Looking back and reaching forward, the former members of SNCC explored their influential participation during the Civil Rights’ Movement, and what can be used in the ongoing quest for social justice and full citizenship.
“When [young Black people in SNCC] organized, we discovered that there was strength [in Black communities] that we didn’t know was there,” said former Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) voter registration organizer in Mississippi, Charlie Cobb.
And that is how it all started: with a group of young Black college students who could not stand their realities as citizens.
At 63, SNCC silently made it to be a sexagenarian Civil Rights organization in 2020, just as the pandemic percolated. In May of that year, the racial tensions of the world boiled over following the videoed murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. The members of SNCC, now elders and many of whom are grandparents, were reminded that the issues of their youth failed to die off and certainly did not age well.
In 2021, SNCC marked its 60th anniversary with a virtual three-day gathering from October 14 through October 16, a second attempt to stage the event. Originally planned for 2019, it was postponed until 2020–the true 60 year mark. Intended to be an in-person gathering where intragenerational activists would meet and share organizing strategies, “the pandemic had other plans,” SNCC Legacy Project chair Courtland Cox told conferees.
Cox served on SNCC’s steering committee in the 1960s. He also represented them in the 1963 March on Washington planning board. As the master of ceremonies, he thanked participants who registered more than two years ago to build community with members of a group who ultimately left a lasting legacy on grassroots organization and electoral politics.
The conference served as both a historical multi-day masterclass, and a needed reflection during uncertain times. Almost two years later, we are still grappling for certainty. Nonetheless, the stories threading through the days emphasized the remarkable impact of how college kids made profound differences in the country. Yet and still, more changes must come.
Stand, or sit for something…
In February 1960, a group of Black college students staged a sit-in at a Greenwood, North Carolina Woolworth’s lunch counter. The store refused to serve Black customers. The students remained seated despite lunch counter staff ignoring them. Angry white customers poured beverages and dumped food on them. Yet, they refused to leave.
Each day, more Black students joined the sit-in. Eventually, college students throughout the segregated South staged similar protests, generating national media attention.
Older Black activists were also paying attention. One was then-executive director of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Ella Baker. She convened a now famous meeting with 200 student protesters at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The meeting—held April 16 through April 18, 1960–resulted in the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), pronounced “Snick.” A youth-led organization, it was independent of the four main civil rights groups of the day—the NAACP, the Urban League, SCLC, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
“In SNCC, we learned that despite all odds, in the Mississippi Delta, in southwest Georgia, in Arkansas, it was possible to embed yourself in the Black community, and make your way towards a community consensus about what kind of change is necessary, and what kind of change they would be willing to fight for,” asserted Cobb.
Community organizing, yesterday and today
Conference sessions focused on the ever-present and thriving racism. As was the case six decades ago, disparities in all areas of life prevented Black people from achieving equity with whites in any capacity. As a solution, conferees suggested building coalitions to increase their strength as activists, including recruiting artists.
To that end, the event prominently featured themes of equality and justice via a topical song concert and mini-film festival. The “Meet the Authors” showcase featured SNCC veterans turned writers discussing their involvement in the civil rights movement.
Now, organizers can mobilize Black people to protest inequalities without worrying being lynched. D’Atra Jackson, National Director of BYP100, is one of them. In a workshop, she explained how Cobb’s organizing principles are also effective in reaching young Black people, the heart of the movement. Her nine-year-old group of young activists organizes Black communities to resolve local issues by vote. A member-based initiative, it also advocates for feminists and the Black LGBTQ community.
“[P]rotests sparked by the death of George Floyd were led by young Black people who were poor, working class, queer and transgender,” said Jackson. “The abolition movement against police and prisons is growing and is led in many places by Black young people. . . . The hope is that we continue to build this movement, and the legacy of young Black people organizing, agitating, and initiating real change.”
Panel discussions covered every aspect of SNCC’s efforts to empower Black people politically and economically. Here are some of the highlights:
Rock or block the Black vote
In the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, Southern white-robed Ku Klux Klansmen terrorized Black people, scaring them away from registering to vote. Since then, racist whites have invented implicit ways to block Black political power, using voter suppression as an effective barrier against them. Today, laws have been passed making voting access by Black people and other people of color, as well as young people, more difficult. This is especially the case in historically oppressive states currently dominated by conservative Republican governors and legislators.
According to the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice, 19 states, most controlled by Republicans, have passed voting restriction laws. For instance, constraints have been placed on obtaining and submitting mail-in ballots. In addition, polling places have been closed with hundreds of names purged from registries. In some cases, even special assistance for Americans with disabilities has been removed.
Like their modern-day counterparts, racists in the 1960s also devised strategies to suppress the Black vote, explained Cobb , who moderated “The Power of the Past” session. He described how potential Black voters were forced to take “literacy tests,” where they had to recite the U.S. Constitution verbatim, without mistakes. Few passed, thus keeping a vast majority from registering to vote.
In other instances, exorbitant “poll taxes” or fees had to be paid. Only averaging $3,000 annually or less at the time, the Black population could not afford the $1.00 to $3.00 annual fee. Additionally, registration offices would close early or move to different locations without informing potential Black registrants.
“We have to understand that grassroots and political organizing has always been about local communities, and power coming from the bottom up [not from the top leadership down],” said Charles Taylor of the Mississippi-based voting data collection firm, Peyton Strategies.
Equipped with this understanding of effective organizing, hundreds of college kids descended on Mississippi in 1964 for “Freedom Summer.” The campaign’s purpose was to bolster Black voting registration and support the neglected Black community there. As part of the effort, SNCC established “Freedom Schools.” The schools’ goal was described as empowering young Black Mississippians to “articulate their own desires, demands and questions” via “[different] alternatives and new directions for action.”
The students connected with and gained trust from the community, unlike the political systems in existence.
“[Organizers] can’t just go into a community and expect people to do what you think they should do. You have to earn your way to that,” Cobb explained. “We earned it in the South by sitting on front porches. By going to church with people, watching soap operas on TV with them in their homes. We would go with people to their jook joints or play basketball with the young guys. That’s the lesson of the South, and it’s applicable today.”
Gerrymandering, or redistricting was another voter-restriction issue. “The Southern states have some of the most gerrymandered maps in this country,” said Taylor. “A lot of gerrymandering is about packing districts of Black people or cracking districts of Black people. African Americans are situated in districts where their voices are not being heard, because they were undercounted. It happens in rural America, especially in the rural South, all the time.”
Currently, data reveals who votes and who does not, with Southern African Americans voting at very high percentages as per Taylor. Accordingly, it is not coincidental that there is a higher number of Black elected officials in Black majority states like Mississippi. Ultimately, Taylor attributes this change to people like SNCC veteran Hollis Watkins, who focused on redistricting for years.
Meanwhile, SNCC’s organizing paid off. Through patience and ingratiation into Black Southern communities, they helped local residents overcome the fear of white terror, and exercise their right to vote.
Criminal injustice then and now
During the 1960s civil rights movement, police in the Southern states were active in upholding the segregation status quo by using brute force against demonstrators. Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham, Alabama’s public safety commissioner, is a prime example. On May 3, 1963, Connor had 900 young students arrested in what was called the “Children’s Crusade” protests. He ordered police and firemen to turn on high pressure fire hoses on demonstrators and onlookers to knock them over and force them out of downtown Birmingham. He ordered vicious police dogs to attack them.
Today’s police brutality is exemplified by countless cases of white officers shooting and killing unarmed, innocent Black people. Or police crushing the life out of them, as was the case with George Floyd. Two years ago in Minnesota, Floyd, who was Black, was forced to the ground by a white policeman who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison was named the special prosecutor in the case of Derek Chauvin, the policeman accused of killing Floyd. Ellison’s office charged Chauvin with second-degree murder, and the three other officers at the scene with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
James Forman, Jr., a professor of law at Yale Law School, and a son of the late SNCC executive secretary James Forman, Sr., moderated a conference session about criminal justice in which Ellison participated. Forman noted that while many African Americans oppose racist police practices, they also worry about crime and its impact on their communities.
“How can we make policing more fair and less violent, and not turn the streets over to those who would have us live in fear and terror?” asked Forman.
“We have to wrestle through it with some courage and some patience,” said Ellison. “A lack of political courage would lead us to certain conclusions. [Add] more cops, more prisons, more prosecutors, more this, more that. It’s one answer that some people are looking for.”
Ellison said the 30 percent bump in violent crime in 2020 is connected to the pandemic. “It has cooled off in 2021, and it’s important for responsible leaders to point that out. The only statistic that matters to the individual is the crime of one, that ‘Someone was murdered near my house.’ I get that. But if you’re in a policy-making role, you have to say, ‘how do we create safety, and human rights?’”
Communities and police must close the “trust gap” to combat crime more effectively, said Ellison. “What this moment calls for is community-led, violence reduction efforts.” Unarmed activists should saturate the crime “hot spots” in any given community, said Ellison, and violence reduction specialists should visit communities most closely associated [with crime].
In Minneapolis, he said, a group of pastors went to some “hot spots” and joined forces with “grandmas in lawn chairs.” Together they barbecued and played music for the residents. “We saw a reduction of reported crime in those communities,” said Ellison.
Policing must change, he asserted.For instance, never send a police officer into a situation where someone is having what he called a “mental health meltdown.” “We found that half of the people who were killed by police deadly force were in a mental health crisis. If you understand anything about autism, you know that if an autistic person is commanded by a cop to ‘Get on the ground!’ the person might not even hear the command.
“The person might ball up [his or her] fists. The officers might think the person is getting into a fighting stance. What do the police do? Maybe they taze the person. Maybe they tackle the person. Maybe they baton the person. The next thing you know, somebody’s dead. Then we have protest marches. Outrage. Upset. All because we took badges and guns and applied them to everything that’s out there.”
Education for Black liberation
During Freedom Summer, Charlie Cobb, who created the concept, thought the SNCC freedom schools could make good use of college-educated young people as teachers. The college students were well-equipped to teach community residents what they were learning in universities.
Another SNCC activist concerned about improving Black students’ education was Bob Moses, who died July 25, 2021 at the age of 86. In 1982, Moses founded The Algebra Project, designed to help students who had difficulty with math. His daughter, Maisha Moses, continues his work as the Executive Director of The Young People’s Project. Its mission is to increase the participation of Black and other young people of color in the math, science, technology, and engineering fields.
“Students today don’t have the math teachers they need to ensure that all children learn mathematics,” Moses said in a session about education for self-determination and the future economy. “The main thing The Young People’s Project has done is to obtain resources for creating spaces where young people can learn and teach bits and pieces of mathematics to each other. We call them math literacy workers. It’s giving them a taste of the emerging knowledge work that is proliferating across the economy.”
Julian Bond, a SNCC veteran who died in 2015, wrote that SNCC’s community organizing provided a blueprint for future activists.“SNCC pioneered first-time electoral races by Blacks in the Deep South of the 1960’s, while adding foreign policy demands to the Black political agenda, thus broadening the acceptable limits of political discourse,” Bond wrote in “What We Did.” “SNCC was in the vanguard in demonstrating that independent Black politics could be successful. Its early attempts to use Black candidates to raise issues in races where victory was unlikely expanded the political horizon. SNCC’s development of independent political parties mirrored the philosophy that political form must follow function and that nonhierarchical organizations were necessary to counter the growth of cults of personality and self-reinforcing leadership.”
The political parties SNCC developed were the Lowndes County (Alabama) Freedom Organization (LCFO) and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).
SNCC discovered that Lowndes County was 80 percent Black but only one Black individual out of 12,000 was registered to vote. A year after Congress passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, 900 Black county residents out of 2,000 voted for LCFO candidates for county offices. None won. Five years later, candidates running in what became the Lowndes County Freedom Party won the elections for sheriff and county commissioner. Another candidate won the mayoral race in the small town of Whitehall. The party used a picture of a black panther as its symbol. The symbol was later adopted by the California-based Black Panther Party for Self Defense.
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was to be an alternative to the all-white Democratic Party, as Black Mississippians were barred from voting. During the 1964 Democratic National Convention, SNCC called for the all-white official delegation to be unseated and replaced by the more representative MFDP. But then President Lyndon Johnson refused. Instead he tried forcing a “compromise” in which two MFDP delegates would be seated with the official party delegates. The MFPD rejected the offer. Speaking for the delegation, Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer said, “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats . . .”
Bond attributed Congress’ passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act to SNCC’s demonstrations. Televised footage of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Alabama march for civil and voting rights was particularly jarring.
Viewers watched in disbelief. Police and state troopers on horseback beat demonstrators bloody with billy clubs, threw tear gas canisters at them, and charged into the 600 marchers, pushing them back across the Edmund Pettus Bridge linking the two cities. John Lewis, who chaired SNCC and was elected to Congress later in his life, suffered a fractured skull.
Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture, became SNCC’s chairman in 1965. Ture popularized the phrase “Black Power” which meant Black independent political and economic power and self-determination. However, many of SNCC’s white funders believed it meant “hate all white people.” Their monetary contributions, on which SNCC’s operations and salaries depended, decreased.
For many whites, SNCC’s expulsion of its white members was the last straw. But some whites in SNCC understood the reason why they were asked to leave and supported it. “For much of its early history, SNCC battled against the fear that kept rural southern Blacks from wholeheartedly organizing and acting on their own behalf,” wrote Bond. SNCC activist Gwen Robinson, later known as Zohara Simmons, noticed “how Black people became cripplingly deferential in the presence of white volunteers.” In 1966, SNCC members voted that whites should leave SNCC and organize in white southern communities “where racism emanated from, instead of in Black communities.” SNCC’s Black members would organize Black southern communities, building on the new Black consciousness and pride increasing among Black people in the North and the South.
Two white SNCC activists, Bob and Dottie Zellner, created an organization called GROW (GrassRoots Organizing Work) after they left SNCC. They supported a wildcat strike of white woodworking union members in Laurel, Mississippi. The workers opposed the Masonite Corporation’s plan to replace some of them with partial automation to reduce costs.
The couple established the Workingman’s Community House, where racially integrated strikers would meet and discuss strategies. Dottie Zellner said their work “proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that on a grassroots level, it is possible to create working-class interracial coalitions. Period.”
White support for SNCC also waned when Ture and H. Rap Brown, now called Imam Abdul Al-Amin, briefly joined the Black Panther Party, which was mistakenly portrayed in the media as an anti-white hate group. Whites were undoubtedly frustrated when SNCC was one of the first Black organizations to officially oppose the Vietnam War. SNCC also expressed solidarity with African countries fighting to free themselves from colonial rule under the British, French, Belgians, Portuguese, and the Afrikaners and British in South Africa. There were whites who felt that SNCC should limit itself to civil rights work and leave the international human rights arena alone.
“By 1970, SNCC had lost all of its 130 or so employees and most of its branches,” according to the website blackpast.org. “Finally, in December 1973, SNCC ceased to exist as an organization.”
Lessons for young activists
Courtland Cox told conferees that voting is still crucial in building Black political power. “But we learned that although we [Black people] see voting as a solution, other people see it as a problem. That’s why you have voter suppression and voter nullification. People who have power now don’t want to relinquish it.”
Political and economic interests are connected, said Cox. Electing people who will represent their constituents in the legislature and the executive makes the difference between “whether we build a baseball stadium or affordable housing.”
SNCC also learned to “control the narrative,” said Cox, rather than let others explain or define their beliefs and purpose. “We established the narrative of ‘freedom.’ Our songs were about ‘freedom.’” The word rallied Black communities. It put whites who supported segregation on the defensive, by characterizing them as opposing “freedom.”
Cox said SNCC’s use of the term “Black Power” also controlled the narrative. “Before ‘Black Power’ we were ‘Negroes,’ “ Cox explained. “We straightened our hair and bleached our skin to look white. We were ashamed of ourselves. When we emphasized Black being beautiful and worthy, we began to assert ourselves. It was a narrative that the Black community embraced.” Cox said “Black Lives Matter” is also a narrative control term. “It was helpful because it put the situations and lives of Black people on the stage.”
Cox said his guiding principle as an activist is something he heard a Black woman sharecropper say in 1964 during a mass meeting: “Mr. Say isn’t nothing, Mr. Do’s the man.” It means talk is cheap. What counts is taking action.
SNCC is also archiving its documents, photos, and other records to “control our narrative and tell our story from the inside out,” said Cox. The 82-year old SNCC veteran concluded “Whatever your age, you must make a difference.”
“We’ll never turn back.”
SNCC’s work in the 1960s South was fraught with danger. During the 1964 Freedom Summer Black voter registration campaign, three SNCC activists – James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman – were murdered.
“We’ll Never Turn Back” was written and performed by the SNCC Freedom Singers as an anthem used to bolster SNCC organizers’ courage and that of Black residents in communities they organized. Described as SNCC’s “We Shall Overcome,” it meant that despite racist terror and internal differences, SNCC members would dedicate their lives to promoting freedom, justice, and equality.
Fighting today’s voter suppression
The Biden administration, meanwhile, pinned its hopes on two national bills that would effectively nullify states’ restrictions on voting. The Freedom to Vote Act would have established national standards for voting. It would allow mail-in balloting for any reason. States would have to permit early voting for a set number of days. It would expand the kind of information voters would have to show registrars as identification in order to vote. Election Day would become a national holiday.
The Freedom to Vote Act would restore voting rights to people released from prison who were convicted of a felony. The bill would permit voter registration on Election Day, voter registration online, and registration to vote in states’ departments of motor vehicles. It would prohibit partisan gerrymandering, and protect election workers at polling places from harassment, threats and intimidation.
The John R.Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named for the late Congressman who was one of the chairs of SNCC, would have restored the preclearance requirements on states with a history of preventing Black residents from voting. The preclearance requirements were struck down in a U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The House passed the Lewis bill last August, but the Senate defeated the bill last October. An effort to combine parts of the two bills and bring the new measure up for a vote in the Senate was defeated this January.
SNCC members expressed dismay at the conference that 60 years after the founding of their organization, they are still fighting against racially motivated voter suppression. In an Advancement Project 2016 video presentation, former SNCC secretary Judy Richardson said today’s voter suppression efforts remind her of those used in the Deep South of the 1960s. Richardson called for a constitutional amendment that protects voting rights.”It needs to be federal, it needs to be uniform, and you need it to protect everyone equally no matter what state they reside in,” Richardson insisted.
Howard L. Simon, a former ACLU state affiliate executive director, and Raymond O. Arsenault, a former Southern history professor at the University of South Florida, wrote a Palm Beach Post op-ed calling for a renewed “Freedom Summer.” In his proposal, college students could live and work in Black communities where they would help people register to vote. He wrote. “What could be more fulfilling, or more important, than sustaining the legacy of Freedom Summer and voting rights campaigns of earlier generations by dedicating time to the defense of American democracy? What an opportunity to serve, to learn, to expand horizons. What an opportunity for young people . . . to do great things for their country.”
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