No group epitomized the role of young people in the Civil Rights Movement as resolutely as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Founded at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., during a conference on the campus from April 16-18, 1960, SNCC, or “Snick” as it was popularly called, was the brainchild of activist Ella Baker, then executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). What she envisioned was an offspring of SCLC in which young people would be free to organize themselves without necessarily looking to the elders of SCLC.
“SNCC’s founding was an important step in the transformation of a limited student movement to desegregate lunch counters into a broad and sustained movement to achieve major social forms,” writes Clayborne Carson in his definitive “In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening in the 1960s.”
Despite three years of their heroic and courageous work in the sit-in movement, acting as freedom riders on the buses and prominent boycotters and demonstrators in major cities across the South, it was not until John Lewis’s speech at the March on Washington in 1963 that the SNCC began to get the notice it deserved. The group gained further recognition and admiration when it launched its Freedom Summer Project of 1964, mainly in Mississippi. Hundreds of young volunteers, after being trained in the tactics of nonviolent protest by such notables as James Lawson and James Forman, ventured south and began knocking on doors of Black residents in rural towns to register to vote.
It wasn’t long before Snick was in the news when three civil rights workers—Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, who were essentially connected to CORE (Congress of Racial Equality)—were abducted by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Their bodies were found on Aug. 4, 1964, in an earth-filled dam near Philadelphia, Miss. It took three years before seven white men were convicted of the crime and sentenced to prison.
It’s perhaps unfair to single out one freedom fighter from this cast of brave young people, but Bob Moses is someone who needs more than just a mention. Without his steadfast commitment to the SNCC and its various strategies to bring about justice and equality in the bowels of the South, the movement would not have accomplished as much as it did. His defiance of danger has been captured in several books, none more noteworthy than James Forman’s “The Making of Black Revolutionaries,” in which he depicts episode after episode of Moses’ acts of valor in the face of possible death.
Moses was also significantly involved with Fannie Lou Hamer in the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was formed to challenge the all-white Democratic Party from the state. When they appeared en masse at the Democratic Convention in 1964 in Atlantic City, it marked a milestone in the fight against racism and white supremacy. Hamer, like Moses, was the guiding spirit of the SNCC, and they passed on their leadership skills and fortitude to the late Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and H. Rap Brown (Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin), both of whom would later be at the helm of the SNCC.
The emergence of Ture and Al-Amin as chairs of the organization gave it a more radical definition and outlook, and some of the elders in SCLC, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were not in favor of the Black Power Movement, which Ture had introduced in 1966. By this time, Black Nationalism was also being heavily promoted among some of the members, and this made it very uncomfortable for many of the whites who joined the struggle at a time when the group was very interracial. Soon, the presence of whites proved divisive, and that, along with the intensity of radical ideas, pushed the group closer to the end of its effectiveness in the Civil Rights Movement. This became even more problematic when Ture and Al-Amin were made honorary members of the Black Panther Party.
“SNCC workers scattered like seeds in a wind after their radicalism could no longer find fertile ground in the Southern struggle,” Carson wrote in the epilogue of his book. Several of them attended a reunion of members in 1976, but it was a small gathering, and it is true as Carson observed that the SNCC carried on a struggle that it did not start, nor did it end when the SNCC no longer existed.
They made their mark on the thousands of Black Americans who found the will and courage to challenge Jim Crow, to march against the Klan, to boycott stores and to assert themselves as human beings with inalienable rights. For instilling in these sharecroppers and citizens in the Deep South a sense of pride and determination, the SNCC has earned a place in the pantheon of resistance against tyranny and bigotry. The spirit of these young freedom fighters was undaunted and undiminished.