SNCC at 50
Remembering a student movement that changed
By: Charlie Cobb Jr.
April 15, 2010
In July 1962, I went with two students from
town for a couple of days when, while walking down a
dirt road, a car stopped in front of us. A white man
holding a pistol ordered us into the car. He was the
mayor. He was also a justice of the peace; he owned the
town's hardware store and headed the local White
Pistol in hand, he brought us to the hardware store,
where he ranted about
get out of town. The leader of our little threesome,
Charles "Mac" McLaurin, responded, saying we were in
to vote. The
this, Mac told him. The mayor's unforgettable response:
"That law ain't got here yet."
This story begins two years earlier. On Feb. 1, 1960,
four students attending
historically black college in
purchased school supplies at Woolworth's department
store, then sat down at the store's lunch counter for
coffee and doughnuts. "Negroes get food at the other
end," the waitress told them, pointing to the far end of
the counter where there were no seats and blacks were
expected to carry their orders outside. The four stayed
seated until the store closed.
By the end of March, the sit-ins had spread from
Easter weekend that year--about 150 student activists
violent Coordinating Committee (usually pronounced "Snick").
For me, the sit-ins were a wake-up call, and I became
deeply involved with movement, first as a student
protester and, before long, as a field secretary for
The deeper meanings of the sit-ins, like much of the
Southern freedom movement of the 1960s, are not very
well understood. There are black people today in places
that black people once could not occupy. Back in the
day, we could hardly imagine a black person in the White
House or even reading the news on television.
But African Americans are not in these positions today
because a sudden change of heart occurred in this
nation. There was pressure: a significant amount came
from young people on the campuses of historically black
colleges and universities. In fact, the student eruption
triggered by the Feb. 1 sit-ins may have been the only
time when HBCUs, as a collective body, have had national
political impact. And young black people who came off
these campuses to organize kept the pressure on for
years, primarily through SNCC.
On April 15, I will be joining SNCC veterans at a
conference and reunion on
discussion will begin with some of the important lessons
contained in the sit-ins. It would be a mistake to
reduce the sit-ins to a simple demand by black students
for a hamburger or Coke where only white people were
allowed to eat. The sit-ins were important because the
students were challenging themselves, making their way
in a fashion that would become very significant to the
larger freedom movement. Before the sit-ins, civil
rights seemed like something grown-ups did. Now, as
SNCC's legendary Bob Moses once put it, remarking on his
"They looked like I felt."
The bonds we formed in the student protests 50 years ago
were strong despite the diversity of political opinion
and economic class among SNCC members. Listen to another
legendary SNCC leader, Charles Sherrod, the first of us
to leave school and commit to working full-time as a
SNCC field secretary: "You get ideas in jail. You talk
with other young people you have never seen. Right away
we recognize each other: People like yourself, getting
out of the past. We're up all night, sharing creativity,
planning action. You learn the truth in prison; you
learn wholeness. You find the difference between being
dead and alive."
For all of the youthful energy and commitment to
challenge and change that erupted in 1960, the reason
for SNCC's existence comes down to one person--a
then-57-year-old woman--Ella Baker, one of the great
figures of 20th-century struggle. In a deep political
sense, we are her children and our 50th anniversary
conference is dedicated to her.
In the 1940s, Baker was the NAACP's director of southern
branches, organizing and assisting local chapters across
the South. In 1957, she was instrumental in the
establishment of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern
Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), becoming its
first executive secretary (actually "temporary"
executive secretary because she was a woman in an
organization of male preachers). She immediately
recognized the significance of the sit-in movement and
got $800 from King to bring together the student
activists to her alma mater,
SNCC while fending off efforts by SCLC to make us a
student arm of that organization.
What she stressed, and what came to define SNCC, was the
idea of organizing from the bottom up. "Strong people"
she would say, "don't need strong leaders." She
encouraged us to think that our work was community organizing.
In 1961, other sit-in students left their campuses to
work full-time for SNCC as "field secretaries." Again,
we saw challenge in this as much as political
commitment. Traveling by bus to
1962, I got off in
the students who were sitting in there. Why? Because
minds of many young black men of my generation--with the
murder of Emmett Till. I wondered what kind of black
people were these
confront one of the most brutal and violent regimes in
passing through on the way to a civil rights workshop in
Texas, Lawrence Guyot,, who would later head the
Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), looked at
me with total disdain, "
workshop? What's the point of that when you're standing
right here in
challenge, and stayed.
SNCC's mission was to organize in the toughest areas of
the Black Belt South. Older veterans of struggle, mainly
local NAACP leaders, guided us in organizing efforts for
voter registration. They felt that if the potential
political power reflected in the number of black people
were harnessed through registration, change could come
through the exercise of that power.
We dug in. Truthfully, until passage of the 1965 Voting
Rights Act, we never got huge numbers of people to even
try to register to vote. There was too much violence,
too much economic reprisal, too much intimidation, all
ignored by the federal government and supported by the
local so-called forces of law and order. In
when Byron De La Beckwith was found not guilty of the
murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, the state's major
newspaper had a front-page photograph of De La Beckwith
shaking hands with a smiling Gov. Ross Barnett.
Not being run out of
itself. We made our way to strong people who were
willing to expose themselves to reprisal in order to
fight for change. And our work had greater impact than
we realized at first. In 1964, the
Democratic Party, which we helped organize, decided to
challenge the legitimacy and seating of
officially recognized Democratic Party at the National
Democratic Convention that year. President Lyndon B.
Johnson and other national party decision-makers
exercised what can only be called raw white power and
denied seating to the
Party. This was because of the clout wielded by southern
white Democrats--power they owed to their exclusion of
blacks from the political process.
We were bitter about it because we thought we had
failed. But the party promised changes that would expand
the participation of women and minorities. In 1972,
these changes were formalized into what are now called
the McGovern Rules, outlawing explicitly racist local
party affiliates and increasing the number of women and
minorities in party leadership roles.
The candidacy of Barack Obama--and Hillary Clinton, for
that matter--would not have been possible without the
generated the pressure for these new rules. President
Obama owes a great debt to this
1964 as well as to the black people in
across the South whose blood still soaks the soil.
Civil rights victories--the 1964 Public Accommodations
Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act--were a dilemma for
us in SNCC. In five years, we learned that the problems
of black life in
these two pieces of legislation could remedy. "Where do
we go from here?" we asked ourselves, and we never
really found an answer.
Differences of political opinion that had been
relatively unimportant in the heat of struggle loomed
larger now. Was willingness to face terror enough to
qualify for membership? How strong should central
authority be? Is nonviolence still relevant? What about
self-defense? How do whites fit in? The MFDP's challenge
of the status quo and its refusal to kowtow to liberal
Democratic Party pressures, our stance against the war
use of the slogan "black power" brought the wrath of
former allies down on our heads. I think our stances
were all legitimate, but they cost us politically.
Complicating all this was the simple fact that we were
tired. We stopped organizing, in a sense, losing the
best in ourselves. As Bob Moses put it, SNCC was like a
boat in the water that had to be repaired to stay
afloat, but had to stay afloat in order to be repaired.
Our disintegration will also come up during our
in it for today. Some of us will not have seen each
other for years. Still, I think that while "repair" has
gone on for decades, most of us are still afloat. And
there are lessons in that, too.
Charles Cobb Jr. is senior analyst for All
latest book is On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of
the Civil Rights Trail