We Shall Overcome

A Brief History of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee

In February 1960, a group of black college students in Greensboro, NC, sat down at the lunch counter in a local store and refused to leave until they were served food. This simple act was in defiance of both law and local custom, which forbid black people of any age from sitting down to eat where white people ate. (Black people could sometimes get "takeout" from a door at the back of the store.) The students were beaten by other customers and arrested. (The lunch counter at which they sat is now in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.)

This act, called a "sit-in", electrified black students all over the South. Publicity in local papers spread the word about sit-ins to communities everywhere. Within weeks, hundreds of students had imitated the sit-in and developed other forms of protest in their local communities. The consequences of participating in the sit-ins were very serious. Many black colleges were state institutions. The nominal black leadership of the colleges were told to expel any students who participated in sit-ins. Private black colleges, which depended on white donations, followed the same path. For the students, many of whom were the first in their families to go to college, making the decision to sit-in was often in defiance of their families as well. The economics of black life in the South meant that black families were often dependent on white patronage and the family members might lose their jobs, have mortgages foreclosed, or experience violence at the hands of whites for not keeping control of their children.

No one can explain why that moment in time was the spark that succeeded in setting the South on fire. No one knows why that act caught the imagination of students all over the South and led to thousands of imitations, despite the dangers of participation, not only for the participants but their families as well. No one can understand why so many previous attempts to overthrow the system of segregation had gone down to defeat, while this event set in motion the events which would lead to the Second American Revolution. The sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience would result in the destruction of the system of segregation which had always existed in the United States.

In April of that same year, student protesters were invited to a conference at Shaw University in Raleigh NC. The conference, organized by Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organizer, Miss Ella Baker, was called to provide students with the opportunity to interact with each other, share ideas about other forms of protest which might be developed, and to develop regional coordination for those activities. Out of that conference emerged the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Marion Barry, later mayor of Washington, DC, was elected as the first chairman. Miss Baker, as she was universally known, served as an advisor to the students, sharing her lifetime of organizing experience with them.

The students who led the original sit-ins utilized a strategy they called Non-Violent Direct Action, a technique which had been pioneered in India by Ghandi. When confronted with violence on the part of whites, the students who were sitting in submitted to the violence. They did not hit back, they did not argue, they just absorbed the punishment and remained where they were. The students understood that a violent response would provoke even more violence without resolving the issues regarding segregation which they were challenging. There were passionate debates among student activists about the difference between non-violence as a way of life versus non-violence as a tactic.

In the beginning, SNCC was seen as a clearinghouse for information but did not envision an activist role for itself. But it quickly became apparent that not many people were willing to devote time and energy to passing on information without being actively involved themselves in what they understood was becoming a movement of historic significance.

Debates arose among the SNCC participants about direct action in contrast to the usual tactic of using legal avenues to fight segregation. There were discussions about the types of direct action which might be appropriate: wade-ins at beaches, pray-ins at churches, sit-ins at lunch counters, etc. There were also discussions about how to bring about desegregation of public swimming pools and public libraries as well. In the South, facilities labeled "public," such as public libraries, were understood to be unavailable to black taxpayers. There were activists who were interested in voter registration and in challenging school segregation (despite the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, segregation remained universal in Southern school systems), as well as more prosaic concerns about being able to try on clothes in local clothing stores, being able to buy food at local lunch counters, and being able to use rest rooms in public buildings.

All these debates led to a second conference, at which time Charles McDew was elected chairman of SNCC. SNCC opted to become an activist organization, sending organizers out into the cities and towns of the South to extend the reach of the protests into black communities beyond the colleges. Some of the early members left at that time because of conflicting opinions about non-violence, direct action, or legal issues.

Charles McDew was a student leader from South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, SC. One of the few students in SNCC who came from the North, he was a native of Ohio. His personal experiences with segregation when he went South to attend his father's alma mater had a profound effect on him. In his first semester at South Carolina State College, he was arrested for trying to attend the YMCA (of which he was a member) with a white friend to play ball. He was arrested for refusing to ride in the "Jim Crow" car of the train. He was arrested for refusing to say "sir" to a white police officer. The insults to which blacks were routinely subjected in the south radicalized him and pushed him into "the movement" to challenge the system which demeaned blacks at every step of their lives.

A very small organization and one which practiced a strongly egalitarian form of organization, decisions in SNCC were made by the field secretaries. SNCC's leadership and membership were one and the same and determined to maintain its grass roots style. SNCC had a number of philosophical differences with existing civil rights groups, such as SCLC, the NAACP, and CORE. The so-called major civil rights organizations had large staffs, and had sometimes tempered their positions based on pressures from contributors. SNCC did not plan to build an organization that would survive for a long time and they feared the compromises other organizations had made. Instead they made the decision to stay small and inexpensive. They also decided that they would stay "in the struggle" for five years, after which time, they said, they would either have achieved their goals or be dead.

Under McDew's direction, SNCC hired organizers called field secretaries (who were paid $10 per week before taxes) who went into small towns all over the South to develop local leadership in civil rights activities. Most of SNCC's money went to rent store front offices in small towns and for legal expenses, which were very high, due to the fact that SNCC organizers got arrested over and over again for civil rights activities. An organizer who was beaten by white supremacists could be arrested for disturbing the peace and jailed. Demonstrations were usually forbidden by local white law enforcement agencies and holding a march usually resulted in arrests accompanied by violence directed against the marchers or demonstrators by white bystanders and by white police officers. Students who rode interstate busses (desegregated by federal interstate commerce law but not in reality) were called Freedom Riders. They were often beaten violently when they stepped off the busses and the busses burned. The students would then be arrested for violating local "Jim Crow" laws which forbid mixed race seating on public transportation.

SNCC decided to concentrate its efforts on voter registration, education, and community organizing. Despite the fact that blacks were the majority in many southern counties, only a handful had ever been allowed to register to vote. In the South, judges were often elected by whites (blacks could not vote). The sheriffs and other law enforcement agents were all white and judged by the white community on how effectively they terrorized the black community. SNCC also believed that in order to have a long term effect on the communities they organized, that they had to develop local leaders who would remain in the community to continue the work after the organizers left. So their style was to stay in the background and put forward local leaders instead. They argued against what might be called "the cult of personality." If you have a leader who is publicly identified as such, and you kill the leader, SNCC argued, you could kill the organization as well, a theory tragically proven correct by the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

The result of that low profile posture is that almost no one today can identify the members of SNCC. But the effectiveness of that policy of developing local leadership is demonstrated by the fact that today Mississippi has the largest number of elected black officials in the United States, often veterans of SNCC organizing campaigns in their communities.

SNCC decided to concentrate much of its effort in Mississippi, the most segregated and violent state in the South. How, they asked, can we talk about desegregation, organizing, voter registration, etc if we won't practice what we believe in the most difficult and dangerous place in the country. "The belly of the beast," "the heart of the iceberg," SNCC's presence in Mississippi was the most overt challenge to the system of segregation which had ever been undertaken. Because of the extreme danger of their work, decisions had to be unanimous. Some of the meetings lasted for days as members argued back and forth until a consensus was reached.

SNCC also made the decision to sponsor Freedom Summer, when hundreds of white college students from the North would come South to teach in "Freedom Schools," work on voter registration projects and assist the SNCC organizers in their work. The summer volunteers would bring an added benefit to SNCC: publicity. SNCC believed that reporters who came into the South to observe the white volunteers of Freedom Summer would provide a certain amount of security for their organizers. That prediction was proven tragically incorrect when, at the very beginning of the summer, three organizers, two white Northerners and a black Southerner, were murdered by white supremacists in Mississippi.

SNCC also organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a campaign to train blacks in voting and political issues and to inspire more political participation. They elected a delegation to attend the 1964 Democratic National Convention, where they demanded to be seated instead of the all-white delegation elected by segregationists. This direct public challenge to the political establishment failed at that time, but it forced the Democratic Party to change the way they conducted their conventions in the future. It led directly to changes in the Democratic Party which demanded that delegations be integrated and have women representatives as well.

Except for a brief period during Reconstruction following the Civil War, blacks had been second class citizens, required to pay taxes and serve in the military (in segregated units until after the Second World War) but denied the benefits of citizenship which whites enjoyed. SNCC's short life span unleashed the Second American Revolution, challenging and overturning the system of segregation, Jim Crow, and apartheid which had existed in the United States since the first slaves landed in the colonies in 1619.

by Beri Gilfix

Bob Moses managed to slip a message from his jail to a local Negro who got it to SNCC headquarters in Atlanta:

We are smuggling this note from the drunk tank of the county jail in Magnolia, Mississippi. Twelve of us are here, sprawled out along the concrete bunker; Curtis Hayes, Hollis Watkins, Ike Lewis, and Robert Talbert, four veterans of the bunker, are sitting up talking--mostly about girls; Charles McDew ("Tell the Story") is curled into the concrete and the wall; Harold Robinson, Stephen Ashley, James Wells, Lee Chester Vick, Leotus Eubanks, and Ivory Diggs lay cramped on the cold bunker; I'm sitting with smuggled pen and paper, thinking a little, writing a little; Myrtis Bennett and Janie Campbell are across the way wedded to a different icy cubicle.

Later on,Hollis will lead out with a clear tenor into a freedom song, Talbert and Lewis will supply jokes, and McDew will discourse on the history of the black man and the Jew. McDew--a black by birth, a Jew by choice, and a revolutionary by necessity--has taken on the deep hates and deep loves which America and the world reserve for those who dare to stand in a strong sun and cast a sharp shadow...

This is Mississippi, the middle of the iceberg. Hollis is leading off with his tenor, "Michael row the boat ashore, Alleluia; Christian brothers don't be slow, Alleluia; Mississippi's next to go, Alleluia." This is a tremor in the middle of the iceberg--from a stone that the builders rejected.

Quoted in SNCC, The New Abolitionists by Howard Zinn, Page 76