SNCC’s 50-Year Legacy

Against the Current, No. 147, July/August 2010

Theresa El-Amin

The SNCC 50TH Anniversary Conference was convened April 15-18, 2010 at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina — where the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was born on Easter weekend in 1960 — celebrating SNCC’s legacy and of course the historic sit-ins. About 300 people had pre-registered. In order to advance the “passing of the baton” intent of organizers, students were allowed to register without paying the $75 registration fee.

When registration opened the afternoon of April 14, hundreds of SNCC veterans and students were eager to get in line to get their conference bags. Students were mostly from HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) in the South like St. Augustine College (Raleigh), North Carolina Central University (Durham), Albany State University (Albany, Georgia), North Carolina A&T (Greensboro), Bennett College (Greensboro) and, of course, Shaw University where it all began.

The SNCC 50th anniversary was a reunion of sorts, but not without old tensions. The registration opening day reflected the eagerness of white allies to recall the days of “Black and White Together” as reflected in the conference logo and the button everyone received at registration. By Wednesday evening when Al Pertilla from the Black Power period of SNCC arrived, he asked, “What’s going on? This looks like a white people’s meeting.”

The story that whites were kicked out of SNCC in the mid-1960s, a story with many interpretations, loomed large in the months of planning the anniversary conference. There was no question that people of European descent had turned out big on the first day of registration. Several well-known SNCC staff wrote about disagreements with the makeup of the planning committee and the choice of the Black-white handshake logo as the official logo of the conference.

The first day of workshops, however, made it clear that SNCC was a Black organization. That theme continued throughout as the crowd continued to swell and darken. The wave of Black students, seeking a glimpse of “walking history,” came in on school buses from places where SNCC had organized in the Deep South.

Black activists traveled from the West, Midwest, North and South to see their comrades and friends from the voting rights projects, sit-ins, freedom rides and other dynamic campaigns of the 1960s. The SNCC 50th anniversary was taking shape as a convergence of movements and generations.

The Inspiration of Ella Baker

Ella Baker (1903-1986) was a pioneering figure in the African-American freedom movement from the 1930s on. For many years she was too little known, precisely because her organizing methods were built on empowering grassroots organization, not on getting herself in the spotlight.

The coming together that special Easter weekend of April 15-17, 1960 where SNCC began, called the Southwide Youth Leadership Conference, was supported by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) at the request of Ella Baker, who was on staff with SCLC in 1960.

The 1960 conference was marked by the participation of confident young people taking the lead with the wind at their backs after the successes of the sit-in movement. Connie Curry, a woman of European descent who was present at the 1960 conference, tells the story of Julian Bond asking her to be on the leadership team. As Connie tells the story, Julian said to her, “We’re asking you to be on the steering committee because you have a mimeograph machine.”

Connie remembers that SNCC started as an organization led by Black students. She was out of school and working but still young enough to be influenced by the momentum of the student sit-in movement. She was there at the start, before the wave of white allies began entering from the North.

Anticipation of the SNCC 50th anniversary was expressed at the 75th anniversary of Highlander Center in August 2007. An intergenerational dialogue uncovered that there were too many people who didn’t know about Ella Baker and her role in SNCC’s founding.

Ash-Lee Woodard and Jared Story of East Tennessee State University were asked to participate in an Ella Baker Tour, sponsored by the Southern Anti-Racism Network (SARN), for veterans of SNCC to tell their stories and engage an intergenerational dialogue about advancing the struggle to end white supremacy.

Thanks to support from the We Shall Overcome Fund based at Highlander Center, East Tennessee State University hosted the first stop of the Ella Baker Tour on February 18, 2008. Guy and Candie Carawan provided songs and participated with younger activists in discussions about anti-racism work.

The Ella Baker Tour continued with stops at North Carolina State University (Raleigh), Central Piedmont Community College (Charlotte), Rutgers-New Brunswick, Hunter College (New York), Brown University (Providence), Winthrop University (Rock Hill SC), University of Louisville, North Carolina Central University (Durham), Duke University (Durham), Hillside High School (Durham), and Virginia Tech (Blacksburg) with the final stop on March 16, 2010 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill one month before the SNCC 50th Anniversary Conference.

The Ella Baker Tour was organized with the expectation that founding members of SNCC who met at Shaw University in 1960 would organize the 50th anniversary at Shaw in 2010. Expectations were met when Julian Bond, Courtland Cox, Connie Curry, David Forbes and others formed the organizing committee for the SNCC 50th anniversary.

A Record of History

The Anniversary Conference program book is itself an historical document and well worth the cost of registration. It includes the history of the founding of SNCC, copies of the actual call to the founding conference and the statement of purpose drafted by James Lawson and subsequently adopted at the October 14-15, 1960 meeting at Atlanta University. The list of the 125 participants in the 1960 Shaw University conference is also included.

The opening plenary at 8:30am Thursday, April 15 was a packed auditorium floor and balcony as people scrambled to find seats. Greetings from the Mayor of Raleigh, Charles Meeker, and then the thoughtful analysis by Julian Bond of the significance of the early SNCC years and the fiery speech by William Barber, President of the North Carolina NAACP Conference of Branches, set a high bar.

Hollis Watkins brought the culture of song so important for the spirit back in the day. The opening plenary connected “then and now” with an analysis of both periods and a challenge to live up to the conference slogan, “We’ll Never Turn Back!”

Although subsequent panel discussions fell short of making the connection to the current situation, Julian Bond and Courtland Cox were exceptions as they responded to questions about unity, fragmentation of Black organizations and whether we need a united front of all of our organizations.

The presence of other legends like Judy Richardson (“Eyes on the Prize”), Kathleen Cleaver, Charlie Cobb, Gloria House, Betita Martinez, Gwen Patton, Marion Barry, Ivanhoe Donaldson, Matt Jones, Charles Payne, Taylor Branch, John Lewis and Harry Belafonte made the anecdotal character of the conference easier to take.

In addition to well-known public intellectuals on panels, the foot soldiers were also out in great numbers. Annie Pearl Avery of Birmingham/Selma was there. When she participated in several stops of the Ella Baker Tour, Annie Pearl told her story of being beaten on the Pettis Bridge in the 1965 voting rights March to Selma and her work as a field secretary for SNCC beginning in 1961.

SNCC vets self-organized small group discussions in recognition of today’s movements. One such meeting was a labor caucus called by Willie Baker, retired international officer of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Attendees included Bob Moore, District 1199E-DC/SEIU based in Baltimore, who was active in the SNCC Atlanta Project.

Mike Hamlin of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) in Detroit recalled raising money for a tent city in Tennessee of Blacks evicted for trying to register to vote in the 1960s. Mike recalled that James Forman lived with him for over a year while Forman was in Detroit writing. Ira Grupper, active with SNCC in Georgia and Mississippi, was in the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union as a rank-and-file member for 24 years.

Gwen Patton organized a meeting to plan a reunion of the Tuskegee-Lowndes County SNCC movement for 2011. Gwen made the point that we must deepen our analysis of what we did back then, and make an assessment of its impact to inform or inspire movements of today. She also noted the tendency to water down the politics in presentations at the SNCC 50th conference.

Harry Belafonte, Friday luncheon speaker, made it clear that he’d had enough of all the stories of “what we did way back when,” pointing out that there was no analysis of the “here and now.” The Raleigh-based statewide newspaper referred to the message from Harry Belafonte as a “scolding” to the conference.

The Debt to Haiti

Given how strongly Harry Belafonte spoke about including analysis and a strategic perspective on going forward, I expected workshops to change course. Yet at the first workshop I attended after Friday lunch, “Black Power/Education/Pan Africanism,” none of the panel presentations mentioned Haiti.

But Sylvia Hill, board vice-chair of Trans Africa Forum and a CLR James scholar on the panel, mentioned at the end that Danny Glover, board chair of Trans Africa Forum was just back from Haiti and would speak on Haiti at the Saturday dinner event.

Danny Glover indeed did not disappoint. He began by saying, “We owe Haiti a great debt”. He went on to point out how Haiti has been punished for over two centuries for daring to win independence from France in 1804. France forced Haiti to pay reparations for freedom from slavery until 1947.

As Danny Glover was speaking, I thought about the 80% unemployment reported by a trade unionist from Haiti in July 2009 at a meeting in Greensboro. The nightmare image of Bill Clinton and George Bush teamed up to “help” Haiti brought to mind sweatshop exploitation on a scale we haven’t seen yet. Saturday evening with Danny Glover lifted up Haiti high on the agenda for Reparations Now!

Saturday evening was rounded out with the Freedom Singers including Chuck Neblett, Matt Jones and Bernice Johnson Reagon. Harry Belafonte had to decline a request to sing explaining his many throat operations. With a raspy voice he shouted out “Deyo!” and the crowd stood up and cheered.

By Saturday, attendance was over 1200 registered with an estimated 400 additional unregistered. The children and grandchildren of SNCC vets evoked tears from the audience in the morning program at the historic First Baptist Church as they spoke about their parents who had passed away.

James Forman, Jr. spoke of his project in education. Hollis Watkins Jr., son of Nayo Watkins and Hollis Watkins, is also a teacher. The theme of “Quality Education as a Civil Right” was present in most of the descriptions of work being done by children of SNCC vets.

Participation of Women

Fran Beal led a panel discussion of women including Martha Prescod, Norman Noonan, Maria Varela, Doris Derby, Cynthia Fleming and Mary King. Fran lived in France during the Algerian war and attributes her anti-imperialist awakening to meeting Richard Wright and other expatriates while in France. She connected with SNCC on returning to the United States in 1966 and eventually joined with other women to form the SNCC Black Women’s Liberation Committee.

Jean Wiley, Tuskegee Institute communications instructor, who used her classroom as recruiting ground for SNCC and work in Alabama, was happy to see her students still active in the movement. A friend of SNCC like Sharon Martinas of the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop (CWS Workshop) was happy to meet up with her colleague Tema Okun for one of many reunions taking place at the conference.

Ruby Nell Sales led a panel on “Alabama: Black Power” with presentations by Annie Pearl Avery and Gloria House. During the discussion, Catherine Coleman Flowers of the Equal Justice Initiative told the story of property owners in Lowndes County with annual incomes of $5,000 being forced to buy septic tanks costing $6,000. The state fines land owners $500 for each day that no septic tank is installed.

The Lowndes County Freedom Organization, which became the first Black Panther Party, took power in 1966. Many SNCC vets in the room who had worked in Lowndes County went over to her to hear more with the intent of doing something to end the oppressive situation.

Although there were some cases of all-male panels, women were consistently dynamic in speaking from the floor about their experiences in SNCC. Feminists like Sheila Michaels and Linda Burnham seemed satisfied with the stimulation of intellectual networking. Betty Garman Robinson was proud to be with young people from the Baltimore Algebra Project.

Where We Go From Here

On May 10 in Atlanta, Nan Orrock, now a Georgia State Senator, participated in the dedication of SNCC Way on the Clark University Campus where the first Atlanta SNCC office was located. Nan was active with SNCC and the Southern Student Organizing Committee (SSOC) and attended conference.

The SNCC 50th Anniversary Conference planning committee sent out a survey via email to all registered participants on June 14. The survey asked for an conference evaluation and announced plans to establish the SNCC Legacy Project.

As expected, attendees at the conference were re-energized and have started or are participating in new projects. The Southern Anti-Racism Network, sponsor of the Ella Baker Tour, is partpartnering with the Independent Progressive Politics Network on “Anti-Racism Work in the Age of Obama.” SARN is on the coordinating committee for Black Youth in the Age of Obama based at Temple University in Philadelphia. There is change in the air as organizations stretch to respond to opportunities.

The Gathering 4 Justice, Young Peoples Project and the Algebra Project mobilized for the SNCC 50th Anniversary Conference. The Young Peoples Project will launch the “We the People” tour in fall 2010.

The closing session at the SNCC 50th focused on education, posing timely questions: What defines a quality education? Do you think we should have a constitutional amendment ensuring the right to a quality education? What resources in your network could contribute to building a demand for QECR (Quality Education as a Constitutional Right)?

The task will be to balance intergenerational solidarity with stepping back so that young people can and do take the lead.

ATC 147, July-August 2010

1 comment

  1. As a white veteran from Georgia (1960-1961) I saw no racial tensions at the SNCC conference in Raleigh. It was a warm and welcoming crowd of laid back whites, blacks and Asians from the 1960s. Yes, the Black Power issue was on the table and was thoroughly discussed without rancor and even humor. I remember in particular Jewish women remembering demonstrating at synagogues on High Holy Days in support of workers and tenants rights! Your correspondent seems to have missed the spirit of the gathering.

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