The idea for local, student-run organisations was conceived by Ella Baker, a civil rights organiser and official for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She invited Black college students who had already taken part in sit-ins to an April 1960 gathering at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“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.”
A statement drafted by Vanderbilt University theology student, James Lawson, whose workshops on nonviolent direct action had served as a training ground for many of the Nashville student protesters, drew on a strong commitment to Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence that would characterise the SNCC’s early years:
The SNCC’s emergence as a force in the Southern Civil Rights Movement came largely through the involvement of students in the 1961 Freedom Rides – these were designed to test a 1960 Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in interstate travel facilities was unconstitutional.
The Congress of Racial Equality initially sponsored the Freedom Rides that began in May 1961, but segregationists viciously attacked riders travelling through Alabama. Students from Nashville, under the leadership of Diane Nash, resolved to finish the rides. Once the new group of Freedom Riders demonstrated their determination to continue the rides into Mississippi, other students joined the movement.
By the time the Interstate Commerce Commission began enforcing the Supreme Court ruling in November 1961, the SNCC was immersed in voter registration efforts in McComb, Mississippi, and a desegregation campaign in Albany, Georgia. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) later joined with the SNCC in Albany, but tensions arose between the two civil rights groups.
At the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, SNCC chairman (and later Senator) John Lewis was one of those scheduled to speak. He intended to criticise John F. Kennedy’s proposed civil rights bill as “too little, and too late,” and to refer to the movement as “a serious revolution”. He softened the tone of his eventual speech to accommodate the views of the other march organisers. Still, he warned his audience:
“We want our freedom and we want it now.”
In 1961 SNCC organiser Bob Moses moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and began co-ordinating young Mississippi residents. Soon becoming voter registration director of Mississippi’s Council of Federated Organizations, he met resistance but the voter registration effort helped bring together three groups: the SNCC’s young and energetic field secretaries, influential regional and local civil rights leaders from Mississippi, and white student volunteers who participated in the “Freedom Vote” mock election of October 1963 and the Freedom Summer (1964). Early in 1964, the SNCC supported the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in an effort to challenge the legitimacy of the state’s all-white Democratic Party.
The voting rights demonstrations that began in 1965 in Selma, Alabama, sparked increasingly bitter ideological debates within the SNCC, as some openly challenged the group’s previous commitment to nonviolent tactics and its willingness to allow the participation of white activists.
In many Deep South communities, where the SNCC had once attracted considerable Black support, the group’s influence waned. Nevertheless, after the Selma to Montgomery March, Stokely Carmichael and other SNCC organisers entered the rural area between Selma and Montgomery and helped Black residents launch the all-Black Lowndes County Freedom Organization, later known as the Black Panther Party. Meanwhile, several SNCC workers also immersed themselves in helping organise communities in urban Black ghettos.
In May 1966 Carmichael was elected the SNCC’s chairman. His election compromised the organisation’s relationships with more moderate civil rights groups and many of its white supporters. In the month following his election, Carmichael publicly called for “Black Power” during a voting rights march through Mississippi. The national exposure of Carmichael’s Black Power speeches brought increased notoriety to the SNCC, and the group remained divided over its future direction.
Dr King responded directly to Carmichael’s and the SNCC’s appeal for Black Power in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, arguing:
“Effective political power for Negroes cannot come through separatism.”
Even after the dismissal of a group of the SNCC’s Atlanta field workers who had called for the exclusion of whites, the organisation was weakened by continued internal conflicts and external attacks, along with the loss of northern financial backing. The election in June 1967 of H. “Rap” Brown as its new chair was meant to reduce the controversy surrounding the group. Brown, however, encouraged militancy among urban blacks, and soon a federal campaign against black militancy severely damaged the organisation’s ability to sustain its organising efforts. It became a target of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program.
By the time Dr King was assassinated in April 1968, the SNCC had little ability to mobilise as an effective political force. Its most dedicated community organisers had left, and it now changed its name to the Student National Coordinating Committee. Although individual SNCC activists would significant roles in politics after 1968, and many of the controversial ideas that once had defined the SNCC’s radicalism had become widely accepted among African Americans, the organisation itself disintegrated.
By the end of the decade, FBI surveillance of the SNCC’s remaining offices was discontinued due to lack of activity. The group itself disbanded in 1970.