The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was one of the organizations of the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. It emerged from a series of student meetings led by Ella Baker held at Shaw University in April 1960. SNCC grew into a large organization with many supporters in the North who helped raise funds to support SNCC’s work in the South, allowing full-time SNCC workers to have a $10 per week salary. Many unpaid volunteers also worked with SNCC on projects in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, and Maryland SNCC played a major role in the sit-ins and freedom rides, a leading role in the 1963 March on Washington, Mississippi Freedom Summer, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party over the next few years. SNCC’s major contribution was in its field work, organizing voter registration drives all over the South, especially in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.
A final SNCC legacy is the destruction of the psychological shackles which had kept black southerners in physical and mental peonage; SNCC helped break those chains forever. It demonstrated that ordinary women and men, young and old, could perform extraordinary tasks.—Julian Bond
In the later 1960s, led by fiery leaders such as Stokely Carmichael, SNCC focused on black power, and then protesting against the Vietnam War. As early as 1965, James Forman said he didn’t know “how much longer we can stay nonviolent” and in 1969, SNCC officially changed its name to the Student National Coordinating Committee to reflect the broadening of its strategies. It passed out of existence in the 1970s.
March on Washington
SNCC played a signal role in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. While many speakers applauded the Kennedy Administration for the efforts it had made toward obtaining new, more effective civil rights legislation protecting the right to vote and outlawing segregation, John Lewis took the administration to task for how little it had done to protect Southern blacks and civil rights workers under attack in the Deep South. Although he was forced to tone down his speech under pressure from the representatives of other civil rights organizations on the march organization committee, his words still stung. The version of the speech leaked to the press went as follows:
- “We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here — for they have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages…or no wages at all. In good conscience, we cannot support the administration’s civil rights bill.
- This bill will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses when engaging in peaceful demonstrations. This bill will not protect the citizens of Danville, Virginia who must live in constant fear in a police state. This bill will not protect the hundreds of people who have been arrested on trumped-up charges like those in Americus, Georgia, where four young men are in jail, facing a death penalty, for engaging in peaceful protest.
- I want to know, which side is the federal government on? The revolution is a serious one. Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the streets and put it in the courts. Listen Mr. Kennedy, the black masses are on the march for jobs and for freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won’t be a ‘cooling-off period.'”
However, under pressure from the representatives of other groups many changes were made to the speech as it was delivered that day. According to James Forman, the most important of these was the change of “we cannot support” the Kennedy Civil Rights Bill to “we support with reservations”. Forman wrote of the following explanation of this:
- “Somewhere along the line, the church and labor people had been told that this was a march to support the administration’s Civil Rights Bill, which was passed in 1964, after Kennedy’s death. Who did this and how it happened, I do not know. But people all over the country thought they were marching for jobs and freedom when in actuality the sellout leadership of the March on Washington was playing patsy with the Kennedy administration as part of the whole liberal-labor politics of Rustin, Wilkins, Randolph, Reuther, King, the Catholic and Protestant hierarchy. If people had known they had come to Washington to aid the Kennedy administration, they would not have come in the numbers they did.”
Forman’s and SNCC’s anger came in part from the failure of the federal government, FBI and Justice Department to protect SNCC civil rights workers in the South at this time. Indeed, the federal government at that time was instrumental in indicting SNCC workers and other civil rights activists.
In 1960 SNCC began expanding its activities from direct-action protests against segregation into other forms of organizing, most notably voter registration. Under the leadership of Bob Moses, SNCC’s first voter-registration project was in McComb, Mississippi, an effort suppressed with arrests and savage white violence, resulting in the murder of local activist Herbert Lee. With funding from the Voter Education Project, SNCC expanded its voter registration efforts into the Mississippi Delta around Greenwood, Southwest Georgia around Albany, and the Alabama Black Belt around Selma. All of these projects endured police harassment and arrests; KKK violence including shootings, bombings, and assassinations; and economic terrorism against those blacks who dared to try to register.
In the fall of 1963, SNCC conducted the Freedom Ballot, a parallel election in which black Mississippians came out to show their willingness to vote — a right they had been denied for decades, despite the provisions of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, due to a combination of state laws and constitutional provisions, economic reprisals and violence by white authorities and private citizens.
SNCC followed up on the Freedom Ballot with the Mississippi Summer Project, also known as Freedom Summer, which focused on voter registration and Freedom Schools. The Summer Project brought hundreds of white Northern students to the South where they volunteered as teachers and organizers. Their presence brought national press attention to SNCC’s work in the south. SNCC organized black Mississippians to register to vote, almost always without success. White authorities either rejected their applications on any pretexts available or, failing that, simply refused to accept their applications.
Mississippi Summer got national attention when three civil rights workers involved in the project, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were lynched after having been released from police custody. Their bodies were eventually found after a reluctant J. Edgar Hoover directed the FBI to search for them. In the process the FBI also found corpses of several other missing black Mississippians, whose disappearances had not attracted public attention outside the Delta.
SNCC also established Freedom Schools to teach children to read and to educate them to stand up for their rights. As in the struggle to desegregate public accommodations led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Bevel in Birmingham, Alabama the year before, the bolder attitudes of the children helped shake their parents out of the fear that had paralyzed many of them.
The goal of the Mississippi Summer Project was to organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), an integrated party, to win seats at the 1964 Democratic National Convention for a slate of delegates elected by disfranchised black Mississippians and white sympathizers. The MFDP was, however, tremendously inconvenient for the Johnson Administration. It had wanted to minimize the inroads that Barry Goldwater’s campaign was making into what had previously been the Democratic stronghold of the “Solid South” and the support that George Wallace received during the Democratic primaries in the North.
When the MFDP started to organize a fight over credentials, Johnson originally would not budge. When Fannie Lou Hamer, the leader of the MFDP, was in the midst of testifying about the police beatings of her and others for attempting to exercise their right to vote, Johnson preempted television coverage of the credentials fight. Even so, her testimony created enough uproar that Johnson offered the MFDP a “compromise”: they would receive two non-voting seats, while the delegation sent by the official Democratic Party would take its seats.
Johnson used all of his resources, mobilizing Walter Reuther, one of his key supporters within the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and his Vice-Presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey, to pressure King and other mainstream civil rights leaders to bring the MFDP around, while directing Hoover to put the delegation under surveillance. The MFDP rejected both the compromise and the pressure to accept it, and walked out.
That experience destroyed what little faith SNCC activists had in the federal government, even though Johnson had obtained a broad Civil Rights Act barring discrimination in public accommodations, employment and private education in 1964 and would go on to obtain an equally broad Voting Rights Act in 1965. It also estranged SNCC leaders from many of the mainstream leaders of the civil rights movement.
Those differences carried over into the voting rights struggle that centered on Selma, Alabama in 1965. SNCC had begun organizing black citizens to register to vote in Selma in 1963, but made little headway against the adamant resistance of Sheriff Jim Clark and the White Citizens’ Council. In early 1965, local Selma activists asked the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for help, and the two organizations formed an uneasy alliance. They disagreed over tactical and strategic issues, including the SCLC’s decision not to attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge a second time after county sheriffs and state troopers attacked them on “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965.
The civil rights activists crossed the bridge on the third attempt, with the aid of a federal court order barring authorities from interfering with the march. It was part of a five-day march to Montgomery, Alabama that helped dramatize the need for a Voting Rights Act. During this period, SNCC activists became more and more disenchanted with nonviolence, integration as a strategic goal, and cooperation with white liberals or the Federal government.