The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded in 1960 as a result of student-led sit-ins at separate lunch counters in the South and has become the primary channel for student participation in the civil rights movement. SNCC members included prominent future leaders such as former Washington DC Mayor Marion Barry, Congressman John Lewis and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond.
SNCC emerges from the sit-in movement
In February 1960, four black students from Greensboro, North Carolina, remained seated in a separate Woolworth lunch counter after staff refused to serve them. Some 300 students quickly joined their protest, which received wide media coverage, sparking a similar sit-in movement by thousands of students at separate institutions in the South.
Civil rights leaders have recognized these young activists as a powerful new force in their efforts to combat racial discrimination and achieve equal rights for black Americans. As Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledged in a speech at a church in North Carolina in mid-February 1960: “What is new in your struggle is that it has been initiated, nurtured. and supported by students.
Seeking to harness the momentum of the sit-in movement, veteran civil rights organizer Ella Baker invited students who had participated in the sit-ins to a rally at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina in April 1960 Baker had started his activist career as a student at Shaw over 40 years earlier. She worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1940s and helped King organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) after the Montgomery bus boycott. At the time of the sit-ins, she was the Executive Director of the SCLC.
READ MORE: How the Greensboro sit-in sparked a movement
Creation of the SNCC and Freedom Rides
Some 200 students attended the conference at Shaw University from April 16-18, 1960, at which the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”) was born. Although King and others hoped the SNCC would function as the youth wing of the SCLC, Baker stressed the importance of remaining independent and unaffiliated with other civil rights groups.
Beginning its operations in a corner of the SCLC office in Atlanta, the SNCC devoted itself to organizing sit-ins, boycotts and other demonstrations of nonviolent direct action against segregation and other forms of racial discrimination. In April 1961, SNCC activists joined a campaign launched by Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), another civil rights group, to break up inter-state bus transportation. Although the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional, bus travel continued to be separated in the South.
During the Freedom Rides in May 1961, teams of activists (many of them college students) took buses to mixed racial groups in and across the South. Diane Nash, one of the few prominent women in the sit-in movement and a founding member of the SNCC, helped organize the protest and recruit bikers. The Freedom Horsemen met fierce resistance from local law enforcement and white segregationist southerners; hundreds of them have been arrested, beaten and threatened with death. In November of that same year, the Interstate Commerce Commission finally ordered the complete desegregation of all interstate travel facilities, giving SNCC its first solid victory at the national level.
READ MORE: Mapping the Freedom Riders’ journey against segregation
By focusing on direct action (sit-ins, protests, boycotts), the SNCC began to tackle one of the most difficult problems in the civil rights movement: the denial of the right to vote of black voters in the South through discriminatory election laws, intimidation and violence. From late 1961, SNCC organizers began to establish themselves in rural communities and recruit local youth to join voter registration efforts.
In 1964, the SNCC and other civil rights groups decided to focus their grassroots suffrage campaign on Mississippi. During Freedom Summer, hundreds of volunteers flocked to Mississippi, joining forces to increase black voter registration and establish “freedom schools” for black children statewide.
Mississippi segregationists, including local law enforcement and white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, have encountered the influx of volunteers with a strong wall of resistance. By the end of the summer, they had arrested hundreds of volunteers, beaten dozens and brutally murdered at least three: Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, white men from New York, and James Chaney, a local black man.
READ MORE: Timeline of the Civil Rights Movement
Go from non-violence to Black Power
SNCC members were outraged by the events of the 1964 Democratic National Convention, where the party refused to replace the all-white Mississippi delegation with one from the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Their anger has contributed to a growing distance between SNCC and more traditional civil rights organizations like King’s SCLC.
This division continued after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as some members of the group began to advocate for an all-black political party in Mississippi and other more drastic measures. beyond nonviolent direct action. These included Stokely Carmichael, who became SNCC chairman in 1966, replacing John Lewis. Carmichael’s use of the phrase “Black Power” during the March Against Fear, a vote for voting rights in Mississippi in June, marked SNCC’s transition to a focus on black empowerment. and the plight of low-income blacks living in urban centers.
Hurbert “Rap” Brown, who succeeded Carmichael in 1967, went even further in this direction, forging a public alliance with the Black Panther Party. In 1968, Brown replaced “Nonviolent” in the SNCC’s name with “National”. As white activists increasingly left the group, its income declined, forcing a reduction in direct action organization efforts. By 1970, with the split of the civil rights movement itself into factions, the SNCC had lost its employees and most of its branches. Brown facing various legal charges, the organization struggled to survive, and by the end of 1973 the SNCC no longer existed.
The Student Non-Violent Coordination Committee (SNCC). The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University.
“The history of SNCC.” DCS digital gateway.
“The SNCC project: a story year by year, 1960-70”. American Social Movements Mapping Project, University of Washington.