In the midst of the civil rights sit-ins of 1960, Ella Baker organized a conference for student activists at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, with money appropriated by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Out of the Shaw University conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced Snick) formed to coordinate the student sit-in movement. The organization elected Marion Barry as its first chair—a position that Chuck McDew, John Lewis, and Stokely Carmichael later occupied. Baker initially served as an adviser to the group, but she encouraged the students to assume leadership of the organization rather than to rely on older activists.
The organization’s purpose, as its founding members conceptualized it, was to challenge segregation through nonviolent direct action—a strategy employed by Gandhi in India. Some older civil rights groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the SCLC, considered that approach too confrontational. SNCC’s founders also argued that a localized, participatory model would be more politically effective than the “top-down” approach embraced by other groups. SNCC organizers embraced an egalitarian, antihierarchical approach to grassroots organizing.
Shortly after its formation, SNCC established its national office in Atlanta, in a room rented by the SCLC, and began printing a newsletter, the Student Voice. In 1961 the organization redirected its focus away from college campuses and toward the rural communities of the Deep South, targeting southwestern Georgia and western Mississippi. The director of SNCC activities in Mississippi, Bob Moses, immediately began capitalizing on the networks older civil rights workers had already established. SNCC’s organizing depended a great deal on the networking of Mississippi natives, especially Amzie Moore, Clyde Kennard, Vernon Dahmer, Medgar Evers, and C. C. Bryant. When organizing Mississippi communities, Moses typically established connections through local NAACP leaders and then cultivated a local leadership among young people and others who were not highly regarded by the older networks. Moses’s first trip to Mississippi occurred in the summer of 1960, when he was trying to recruit people for an October conference. He met Moore, to whom Baker sent an introduction. Moore attended the conference and formally invited the organization to come to Mississippi.
Other activists briefly worked in Mississippi when SNCC became involved in the Congress of Racial Equality’s Freedom Rides in the summer of 1961. After the first attempt to ride from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans was stopped in Birmingham, Diane Nash and other student organizers in Nashville joined the Riders, who began flooding into Jackson to crowd the jails. By the end of the summer, 328 riders had been arrested in Jackson, and the jails were so crowded that Gov. Ross Barnett sent the Riders to Parchman Prison.
Because of the violence that met the Freedom Riders, the Kennedy administration began urging SNCC organizers to focus on voter registration, which the administration mistakenly believed would generate less violent resistance than the efforts to desegregate public transit. The administration promised organizers federal protection while they worked in Mississippi. SNCC almost split over the shift, with some members believing that registration would not entail enough direct action. Members ultimately decided to work on both fronts, though the two wings quickly merged into one in Mississippi.
During the summer of 1961, at the same time as the Freedom Rides, Bryant invited Moses to begin voter registration work in Pike County, in the southwestern part of the state, where both the Klan and the NAACP were active. Moses believed that SNCC’s main task in Mississippi was to develop local, indigenous leadership, and he saw voter registration as way to increase political involvement. While SNCC often operated on a small budget, its work was possible because of the support local residents provided, including food and shelter.
In Pike County, Moses began organizing high school students, who then went house to house to spread word about the movement. In August the first voter registration school was opened. The direct-action wing began holding workshops on nonviolent resistance, and sit-ins began. Two local students who later became SNCC field secretaries, Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes, staged the first sit-in of the Pike County nonviolent movement at the local Woolworth’s. Students also organized and led a march to the McComb City Hall to protest Brenda Travis’s expulsion from school and Herbert Lee’s murder.
After hearing about SNCC’s activities in Pike County, residents in other counties began requesting that SNCC expand its work into their areas. SNCC field secretaries duplicated Moses’s strategies in Hattiesburg, Holly Springs, Canton, Natchez, Ruleville, Drew, Liberty, Clarksdale, Greenwood, and other communities. In 1962 SNCC workers also went to Jackson to campaign on behalf of R. L. Smith, the first African American to run for Congress from Mississippi since Reconstruction. Watkins and Hayes left Pike County for Hattiesburg, where they helped Dahmer start a voter registration drive.
During SNCC’s expansion, a number of native Mississippians began working as field secretaries and organizers. By 1963 SNCC had twenty field secretaries in Mississippi, and seventeen—including Lawrence Guyot, June Jordan, Charles McLaurin, Sam Block, and Fannie Lou Hamer—were natives of the state. Many attended SNCC’s Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, to learn voter registration techniques and then came home to apply what they learned. Native Mississippians accomplished much of SNCC’s work in the state, and many assumed leadership roles in the organization. Watkins and Hamer were elected to SNCC’s executive committee and were among the most ardent proponents of SNCC’s strategy of developing local, indigenous leadership.
Guyot directed the Freedom Summer Project in 1963 and was elected chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which SNCC formed in 1964 to facilitate African American political participation and to challenge the seating of five Mississippi Representatives in the US House. Hamer was elected the MFDP’s vice chair, and McLaurin was chosen as part of its delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
By 1964 most SNCC workers had left the more rural areas for the cities, and after building up local leadership, SNCC began focusing on issues other than community organizing. In 1966 only seventeen SNCC workers remained in Mississippi, and most of them worked in the Jackson area. That same year, SNCC’s executive committee voted to expel all white members, and several native Mississippians resigned in protest. In addition, tensions had arisen between SNCC and the MFDP, which felt that SNCC’s Atlanta office was not providing enough support to the movement in Mississippi.
While SNCC’s official activity in the state steadily decreased after 1963, the local leadership remained politically active, and more than half a century later, many native Mississippians who started out with SNCC continue to work for social justice both within and outside of the state.
- Kenneth Andrews, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: The Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Its Legacy (2004)
- Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Wesley Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America (2009)
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)
- Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (2002)