Just over a week ago, my colleague Nashay and I, along with my 15-year-old daughter Amanda, attended the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) 50th Anniversary Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. The Open Society Institute provided support for the conference and for SNCC’s Legacy Project, which will document and disseminate SNCC's lessons learned to young activists.
In many ways, the conference felt like being welcomed into someone’s high school reunion. Former SNCC members greeted each other with the words “We’re still the same people.” The SNCC identity remains with them today; people introduced themselves by saying which office they worked out of and the years they were active. The atmosphere was one of remembrance and celebration with an eye on moving forward. But the remembrance needed much time, because it is appalling how much we collectively do not know about this organization.
SNCC was a youth movement. The actions of four black freshmen from North Carolina A&T State University on February 1, 1960, who took the risk of sitting in a whites-only Woolworth lunch counter was just the spark needed to ignite similar actions throughout the South and sympathetic actions through the rest of the United States.
What SNCC contributed to changing American society should not be understated. As one panelist noted, “In a time when the civil rights struggle is presented as a bedtime story with a beginning, middle and end, it is important to revisit the work of SNCC and their call for transforming American democracy.” SNCC activists were a multiracial group of young people putting their lives on the line to change deeply ingrained prejudices. SNCC did not just change policy, they changed culture.
"The Governor and Ku Klux Klan Welcome You to Mississippi"
SNCC organizers recalled being greeted with the sign "The Governor and Ku Klux Klan Welcome You to Mississippi," and the ensuing fear, intimidation, arrests and beatings. They also recounted the resistance of the black community for fear of losing jobs, homes and life. Also shared was the generational shift – the Freedom Schools had boys and girls sleeping in the same houses, which the older folks did not support.
Attendees spoke about the opportunities they had with the rising post-WWII expectations of African Americans, the infrastructure that existed in the form of youth councils from the ‘50s, and the waning of McCarthyism. SNCC organizers at the conference spoke about how they had to accept death as a possibility to be able to do the work. There was talk about the “walking wounded” and the hesitancy some have today with sharing with their children all that they faced.
Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things
The stories recounted many examples of people who were not looking to become activists. Julian Bond shared how he was in a coffee shop (most likely cutting class) when someone showed him the paper of the Greensboro sit-in and his response was “that’s nice,” happy in the thought that other people were taking care of desegregation. Other people talked about joining SNCC to get over the pain of a break-up or because someone cute was handing out flyers. One woman thanked SNCC because that was the only place where she was ever told that she could do incredible things and where she was given the tools and opportunity to prove this. Her quote: “We would have been damn fools without SNCC.”
One of the things SNCC members stressed was that SNCC was a non-hierarchical organization. This was evidenced in the workshop sessions that even though they had panelists, the audience participated fully in challenging, remembering and identifying strengths and weaknesses of the organization.
The rooms were full of people who love – love to debate, love to engage, and who clearly love each other. Dissent that might read as rancor in a transcript was met with a smile along with an equally challenging retort. The memory of SNCC events, command of American history and analysis of global economics was stellar. The intellectual atmosphere was intoxicating.
A Radical Organization
"Compared to Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SNCC's workers were sons of bitches." —Julian Bond quoting JFK (in White House transcripts)
SNCC members like to say, “SCLC mobilized, SNCC organized.” SNCC organizers recognized that civil rights organizations' allegiance to the Democratic party hampered what they could do and say. SNCC worked to break that hold. And though there was much bashing of the NAACP and SCLC – they also recognized those groups and individuals in those groups were invaluable to the movement and noted that the NAACP was spending a lot of time getting them out of jail. Also, once SNCC was banned on many campuses, many people joined NAACP youth chapters to continue their organizing.
SNCC had a strong focus on research, and many spoke of activist Jack Minnis as key in teaching them the skills and in linking racism to economics. Minnis would follow the money. This understanding also led to SNCC members making the connections of the plight of African Americans to a larger global system of disenfranchisement. In 1966, 20 SNCC activists were arrested at the South African consulate opposing apartheid. Harry Belafonte was thanked for taking 18 SNCC activists to tour several African countries and meet with activists in Africa.
At the lunch plenary on Saturday, the key note speaker, Rev. James Lawson, spoke in this international vein and challenged the audience to look at racism, sexism, and plantation capitalism as linked.
SNCC Culture: Film, Photography, Books and Music
At the author session I got to thank some writers whose books have helped my understanding, including Charles Payne, author of I’ve Got the Light of Freedom; Taylor Branch, author of Parting the Waters; William Chafe, author of Civilities and Civil Rights; and Eric Mann, who wrote a biography of George Jackson titled Comrade George.
And the music… One of the absolute highlights (and there were many, including the Hot 8 Brass band leading the way to and from the concert) was of the Freedom Singers singing "Eyes on the Prize." Another major highlight was Bernice Johnson Reagon and Harry Belafonte (with a damaged right vocal chord and having undergone four surgeries with clearly diminished vocal strength, but mighty spirit) in a duet of "Day-O."
There is so much that happened I cannot do justice to it all. Everywhere you looked there was something to record. Example: a young white man, not affiliated with the conference, driving in downtown Raleigh yells from his car to Congressman Lewis “It’s great to have you here.” Lewis’ response: “It’s great to be here.”
Lastly, everything at the 50th anniversary conference started and ended on time. A true marker of outstanding organizers.