Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

I INTRODUCTION  Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick"), civil rights group that played a major role in the 1960s campaign to end segregation in the Southern United States.


On February 1, 1960, four black college students attracted widespread attention when they refused to leave a whites-only lunch counter in an F. W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina (see Jim Crow). The sit-in continued for several weeks and inspired dozens of similar sit-ins across the South. Although not the first time students had taken part in civil rights protests, the sit-in movement was among the largest and most spontaneous. Reacting to the protests, Ella Baker, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), held a conference for student activists in April at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Baker believed that larger, more cautious civil rights groups such as the SCLC might have failed to serve students who were impatient for racial equality. She urged the 200 attendees to establish a new student group that would harness its energy and frustration to challenge white racism as well as the larger and more conventional civil rights groups.

Other civil rights leaders, such as SCLC's Martin Luther King Jr., argued that a united movement would be stronger than a divided one and invited the students to create a wing within SCLC. Representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League made similar invitations. The students created a Temporary Coordinating Committee to debate the issue; in May the committee embraced the mainstream's practice of nonviolence but created an independent group, the Temporary Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. ("Temporary" was dropped from the name in October.) Made up of both black and white members, the group elected Marion Barry—a student at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, who would later become mayor of Washington, D.C.—SNCC's first chairman and set up its headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. When Barry returned to graduate studies a few months later, he was replaced by Charles McDew, a student at South Carolina State College.

In its first months, SNCC served mostly as a channel for student groups to communicate and coordinate the sit-in campaign. The images on national television of well-groomed, peaceful protesters being refused a cup of coffee and, in some instances, being hauled off to jail, generated sympathy among many whites across the country. Several SNCC and other protesters capitalized on the publicity with a "jail-no-bail" campaign. Refusing to pay fines or bail, the students served jail sentences, thereby filling Southern jails and continuing media coverage. By the end of 1960 several chain stores in the upper South and Texas responded to the movement by ending segregation at their lunch counters. Several cities also agreed to desegregate public restaurants.

From the end of 1960 through the fall of 1961, SNCC underwent a critical internal debate that it never completely resolved. One faction wanted to continue generating white sympathy through sit-ins and demonstrations, while another faction wanted to give Southern blacks power more directly by helping them register to vote. SNCC's James Forman, a schoolteacher-turned-coordinator who was well respected among students, urged the group in late 1961 to pursue both goals. Forman reasoned that helping blacks register to vote was a form of nonviolent protest that would stir up Southern hostility, generate white sympathy, and give blacks more power. SNCC's membership agreed.

As the debate over SNCC's direction was taking place, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was undertaking the Freedom Ride of 1961. On May 4, seven blacks and six whites left Washington, D.C., on two public buses bound for the Deep South. They intended to test the Supreme Court's ruling in Boynton v. Virginia (1960), which declared segregation in interstate bus and rail stations unconstitutional. In the first few days, the riders encountered only minor hostility, but in the second week the riders were severely beaten. Outside Anniston, Alabama, one of the buses was burned, and in Birmingham several dozen whites attacked the riders only two blocks from the sheriff's office. With the intervention of the United States Department of Justice, most of CORE's Freedom Riders were evacuated from Birmingham, Alabama, to New Orleans, Louisiana. John Lewis, a former seminary student who would later lead SNCC and become a U.S. congressman, stayed in Birmingham, as did another rider.

SNCC leaders hurriedly decided that letting violence end the trip would send the wrong signal to the country. They reinforced the pair of remaining riders with volunteers, and under SNCC leadership the trip continued. The group traveled from Birmingham to Montgomery without incident, but on their arrival in Montgomery, they were savagely attacked by a mob of more than 1,000 whites. The extreme violence and the indifference of local police prompted a national outcry of support for the riders, putting pressure on President John F. Kennedy to end the violence. The riders continued to Mississippi, where they endured further brutality and jail terms but generated more publicity and inspired dozens more Freedom Rides. By the end of the summer, the protests had spread to train stations and airports across the South, and in November the Interstate Commerce Commission issued rules prohibiting segregated transportation facilities.


Following the sit-in and Freedom Ride victories, SNCC joined with CORE, the NAACP, SCLC, and the Urban League in the Voter Education Project (VEP). Funded by large private grants, VEP sought to increase the number of Southern blacks registered to vote. SNCC had failed at a similar voter-registration effort in rural Georgia in 1961 and 1962. When VEP funds became available in 1962, SNCC shifted its focus to Mississippi and Louisiana, where it also met stern resistance and succeeded in registering only a few blacks.

In 1963, however, several highly publicized conflicts changed the course of the movement. In May police in Birmingham brutally beat black and white protesters, prompting another wave of public sympathy. The next month Kennedy introduced a strong civil rights bill to the Congress of the United States that was passed during the administration of Lyndon Johnson as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (The act prohibited segregation in several types of public facilities.) Liberal contributors responded to the violence by pouring large donations into virtually all of the civil rights groups, whose staffs and programs grew accordingly. In late 1963, when VEP decided to abandon Mississippi for lack of progress, SNCC, now led by Lewis, could afford to stay.

Many SNCC activists were critical of the way larger civil rights groups "invaded" towns for a protest, then left after the protest ended. SNCC's field workers in Mississippi believed they could best help blacks by living in their communities and working with them over the long term. In late 1963, with help from CORE and, nominally, other civil rights groups, SNCC revitalized the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO); COFO had been created in 1961 to help free jailed Freedom Riders. It would now oversee voter registration in Mississippi. Bob Moses, a Harvard graduate student, veteran SNCC field worker, and leading advocate of commitment to communities, was placed in charge of COFO. COFO functioned largely as an arm of SNCC.

Despite COFO's efforts, whites effectively used intimidation and discriminatory tactics to keep blacks from registering in Mississippi. To Northern reporters, Mississippi officials argued that the state's blacks did not vote because they were too apathetic. COFO countered the claim by holding a Freedom Vote at the same time as the November 1963 elections. In mock elections 80,000 blacks cast ballots in their own communities, where they did not have to face hostile whites.

Amid the success, many of COFO's black workers were angered by the role whites were playing in the organization. White students often came to the South for a few months (typically a summer), assumed high-profile leadership positions while there, then returned to safe campuses in the North while blacks continued the hard work. Many black activists were also tired of accepting beatings and jail sentences in order to win sympathy from white federal officials, white liberal donors, and the white public. They were weary as well of having to tone down their militancy and rhetoric at the request of whites in power. SNCC's Lewis voiced many of these frustrations during a speech in the March on Washington of August 1963; that Lewis was made to tone down his remarks by mainstream civil rights groups and white officials only further angered blacks in SNCC. For these reasons, many COFO activists argued it was important for blacks to succeed on their own, without the help of white volunteers. Some even wondered if it would be possible to continue working with mainstream civil rights groups.

Moses was forced to address this debate when he proposed the Freedom Summer of 1964, a registration and education project that would build on the Freedom Vote. Moses argued forcefully that if COFO excluded whites, blacks had no moral standing to demand integration. Moreover, the movement would not receive as much publicity since national news groups would pay more attention to violence against whites than blacks. Moses's words were borne out when COFO's Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were murdered in June (Schwerner and Goodman were white) and the press and public responded with shock and outrage.

For years, murders of blacks by whites in the South had gone unnoticed in the national media. President Johnson ordered a large Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) presence in Mississippi, and many whites became aware of the obstacles blacks faced when trying to vote in the Deep South. Still, COFO's 1,000 volunteers managed to register only 1,200 blacks statewide. Within COFO, many student workers were convinced after the Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman murders that nonviolence would not win blacks the vote. By the end of the summer, SNCC officially defended the right of its Mississippi field secretaries to carry weapons.

Moses was able to exploit COFO's failure to register voters by creating a new party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Some 60,000 blacks joined the MFDP, which served as an alternative to Mississippi's all-white Democratic Party. With the presidential election of 1964 approaching, the MFDP sent 44 delegates to the national Democratic convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The delegation demanded to be seated at the convention in place of the regular Mississippi delegation. They were pledged to Johnson, while the white Democratic delegates were not. Although several Northern states supported seating the MFDP, Southern states threatened to walk out of the convention if the MFDP were seated. Johnson, wary of losing the conservative South in the general election that fall, offered the MFDP a compromise: two of its black delegates would be seated along with the white delegates. The MFDP rejected the offer and, in a move largely coordinated by SNCC, walked out of the convention. In the aftermath, many whites across the country saw SNCC as an extremist group unwilling to bend, while many blacks became even more convinced that they could not work with whites.


In early 1965, King and the SCLC attempted to register voters in Selma, Alabama. Learning from past mistakes, state and local officials denied the SCLC the brutal attacks that had created sympathy for blacks elsewhere. Instead, officials simply jailed blacks who tried to register. In March King called for a march from Selma to the capitol in Montgomery to protest black exclusion from the polls; however, he abruptly called off the protest on the eve of the march, probably to avoid antagonizing Johnson. After King left Selma, SNCC field workers and other activists urged local SCLC leaders to go ahead with the march. On March 7, 500 protesters headed by the SCLC's Hosea Williams and SNCC's Lewis began the march. In a matter of minutes, a large deputized posse and dozens of state troopers attacked the marchers. The gruesome reports and photographs prompted one of the nation's largest outcries in support of the Civil Rights Movement. Largely as a result, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provided federal protections and guarantees for black voters.

Although many SNCC members were pleased that the events in Selma had generated white sympathy, many others were again weary of taking abuse. They were also angered that a second Selma march, led by King a week later, was cut short after federal officials cautioned against it. When riots broke out in the black Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, in the summer of 1965, many SNCC members argued that the time had come for blacks to seize power rather than seek accommodation with whites (see Watts Riot of 1965). In May 1966 SNCC formalized its shift in this direction by electing Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), a recent graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C., to the chairmanship over Lewis. Rejecting nonviolence, Carmichael argued at first that violence should be used in self-defense; later he called for offensive violence to overthrow oppression. Carmichael also denounced Johnson's civil rights bills, which were supported by the SCLC and the NAACP.

In June 1966 in Greenwood, Mississippi, Carmichael advocated Black Power in a well-publicized speech. Although "Black Power" had been used before as a shorthand for black pride and political equality, Carmichael popularized the term through repeated speeches. Many whites were offended by Carmichael's views, which they saw as separatist or racist, and most of the mainstream civil rights groups severed their few remaining ties with SNCC. SNCC's white staff and volunteers, who had already begun to drift away from the group, soon left. Eventually Carmichael expelled the remaining white staff and denounced SNCC's white donors. By early 1967 SNCC was near bankruptcy and both its staff and membership had dwindled.

In June 1967, when Carmichael left SNCC to help lead the Black Panther Party, he was replaced by 23-year-old H. Rap Brown. In his first months Brown removed the word "nonviolent" from SNCC (renaming the group the Student National Coordinating Committee) and made urgent calls for violence. When Detroit, Michigan, rioted in the summer of 1967, Brown urged an audience in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to do the same. When a Cambridge school was set aflame hours later, Brown was charged with inciting a riot, one of several charges he would face in the following years. In May 1968 his legal problems forced him to resign SNCC's chairmanship. SNCC continued to operate into the early 1970s, but its impact on politics was minimal.