Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

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The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, coordinated a network of autonomous student groups in the U.S. Civil Rights and Black Liberation movements from 1960 into the 1970s. According to historian Howard Zinn, "SNCC without knowing about anarchism as philosophy embodied the characteristics of anarchism."[1] Anarchist and former SNCC member Lorenzo Kom'boa Ervin described the early SNCC as a largely successful experiment in internal democracy:

I learned a lot about internal democracy by being a part of SNCC, how it could make or break an organisation, and how it had so much to do with the morale of the members. Everyone was given an opportunity to participate in the decision making, and felt part of a great historical mission, which would change their lives forever. They were right.[2]

According to political scientist Herbert Haines, SNCC "deserves a large measure of the credit for the vast changes which occurred there during the 1960s." [3]

SNCC was formed at a April 15-17, 1960 conference in Raleigh for members of the student-led sit-in movement, which had started in February when four black students sat at a white-only lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Ella Baker, then the director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), organized the student conference. Baker urged the young activists to form an organization that would remain autonomous from the established civil rights groups. The students heeded Baker's advice and established SNCC. Baker and Zinn both became adult advisers to the new organization.

Midway through the decade, SNCC shifted toward a more centralized, hierarchical structure. In 1966, SNCC embraced the slogan Black Power, which "for some--not all--meant black nationalism".[4] It changed its name in 1969 to Student National Coordinating Committee. By 1971, the group "had all but disappeared."[5] Many SNCC members went on to work with the Black Panther Party.

Structure

In the words of its constitution (as revised in 1963), SNCC served "as a channel of coordination and communication for the student movement." The committee consisted of delegates from local groups who were elected for one year. The committee, in turn, elected an Executive Committee to handle administrative tasks and manage staff members. SNCC did not exercise extensive centralized authority over local groups; the constitution affirmed that "local protest groups and affiliates are autonomous".[6]

Unlike the mainstream US civil rights groups, SNCC adopted a participatory democratic decision-making structure. Decisions required the full consensus of everyone in the room. Former SNCC activist and historian Staughton Lynd recounted:

Decisions were made by consensus, that is, with the support of everyone in the room. I have heard Northern radicals mock such consensus decisionmaking as petty bourgeois, and inappropriate for serious revolutionaries. But the reason SNCC made decisions by consensus was precisely because their work was so much more dangerous than anything being done in the North: in such a setting, no one felt comfortable making a decision by majority rule that might cost somebody else’s life.[7]

Howard Zinn explained the contrast between SNCC and the mainstream, hierarchical groups. "Other civil rights organizations, for example [Southern] Christian Leadership Conference, were centralized organizations with a leader -- Martin Luther King. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) were based in New York, and also had some kind of centralized organization. SNCC, on the other hand, was totally decentralized. It had what they called field secretaries, who worked in little towns all over the South, with great deal of autonomy. They had an office in Atlanta, Georgia, but the office was not a strong centralized authority. The people who were working out in the field -- in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi -- they were very much on their own. They were working together with local people, with grassroots people."[8]

Much of SNNC's radical democratic influence came from Ella Baker, a mentor and administrator for SNCC. Baker had held leadership positions in the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but she felt stifled by the sexism and bureaucracy of both organizations. Criticizing the Civil Rights movement's overreliance on charismatic leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Baker had said, "Strong people don't need strong leaders." Baker identified as a Socialist, but for much of her life she did not belong to any particular political party or tendency. Her biographer Barbara Ransby described Baker as "A Freirian teacher, a Gramscian intellectual, and a radical humanist".[9]

In the middle of the decade, SNCC adopted a more hierarchical structure. The sociologist Francesca Polleta observed that the change in structure took place by early 1965, before SNCC had shifted toward a black nationalist position. Poletta argued that the shift occurred when participatory democracy "came to be seen as ideological, oriented to personal self-transformation, and--no coincidence--as white."[10] A 1968 memorandum on "The New SNCC" authored by longtime SNCC activist James Forman posited, "it is impossible for a revolutionary organization to move effectively if its command structure is decentralized and split into many places."[11]

SNCC famously struggled with sexism, as detailed in a 1964 position paper by Mary King and Casey Hayden, two white women in SNCC. Their paper listed instances of the group's gender discrimination, for example when "[t]wo organizers were working together to form a farmers league. Without asking any questions, the male organizer immediately assigned the clerical work to the female organizer although both had had equal experience in organizing campaigns."[12] Infamously, Stokley Charmichael once joked, "What is the position of women in SNCC? The position of women in SNCC is prone."[13] Barabara Ransby argues that although sexism existed in SNCC, "it was not institutionally supported or encouraged." Moreover, Charmichael's joke must be seen alongside a later statement, "I would not have been taken seriously as a leader of an organization like SNCC if I had not taken seriously the leadership of women". As Chairman, Charmichael appointed several women as project directors. [14]

Vision

Although SNCC did not explicitly espouse an anti-authoritarian vision, the historian and SNCC adviser Howard Zinn wrote thought their approach signalled a rejection of hierarchy, both internally and externally. He summarized at the end of his work SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1965 edition), "What really makes SNCC a threat to American liberal society is that quality which makes it a threat to all Establishments, whether capitalist, socialist, communist, or whatever: its rejection of authority; its fearlessness in the face of overwhelming power; its indifference to respectability."[15]

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, SNCC became internally more hierarchical but also more explicitly revolutionary. They shifted from a focus on racial integration to a focus on Black Power. Under this newer vision, SNCC became an all-black organization and it urged white sympathizers to organize white communities against racism.[16] In 1966, SNCC openly took a controversial stance against American intervention in Vietnam (Martin Luther King first publicly condemned the war over a year later).[17] Surpassing King's anti-imperialism, SNCC sided with the Palestinian struggle against Zionism.[18] By 1968, SNCC openly advocated against capitalism.[19]

Nonviolence and Self-Defense

In its earlier years, SNCC endorsed complete nonviolence. Its original statement of purpose began, "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."[20] In 1969, SNCC changed the second word in its name from "Nonviolent" to "National," signifying a rejection of pacifism. The shift has sometimes been presented as a transformation from an unarmed struggle to an armed struggle.

However, even in SNCC's self-professed nonviolent phase, participants organized with and lived with black community members in the U.S. South who were armed and ready to defend the movement with weapons if necessary. The former SNCC field secretary Charles Cobb argues that sympathizers' "willingness to use deadly force ensured the survival not only of countless brave men and women but also of the freedom struggle itself."[21]

In Mississippi, Laura McGhee and her sons housed SNCC participants and hosted civil rights events. At night, they guarded their property with weapons. The farmer E.W. Steptoe housed SNCC member Bob Moses. When Moses asked Steptoe not to bring a gun to an organizing meeting, Steptoe simply hid the weapon from Moses's sight.[22]

SNCC staff member Holly Watkins stayed with a married couple who ran a farm. Dave Howard and wife took shifts guarding the house at night from white supremacist attackers. Watkins began taking night shifts to help out with armed guarding of the house.[23]

Former SNCC participant Stokley Charmichael described bringing an elderly women to vote in Alabama: "She had to be 80 years old and going to vote for the first time in her life...That ol' lady came up to us, went into her bag, and produced this enormous, rusty Civil War-looking pistol. 'Best you hol' this for me, son, I'ma go cast my vote now.'"[24]

Freedom Rides

In 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) brought together thirteen people, seven Black and six white, to travel from Washington D.C. to New Orleans, sitting together on segregated buses, eating together at segregated restaurants, using restrooms in violation of the "Whites Only" and "Colored" signs.

One part of the group took a Greyhound bus, and the other took a Trailway bus. At the stop in Rock Hill, South Carolina, white hoodlums punched SNCC member John Lewis in the head and kicked him on the floor. Then, they attacked two other Riders. Police simply watched the beatings at first, before eventually stopping them. Outside of Anniston, Alabama, on Mother's Day, a mob surrounded and firebombed one of the Riders' buses, leaving twelve passengers briefly hospitalized. As the second bus arrived in Anniston, eight whites entered and forced the Black Riders to sit in the back. When this bus arrived in Birmingham, a mob followed and attacked the Riders with iron pipes. All assembled in Birmingham, the Riders, could not find any bus driver willing to drive them further. They decided to fly to New Orleans and end the first Freedom Ride.[25]

SNCC decided to resume the Freedom Rides. SNCC member Diane Nash assembled a team of ten students--eight Black and two white--in Nashville, Tennessee. John Siegenthaler, assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, recalled a conversation with Nash:

"So I called her. I said, 'I understand that there are more Freedom Riders coming down from Nashville. You must stop them if you can.' Her response was, 'They’re not going to turn back. They’re on their way to Birmingham, and they’ll be there shortly.'

You know that spiritual, 'Like a tree standing by the water, I will not be moved'? She would not be moved. And I felt my voice go up another decibel and another, and soon I was shouting, “Young woman, do you understand what you’re doing? You’re going to get somebody — do you understand you’re going to get somebody killed?” And there’s a pause, and she said, 'Sir, you should know, we all signed our last wills and testaments last night, before they left. We know someone will be killed.'[26]

On May 17, the Nashville group boarded a bus to Birmingham. Police arrested all ten students, and they spent a night in jail in Birmingham. The police chief "Bull" Connor drove them to the Tennessee border and let them off in the middle of nowhere. On May 20, however, the Nashville group assembled back in Birmingham, this time joined with other supporters, making a total of twenty people. The team embarked by bus to Montgomery.

The Freedom Riders were greeted in Montgomery by a mob of about three hundred people, with clubs and sticks. No police had shown up. The the white supremacists attacked the journalists first, including a CBS cameraman and a Time-Life reporter. Once the mob had pushed out the journalists, they attacked the Freedom Riders. Several women pointed out the white Rider James Zwerg and yelled, "Kill the nigger-loving son of a bitch." Bernard Lafayette, another Freedom Rider, recalled what happened next:

"[The mob] knocked him over the rail. And then they picked him up and stood him in front of the rail again and knocked him over, knocked his teeth out. And they kept clobbering him and kicking him on the ground. And they took a crate, a cola crate, and hit John Lewis on the head, gashed him on the head."[27]

On May 24, twenty-seven Freedom Riders left Montgomery for Jackson, in two buses. All twenty-seven were arrested upon arrival.[28] In November, the Interstate Commerce Commission implemented the desegregation of all travel facilities, following a Justice Department ruling in September. SNCC had helped secured a major, national victory for the Civil Rights movement.[29]

Freedom Summer

In the summer of 1964, SNCC brought over 1,000 volunteers, overwhelmingly white, to Mississippi to register Black voters and teach in community education programs. This campaign, known as Freedom Summer, sought to increase the participation of white supporters of civil rights and to catch the nation's attention as these white volunteers faced some of the same violence that constantly threatened Black communities. The political scientist Doug McAdam described the campaign strategy: "The logic ran as follows: if the murders, beatings, and mailings SNCC workers had endured in Mississippi had not been enough to stir public attention, perhaps America--and, in turn, the federal government--would take notice if those being beaten and shot were the sons and daughters of privileged white America."

Throughout the summer, some 17,000 Blacks to attempted to register to vote. State registrars rejected all but 1,600 of their applications. In addition, Freedom Summer volunteers signed up 80,000 people as members of a mock political party called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, or MFDP. Unlike the official Democratic Party, the MFDP accepted Blacks as members. In August, sixty-eight MFDP delegates travelled to the Democrats' national convention in New Jersey and demanded to be seated instead of the all-white official Mississippi Democratic chapter.

Volunteers also ran "Freedom Schools", community schools providing classes in academic areas, culture and leadership development to between 3,000 and 3,500 Mississippians. [30] SNCC activist Tom Waham described the goals of the Freedom Schools: "We want to bring the student to a point where he questions everything he reads or is taught--the print word, movies, the 'power structure'--everything." Historian Barbara Ransby described the Freedom Schools as a "type of 'free space' within the movement for creative and intellectual work" where "[r]igid hierarchy was abandoned, and the curriculum was designed to reflect the world and heritage of the schools' students."[31]

On June 21, Freedom Summer volunteer Andrew Goodman joined SNCC staff members James Charney and Michael Schwerner to investigate a church bombing. They never returned, and their dead bodies we discovered in August. Charney had been brutally beaten. Goodman and Schwerner had been shot.

In August, when Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegates demanded to be seated at the Democratic National Convention, the Democrats offered a compromise, in which only two MFDP delegates would be seated. In a betrayal of the grassroots, Martin Luther King Jr. publicly supported the compromise. The MFDP delegates rejected the compromise and instead occupied a row of seats in the convention hall. Security officers carried them outside.[32]

Ella Baker saw Freedom Summer as a success for its role in exposing the Democratic Party elites and radicalizing participants and observers from around the country. Doug McAdam concluded that Freedom Summer "served as both the organizational basis for much of the activism of the Sixties as well as an important impetus for the development of the broader counterculture that emerged during the era."[33]


  1. Howard Zinn, "Anarchism Shouldn't Be a Dirty Word," AlterNet, 16 May, 2008, http://www.alternet.org/story/85427/howard_zinn%3A_anarchism_shouldn't_be_a_dirty_word.
  2. Lorenzo Kom'boa Ervin, Anarchism the Black Revolution in Black Anarchism: A Reader by Black Rose Anarchist Federation (Black Rose Anarchist Federation, 2016), 68. http://www.blackrosefed.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Black-Anarchism-A-Reader.pdf.
  3. Herbert H. Haines, Black Radicals and the Civil Rights Mainstream, 1954-1970 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988), 61.
  4. Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 239-247, 344.
  5. Haines, Black Radicals, 61.
  6. "SNCC Constitution, 1963", http://www.crmvet.org/docs/sncc_constitution_63.pdf
  7. Staughton Lynd and Andrej Grubacic, Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History (PM Press, 2008) 113.
  8. Howard Zinn, "Anarchism Shouldn't Be a Dirty Word," AlterNet, 16 May, 2008, http://www.alternet.org/story/85427/howard_zinn%3A_anarchism_shouldn't_be_a_dirty_word.
  9. Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 188, 371-2, 367.
  10. http://www.hhh.umn.edu/centers/pnlc_old/pdf/TeresaTerrellarticle3-09.pdf
  11. http://www.crmvet.org/docs/68_new_sncc_forman.pdf
  12. Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, 343. Mary King and Casey Hayden, "Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Position Paper: Women in the Movement". November 1964. http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Resources/Primary/Manifestos/SNCC_women.html.
  13. Susan Brownmiller, Excerpt of In Our Time:Memoir of a Revolution, New York Times, 1999, https://www.nytimes.com/books/first/b/brownmiller-time.html.
  14. Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, 310.
  15. Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Greenwood Press, 1965), 274-5.
  16. Black Power, A Reprint of a Position Paper for the SNCC Vince City Project, http://freedomarchives.org/Documents/Finder/DOC513_scans/SNCC/513.SNCC.black.power.summer.1966.pdf.
  17. "Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Position Paper on Vietnam" in Voices of a People's History of the United States, edited by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2014), 427.
  18. Lenni Brenner, "The Black Civil Rights Movement and Zionism," The Struggle, accessed 21 July 2018, http://www.thestruggle.org/blacks_civil_rights_zionism.htm.
  19. "The New SNCC".
  20. "SNCC Constitution, 1963."
  21. Charles Cobb Jr., This Nonviolence Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 1.
  22. Lamont Carter and scott crow, "Other Stories from the Civil Rights Movement: A Spectrum of Community Defense" in Setting Sights: Histories and Reflections on Community Armed Self-Defense edited by scott crow (Oakland: PM Press, 2018), 136.
  23. Cobb, This Nonviolent Stuff'll, 140-141.
  24. Cobb, This Nonviolence Stuff'll, 3.
  25. Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Greenwood Press, 1965), 40-44. Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict (Palgrave, 2000), 329-330.
  26. Amy Goodman, "50th Anniversary of the First Freedom Ride." Democracy Now, 4 May 2011, http://www.democracynow.org/2011/5/4/50th_anniversary_of_the_first_freedom.
  27. Goodman, "50th Anniversary of the First Freedom Ride."
  28. Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Greenwood Press, 1965), 40-61.
  29. Goodman, "50th Anniversary of the First Freedom Ride." Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 267.
  30. Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (Oxford University Press, 1988), 33, 81-2, 84.
  31. Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 326-7.
  32. Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (Oxford University Press, 1988), 70, 120.
  33. Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 342. Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (Oxford University Press, 1988), 5.