Skip to main content

Posted 04/21/2010

Attendees line up to pose questions to panelists discussing Black Power and Pan-Africanism.

On Easter Sunday, 1960, students from across the South gathered at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, to create a temporary organization to harness the energy of the sit-in movement that began in February. They gave it a name, in part as an incentive to keep in touch once they headed home: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. As the name suggest, the organization was intended at first only to coordinate the various efforts of various players in the movement. Instead, with guidance from Ella Baker, leadership from a variety of sources including the enigmatic Bob Moses, the energetic publicist Julian Bond (interviews here and here and here), and John Lewis (interview here), SNCC (“snick”) became one of the most influential and effective civil rights organizations of the 1960s, penetrating deep into the segregated South to empower rural Mississippians and Georgians to take control over their political identity and social personhood.

Fifty years later, they gathered again at Shaw at an event that felt like a celebration, a reunion, but perhaps also a memorial–we can’t know if activists who were twenty years old in 1960 and seventy years old in 2010 will be able to attend the 60th anniversary. This was a remarkable gathering of some of the most thoughtful and courageous leaders in the civil rights movement, who have never stopped debating their goals and their identities. But that spirit of introspection and debate, and the decades that separate their youthful activism from their lives as elders, have had an effect on sponteneity and organizing for the future. More than one attendee (including Harry Belafonte) was overheard complaining about the amount of self-promotion occurring and how little attendees seemed to be thinking about next steps. One tenth-grader who stood up to ask activists where to turn next did not receive an answer.

Is it SNCC’s responsibility to shepherd young people toward a goal? No. But is it surprising that these activists, many of whom have continued to work for social justice at great personal and professional expense, did not have a vision. This is less a criticism than an expression of puzzlement about what made SNCC what it was and accomplish what it did–the passion of its members? The moment in time? The undeniable rightness of their cause? All of the above?

Anyway, the SOHP was there. We did 16 interviews with 17 individuals: interviews with CORE as well as SNCC workers, one man who went undercover among white anti-integrationists, some of the very first volunteers in SNCC, those who connected their civil rights work to the women’s movement, and with Taylor Branch on his own CRM experiences and motivations. All in all, a very interesting and deep group of interviews.