Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)


* Civil rights group that took part in anti-segregation activities during the early to mid-1960s
* Later became militant, anti-white, and separatist under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was established in the spring of 1960 by mostly black college students who were involved in the anti-segregation sit-in movement that was then sweeping the South. The group’s founders first convened in Raleigh, North Carolina, at the initiative of Ella Baker, an influential civil-rights leader (with the NAACP) and an avowed socialist who had ties to the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and the Weather Underground. Among SNCC’s founding members were such notables as Harry Belafonte, Debbie Bell, Julian Bond, David Forbes, Dick Gregory, Joyce Ladner, James Lawson, John Lewis, and Bernice Johnson Reagon. Other high-profile supporters included entertainers like Pete Seeger and the musical trio of Peter, Paul, and Mary. There is ample evidence that as the 1960s progressed, CPUSA members infiltrated SNCC.

SNCC’s founding statement emphatically affirmed the group’s commitment to “the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence” — rooted in “the Judeo-Christian tradition” — as “the foundation of our purpose, the presupposition of our belief, and the manner of our action.” “By appealing to conscience and standing on the moral nature of human existence,” the statement read, “nonviolence nurtures the atmosphere in which reconciliation and justice become actual possibilities.”

Using a small office in Atlanta as their headquarters, several dozen SNCC “field secretaries” — who were paid $10 per week — traveled to the Deep South and took up residence in ramshackle “freedom houses” situated in the heart of black communities. These activists worked to gain the confidence of local blacks and enlisted their aid in working to stamp out segregation in every form — by way of sit-ins, voter-registration inititiatives, and “freedom rides” (which began in the spring of 1961). When their protest activities ran afoul of the law, the demonstrators employed a “jail, no bail” strategy — where they willingly accepted short-term incarceration, so as to dramatically demonstrate the depth of their convictions and the importance of the issues at hand.

In the summer of 1964, SNCC invited more than 1,000 northern students to come to Mississippi to work on voter registration; to teach in “freedom schools” (whose curricula included black history and the philosophy of the civil-rights movement); and to help draw national attention to the problems associated with racism. SNCC members often pursued these activities at great personal risk; indeed in 1964, three of the organization’s members — two white and one black — were murdered in Nashoba County, Mississippi.

Once the SNCC’s Southern movement had achieved its immediate aims — the right to vote, the end of legal segregation, the rise of a new black consciousness, and a heightened white awareness about racism and civil rights — the organization began to abandon its original spirit of conciliation. Impatient with the nonviolent reformism of Martin Luther King, SNCC leaders grew increasingly militant, and nonviolence gradually gave way to black rage. A U.S. Defense Department report on SNCC stated that there were “violent disagreements” among the group’s members regarding the new militancy, and that “the broad revolution section prevailed in the discussion.”

This trend culminated with the ascent of the black separatist Stokely Carmichael to the post of SNCC chairman in 1966. Unambiguously rejecting nonviolent civil disobedience as a vehicle for black progress, Carmichael instead sought to burn all bridges between black and white Americans. He denounced the integrationist Martin Luther King, Jr. as an “Uncle Tom” and began advocating armed violence as a favored means of promoting civil rights.

Moreover, Carmichael exhorted African Americans to embrace the concept of “Black Power,” which he candidly defined as “a movement that will smash everything Western civilization has created.”[1] He also helped popularize the slogan “Black is Beautiful” (advocating a rejection of “white” values) and the word “honkie” (as a derogatory term for whites, to parallel the epithet “nigger”). In 1966 Carmichael and SNCC expelled all of the organization’s white staff and volunteers, and denounced those whites who had supported their cause in the past. In 1967 a SNCC leaflet reflected the group’s new mood: “We [blacks] must fill ourselves with hate for all things white.”[2]

In 1967 Carmichael stated that SNCC’s co-founders had used deception when deciding upon a name for their nascent organization seven years earlier:

“We used the name nonviolent because at that time Martin Luther King was the central figure of the black struggle and he was still preaching nonviolence, and anyone who talked about violence at that time was considered treasonable—amounting—to treason, so we decided that we would use the name nonviolent, but in the meantime we knew our struggle was not about to be nonviolent, but we would just wait until the time was right for the actual [word indistinct] name.”

In May 1967 H. Rap Brown succeeded Carmichael as SNCC chairman. Brown’s calls for black hatred and violence against whites were even more extreme than Carmichael’s. By this time, the U.S. Defense Department had concluded that “SNCC can no longer be considered a civil rights group,” but rather “has become a racist organization with black supremacy ideals and an expressed hatred for whites.”

Notably, SNCC’s hatred was not confined only to American whites but encompassed also Israeli Jews. In August 1967 the organization charged that Israel had committed atrocities during its recently concluded war against its Arab invaders. A SNCC publication referred to Israelis as “Zionist terrorists who deliberately slaughtered and mutilated Arab men, women and children.”

In this atmosphere of ever-growing anger, SNCC quickly disintegrated. Its financial backing from white northerners virtually disappeared, and many of its members shifted their allegiance to other groups. By the early 1970s, SNCC had ceased to exist.

[1] Dinesh D’Souza, The End of Racism, (Free Press, 1995), p. 210.
[2] Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom, America in Black and White (Simon & Schuster, 1999), p. 167.

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