Civil Rights Movement and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” Throughout history, groups of all different backgrounds, races, genders, and ethnicities have spoken out against injustices; however, these protests would not have been nearly as successful without the model of the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee pioneered the fight for social justice, demonstrating perseverance, strength, and courage as the members refused to be silenced by their country and strove to truly have liberty and justice for all.
Although slavery had been abolished, blacks were continuously discriminated against. Every day was a fight for equality in the face of devastating effects of racism, such as the Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow laws arose from Plessy v. Ferguson, which determined the standard of “separate but equal” (“Civil Rights Movement,” 2018).This was eventually overturned in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education when segregation was deemed unconstitutional. However, segregation still remained. Called to action by this injustice and the success of the already founded Civil Rights Movement, four college students from North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro began sit-ins at Woolworth’s lunch counter, inciting an exponential movement across the country, and catalyzing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) (Peterson-Smith, 2012).
SNCC was founded in part due to Ella Baker, at the time an executive secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), of which Martin Luther King Jr. was the president. She gathered leaders from the sit-in movement at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina to discuss similar work in the future. Baker convinced King to put up $800 to hold the conference, with King’s hope being the conference would spawn an SCLC student wing. However, it was Baker’s belief that King was “out of touch with younger blacks” and encouraged the students should form their own organization (“Ella Baker”).
While Ella Baker was dubbed one of the main founders of SNCC, this organization would not be as successful without the input of other key individuals. James Lawson, a student at Vanderbilt University, composed a statement of purpose for SNCC. This statement wrote, “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. Nonviolence as it grows from Judaic-Christian traditions seeks a social order of justice permeated by love” (Lawson, 17 April 1960). Aside from Lawson, in May of 1960, Marion Barry was elected as the first chairman of SNCC. These key leaders helped to ignite the mission of SNCC.
Once formed, SNCC’s initial focus was the desegregation of restaurants, but it eventually turned to the Freedom Rides through Alabama. In 1964, after 60 different rides and hundreds of arrests, and at the proposal of Amzie Moore, a former president of a local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), SNCC began campaigning to register blacks to vote in Mississippi, known as Freedom Summer.
Freedom Summer was a difficult time for SNCC, with many of its members murdered, causing some members to question if nonviolence was appropriate for every situation. Members began to proclaim that armed self-defense was a right for black people, with member Stokely Carmichael ultimately coining the phrase “black power.” These members called for more direct action, something the president at the time, John F. Kennedy, and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, were not in favor of, fearing the image that would be conveyed to citizens of the United States and other countries. The Kennedy brothers both pressed for more indirect action with voter registration. This created conflict within SNCC because some, such as Amzie Moore, actively believed that voter registration was an integral component of the mission of SNCC, while others believed voter registration was too politically affiliated and would be considered selling out. This debate came to a head at Highlander Folk School in Knoxville, Tennessee in mid-August 1961, almost destroying the organization. The issue was ultimately resolved with the establishment of two separate wings, one for direct action and one for voter registration (“SNCC Debates Direct Action & Voter Registration at Highlander”).
With SNCC firmly established, communication and publicity became a very important pillar to success. The activities instigated by SNCC “expanded into a revitalization of the student movement” and allowed for students to rally together to build a strong front (Murphree and Davies, 2002, p. 1). Since the passionate social effort to bring about change was stronger than the ease of remaining silent, judgement was not cast upon those who chose to participate but, instead, on those who decided to stay neutral. Those who chose to participate banded together to “break down long-standing barriers to individual freedoms,” propelling the group even further (Murphree and Davies, 2002, p. 315). SNCC workers were focused on winning civil rights for blacks in America, but wanted to do so without violence and through the greater public support.