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Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (9254 hits)

Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee

Background and Summary

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee was one of the principal organizations of the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. It was formed in April of 1960 by student meetings led by Ella Baker at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. The organization meant to unite students in non-violent protest against segregation and other racist occurrences that were common of the 1950s and 1960s, until the civil rights laws were passed.

The SNCC played major roles in the Freedom Rides, in the 1963 March on Washington, in Mississippi Freedom Summer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party over the following few years. In the later part of the 1960s, led by fiery personalities, such as Stokely Carmichael, the SNCC focused on "Black Power," and protested against the Vietnam War. In 1969, SNCC officially changed its name to the Student National Coordinating Committee to reflect the broadening of its strategies. It disbanded in the 1970s.

Inspired by the Greensboro, N.C., sit-ins in February of 1960, independent student-led groups began direct-action protests against segregation in dozens of Southern communities. The most common action of these groups was organizing sit-ins at segregated lunch counters to protest the pervasiveness of Jim Crow laws and other forms of racism.

SNCC, as an organization, began with an $800 grant from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organization that Martin Luther King Jr., was to fund a conference where student activists could share experiences and coordinate protest activities. Held at Shaw University in April of 1960, 126 student delegates from 58 “sit-in centers” in 12 states attended the conference, along with delegates from 19 northern colleges. Members from SCLC, Congress of Racial Equality, Fellowship of Reconciliation, National Student Association and Students for a Democratic Society were also in attendance. Out of this conference the SNCC was established.

Standing On Its Own

Baker, who organized the conference at Shaw, was the SCLC director before helping in with the formation of the SNCC; though, this implied the SNCC was a branch of SCLC. But instead of being closely tied to SCLC, or any other civil rights-focused organization as a "youth division," SNCC sought to stand on its own.

In the years that followed, SNCC members were referred to as “shock troops of the revolution." SNCC faced greater risks the following year, after a mob of Ku Klux Klan members and other incensed Whites attacked groups of bus passengers that were part of the Freedom Rides, an event organized by CORE. Rather than allowing mob violence to stop them, SNCC volunteers and a large number of CORE volunteers, put themselves at great risk by traveling into the Deep South, forcing the Kennedy Administration to briefly provide federal protection to abate mob violence. Four-hundred and thirty-six people took part in these Freedom Rides during the spring and summer of 1961.

SNCC played a significant 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, more effective civil rights legislation protecting the right to vote and outlawing segregation, John Lewis criticized the administration for how little it had done to protect Southern Blacks and civil rights workers under attack in the Deep South. While he toned down his comments, under pressure from others in the movement, his words still stung: "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.'"

SNCC expanded its activities in the next few years to include other forms of organizing. In 1963, SNCC conducted the Freedom Ballot, a mock election in which Black Mississippians came out to show their willingness to vote. In the South, especially, many times Blacks were previously denied the right to vote, despite the provisions of the 15th Amendment, and due to a combination of state laws, economic reprisals and violence by White authorities and private citizens.

Mississippi Summer

SNCC followed up the Freedom Ballot with the Mississippi Summer Project, also known as Freedom Summer, which focused on voter registration. SNCC organized Black Mississippians to register to vote, almost always without success, as White authorities either rejected their applications on legal pretexts or 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, disappeared after having been released from police custody. Their bodies were eventually found after a reluctant J. Edgar Hoover directed the FBI to find them. In the process, the FBI also found the corpses of several other missing Black Mississippians, whose disappearances had not attracted any public attention.

SNCC also established Freedom Schools to teach children to read and to empower them to stand up for their rights. The struggle to desegregate public accommodations led by King in Birmingham, Ala., the year before, for example, illustrated the manner in which the bolder attitudes of children brought into the movement helped shake their parents out of the previous fear of racism and hatred that had paralyzed many of them for decades.

The goal of the Mississippi Summer Project was to organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an integrated party, in order to win seats at the 1964 Democratic National Convention for a slate of delegates elected by disenfranchised Black Mississippians and White sympathizers. The MFDP was, however, tremendously inconvenient for the Johnson Administration, which 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 had received during the Democratic primaries in the North.

When the MFDP started to organize a fight over credentials, Johnson originally refused to budge. As Fannie Lou Hamer, the leader of the MFDP, was in the midst of testifying about the beatings she suffered from the police while attempting to exercise their right to vote, Johnson preempted television coverage by arranging for a hastily scheduled speech of his own. Even so, her testimony had created enough uproar that Johnson offered the MFDP a "compromise": they would receive two non-voting 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 president nominee Hubert Humphrey, to put pressure on King and other mainstream civil rights leaders to bring the MFDP to compromise, while directing Hoover to put the delegation under surveillance. The MFDP rejected both the compromise and the pressure asserted on them to accept it and simply walked out. That experience destroyed what little faith SNCC activists had in the principles  of 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.

Those differences carried over into the voting rights struggle that centered on Selma, Ala., in 1965. SNCC had begun organizing citizens to register to vote in Selma, but was forced to cede a larger role to the SCLC later that year. SNCC disagreed with SCLC over tactical and strategic issues, including the 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. Although the civil rights marchers finally crossed the bridge on their third attempt, with the aid of a federal court order barring authorities from interfering, SNCC activists became more and more disenchanted with their role in the movement.

Disillusion and Dissolution

Many members within the SNCC grew skeptical about the tactics of non-violence. After the Watts Riots in Los Angeles in 1965, some SNCC members sought to break their ties with the mainstream Civil Rights Movement and the liberal organizations that supported it, arguing instead that Blacks needed to seize power rather than seek accommodations from the White power structure.

The group finally split in two after the Democratic convention of 1964 at which the MFDP tried to gain more political rights for Blacks. When this attempt failed, the Civil Rights Movement experienced turmoil over which direction to take. SNCC itself split in two as a result of “disillusionment” over the convention.

The leader of the militant branch, Carmichael replaced Lewis as head of SNCC in May 1966. Carmichael first argued that Blacks should be free to use violence in self-defense, then later advocated revolutionary violence to overthrow oppression. Carmichael rejected the civil rights legislation that the movement had fought so hard to achieve as mere palliatives. The Department of Defense stated in 1967: “SNCC can no longer be considered a civil rights group. It has become a racist organization with Black supremacy ideals and an expressed hatred for whites. It employs violent and militant measures which may be defined as extreme when compared with those of more moderate groups.”

Carmichael coined the phrase “Black Power” and held up a banner with the statement at a speech in Greenwood, Miss., in June of 1966. As the mainstream civil rights movement distanced itself from SNCC, SNCC expelled its White staff and volunteers and denounced the Whites who had supported it in the past. By early 1967 SNCC was approaching bankruptcy and close to disassembling. Carmichael left SNCC in June of 1967 to join the Black Panther Party. H. Rap Brown replaced him as the head of SNCC. Brown renamed the group, changing “Non-Violent” to “National” in the acronym and began supporting violence, which he described "as American as cherry pie." He resigned from SNCC in 1968, after being indicted for inciting to riot in Cambridge, Md., in 1967, to become minister of justice of the BPP.

SNCC was by that point no longer an effective organization. It largely disappeared in the early 1970s, although chapters in communities such as San Antonio, continued in existence for several more years. SNCC began again at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Ky.

Notable Members:

Stokely Carmichael

J. Charles Jones

Diane Nash

James Lawson

John Lewis

Marion Barry


Sources:; Clayborne Carson, In Struggle, SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s: Harvard University Press, 1981; Bruce J. Dierenfield, The Civil Rights Movement, Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2004;;;; Hogan, Wesley C. How democracy travels: SNCC, Swarthmore students, and the growth of the student movement in the North, 1961-1964; Sellers, Cleveland and Robert Terrell. The River of No Return: The Autobiography of a Black Militant and the Life and Death of SNCC. University Press of Mississippi, November 1, 1990; Zinn, Howard. SNCC: The New Abolitionists, Boston: Beacon Press. 1964.

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Tuesday, February 12th 2008 at 2:44PM
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