation, provide equal employment and better schools, and guarantee voting rights. With 600 students, majority white, they set off in the South to spread their message. Despite multiple arrests and violence the campaign was a success. More than 80,000 blacks came out to vote, four times the number registered in the state, according to http://www.ibiblio.org, a digital library and archive run by the Center for the Public Domain and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Mississippi Summer Project of 1964:The massive voter turnout set the stage for the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964. The goals for the summer project were to register voters, operate Freedom Schools and organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Freedom Schools were put in place to teach kids about their rights and how to stand up for their freedom. In turn, organizers hoped the students would go back home and inspire their parents with what they’d learned so that on Freedom Days, held every two to three weeks, the adults would come out and register to vote.

Not an easy task, the Freedom Days project was often threatened by white supremacists. Yet support grew for the Freedom Summer Project and the MFDP was formed to counteract the white Democratic Party. Wanting to replace Mississippi’s current delegation, MFDP members attended the Democratic National Convention that summer. Unconvinced, Congress granted the party two non-voting seats through a compromise with King. Wanting voting seats and unwilling to fold, the delegates left the convention defeated but with their heads held high.

Their efforts paid off. In the spring of 1965, SNCC and SCLC led a march to the Alabama capital of Montgomery, which helped to gain support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in August.

Students Led by Students: The first elected chairman of SNCC was Chuck McDew a student from South Carolina State College, the site of the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre in which state police killed three students and wounded 27. Holding office from April 1960 to November 1960, McDew helped to lay out SNCC’s founding principles and the organization’s blueprint. Wanting to keep the organization small, SNCC allowed field secretaries to makes many decisions and there was little difference between leadership and membership. Not intending to build an organization that would last long, members planned to keep SNCC around for at least five years and to use its income for renting space and legal expenses.

Following McDew, Marion Barry took over as chairman and held office from November 1960 to June 1963. During his time in office, he led SNCC members through freedom rides and the first efforts to encourage blacks to vote. Barry would later become the mayor of Washington, D.C.

The next person to fill the shoes of chairman was John Lewis, who held office from June 1963 to May 1966. Under Lewis’s administration, SNCC helped to organize the March on Washington, hosted Freedom Ballots, the Mississippi Summer Project and the MFDP. John Lewis is most noted for the speech he gave during the march about how little the Kennedy administration had done to protect blacks and civil rights workers under siege in the south. Toning his opinions down for the sake of others in the movement, his words still echoed. Lewis would later be known for his work as a Georgia Democratic member of the House of Representatives.

The last official chairman of the SNCC was Stokely Carmichael. A student activist at Howard University and a member of the Non-Violent Action Group there, he became chairman in May of 1966. He had participated in freedom rides and the voting drives in the South. Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, who each served only a year as chairman, made many waves throughout the organization and the nation under the Black Power platform.

The Downfall: By the end of 1965, a rift had deepened between SNCC and SCLC. After the March on Washington, many SNCC members felt as if SCLC was taking advantage of them and not giving them credit for their work. In addition many of the youth felt as if non-violence and the compromise with whites was no longer the way to go. They felt as if blacks needed to be more militant and fight back with violence.

Espousing new tactics and goals of Black Power with its basic beliefs of racial dignity and self-reliance by any means necessary, SNCC became more controversial in 1966 under Carmichael. In the same year, the Black Panther Party was founded in California. Basing many of their principles on Black Power, SNCC and the Black Panther Party briefly worked together. Many soon began to disagree with the party’s tactics and Carmichael was eventually expelled from SNCC. His successor, H. Rap Brown, renamed SNCC the Student National Coordinating Committee to indicate the organization’s willingness to strike violently if forced to do so. The committee would soon fall after Brown was arrested on charges ranging from inciting riots to arson and left the organization.