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SNCC Fought for change from the bottom up

By Jon Rice, People's Tribune (Online Edition), Vol.22 No.8, 20 February 1995

Editor's note: Below we print the third of the profiles of outstanding leaders and organizations we will run during African American History Month 1995.

The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee began in 1960 as a rather conservative, idealistic movement.

Black Americans in 1960 were locked out of the economic and political life which the majority of Americans took for granted.

SNCC began with non-violent civil disobedience as their weapon to demand to be served at "whites only" restaurants, bus stations, etc. They wanted to dismantle segregation.

The SNCC students originally asserted what they felt were their rights, the rights to be assimilated into the American ideal of personal, autonomous freedom. Those freedoms included the freedom to choose where to sit, where to eat, where to go to school, where to work.

They planned patient, non-violent civil disobedience and little else. They were, however, less cautious than the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and they were more willing to promote local leadership. In fact, more than simply wanting these isolated choices, they also wanted democracy for the poor of Black America.

From the beginning there were these seeds of radicalism, in listening to the local people, and acting courageously on their behalf. In short, they showed respect for the black poor, a respect the political system of this country has not historically shown -- majority rule in the United States has often ruled out moral considerations concerning minorities.

Showing that respect put SNCC at odds with the political system in a way that SCLC was not. "Let our leaders in" is different from "Let our masses rule themselves." Their commitment to democracy for poor blacks gave them an education.

As SNCC activist John Perdew said in 1963, "I grew up with only an abstract, intellectual concept of race relations. I had no idea at all of any kind of violence and daily oppression that millions of people went through. That's the way I went into SNCC thinking. But then I got my ass kicked."

Perdew spent three months in jail for violating a law that had its origins in the Southern politics of the late 19th century, a law that was declared unconstitutional. His experience was not unique.

What SNCC workers witnessed happening to the local leaders who they promoted radicalized them also.

Fannie Lou Hamer was severely beaten; D.U. Pullium was beaten and robbed; Herbert Lee was killed and Louis Allen was beaten (with the connivance of an FBI official), all for simply trying to register to vote. Louis Allen was later shot and killed.

The FBI worked closely with local Southern police officers who were often violently hostile to SNCC. These experiences with violence and federal government connivance weren't unique either.

SNCC students were living an experiment in trying to provide democracy for poor blacks. What they found in the process was that personal, autonomous freedom and democracy were an unworkable combination for poor folks.

Freedom required sacrifice and cooperation - and the commitment to use any means necessary to achieve the vote. For them, non- violence was a tool, a means to an end, and it was often an ineffective tool.

When violence destroyed their movement in Albany, Georgia and McComb County, Mississippi, they armed themselves for self-defense in Lowndes County, Alabama and formed a political organization whose voting symbol (for illiterate voters) was a black panther. The local people referred to them as the Black Panther Party.

Criticized by SNCC leaders in the East for not being non-violent, Stokely Carmichael responded, "They don't do the kind of work we do, nor do they live in the areas we live in. They don't ride the highways at night." Carmichael, SNCC's leader in Lowndes County, said the local people were actually more ready to use guns than SNCC and that SNCC had been a restraining influence on them.

By 1965, these practical considerations made SNCC far to the left of Dr. King and critical of his allegiance to the Democratic Party, which fought their efforts to empower poor blacks. The push for indigenous black power awakened a latent radicalism in the poor, abused black farmers. SNCC wanted a change from the bottom up, and now, so did the bottom. The year was 1966 and, coincidentally, the Black Panther Party was about to be born.

This article originated in the PEOPLE'S TRIBUNE (Online Edition),
Vol. 22 No. 8 / February 20, 1995; P.O. Box 3524, Chicago, IL
60654, pt@noc.org