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SNCC: Definition & History

Instructor: James Moeller
In this lesson, we'll define the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and its role in the African American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. Topics will include how SNCC was established and changed, as well as some key members of the organization.

Historical Background

During the African American Civil Right Movement of the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X came to represent two very different approaches to the issues. Dr. King advocated the use of nonviolence as a means of achieving full civil rights for blacks. By comparison, Malcolm X, one of the primary leaders and spokespersons for the Nation of Islam, did not object to the use of violence to achieve black goals.

Earlier lunch-counter sit-ins that took place in Greensboro, NC, in violation of segregation laws, inspired the organization of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), pronounced 'Snick'. Participants in the sit-ins included black students from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College. Initially, SNCC aligned itself with Dr. King's nonviolent approach to civil rights.

The SNCC logo
SNCC logo

Origins of SNCC

Under the influence of Ella Baker, a leader and member of Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), young civil rights leaders formed SNCC in April 1960. Ella Baker was among the organizers of an April 1960 conference held at Shaw University in Raleigh, NC, attended by students from over 50 colleges and high schools, representing 13 states and 37 different communities.

Conference attendees and founding members of SNCC included Marion Barry, who later became mayor of Washington, D.C.; John Lewis, who was later elected Congressman from Georgia's 5th District and Stokely Carmichael, who had earlier helped to found the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama, an organization dedicated to voter registration for blacks. Carmichael later became famous for his references to the term, 'black power.'

SNCC leader, Stokely Carmichael, at Michigan State University

The SCLC provided SNCC with an $800 grant to start the organization; Baker served as an adviser. Although the SCLC originally thought SNCC would serve as its youth wing, the latter functioned independently from the beginning. Even though SNCC initially embraced nonviolence as a means of effecting change, group members also made statements indicating that violence could be an option in the future.

SNCC Events

Members of SNCC participated in some of the most significant events of the African Civil Rights Movement. For example, in the summer of 1961, they participated in the Freedom Rides. In partnership with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Freedom Riders sought to expose racial discrimination, in spite of federal protection on public transportation.

In 1963, SNCC played a major role in the organization and staging of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the site of Dr. Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream Speech'.

SNCC was also very much involved in voter registration in Dallas County, AL, which included the city of Selma. On March 7, 1965, a number of SNCC members were badly beaten in what came to be known as Bloody Sunday. On that day, law enforcement officials violently attacked peaceful marchers who crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge on their way from Selma to Montgomery, AL.

SNCC and Black Power

By the mid-1960s, some SNCC leaders became disillusioned with Dr. King's nonviolent approach to civil rights and turned instead to the Black Power Movement. As a political and social force, the Black Power Movement served as an advocate for black autonomy, nationalism and pride; some followers were also in favor of black separatism.

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