Get on the Bus! A Look Back at the Historic Freedom Rides
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Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

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The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was one of the most important organizations to participate in the 1960s civil rights movement. Often referred to as the "shock troops" of the movement, SNCC remained on the cutting edge of the Southern black freedom struggle. The organization differed from other groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in its organizational style and leadership. In accordance with SNCC founder Ella Baker's famous stance that "strong people do not need strong leaders," SNCC based most of its actions on creating grassroots leadership in black communities.

SNCC's first major campaign began on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins. On January 31, 1961, 10 African Americans were arrested for sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Upon their arrest, SNCC arrived in the city and began a campaign that would be known as "jail-ins." SNCC leaders knew that they would be arrested for sitting at the segregated lunch counters in Rock Hill, but did so anyway in order to fill the city's jails. This would apply pressure on city officials who would have to use a vast amount of resources to arrest and detain large numbers of protesters. The "jail-in" strategy that SNCC used in Rock Hill would become one of the most important tactics used during the civil rights movement.

Later that year, SNCC joined forces with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to test a 1961 Supreme Court decision that banned segregation on interstate buses. In Boynton v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation on interstate buses and terminals was unconstitutional. Like every other victory for integration, however, the court decision would have to be tested to ensure that the U.S. government would back the rights of African Americans. Freedom Rides were designed to test Boynton v. Virginia. Members of CORE and SNCC planned to travel on buses through the South, desegregating bus terminals as they went. The original group included seven blacks and six whites who left Washington, D.C., for New Orleans on May 4, 1961. The trip was relatively uneventful at first, but the Freedom Riders met violence upon reaching the Deep South. On May 9, two of the protesters were attacked at the bus terminal in Rock Hill.

A few days later, white segregationists slashed the bus tires outside of Anniston, Alabama, and the group had to switch buses to proceed even deeper into the Jim Crow South. The violence reached a pinnacle outside of Birmingham, Alabama, when white supremacists, aided by the absence of police officers, entered the bus and attacked all of the Freedom Riders and bombed their vehicle. Volunteer James Peck was beaten so badly that it took 53 stitches to close the wound he received from a blow to the head. The next day, pictures of the attack appeared on the front page of most of the nation's newspapers. This coverage of the violence that Freedom Riders faced forced the John F. Kennedy administration to provide protection for future Freedom Riders.

SNCC experienced its first major internal conflict during the months after the Freedom Rides. Two factions emerged within the organization. One faction encouraged direct action protests such as sit-ins and marches. Another favored voter registration. Baker suggested that both sides pursue their objectives by their chosen means, and SNCC grew into two separate entities that worked together but chose to conduct different forms of activism.

The first major voter registration project took place in McComb, Mississippi, and was led by Bob Moses who had been stirred into action after learning of the nationwide sit-in movement that began in February 1960 at the Greensboro Woolworth's. Moses was a 26-year-old high school teacher in Harlem, New York, when he first heard of the sit-in movement. It immediately propelled him into action and he joined SNCC in 1960. By 1961, Moses had become SNCC's field secretary in Mississippi after entering the nation's most segregated state with nothing more than a list of contacts gathered by Baker during her decades of prior activism. In Mississippi, Moses was able to connect into underground networks of activists who had been fighting for black freedom in the state for decades. These activists were able to connect Moses to local people. By 1961, Moses had created a beachhead in Mississippi.

True to SNCC's founding philosophy of grassroots organizing, most of the leaders in Mississippi were locals. Many outsiders entered the state to join Moses, but the majority of groundwork was done by local people who were mired in one of the nation's worst forms of poverty in 1961. The median income of local African Americans was less than half the poverty level for a four-person household. This poverty extended into the state's racist educational system as well. Mississippi African Americans were extremely undereducated. The state took aims to ensure that its black students did not achieve any form of academic freedom. Many local African Americans did not even know that they had a constitutional right to vote. If they did pursue this right, Mississippi's African Americans were subject to violence. Because of the incredibly dangerous characteristics of white supremacists in the state, SNCC was severely limited in its ability to recruit organizers and incorporated anyone willing to risk their lives into the organization. Women, older black men, black youths, and some whites played key parts in the state as SNCC's presence in Mississippi grew in 1961.

In August 1961, with the help of funds from the federal government's Voter Education Project (VEP), Moses began a voter registration project in McComb. SNCC workers traveled door-to-door in an attempt to convince potential black voters to register. Initially, the organization experienced some success as members began to venture out into other black communities to canvass potential voters and recruit new SNCC volunteers. Voter registration was often slow, however, owing to the prevalence of fear among black Mississippians. This fear was confirmed by the 1961 murder of Herbert Lee, a native Mississippian who had been transporting SNCC workers throughout black communities. Lee was shot in broad daylight by a member of the Mississippi state House of Representatives who was quickly acquitted. This confirmed to most black Mississippians that voter registration was impossible, and the murder greatly slowed SNCC's progress throughout the state.

The organization kept fighting, however, and continued to spread into other regions of Mississippi including the rural Mississippi Delta where the majority of citizens were black. SNCC encountered the most impoverished and disenfranchised group in the state when it entered the delta, but it also incorporated an incredibly driven and able group of local black activists into the organization. Included among these local people was Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville, Mississippi, who did not know that she should be allowed to vote until she attended a SNCC-sponsored meeting that took place in her local church in 1962. She was 44 years old and became one of the most important local leaders in Mississippi and symbols of the potential of grassroots organizing.

The direct-action division of SNCC also experienced several setbacks in 1961. Led by former Freedom Riders Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon, SNCC entered Albany, Georgia, in October 1961 to lead protest activities in the city. The organization was effectively able to recruit local people to join movement activities, but it also encountered an obstacle that clashed with SNCC's basic philosophies. Initially, SNCC led marches and demonstrations in the city that were designed to protest segregation, discriminatory hiring practices, and the systematic disenfranchisement of black voters. Just weeks into their campaign, however, a local leader asked Martin Luther King Jr. to join black Albanians' fight for equality and freedom. King's leadership style was contradictory to the SNCC leadership tradition that promoted grassroots organizing.

Upon his arrival, King immediately assumed the leadership of peaceful marches through downtown Albany. He was arrested soon after, and building on SNCC's "jail-in" philosophy, King vowed to spend Christmas in prison if necessary. King arrived in Albany in December and brought the attention of the media with him. SNCC always welcomed media attention that would expose the plight of African Americans, but the journalists focused almost exclusively on King. He became the face and symbol of the Albany, Georgia, movement. This would have drastic repercussions for local people who were pushed from leadership positions.

Albany leaders, fearful of the media frenzy that the incarceration of the most famous black preacher in the United States could create, negotiated a deal with King without involving local leaders or SNCC. Upon King's release from prison, he declared victory and left the city. After King left Albany, local officials denied an accord had ever been reached. They reneged on their agreement with King and Albany's racial caste system continued as usual. SNCC leaders then had a hard time remobilizing local people who had become so dependent on King's leadership and prestige. Over the next several months, SNCC struggled against white officials to achieve nothing more than a stalemate that hardly threatened the status quo before the organization's involvement in the city.

By July 1962, SNCC had begun to reestablish leadership in Albany. King and his SCLC followers returned to the city that same month to assume leadership of the local people that SNCC had spent months mobilizing. As he had the previous year, King began leading demonstrations in the city; however, King's absence over the previous seven months had left many local people wary of his leadership position and he had trouble invoking large-scale protests. King was arrested twice more in Albany, but he could not fill the jails. SNCC was powerless to do so as well because King undermined the organization's leadership. Eventually, King left the city without any further concessions made by white officials.

Leadership had been split, and both King and SNCC had been rendered ineffective as a result of the changing characteristics of Albany leadership. The developments in Albany reinforced to SNCC that it had to remain largely autonomous from national movement figures, especially King, in order to be effective. It also motivated the student-led organization to recruit even more local people into leadership positions as it conducted localized campaigns throughout the South.

The year 1963 was a turbulent one in the civil rights movement and a definitive one for SNCC. In May, King-led protests in Birmingham captured the world's attention as police officers and firefighters used German shepherds and fire hoses to break up peaceful demonstrations on the Alabama city's streets. This protest inspired demonstrations across the country. In all, approximately 930 protests occurred in 115 U.S. cities. More than 20,000 people were arrested for demonstrating against Jim Crow and discrimination.

Later that year, the SCLC, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), CORE, and SNCC led a massive March on Washington, during which more than 250,000 protestors gathered on the mall in D.C. to protest segregation. King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech during that protest and cemented the moral righteousness of the civil rights movement. SNCC conducted various direct-action campaigns across the South with the help of an influx of volunteers, including many whites. White individuals such as Bob Zellner, Sam Shirah, Jane Stembridge, and Sandra Hayden either joined the fight against Jim Crow or became more prevalent leaders in the organization. By the fall of 1963, 20% of SNCC members were white. Voter registration activities spread throughout the South's Black Belt, and SNCC began to experience breakthroughs in Mississippi.

In November 1963, SNCC conducted a mock election called the Freedom Vote in Mississippi. This campaign was designed to allow Mississippi's African Americans an opportunity to participate in their first election, as well as to show the federal government that black Mississippians truly desired a stake in national and state politics. To illustrate the political potential of African Americans in the state, SNCC conducted an independent election. Because African Americans had been systematically excluded from Mississippi's regular Democratic Party, SNCC created an alternative Democratic organization named the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).

SNCC, which now included a large number of white volunteers fanned the state. Black candidates ran on the MFDP ticket and were elected to mock offices, including the governorship. More than 80,000 black Mississippians participated in the Freedom Vote. This clearly showed that many more African Americans desired a vote in Mississippi than the average of approximately 5,000 African Americans who regularly voted in statewide elections. The Freedom Vote also helped lay the ground for a statewide voter registration campaign.

By the end of 1963, SNCC had come of age. The organization claimed large amounts of members from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. The civil rights movement was at its height, and the nation saw nearly 1,000 protests during the course of one year. SNCC leaders attempted to build on this momentum when planning for 1964. The organization knew that it could register black Mississippians if allowed. The Freedom Vote had showed that the disenfranchised African Americans in the state could and would be called into political action if SNCC took the proper measures. The other lesson that SNCC had learned over the previous years was that it could recruit a highly diverse and capable group of organizers from across the nation. Young people, including Northern whites, cared about the SNCC cause and had shown in the years before 1964 that they were willing to risk injury and death in order to fight Jim Crow. These factors would all play a major influence on SNCC's planning for 1964.

In 1964, SNCC conducted the most ambitious and audacious civil rights campaign in the history of the United States when it launched an all-out campaign to crack Mississippi. Although the organization had achieved some previous successes in Mississippi, most of these, such as the Freedom Vote, were largely symbolic. The biggest deterrent in the state was the large-scale amount of unchecked violence that constantly threatened civil rights activists. SNCC could not get the federal government to help its cause even though Mississippi segregationists were blatantly violating the rights of black citizens. In 1964, SNCC decided that it needed a force large enough to effectively mobilize black Mississippians and prestigious enough to force the federal government to protect civil rights workers in the state.

Based on SNCC's recent influx of white volunteers and sympathetic groups throughout the nation, the organization believed that it could recruit a large force of white college students to join the black freedom struggle in Mississippi during the summer of 1964. SNCC also believed that such a large group of white volunteers would force the federal government to protect civil rights workers in Mississippi. In the winter of 1963, SNCC representatives began appearing on northern college campuses to recruit young white students to participate in its 1964 Freedom Summer campaign.

Perhaps the most important goal of Freedom Summer was drawing attention to Mississippi and forcing federal intervention. The volunteers who would arrive in the state during the summer of 1964 were well positioned to do so. During the winter of 1963–1964, SNCC had recruited the children of American privilege. The organization believed that the more affluent its summer workers were, the greater chance of federal intervention. In all, 40% of the project's applicants came from Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Their parents included esteemed historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Rep. Don Edwards, and UN ambassador Sidney Yates. As nearly 1,000 of these students poured into the state in late June, the nation took notice. However, SNCC's greatest success in drawing federal intervention came at the expense of three lives.

On June 21, SNCC workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were arrested in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Local police officers then held the three young men until dark before delivering them into the hands of members of the Ku Klux Klan from Meridian and Neshoba County. The Klansmen, who had been tracking SNCC veteran Schwerner's moves for months, then executed the three young men and buried them under an earthen dam just outside of Philadelphia. The disappearance of the three workers, two of whom were white, drew the nation's interest and forced the federal government to build a presence in the state. It took the deaths of three young men for the federal government to launch a campaign against the Ku Klux Klan in the state, but their deaths probably saved dozens of lives during Freedom Summer.

Another important aspect of Freedom Summer was a program designed to create an active leadership class among Mississippi's black youths. Freedom Schools were taught mainly by white volunteers and provided training in the basic remedial skills absent from regular black schools in the state. The schools were also explicitly designed to incorporate young African Americans into the freedom struggle. Freedom Schools educated young African Americans about the rich traditions of black protest. They also encouraged high levels of student participation and let the black youths dictate the subject matter. Finally, the schools included training in civil rights protest activities such as sit-ins, letter-writing campaigns, and various forms of organizing.

By the end of Freedom Summer, the students at Freedom Schools showed encouraging signs of leadership potential. The final, and perhaps most practical, goal of Freedom Summer was to register black voters. Hundreds of volunteers canvassed black communities to convince local people to attempt to register. The volunteers often met various forms of violent resistance and reluctance from the black community, but did successfully convince approximately 17,000 age-eligible voters to attempt to register. The canvassers solicited votes as part of the MFDP, which was planning its own ambitious civil rights demonstration to take place later that year.

Over the next several years, SNCC led protests across the Southern Black Belt and did achieve meaningful successes. The level of activity after 1964, however, must be seen as disappointing in comparison to the massive campaigns before Freedom Summer.

William Mychael Sturkey


Further Reading
Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995; Greenberg, Cheryl Lynn. A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997; Hogan, Wesley C. Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC's Dream for a New America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007; Murphree, Vanessa. The Selling of Civil Rights: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Use of Public Relations. New York: Routledge, 2006; Zinn, Howard. SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002.
 

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