SNCC played a major role in the sit-ins and Freedom Rides, a leading role in the 1963 March on Washington, Mississippi Freedom Summer, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party over the next few years.Though the group claimed to have no leaders, its executive secretary, James Forman, was the closest thing. John Lewis, chairman, and Robert Parris Moses (also known as Robert Parris), who had an M.A. from Harvard, were alsoseen as leaders. In the later part of the 1960s, led by fiery leaders such as Stokely Carmichael, SNCC focused on "black power", and then protesting against the Vietnam War. As early as 1965 Forman said he didn’t know “how much longer we can stay nonviolent” and in 1969, SNCC officially changed its name to the Student National Coordinating Committee to reflect the broadening of its strategies. It passed out of existence in the 1970s.
SNCC, as an organization, began with an $800 grant from the SCLC for a conference where student activists could share experiences and coordinate activities. Held at Shaw University in April 1960, the conference was attended by 126 student delegates from 58 sit-in centers in 12 states, along with delegates from 19 northern colleges, SCLC, CORE, Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), National Student Association (NSA), and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Out of this conference the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed.
Ella Baker, who organized the Shaw conference, had been the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) director before helping form SNCC, but this did not mean SNCC was a branch of SCLC. Instead of being closely tied to SCLC or other groups such as the NAACP as a "youth division," SNCC sought to stand on its own. Among important SNCC leaders attending the conference were Stokely Carmichael from Howard University; J. Charles Jones, who organized 200 students to participate in sit-ins at department stores throughout Charlotte, North Carolina; Diane Nash; James Lawson; John Lewis; Bernard Lafayette; James Bevel; and Marion Barry from the Nashville Student Movement.
In the years that followed, SNCC members were referred to as “shock troops of the revolution. SNCC took on greater risks in 1961, after a mob of Ku Klux Klan members and other whites attacked integrated groups of bus passengers who defied local segregation laws as part of the Freedom Rides organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Rather than allowing mob violence to stop them, SNCC volunteers, including Diane Nash, James Bevel, Marion Barry, Angeline Butler, and John Lewis, put themselves at great personal risk by traveling into the deep South, along with numerous CORE volunteers. Their actions forced the Kennedy Administration to briefly provide federal protection so mob violence would be temporarily abated. 436 people took part in these Freedom Rides during the spring and summer of 1961.
In 1963 SNCC conducted the Freedom Ballot, a mock election in which black Mississippians came out to show their willingness to vote — a right they had been denied for decades, despite the provisions of the Fifteenth Amendment, due to a combination of state laws and constitutional provisions, economic reprisals and violence by white authorities and private citizens.
SNCC followed up on the Freedom Ballot with the Mississippi Summer Project, also known as Freedom Summer, which focused on voter registration. SNCC organized black Mississippians to register to vote, almost always without success. White authorities either rejected their applications on any pretexts available or, failing that, simply refused to accept their applications.
Mississippi Summer got national attention when three civil rights workers involved in the project, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, disappeared after having been released from police custody. Their bodies were eventually found after a reluctant J. Edgar Hoover directed the FBI to search for them. In the process the FBI also found corpses of several other missing black Mississippians, whose disappearances had not attracted public attention outside the Delta.
SNCC also established Freedom Schools to teach children to read and to educate them to stand up for their rights. As in the struggle to desegregate public accommodations led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in Birmingham, Alabama the year before, the bolder attitudes of the children helped shake their parents out of the fear that had paralyzed many of them.
The goal of the Mississippi Summer Project was to organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), an integrated party, to win seats at the 1964 Democratic National Convention for a slate of delegates elected by disfranchised black Mississippians and white sympathizers. The MFDP was, however, tremendously inconvenient for the Johnson Administration. It had wanted to minimize the inroads that Barry Goldwater’s campaign was making into what had previously been the Democratic stronghold of the “Solid South” and the support that George Wallace received during the Democratic primaries in the North.
When the MFDP started to organize a fight over credentials, Johnson originally would not budge. When Fannie Lou Hamer, the leader of the MFDP, was in the midst of testifying about the beatings the police had given to her and others for attempting to exercise their right to vote, Johnson preempted television coverage of the credentials fight. Even so, her testimony had created enough uproar that Johnson offered the MFDP a "compromise": they would receive two non-voting seats, while the delegation sent by the official Democratic Party would take its seats.
Johnson used all of his resources, mobilizing Walter Reuther, one of his key supporters within the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and his Vice-Presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey, to put pressure on King and other mainstream civil rights leaders to bring the MFDP around, while directing Hoover to put the delegation under surveillance. The MFDP rejected both the compromise and the pressure on them to accept it and walked out.
That experience destroyed what little faith SNCC activists had in the good faith of the federal government, even though Johnson had obtained a broad Civil Rights Act barring discrimination in public accommodations, employment and private education in 1964 and would go on to obtain an equally broad Voting Rights Act in 1965. It also estranged SNCC leaders from many of the mainstream leaders of the civil rights movement.
Those differences carried over into the voting rights struggle that centered on Selma, Alabama in 1965. SNCC had begun organizing black citizens to register to vote in Selma in 1963, but made little headway against the adamant resistance of Sheriff Jim Clark and the White Citizens' Council. In early 1965, local Selma activists asked the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for aid and the two organizations formed an uneasy alliance in the struggle for voting rights. SNCC disagreed with SCLC over tactical and strategic issues, including the decision not to attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge a second time after county sheriffs and state troopers attacked them on "Bloody Sunday" on March 7, 1965.
The civil rights activists crossed the bridge on the third attempt, with the aid of a federal court order barring authorities from interfering with the march. It was part of a five-day march to Montgomery, Alabama that helped dramatize the need for a Voting Rights Act. During this period, SNCC activists became more and more disenchanted with nonviolence, integration as a strategic goal, and cooperation with white liberals or the Federal government.
After the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965, some SNCC members sought to break their ties with the mainstream civil rights movement and the liberal organizations that supported it. They argued instead that blacks needed to build power of their own rather than seek accommodations from the power structure in place. Eventually, the leader of the militant branch, Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), replaced John Lewis as head of SNCC in May 1966.
Carmichael first argued that blacks should be free to use violence in self-defense, then later he advocated revolutionary violence to overthrow oppression. Carmichael rejected the civil rights legislation that the movement had fought so hard to achieve as mere palliatives. The Department of Defense stated in 1967:
SNCC can no longer be considered a civil rights group. It has become a racist organization with black supremacy ideals and an expressed hatred for whites. It employs violent and militant measures which may be defined as extreme when compared with those of more moderate groups.
Carmichael raised the banner of Black Power in a speech in Greenwood, Mississippi in June 1966. As the mainstream civil rights movement distanced itself from SNCC, SNCC expelled white staff and volunteers, and denounced the whites who had supported it in the past. By early 1967 SNCC was approaching bankruptcy and close to disappearing.
Carmichael left SNCC in June 1967 to join the Black Panther Party. H. Rap Brown, later known as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, replaced him as the head of SNCC. Brown renamed the group the Student National Coordinating Committee and supported violence, which he described "as American as cherry pie." He resigned from SNCC in 1968, after being indicted for inciting to riot in Cambridge, Maryland in 1967. Brown then became Minister of Justice of the Black Panther Party.
It is also true that H. Rap Brown proposed violence against violence if the power structure in the US did not change its racist actions against Blacks. Brown was also targeted by the FBI and incarcerated without legal representation during 1968-1969. The government indicted Brown to make an example of him, despite a lack of proper evidence.
By that point, SNCC was no longer an effective organization. It largely disappeared in the early 1970s, although chapters in communities such as San Antonio, Texas continued for several more years. SNCC has begun again at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky.
Mario Marcel Salas, field secretary of the SNCC chapter in San Antonio successfully operated until 1976. The San Antonio SNCC chapter was part Black Panther Party and part SNCC. Dr. Charles Jones of Atlanta State University termed it a "hybrid organization" since it had panther styled survival programs. Salas also worked closely with La Raza Unida Party, running for political office and organizing demonstrations to expose discrimination against Blacks and Latinos. Salas later helped in the liberation of the island of Grenada from the dictator Eric Gairy in 1979, and became the chairman of the Free Nelson Mandela Movement in San Antonio Texas.
Many prominent black women rose to recognition by their participation in SNCC. Some of these women include Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, Donna Richards, Fay Bellamy, Gwen Patton, Cynthia Washington, Jean Wiley, Muriel Tillinghast, Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Pearl Avery, Diane Nash, Ella Baker, Victoria Gray, Unita Blackwell, Bettie Mae Fikes, Joyce Ladner, Dorie Ladner, Gloria Richardson, Bernice Reagon, Prathia Hall, Connie Curry, Judy Richardson, Ruby Sales, Endesha Ida Mae Holland, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Anne Moody.
Anne Moody published her autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi, in 1970, detailing her decision to participate in SNCC and later CORE, and her experience as a woman in the movement. She described the widespread trend of black women to become involved with SNCC at their educational institutions. As young college students or teachers, these black women were often heavily involved in grassroots campaign by teaching Freedom Schools and promoting voter registration.
On the other hand, white women became very involved with SNCC particularly after the Freedom Summer of 1964. Many northern white women were inspired by the ideology of racial equality. Most of the direct-action resolutions, including peaceful protests and voter registration, took place in Mississippi, challenging the Jim Crow laws of the South. Some white women, such as Mary King, Casey Hayden, and Mary Varela were able to obtain status and leadership within SNCC. Through organizations like SNCC, women of both races were becoming more politically active than they did at any time in American history. However, their positions and treatment in SNCC only demonstrated the patriarchic bias that existed in the society. A group of women in SNCC who were later identified as Mary King and Casey Hayden openly challenged the way women were treated when they issued the “SNCC Position Paper (Women in the Movement)”. Notably, the paper was published anonymously, helping King and Hayden avoid unwanted attention. The paper specifically listed 11 events in which women were treated as subordinate to men. According to the paper, women in SNCC did not have a chance to become the face of the organization, the top leaders, because they were assigned to clerical and housekeeping duties whereas men were involved in decision-making.
When Stokely Carmichael took over the leadership of SNCC from John Lewis, he essentially reoriented the path of SNCC towards Black Power. He famously said in a speech, “it is a call for black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations.” White women thus lost their influence and power in SNCC; Mary King and Casey Hayden left SNCC to become active in pursuing equality for women. They co-authored Sex and Caste: A Kind of Memo, which later became an influential piece in feminism. As SNCC turned its focus to Black Power, black women also lost their voice and became subject to the already-existing patriarchal structure of the organization. The limited opportunities for women from the original community-building ideology were erased by the usurping Black Power movement, in which power was more centralized in the hands of the male-dominated top leadership.
It is important to mention that former SNCC member Kathleen Cleaver played a key role in the central committee of the Black Panther Party as communications secretary (1968). Her position in this "male dominated" leadership was both effective and influential to Brown, Red and Yellow Power groups of the late 60s and early 70s.
SNCC publications and documents