The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)

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For as long as a person has been able to formulate an opinion, there have been people who have disagreed with them and spoken out against it. Advocacy and organizing are as old as time itself and in America, our history is filled with instances of people fighting for social justice and demanding change. In many of these cases, some of the most outspoken advocates have been young people. One of the most successful youth led organizing groups was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”). Their work during the Civil Rights Movement set the standard for youth of color everywhere and their contributions to the movement warrant them a spot of reverence in the history books. In honor of Black History Month, the Rockaway Advocate wants to pay homage to SNCC and their work to ensure a better future for young people of color across the country.

The Civil Rights Movement came at the time when our county was at a breaking point. The disparity between the treatments between black and white Americans was a point of fierce outrage for many and Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955 was the spark needed to catalyze the movement. Her act of defiance mobilized her community and led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This provided Dr. Martin Luther King with a platform to catapult him to the forefront of the national conversation about civil rights.

For the next five years, much of the organizing was done by adults. If young people were included, it was usually coordinated by older members of the movement. That all changed in 1960 when Ella Baker, the interim executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), advocated to SCLC to invite college students to their youth conference. This meeting included young people who had organized sit-ins across the south and by the time the meeting ended, SNCC was born. Under Baker’s suggestion, SNCC formed two wings, one for direct action and one voter registration. Of all of the organization’s accomplishments, its work on voter registration for people of color in the South remains one of their biggest achievements.

SNCC began as an umbrella organization for student protest groups and it wasn’t until 1961 that the organization turned more toward creating community-based political organizations for people of color in rural America. Led by outspoken young men like Marion Barry, John Lewis, and Stokely Carmichael, SNCC became known for their radical independence and daring tactics. SNCC organized freedom rides that tested the Supreme Court’s 1960 ruling that made segregated interstate travel facilities against the law. During its tenure, SNCC also took stances on the political scene. During the 1963 March on Washington, John Lewis gave a speech that criticized then-president John F. Kennedy and the Civil Rights Bill, questioning the government’s intent and it calling out their poor track record of protecting young, black civil rights workers.

While SNCC had a huge influence on the Civil Rights Movement, its memberships’ shifting priorities ultimately led to its disbandment in 1976. After 1964’s Democratic Convention, the membership fell into two camps, one that favored exclusively nonviolent tactics and the other that aligned more strongly with the more radical tenets of Black power and Marxism. Other factors include an attempt by Democratic Party operatives Allen Lowenstein and Barney Frank to take decision-making power away from activists in the South and separate SNCC’s links with communist-adjacent organizations like the National Lawyers Guild.

Overall, SNCC’s involvement in and impact on the Civil Rights Movement is undeniable. Their work forced older activists and leaders to take young people seriously and their results cemented their status as change makers. Their work paved the way for youth led organizations like the Rockaway Youth Task Force to make a difference in a world that is constantly trying to undermine their agency and effectiveness. That’s why, this month, the Rockaway Advocate recognizes the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee!