The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)’s Radical Activism

In April of 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) emerged as an organization for young Black activists, particularly those who were participating in student-led sit-ins at segregated lunch counters across the Southeast. 

Its founder Ella Baker, formerly employed with the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), believed that SCLC did not allow enough space for Black women and was out of touch with younger, more radical Black activists. Baker intended the Committee as a way to implement direct-action challenges to segregation and voter suppression in the U.S., and it eventually grew to be one of the most radical branches of the civil rights movement (its members were known within the civil rights movement as the “shock troops of the revolution”). Her work for the NAACP in the 1940s provided SNCC with a network of activists, including Bob Moses and Amzie Moore. With help from Moses and Moore, SNCC organized its first Voter Registration Project in the summer of 1960. 

In 1962, aided by the Kennedy Administration and several liberal foundations, SNCC created the Voter Education Project (VEP) to channel funds into voter drives in the South. While older civil rights leaders prioritized VEP as a way to increase Black political participation, younger leaders believed that VEP was a government attempt to co-opt their movement and shift it away from disruptive direct action. This split eventually became so severe that Ella Baker suggested SNCC break into two separate wings: one for voter registration, and one for direct action. The organization proved successful in both efforts. 

Besides Voter Registration, SNCC was very active in desegregation efforts like sit-ins, marches and Freedom Rides. In 1963, Freedom Rider John Lewis became SNCC’s chairman. SNCC members like Lewis and others faced extreme violence from racists in the South; in 1964, three SNCC members died at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan during Mississippi Freedom Summer. The following year, Lewis and many others were brutally beaten by police at a march for the Selma voting rights campaign. Despite suffering a fractured skull and a concussion, Lewis marched from Selma to Montgomery just two weeks later. 

Lewis was also the youngest and most militant speaker at the March on Washington in 1963. Here is an excerpt from his speech regarding the Kennedy Administration’s Civil Rights bill:

“As it stands now, the voting section of this bill will not help the thousands of people who want to vote. It will not help the citizens of Mississippi, of Alabama and Georgia who are unqualified to vote for lack of sixth grade education. One man, one vote is the African cry. It is ours too. It must be ours.

We must have legislation that will protect the Mississippi sharecroppers, who have been forced to leave their homes because they dared to exercise their right to register to vote. We need a bill that will provide for the homeless and starving people of this nation. We need a bill that will ensure the equality of a maid who earns five dollars a week in the home of a family whose total income is 100,000 dollars a year.”

In the following years, SNCC split from more conservative civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and became even more radical. In 1966, Stokely Carmichael (now Kwame Ture) was elected head of SNCC. He popularized the term “Black power” to characterize the new tactics and goals, including the use of violence as a legitimate means of self-defense and Black self-reliance. Ture defined Black power as a “call for Black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations.” SNCC also vocally opposed the Vietnam War in the late 60s, and some members eventually joined forces with the Black Panthers as both parties faced bankruptcy. As SNCC moved their efforts north and into cities, they were met with enough opposition to effectively dissolve them (SNCC was a target of the CIA’s COINTELPRO initiative). 

Julian Bond, a founding member, said that “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.”

For more information on SNCC founder Ella Baker, SCUA Digital Collections holds Fundi: the story of Ella Baker, a short documentary on her work as a grassroots organizer and a strong voice for Black women in the civil rights movement.

For more information about Civil Rights in Special Collections, Contact Us.

Items below are from our AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department collection and are featured in our exhibition Get Out the Vote: Suffrage and Disenfranchisement in America.

Post by Rigby Philips
History, specializing in women’s history and the history of sexuality

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