Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

After the successful outcome of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, its leader, Martin Luther King wrote Stride Toward Freedom (1958). The book described what happened at Montgomery and explained King's views on non-violence and direct action. The book was to have a considerable influence on the civil rights movement.

In Greensboro, North Carolina, a small group of black students read the book and decided to take action themselves. They started a student sit-in at the restaurant of their local Woolworth's store which had a policy of not serving black people. In the days that followed they were joined by other black students until they occupied all the seats in the restaurant. The students were often physically assaulted, but following the teachings of King they did not hit back.

In February, 1960, about forty college students staged a sit-in at Woolworth's lunch counter with the intention of integrating eating establishments in Nashville, Tennessee. Their numbers increased daily and although hundreds were arrested, by May, lunch counters in the city began to integrate.

This non-violent strategy was adopted by black students all over the Deep South. Within six months these sit-ins had ended restaurant and lunch-counter segregation in twenty-six southern cities. Student sit-ins were also successful against segregation in public parks, swimming pools, theaters, churches, libraries, museums and beaches.

In October, 1960, students involved in these sit-ins held a conference and established the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The organization adopted the Gandhian theory of nonviolent direct action. This included participation in the Freedom Rides during 1961. Leading figures in the organization included Ella J. Baker, Robert Moses, Marion Barry, James Lawson, Charles McDew, James Forman, John Lewis, James Peck and James Zwerg.

In 1963 John Lewis replaced Charles McDew as chairman of SNCC and was one of the main speakers at the the famous March on Washington. On 28th August, 1963, more than 200,000 people marched peacefully to the Lincoln Memorial to demand equal justice for all citizens under the law.

In 1964 the SNCC joined with the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) organised its Freedom Summer campaign. Its main objective was to try an end the political disenfranchisement of African Americans in the Deep South. Volunteers from the three organizations decided to concentrate its efforts in Mississippi. In 1962 only 6.7 per cent of African Americans in the state were registered to vote, the lowest percentage in the country. This involved the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Party (MFDP). Over 80,000 people joined the party and 68 delegates attended the Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City and challenged the attendance of the all-white Mississippi representation.

SNCC, CORE and NAACP also established 30 Freedom Schools in towns throughout Mississippi. Volunteers taught in the schools and the curriculum now included black history, the philosophy of the civil rights movement. During the summer of 1964 over 3,000 students attended these schools and the experiment provided a model for future educational programs such as Head Start.

Freedom Schools were often targets of white mobs. So also were the homes of local African Americans involved in the campaign. That summer 30 black homes and 37 black churches were firebombed. Over 80 volunteers were beaten by white mobs or racist police officers.

In 1966 Stokely Carmichael was elected chairman of the SNCC. Carmichael was associated with the more militant black power and his leadership resulted in many people leaving the organization. H. Rap Brown replaced Carmichael in 1967 and this marked a further move towards extremism. SNCC ceased functioning in 1970.

Primary Sources

(1) Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Statement of Purpose (1960)

We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the presupposition of our faith, and the manner of our action. Non-violence as it grows from Judaic-Christian tradition seeks a social order of justice permeated by love. Integration of human endeavor represents the crucial first step toward such a society.

Through non-violence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt. Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overthrows injustice. The redemptive community supersedes systems of gross social immorality.

Love is the central motif of non-violence. Love is the force by which God binds man to Himself and man to man. Such love goes to the extreme; it remains loving and forgiving even in the midst of hostility. It matches the capacity of evil to inflict suffering with an even more enduring capacity to absorb evil, all the while persisting in love.

By appealing to conscience and standing on the moral nature of human existence, nonviolence nurtures the atmosphere in which reconciliation and justice become actual possibilities.

(2) Ella J. Baker, The Southern Patriot (June, 1960)

The Student Leadership Conference made it crystal clear that current sit-ins and other demonstrations are concerned with something much bigger than a hamburger or even a giant-sized Coke.

Whatever may be the difference in approach to their goal, the Negro and white students, North and South, are seeking to rid America of the scourge of racial segregation and discrimination - not only at lunch counters, but in every aspect of life.

In reports, casual conversations, discussion groups, and speeches, the sense and the spirit of the following statement that appeared in the initial newsletter of the students at Barber-Scotia College, Concord, N.C., were re-echoed time and again: "We want the world to know that we no longer accept the inferior position of second-class citizenship. We are willing to go to jail, be ridiculed, spat upon and even suffer physical violence to obtain First Class Citizenship."

By and large, this feeling that they have a destined date with freedom, was not limited to a drive for personal freedom, or even freedom for the Negro in the South. Repeatedly it was emphasized that the movement was concerned with the moral implications of racial discrimination for the "whole world" and the "Human Race."

This universality of approach was linked with a perceptive recognition that "it is important to keep the movement democratic and to avoid struggles for personal leadership."

It was further evident that desire for supportive cooperation from adult leaders and the adult community was also tempered by apprehension that adults might try to "capture" the student movement. The students showed willingness to be met on the basis of equality, but were intolerant of anything that smacked of manipulation or domination.

This inclination toward group-centered leadership, rather than toward a leader-centered group pattern of organization, was refreshing indeed to those of the older group who bear the scars of the battle, the frustrations and the disillusionment that come when the prophetic leader turns out to have heavy feet of clay.

However hopeful might be the signs in the direction of group-centeredness, the fact that many schools and communities,

especially in the South, have not provided adequate experience for young Negroes to assume initiative and think and act independently accentuated the need for guarding the student movement against well-meaning, but nevertheless unhealthy, over-protectiveness.

Here is an opportunity for adult and youth to work together and provide genuine leadership - the development of the individual to his highest potential for the benefit of the group.

(3) Stokely Carmichael, Black Power (1966)

In March, 1965, not one black person was even registered to vote; over the next twenty months, close to 3,900 black people had not only registered but also formed a political organization, held a nominating convention and slated seven of their members to run for county public office. If ever the political scientists wanted to study the phenomenon of political development or political modernization in this country, here was the place: in the heart of the "black belt," that range of Southern areas characterized by the predominance of black people and rich black soil.

Most local black people readily admit that the catalyst for change was the appearance in the county in March and April, 1965, of a handful of workers from SNCC. They had gone there almost immediately after the murder of Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, on the final night of the Selma to Montgomery March. Mrs. Liuzzo, a white housewife from Detroit, had been driving marchers home when she was shot down by Klansmen on that same Highway 80 in Lowndes County. For the black people of Lowndes, her murder came as no great surprise: Lowndes had one of the nation's worst records for individual and institutional racism, a reputation for brutality that made white as well as black Alabama shiver. In this county, eighty-one percent black, the whites had ruled the entire area and subjugated black people to that rule unmercifully. Lowndes was a prime area for SNCC to apply certain assumptions learned over the years of work in rural, backwoods counties of the South.

SNCC had long understood that one of the major obstacles to helping black people organize structures which could effectively fight institutional racism was fear. The history of the county shows that black people could come together to do only three things: sing, pray, dance. Any time they came together to do anything else, they were threatened or intimidated. For decades, black people had been taught to believe that voting, politics, is "white folks' business." And the white folks had indeed monopolized that business, by methods which ran the gamut from economic intimidation to murder.

(4) Robert Zellner, the grandson of a member of the Ku Klux Klan, joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1961. He became SNCC's first white field secretary and was arrested 25 times in five different Southern States. He was interviewed about his experiences by Clayborne Carson in 1978.

In my senior year, which was 1960 and 1961, in a sociology class, I was assigned to study the racial problem and write a paper presenting my ideas of solutions to the problem. Now, this was in Montgomery, Alabama - the heart of the Confederacy, heart of Dixie - but it was an academic thing, and you are supposed to have enough sense to know that you looked in the books and stuff like that, and I did all that. And then some of the students went to the Klan headquarters, and they came back with literally wheelbarrows full of Klan literature. So I said okay, we'll do that, too. So we went and got our Klan literature, too, and the Citizens' Council's. We said, "Well what about the Montgomery Improvement Association?" That was the other side of the question. Being good academicians, we figured we should check that out, too.

Anyway, to make a long story short, we did go to the Montgomery Improvement Association and we went to a federal court hearing in Montgomery where Dr. King, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, and Reverend Solomon Seay, and many other local and national leaders, had been charged with libel of the Montgomery city commissioners and the county commissioners and so forth.

Four or five of us from campus went there and in the process we met Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy and we asked them if it was possible for us to maybe meet with some students from Alabama State, which was a black campus near our campus. In the back of our minds this was in keeping with our assignment.

They gave us the names of students and we just went over there and met with them. By this time the police got interested, and they were following us; it became sort of an adventure thing. Eventually it wound up that a nonviolence workshop was to be held at the Baptist Church.

Out of the five guys involved, I was the only person out of the five that graduated. One attempted suicide. The others got tremendous pressure from their families. Mine was the only family that backed me up in the whole thing. In a sense they gave no white southerner of that period any choice. If you backed the system at all you had two choices: you either capitulated absolutely and completely, or you became a rebel, a complete outlaw, and that's the way I went because I was contrary enough and had backing from my family, which was very important.

(5) Fannie Lou Hamer, To Praise Our Bridges (1967)

My life has been almost like my mother's was, because I married a man who sharecropped. We didn't have it easy and the only way we could ever make it through the winter was because Pap had a little juke joint and we made liquor. That was the only way we made it. I married in 1944 and stayed on the plantation until 1962 when I went down to the courthouse in Indianola to register to vote. That happened because I went to a mass meeting one night.

Until then I'd never heard of no mass meeting and I didn't know that a Negro could register and vote. Bob Moses, Reggie Robinson, Jim Bevel and James Forman were some of the SNCC workers who ran that meeting. When they asked for those to raise their hands who'd go down to the courthouse the next day, I raised mine. Had it up as high as I could get it. I guess if I'd had any sense I'd a-been a little scared, but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do to me was kill me and it seemed like they'd been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.

Well, there was eighteen of us who went down to the courthouse that day and all of us were arrested. Police said the bus was painted the wrong color - said it was too yellow. After I got bailed out I went back to the plantation where Pap and I had lived for eighteen years. My oldest girl met me and told me that Mr. Marlow, the plantation owner, was mad and raising sand. He had heard that I had tried to register. That night he called on us and said, "We're not going to have this in Mississippi and you will have to withdraw. I am looking for your answer, yea or nay?" I just looked. He said, "I will give you until tomorrow morning. And if you don't withdraw you will have to leave. If you do go withdraw, it's only how I feel, you might still have to leave." So I left that same night. Pap had to stay on till work on the plantation was through. Ten days later they fired into Mrs. Tucker's house where I was staying. They also shot two girls at Mr. Sissel's.

I've worked on voter registration here ever since I went to that first mass meeting. In 1964 we registered 63,000 black people from Mississippi into the Freedom Democratic Party. We formed our own party because the whites wouldn't even let us register. We decided to challenge the white Mississippi Democratic Party at the National Convention. We followed all the laws that the white people themselves made. We tried to attend the precinct meetings and they locked the doors on us or moved the meetings and that's against the laws they made for their ownselves. So we were the ones that held the real precinct meetings. At all these meetings across the state we elected our representatives to go to

the National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. But we learned the hard way that even though we had all the law and all the righteousness on our side - that white man is not going to give up his power to us.

(6) James Lawson, The Southern Patriot (November, 1961)

We must recognize that we are merely in the prelude to revolution, the beginning, not the end, not even the middle. I do not wish to minimize the gains we have made thus far. But it would be well to recognize that we have been receiving concessions, not real changes. The sit-ins won concessions, not structural changes; the Freedom Rides won great concessions, but not real change.

There will be no revolution until we see Negro faces in all positions that help to mold public opinion, help to shape policy for America.

One federal judge in Mississippi will do more to bring revolution than sending 600 marshals to Alabama. We must never allow the President to substitute marshals for putting people into positions where they can affect public policy. . . .

Remember that the way to get this revolution off the ground is to forge the moral, spiritual and political pressure which the President, the nation and the world cannot ignore.

(7) Sally Belfage, Freedom Summer (1965)

In describing the then Chairman of SNCC, with whom he was sharing a Mississippi jail cell, Bob Moses wrote in 1961 that "McDew ... has taken on the deep hates and deep loves which America, and the world, reserve for those who dare to stand in a strong sun and cast a sharp shadow." This could as well describe many SNCC Negroes, whose deep hates and loves were often translated into simple whites and blacks. They were automatically suspicious of us, the white volunteers; throughout the summer they put us to the test, and few, if any, could pass. Implicit in all the songs, tears, speeches, work, laughter, was the knowledge secure in both them and us that ultimately we could return to a white refuge.

Meanwhile, Silas and Jake McGhee kept going to the movies. On July 25 their house was shot into; on July 26 they went to the Leflore Theater. They had been joined near the end of the month by their elder half-brother Clarence Robinson, a six-foot-six paratrooper (again on furlough and still out on bail). Clarence had a thirty-six-inch reach and a 136 I.Q., and his Army hat was reinforced with a silver dollar sewn under the emblem: picked on in a bar once, he had swung the hat and downed two men. He walked down the street in his uniform like Wild Bill Hickok on the way to a duel, cool, tough, infinitely menacing.

He spoke at a mass meeting one night, using his voice as he used his body, with precision and power. "When I went in the Army in April of 1952, I raised my right hand and they told me that I was fighting for my country and my brothers, my sisters, my mother, and my fellow man. And after approximately four months of basic training to teach me how to fight, they sent me to Korea. Now when I come back here and try to go to the Leflore Theater, me and my two brothers, when I got ready to leave, there was a whole mob out there."

"We walked to this car. I opened the rear door, let my two brothers in, and I stood outside for approximately thirty seconds looking around. Nobody threw a brick at me. They could have, they could have knocked my brains out. I'm the same as anybody else, I can be killed, very easy. But they didn't do it. Why? Because I showed that I didn't mind being hit. That if I could get the man that wants to hit me within my thirty-six-inch reach he demonstrated, I'll prove to him that I'm a better man than he is. We left from the theater, because there were incidents. When you go to the theater you've got to expect incidents. Why? Because the white man is scared of you!"

(8) James Forman, Sammy Young Jr.: The First Black College Student to Die in the Black Liberation Movement (1968)

SCLC decided to devote almost all of its organizational energy to a massive right-to-vote campaign, with headquarters in Selma. SNCC, already based in Selma, agreed to cooperate in this new venture. But disagreement on such key issues as concepts of leadership, working methods, and organizing voters for independent political action versus Democratic Party politics, bred conflict between SNCC and SCLC staffs in Alabama.

As the vote campaign intensified, accompanied by innumerable arrests and beatings, the proposal emerged for a march on the Alabama Capitol to demand the vote, as well as new state elections. Basically SNCC was opposed to a Selma-Montgomery march because of the likelihood of police brutality, the drain on resources, and the frustrations experienced in working with SCLC. At a lengthy meeting of its executive committee on March 5 and 6, SNCC voted not to participate organizationally in the march scheduled for Sunday, March 7. However, it encouraged SNCC staffers to do so on a non-organizational basis if they so desired. SNCC was also to make available radios, telephone lines, and certain other facilities already committed by our Alabama staff.

Then we heard that Dr. King would not appear at the march he himself had called. Without his newsworthy presence, it seemed likely that the lives of many black people would be even more endangered. We therefore mobilized three carloads of staff workers from Mississippi, two-way radios, and other protective equipment. At our national office in Atlanta, a group of SNCC people - including Alabama project director Silas Norman and Stokely Carmichael, whose subsequent election as SNCC chairman was largely the result of his work in Alabama - chartered a plane rather than make the five-hour drive to Selma. Since we had heard of King's absence only after the marchers had begun to assemble, none of SNCC's people were able to arrive for the march itself. But it seemed important to have maximum support in the event that violence developed that evening. While our various forces headed for Selma, we tried repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, to contact Dr. King, to find out his reasons for not appearing and to discuss the situation.

(9) Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Vietnam (1968)

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee has a right and a responsibility to dissent with United States foreign policy on any issue when it sees fit. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee now states its opposition to the United States' involvement in Vietnam on these grounds:

We believe the United States government has been deceptive in its claims of concern for the freedom of the Vietnamese people, just as the government has been deceptive in claiming concern for the freedom of colored people in other countries as the Dominican Republic, the Congo, South Africa, Rhodesia, and in the United States itself.

We, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, have been involved in the black peoples' struggle for liberation and self-determination in this country for the past five years. Our work, particularly in the South, has taught us that the United States government has never guaranteed the freedom of oppressed citizens, and is not yet truly determined to end the rule of terror and oppression within its own borders.

We ourselves have often been victims of violence and confinement executed by United States governmental officials. We recall the numerous persons who have been murdered in the South because of their efforts to secure their civil and human rights, and whose murderers have been allowed to escape penalty for their crimes.

The murder of Samuel Young in Tuskegee, Alabama, is no different than the murder of peasants in Vietnam, for both Young and the Vietnamese sought, and are seeking, to secure the rights guaranteed them by law. In each case, the United States government bears a great part of the responsibility for these deaths.

Samuel Young was murdered because United States law is not being enforced. Vietnamese are murdered because the United States is pursuing an aggressive policy in violation of international law. The United States is no respecter of persons or law when such persons or laws run counter to its needs or desires.

We recall the indifference, suspicion and outright hostility with which our reports of violence have been met in the past by government officials.

We know that for the most part, elections in this country, in the North as well as the South, are not free. We have seen that the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1966 Civil Rights Act have not yet been implemented with full federal power and sincerity.

We question, then, the ability and even the desire of the United States government to guarantee free elections abroad. We maintain that our country's cry of "preserve freedom in the world" is a hypocritical mask, behind which it squashes liberation movements which are not bound, and refuse to be bound, by the expediencies of United States cold war policies.

We are in sympathy with, and support, the men in this country who are unwilling to respond to a military draft which would compel them to contribute their lives to United States aggression in Vietnam in the name of the "freedom" we find so false in this country.

We recoil with horror at the inconsistency of a supposedly "free" society where responsibility to freedom is equated with the responsibility to lend oneself to military aggression. We take not of the fact that 16% of the draftees from this country are Negroes called on to stifle the liberation of Vietnam, to preserve a "democracy" which does not exist for them at home.

We ask, where is the draft for the freedom fight in the United States? We therefore encourage those Americans who prefer to use their energy in building democratic forms within this country. We believe that work in the civil rights movement and with other human relations organizations is a valid alternative to the draft. We urge all Americans to seek this alternative, knowing full well that it may cost them their lives - as painfully as in Vietnam.