The Importance of its Work, the Value of its Legacy
by Charles Cobb
The time was 1960, the place the U.S.A.
That February first became a history making day
From Greensboro all across the land
The news spread far and wide
That quietly and bravely youth took a giant stride
Heed the call
Side by equal side
Brothers sit in dignity
Sisters sit in pride
—Ballad of the Sit-Ins by Guy Carawan, Eve Merriam and Norman Curtis
You can never tell when a spark will light a fire. So, on February 1, 1960 when four Black students attending North Carolina A&T College sat down at the lunch counter in a Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth Department store, ordered food, were refused service and then remained seated until the store closed, few could have predicted how rapidly similar protests would spread across the south; or the lasting impact on the south and the nation of the sudden direct action by these students.
Over the next two months, student sit-ins spread to 80 southern cities and were involving thousands of young people, most of them attending historically black colleges and universities like A&T, although in several cities high school students launched and led sit-ins. Two and a half months after Greensboro—the weekend of April 15-17—student sit-in leaders gathered at Shaw College (now Shaw University) in Raleigh, North Carolina to meet one another, share experiences and to discuss coordinating future actions.
Ella Baker, one of the great figures in 20th century civil rights struggle had organized this gathering. She was then executive director of Rev. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a group she had been instrumental in organizing. In the 1940s she had been the NAACP’s director of southern branches, and in the early 1950s deeply involved with supporting southern Black community leaders facing economic reprisals because of their civil rights activities. As the sit-ins unfolded, she recognized that beyond energetic protests, the students were bringing something fresh and new to civil rights struggle and at the Shaw conference encouraged them to consider forming their own organization. Thus was born the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”). Her fundamental message to the students was, “Organize from the bottom up.” She emphasized her belief that, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”
Ella Baker provided a corner of the SCLC office in Atlanta to SNCC. In this cramped space SNCC’s sole staff member was Jane Stembridge, a volunteer stirred by the sit-ins who was the white Georgia-born and raised daughter of a Baptist preacher. A newsletter—The Student Voice—was created and circulated to student protest groups. It mainly provided information about what the various SNCC-affiliated campus-based organizations were doing. The first check to SNCC—$100—in support of its existence and efforts, came from Eleanor Roosevelt.
Soon, however, discussion among some of the students turned to what
beside sit-ins could be done by young people, especially outside of
urban centers. Within a year of SNCC’s founding, a small group dropped
out of school and became the first SNCC organizers or “field
These organizers, armed with the names of grassroots contacts Ella Baker had developed over many years, even decades, began digging into southern black belt communities. By the fall of 1961 SNCC had established two significant organizing projects: Southwest Mississippi and Southwest Georgia. Both regions, rural and containing majority Black populations, were characterized by violent and vicious opposition to Black voting rights with terror and reprisal encouraged and supported by state and local government in response to any civil rights activity.
The Black Organizing Tradition and SNCC
Community organizing is a very old tradition in Black America. Slaves, after all, were not sitting-in at the plantation manor dining room seeking a seat at the table; nor picketing the auction block in the town square. They were organizing—sometimes an escape, or sometimes a rebellion, and constantly, the ways and means of survival in a new, very strange and hostile land. Ella Baker, and the community leaders she introduced them to, brought SNCC field secretaries into this organizing tradition. And what these Black community leaders wanted help organizing was voter registration campaigns. Black people had the numbers; if they could get the vote they could begin to dismantle the system of oppression that had dominated Black life for all of the 20th century; indeed, since the abandonment of Reconstruction in 1876. Mississippi NAACP leader Amzie Moore put this on the table at SNCC’s second conference in October 1960. And SNCC’s black belt organizing efforts increasingly revolved around voter registration.
SNCC organizers embedded themselves in rural black belt communities to work to empower some of the poorest of the poor in America. This was a relatively new, even radical approach to civil rights struggle. The ruthless white violence directed at any civil rights effort in the rural deep south black belt engendered belief that little was possible through direct organizing efforts. More traditional civil rights organizations did not concentrate much effort in this geography or among this category of people, giving priority instead to legal battles to strike down laws enforcing white supremacy and segregation. So in some respects, despite the existence of some truly heroic NAACP leaders, SNCC organizers were also entering virgin political territory. And they were embraced by local people in these communities; invisible as actors in the civil rights struggle but who had long desired change. Out of this work emerged new voices from the grassroots like Mississippi’s Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper who became a powerful national spokesperson for civil rights. She was also, at 46-years-of-age in 1962, SNCC’s oldest field secretary. This kind of close relationship with people at the grassroots would characterize SNCC during its entire existence.
No civil rights action in history had ever swept the South the way that the sit-in movement did; certainly no action driven and led by young people. SNCC’s youthfulness was important to what it was and what it became. The number and manner in which young people began emerging as leaders in the civil rights movement in 1960, was unprecedented. As Martin Luther King put it at a Durham, North Carolina civil rights rally less than a month after sit-ins erupted in Greensboro, “What is new in your fight is the fact that it was initiated, fed, and sustained by students.” An often ignored effect of this student action was their making legitimate going to jail for a principle. And this changed the students, laying the foundation for everything they would do as SNCC organizers. Charles Sherrod from Petersburg, Virginia was the first of the sit-in students to postpone his education to work full-time with SNCC. He pioneered grassroots organizing in Southwest Georgia. But a few months before going there to begin that work, on the first anniversary of the Greensboro sit-in, he sat-in and was arrested in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He refused bail and served a 30-day sentence of hard labor on a road gang. Upon his release, Sherrod offered a vivid articulation of how students like himself were changing: “You get ideas in jail. You talk with other young people you have never seen. Right away we recognize each other. People like yourself, getting out of the past. We’re up all night, sharing creativity, planning action. You learn the truth in prison, you learn wholeness. You find out the difference between being dead and alive.”
And in a 1962 field report, 22-year-old Sam Block, who was the first SNCC organizer to begin working in the Mississippi Delta, demonstrates a courage and commitment that can perhaps only belong to youth: “We went up to register and it was the first time visiting the courthouse in Greenwood, Mississippi, and the sheriff came up to me and he asked me, he said, ‘Nigger where you from?’ I told him, Well I’m a native Mississippian. He said, ‘Yeh, yeh, I know that, but where you from? I don’t know where you from.’ I said, Well, around some counties. He said, ‘Well I know that, [but] I know you ain’t from here ‘cause I know every nigger and his mammy.’ I said, You know all the niggers, do you know any colored people? He got angry. He spat in my face and he walked away. So he came back and turned around and told me, ‘I don’t want to see you in town any more. The best thing you better do is pack your clothes and get out and don’t never come back no more.’ I said, Well, sheriff, if you don’t want to see me here, I think the best thing for you to do is pack your clothes and leave, get out of town, ‘cause I’m here to stay; I came here to do a job and this is my intention. I’m going to do this job.…”
SNCC Organizing Projects
The organizing work was both dull and dangerous, mostly involving door-to-door canvassing in an effort to persuade legitimately fearful potential Black registrants to brave the risks of going to county courthouses to register to vote knowing that the chances of actually getting registered were virtually nil. Courthouse clerks could ask anyone attempting to register questions like how many bubbles were in a bar of soap; or to interpret a complex section of the state constitution to their satisfaction as a requirement for registration. And almost always, economic or violent reprisal followed attempts by Blacks to register to vote. At a deeper level than the immediate political concern with voter registration, SNCC’s work was also about cultivating new local leadership and reinforcing existing local leadership. SNCC field secretaries did not see themselves as community leaders but as community organizers, a distinction that empowered local participants by reinforcing the idea at the heart of SNCC’s work in every project that “local people” could and should take control of their own lives. Much of what SNCC organizers did was demonstrate they were willing to stay in these communities despite the violence; that they could not be run out by the violence. Conversations on front porches, in dirt yards, amidst crops in cotton, tobacco and sugar cane fields, in small church meetings and in plantation sharecropper shacks, explored citizenship and the idea of gaining control of the decision-making affecting daily life. Being able to do this on a large scale was uncertain because fear kept many doors closed, but even attempting to do this sort of work in the rural black belt south could be counted as a breakthrough, a modest but important victory of commitment over terror. And though large numbers did not publically and politically surface in response to SNCC organizing efforts, a small number of the very brave did, teaching the SNCC “organizers” how to listen as well as how to talk; how to understand the communities they were in; and to know when they were in danger and when they were not. “We were the community’s children,” wrote SNCC’s legendary Mississippi project director Bob Moses in his book Radical Equations. “And that closeness rendered moot the label of ‘outside agitator.’”
There is not enough space here to detail every single one of SNCC organizing projects, but during the eight years of its existence SNCC had projects in Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and Texas. There were more SNCC field secretaries working full time in southern communities than any civil rights organization before or since. And there were two notable organizing projects that need mentioning here and are important to SNCC’s legacy:
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party: In Mississippi and throughout the black belt, the savage never-ending oppressive cycle that kept black people politically disenfranchised had two connected halves. 1) Blacks were deliberately and systematically kept illiterate (and the public school system was part of this) while at the same time literacy was the primary requirement for voter registration. 2) Violence and reprisal was the response to any Black effort aimed at gaining the political franchise; but because few blacks were willing to brave the virtually certain terroristic response to seeking the franchise, they were said to be “apathetic.”
To attack this cycle in Mississippi, SNCC and other civil rights organizations in the state established in churches, small shops and other places within Black communities, voter registration facilities; safe places for voter registration. More than 80,000 people “registered to vote” under these simpler and more comfortable conditions, thus arming organizers with concrete evidence that apathy was not the problem. This “freedom registration” was followed-up with the organizing of a “freedom party”—the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Unlike the all-white so-called “regular” state Democratic Party, the MFDP was open to all without regard to race. Carefully following all of the delegate selection rules for the 1964 Democratic Party national convention, the MFDP challenged the legitimacy of seating Mississippi’s official all-white delegation. Although the MFDP lost the challenge in a still bitterly remembered political fight which brought the weight of the White House down on them, their challenge forced changes that dramatically reshaped both the state and national Democratic Party.
The Lowndes County Freedom Organization: When a small group of SNCC organizers, led by Stokely Carmichael, entered notorious Lowndes County Alabama shortly after the Selma-to-Montgomery march, not a single black person in this county, whose population was 80 percent Black, was registered to vote. In fact, no Black person in this county nicknamed “Bloody Lowndes” was known to have been registered to vote in the entire 20th century. Remarkably, in less than a year, despite violence that included the murder and the attempted murders of civil rights organizers, Blacks were a majority of the registered voters in Lowndes County. This success in voter registration was assisted by the August 1965 signing into law of the Voting Rights Act. But SNCC’s organizing here took root around the idea of an independent Black political party. That party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) pioneered the development of written and visual materials clearly illustrating through words and pictures the importance of the vote, or as one organizer put it years later, “regime change.”
The symbol of the LCFO was a black panther, making it the first black panther party in the nation. In 1966, the LCFO fielded candidates for county offices and the party’s instructions were simple: “Pull the Black Panther lever and go home.” (The symbol of Alabama’s Democratic Party was a white rooster with the words “white supremacy for the right” written above it.) Fraud by the county’s white powers denied the LCFO victory and the election was followed by the expulsion of Black sharecroppers and tenant farmers supporting the LCFO. Nonetheless, in 1970 the first Black Sherriff was elected in Lowndes County. Meanwhile, the black panther symbol had leapt across country to Oakland, California where the now much better known Black Panther Party was formed by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. Here, too, in Lowndes County are the roots of Stokely Carmichael’s 1966 call for Black Power as chairman of SNCC.
In the broadest sense, SNCC’s legacy is the legacy of grassroots organizing. Within this frame, SNCC and the field organizers of CORE, SCLC and the NAACP are really an interconnected force that in just one intense decade successfully challenged and changed America for the better. But there are specific aspects of this broad legacy that belong to SNCC and justify a formal effort to both collect and create material that will help future generations understand, draw lessons from, and perhaps use the SNCC experience in continuing efforts to fashion “a more perfect union” here in the United States.
First, by putting their lives continuously at risk through committed grassroots organizing, this relatively small group of young people broke the back of a racist and restrictive exclusionary order that was tolerated at the highest levels of government. Much of what kept white supremacy and segregation in place was the absence of direct and continuous challenge to it and the undramatic grassroots work on the back roads and in the towns and villages of the deep south for voting rights also made it impossible to ignore the will to freedom. And it needs to be said here that this work liberated Whites as well as Blacks.
Indeed, the MFDP and that party’s 1964 challenge not only led to a
two-party system in Mississippi and the south, but also forced via the
1972 “McGovern Rules” changes in political practices that have
permanently expanded the participation of women and minorities. There is
a straight line connecting the MFDP with the election of Barak Obama to
the U.S. presidency.
Nationwide, student struggle was also inspired by the southern movement and these movements expanded and accelerated in the decade of the 1960s. SDS’s grassroots Educational and Research Action Projects (ERAP) in the North grew out of discussions with SNCC and observation of its work. The Northern Student Movement (NSM), initially formed in 1961 to aid SNCC, became an activist organization with nearly 50 campus chapters taking on welfare reform, dysfunctional schools and other community organizing projects.
The Mississippi Summer Project of 1964 which brought nearly 1,000 students from around the nation to Mississippi for a “freedom summer” conveyed the ideas and ideals of the southern freedom movement into a whole generation from which the future leadership of the country would be drawn. Most immediately, the free speech movement that erupted on the University of California campus at Berkeley during the 1964-65 school year, was initiated by Mississippi Freedom Summer volunteer Mario Savio.
SNCC’s articulation of “Black Power” fostered a new black consciousness. The Black and Africana studies departments on college campuses today have roots in the Mississippi “freedom schools” of 1964, the earlier Nonviolent High School created in 1961 by SNCC in McComb, Mississippi when students were expelled for protesting, and the general idea of education for liberation that is taking the form today in the growing struggle over quality public education as a civil right.
Other movements gained strength from the pool of ideas found in SNCC: Chicano farm workers, who were facing sheriffs and going to jail in the late 1950s, invited SNCC workers to help with their efforts in the late 1960s. Discussion of sexism and women’s rights within SNCC, as well as SNCC’s real life examples of empowered, respected women who led local movements and held key positions in the organization, encouraged and reinforced a burgeoning feminist movement.
But more than anything else, the SNCC legacy is found in the veterans, many of who have continued to work for “a more perfect union.” Five SNCC veterans have been recipients of MacArthur Foundation Genius awards. Former SNCC communications director Julian Bond became board chair of the NAACP. Former SNCC chair John Lewis is now serving his 11th term as congressman from Atlanta’s 5th congressional district. Across the country, and especially in the south, SNCC veterans are influential leaders and activists. Once young and mentored by “elders” who had long labored in the fields of social change, SNCC veterans now continue that tradition and are now, who “they” were. Ella Baker’s words best define this legacy: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”
RECOMMENDED READING FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
On The Road To Freedom, A Guided Tour of the
Civil Rights Trail, by Charles E. Cobb Jr.
Hands on the Freedom Plow, Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith Holsaert, et. al.
Deep in Our Hearts, Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement, by Joan Browning, et al.
Many Minds, One Heart, SNCC’s Dream for a New America, by Wesley Hogan
SNCC, the New Abolitionists, by Howard Zinn
In Struggle, SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson
Ready For Revolution, the Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael, by Stokely Carmichael with Ekueme Michael Thelwell
The Making of Black Revolutionaries, by James Forman
The River of No Return, by Cleveland Sellers with Robert Terrell
Walking With the Wind, by John Lewis with Michael D’orso
Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, by Barbara Ransby
Ella Baker, Freedom Bound, by Joanne Grant
The Wrong Side of Murder Creek, by Bob Zellner with Constance Curry
Freedom Song, by Mary King
Letters From Mississippi, edited by Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez
Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt, by Hasan Kwame Jeffries
Radical Equations, Civil Rights From Mississippi to the Algebra Project, by Robert P. Moses