The organizers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC – “Snick”) were the front-line fighters in the Southern Freedom Movement in the decade of the sixties. Based primarily in rural towns throughout the nation’s “Black Belt” south, these young women and men, most between the ages of 18 and 25, braved terrifying confrontations with white supremacist violence in their efforts to organize grassroots citizens, crack the walls of segregation and register African Americans to vote.
Founded in 1960 in North Carolina, by black college students from across the south, SNCC was largely responsible for spreading the use of “sit-ins” (and other forms of direct nonviolent action) as a major tactic against racial discrimination in public spaces. SNCC was a key collaborator with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the Freedom Rides of 1961 where interracial groups of nonviolent activists rode interstate buses into the deep South to challenge segregationist practices in public interstate transportation facilities and on the buses themselves. They suffered horrific beatings, arrests and jailings but their courage helped move the country toward a firm legal stand against discrimination in interstate travel. Their collaborations with CORE, the NAACP and other movement organizations created “Freedom Summer” in 1964, in which hundreds of students from northern white colleges joined black organizers and grassroots community members in a major onslaught against legal apartheid in Mississippi. As a part of “Freedom Summer”, SNCC was essential to the development of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). The MFDP was an interracial alternative to the all-white regular Democratic Party and sent delegates to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, challenging the nation to recognize the illegitimacy of the “regular” party. In the communities where they worked, SNCC often partnered with other grassroots organizations in the creation of alternative educational and cultural institutions such as libraries, community centers, Freedom Schools, the Free Southern Theater, and the SNCC Freedom Singers. In all of this work SNCC was developing an organic model for community organizing that was indigenous to the experience of African Americans in the rural south, a model based in the life of the black community and its institutions.
In her interview with the Veterans of Hope Project, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, describes her experience as a member of SNCC and a local leader in the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964. Her testimony illustrates the core elements of this model. When Zoharah arrived in Laurel, Mississippi — at great risk and against her family’s wishes — she was greeted with open arms by individuals and families in the town’s black community who had been struggling for years to make incremental improvements in their lives. She describes knocking at the door of Mrs. Euberta Sphinks, a local organizer, introducing herself as a freedom worker, and hearing Mrs. Sphinks say to her : “Girl, I been waiting for you all my life. Come on in.”
Zoharah and other young activists lived and worked with local black families and together with them developed an organizing style that was centered around a profound and inclusive meaning of family and community. The young organizers, who often considered themselves “grown”, were still, in many senses, children to the older local women and men with whom they lived — and because courtesy and respect for elders were important values in the rural, black South, when their local hosts told them they had to go to church on Sunday, the young organizers went to church. Zoharah recalls that when the young folks went out at night they were expected to tell the elders where they were going and what time they were coming back. They helped with chores and obeyed the rules of the houses in which they lived. While some of the adjustments were not easy, as the generations worked closely together in Freedom Schools, voter registration drives, desegregation campaigns and other movement efforts, there often developed a strong, mutual appreciation among the visiting organizers and local community members. The supportive embrace of local families who opened their homes, shared their meals, and extended their kindness, gave the workers from SNCC and other movement organizations a firm grounding for their work.
During the movement years, religion lived at the heart of the southern African American community — not only in churches, but in homes, public gatherings and personal relationships. Religion had long been one of the greatest resources of African American activism and creativity and in the civil rights campaigns it provided a way to confront, engage and overcome fear. It was also a source of hope amidst the terrors the movement faced. Even northern college students, who may have come south without any particular sense of religious identity, soon felt the power of freedom in the sung and spoken rhythms of southern black religion — and in the steady determination of the local people to hold their country accountable to its stated ideals and promises. Singing was an essential part of the life of the region and it became an essential part of the life of the freedom movement. As Bernice Johnson Reagon and Ruby Sales remind us, not only did movement songs and spirituals connect the singers with “the power of the universe” and the strength of the generations who came before them, but it was an important means of creating a sense of community, even smoothing over discords among the activists themselves.
The organizing model created in the movement context was characterized by many of the elements of southern African American history and culture — respect for age as well as skills and talents; meetings in churches and on front porches; music as a resource for community-building; religion/spirituality as a guiding and sustaining force; and courageous individual and collective action to challenge white supremacist laws, institutions and ideology. Because of their work together — perhaps, partly because of the dangers they faced together, or partly because of the traditional communal black southern lifeways on which the movement was built — movement participants often became a kind of extended family to each other. This sense of belonging to the movement “family” remains, for many former civil rights activists, an identifying force in their lives to this day.
Rachel Elizabeth Harding