SNCC: Freedom Now to Black Power

Against the Current, No. 205, March/April 2020

Martin Oppenheimer

SIXTY YEARS AGO the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded by delegates from Black student groups that had been staging sit-ins to integrate lunch counters in the South.

The sit-ins had spread rapidly from the first one in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960. In a period of 60 days the sit-ins had spread to nearly eighty communities as far apart as Xenia, Ohio and Sarasota, Florida. It had become clear that training for and coordination of these scattered efforts were needed. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ella Baker of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) secured the cooperation of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, all committed to nonviolent desegregation efforts, to sponsor a “Leadership Conference on Nonviolent Resistance.” The Conference began on April 15 at Shaw University, a predominantly Black institution in Raleigh, the North Carolina state capital. Ella Baker had been a student there.

Rev. James Lawson, an activist from Nashville, Tennessee, was named coordinator of the Conference and gave the keynote address. In it he exposed a rift between the more traditional National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the more militant direct action-oriented students who had come to the Conference.

He called Crisis, official organ of the NAACP, the magazine of the “black bourgeois club.” Ella Baker downplayed this disagreement in order to maintain an appearance of unity. She would play a crucial role in mediating disputes within SNCC over the next few years.

On its final day, April 17, 1960, the Conference established a coordinating committee and adopted a statement of purpose, written by Lawson. It affirmed “the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose…and the manner of our action.” This committee soon ended its “temporary” status to become what we know as SNCC.(1)

Over the next two years numerous facilities including libraries, swimming pools, and even churches were desegregated in the Upper South. SNCC went on to play a major role in “Freedom Summer,” the 1964 campaign to register Black voters in Mississippi. The year following Freedom Summer marked the high point of SNCC’s strength. In 1965 there were 200 full-time SNCC workers.

But very soon SNCC would come to a critical strategic crossroads. It took the path from nonviolent direct action and its slogan “Freedom Now” to Black Power. This essay will explore how that happened, and its consequences.

Any substantial changes in the segregationist system of the five states of the Deep South (as distinct from the Upper South where most of SNCC’s actions had taken place) seemed impossible in the 1960s due to the sheer terror (bombings, assassinations, jailings) facing civil rights workers on a daily basis.

In late 1963 civil rights organizations determined to attack this system by means of a concentrated campaign to register the unrepresented Black population of Mississippi to vote. This became “Freedom Summer.” SNCC believed that local authorities, supplemented by mobs, would undoubtedly block any attempt to register Black voters. Their violence would force the federal government to intervene.

Whether President Johnson liked it or not, America’s image in world politics, in the midst of the Cold War, was at stake. To push this strategy further, a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) — separate from the segregationist official Democratic Party — was created. The plan was to challenge the regular Democratic Party and attempt to displace it at the Party’s August, 1964 Presidential Convention in Atlantic City, N.J.

In mid-June 1964 some 300 college students, mostly white Northerners, were brought to a college in Oxford, Ohio, to prepare for the campaign, which was sponsored by an umbrella organization, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). Overall about 900 volunteers eventually participated, of whom about 135 were Black.

Given the miserable performance level of Black public schools, a parallel campaign was also created to set up Freedom Schools to teach Black students in a variety of subjects. A representative of the U.S. Justice Department told the volunteers that it could not protect voter registration workers, despite the fact that both Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy had used federal troops to protect students attempting to integrate schools several years earlier.

Soon after the campaign began three volunteers, James Chaney (Black), Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman (both white), disappeared after having been briefly arrested in Philadelphia, Mississippi. A Black church, the Mt. Zion United Methodist nearby, had been burned to the ground. The three men went to investigate on June 21. Their bodies were found on August 4.

The FBI took no action in the critical two days between the disappearance and the murders, it would later be shown, but soon 21 men were arrested for violating the civil rights of the victims. The charges were dropped by a U.S. Commissioner, but in later years there were arrests in that and other cases thanks to persistent efforts by relatives and allies of the victims.(2)

The project went forward despite continuing attacks, including bombings, and about 1,000 arrests. COFO collected data about these events that went to 26 pages. Black farmers in the areas where organizing was going on were armed, which limited the violence somewhat. There was also widespread press coverage.

The MFDP delegation to the Democratic Party’s Atlantic City Presidential Convention that August, 1964 included a number of SNCC members. The MFDP faced the formidable obstacle that a number of their liberal and labor union allies favored a compromise that would have allowed only two seats, and not as delegates from Mississippi but as at-large delegates. President Johnson and his vice-presidential nominee-to-be Hubert Humphrey were afraid that support for the MFDP would alienate Southern whites, who up to that time still generally supported the DP.

Every effort was made to keep the MFDP out. The compromise was rejected by the MFDP delegates. They attempted to take seats but were hustled out. They went home, many feeling that working within the conventional political system was useless. “In the eyes of the SNCC leadership, the Northern liberal elite had finally shown its true colors; moral force had proven no match for raw political power.”(3)

Ironically, the official Mississippi delegation did not support Johnson anyway. Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate, carried Mississippi that November, plus all the other states of the Deep South. Four years later third party segregationist George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, carried most of these same states.

It had become clear to many in SNCC after the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner that the federal government would not intervene even to protect white volunteers, much less Blacks. The issue of armed defense was now on the agenda. The question had come up at its Atlanta staff meeting the previous June, where those who were skeptical about white volunteers coming to the project also advocated that SNCC workers be allowed to arm themselves.(4)

The decision at that time was that no guns were to be kept in any SNCC facility, and that SNCC staff were not to carry guns. But SNCC refrained from taking a public stand on armed self-defense for others. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded on nonviolent direct action principles, also debated the question, with James Farmer, CORE’s national director at the time, expressing fear that white liberal support would be undermined if their Southern activists became openly violent even in self-defense.

That fall, after most of the Northern white volunteers had gone home, the Ku Klux Klan and local police increased their level of harassment and violence against the continuing COFO campaign. In McComb, Mississippi, Black residents reacted to a bombing on September 20 by coming into the streets armed with guns, Molotov cocktails, and other weapons, and attacking whites and white establishments. Finally the federal government reacted. Nine Klansmen were tried for arson and bombing in October. After pleading guilty, they were put on probation.

SNCC’s relations with other civil rights groups and with liberal and labor supporters were gradually deteriorating. The MFDP’s refusal to compromise in Atlantic City was one factor. But strains had also developed during the run-up to Mississippi Summer, when SNCC refused to sever ties to the National Lawyers Guild, which was providing legal counsel in a number of SNCC cases. The NLG was considered by mainstream civil rights and liberal groups to be Communist-dominated.

 After Freedom Summer SNCC had become the face of civil rights, to the chagrin of some of the older, established organizations. The consequence was a drying up of financial support.

It was not clear that there had been much progress on voting rights. Despite the fact that there were now close to 200 full-time SNCC workers, morale was down. A reassessment was called for. It would be influenced by the experience of several SNCC leaders who had gone to Africa in September as part of a larger delegation sponsored by Harry Belafonte. There they were exposed to the socialist ideas of Sekou Tourè, the President of Guinea. They also met with Malcolm X. This was the beginning of a relationship that would last until Malcolm X’s assassination on Feb. 21, 1965. The contact with Malcolm X also worried mainstream civil rights leaders.

In mid-November 1964, SNCC staff met at Waveland, Mississippi to reevaluate strategy. A Molotov cocktail was thrown. Some of the SNCC staff were armed and rushed after the perpetrators, who were caught, warned and released. Howard Zinn, the radical history professor who was the first to publish a study of SNCC,(5) was told by a participant, “You have just witnessed the end of the nonviolent movement.”(6)

It had also become clearer by this time that the group was no longer a coordinating body for campus-based organizations but instead a group of full-time organizers. Meanwhile, strains between white and Black SNCC staff were increasing. The latter thought white organizers would inhibit the development of local Black leaders. This “foreshadowed a new racial consciousness that would pervade the black struggle in the last half of the decade.”(7)

More immediately, a factional dispute between a group referred to as “freedom high,” meaning a tendency to act on the basis of individual conscience, versus a “hardline” group favoring a more centralized, disciplined approach, was tearing at the fabric of SNCC’s solidarity.

Controversy also swirled around a demand from a women’s workshop that SNCC deal with discrimination against the women in its ranks. A group of women presented a position paper, “Women in the Movement,” which charged that women mostly performed office tasks. Some SNCC veterans, both men and women, pointed to the important positions held by women, and the critical role of Ella Baker, a SNCC founder and constant adviser.

SNCC women have testified on both sides of the issue. Jean Smith Young, also a Howard University student participating in Freedom Summer, for example, states that she “never felt discriminated against as a woman…I felt and experienced quite the opposite. SNCC was a liberating experience for me as a woman.”(8) Veteran SNCC staffer Stokely Carmichael’s notorious remark, made apparently in jest, that the position of women in SNCC was “prone” didn’t help dispel the idea that there was at least some truth to the discrimination story.

There was also the highly charged and divisive role of sexual relations among the Freedom Summer volunteers, and in SNCC more generally. A number of Black leaders in SNCC had white girlfriends. During Freedom Summer white female volunteers faced an “explosive” dilemma: “They could either reject black males’ advances and risk being labeled a racist, or they could go along at considerable physical and psychological cost to themselves.”(9)

Demonstrating another dimension of this double standard, Black women volunteers who dated white male volunteers faced SNCC staff tongue lashings; Black men who dated white women did not. Adding to SNCC’s difficulties were resentments between the more “middle-class” staff, both Black and white, and Black staff who came out of local struggles and were less formally educated.

James Forman, the veteran Executive Secretary, also felt that Northern “middle class” elements were spreading the use of marijuana, which he considered politically dangerous. Neither the Waveland meeting nor a subsequent one in Atlanta resolved these issues.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party supported Lyndon Johnson in November 1964, to the dismay of most SNCC staff. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was on the horizon, and the MFDP had been promised seats at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Participation in the two-party system was becoming more feasible at least in some parts of the Deep South, especially in urban areas.

SNCC, however, was turning in a different direction, towards more radical views. In January, 1965 SNCC challenged the seating of Jamie L. Whitten and four other whites, who had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Mississippi the previous November, on the basis that Blacks were excluded from voting. The House voted 228-143 to seat them nevertheless. Actually, although this was a pretty good outcome, Cleveland Sellers wrote that the objective of the challenge was “to prove that the system would not work for poor black people.”(10) Sellers’ view would prove to be overly pessimistic.

Early in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference initiated a voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama. In Dallas County, where Selma is located, which was then more than half Black, there were only 130 registered to vote out of some 15,000 Black adults. Nearby, neither Lowndes nor Wilcox Counties had a single Black voter. King was arrested February 1 in Selma, setting off marches that led to a thousand arrests, including hundreds of school children.

In March, following the shooting of a Black protester, Jimmy Lee Jackson, by a state policeman, the SCLC decided on a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to publicize the disastrous conditions facing Blacks in that state. About 2,000 began the march on March 7. SNCC did not participate officially, but many individuals including SNCC chairman John Lewis did.

At the Pettus Bridge just outside Selma, the marchers were ordered to disperse and when they did not, the police attacked, using clubs and tear gas. There were many injuries. Lewis was hospitalized with a fractured skull.

SNCC workers from several states immediately descended on Selma. The march resumed a few days later only to be halted by police. Martin Luther King Jr., at the head of the march, then turned it around in order to avoid further violence. During the following days three white clergy who supported the movement were attacked. One, James Reeb, died of his injuries.

The march finally did continue to Montgomery, accompanied by U.S. Army and Alabama National Guard troops. On March 25, after a rally at the capital, Viola Liuzzo, a white volunteer who was driving to Montgomery, was killed by a sniper.

President Johnson used the Selma incidents to advocate new federal voter legislation. He realized, after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, that the Democratic Party was finished as far as the South was concerned and that it would not make a comeback until Blacks voted in much larger numbers.

The Democrats have not yet fully recovered from even Johnson’s far from radical civil rights policies. President Obama carried only the Southern states of Florida, North Carolina and Virginia in 2008. In 2012 he lost North Carolina. Hilary Clinton carried only Virginia in 2016. No Democrat has carried a “Deep Southern” state since Bill Clinton won Georgia in 1992.

This persisted even in the light of vast demographic changes: the South had become much more urban, educated, and Northern in composition since the mid-1960s, and Blacks have voted in increasing numbers, overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party. In contrast, most whites in the South continue to vote against the party that is viewed by many of them as the “black party.” In fact, the higher the percentage of Black voters in a Southern state, the lower the percentage of whites voting Democratic.

Following the Selma demonstrations, Stokely Carmichael moved to Lowndes County, Alabama to lead the campaign to register Black voters. Given the impossibility of taking over the segregationist Democratic Party organization, it was decided to organize a third party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. It used the ballot symbol of a black panther, in contrast to the white rooster of the official Democratic Party.

Soon the name would be changed to the Black Panther Party (not to be confused with the Black Panther Party in California). It was an all-Black party simply because no local white would join. Carmichael told prospective members that the role of the Party was just like that of other parties: “We want power, that’s all we want.”(11)

Most local Black farmers were armed; so were many SNCC workers in Lowndes County. In addition, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, a Louisiana group consisting mostly of Black military veterans, occasionally provided guards at Black gatherings. A year later “power” would change to “Black Power.”

The strategy in Georgia was different. Julian Bond, SNCC’s communications director and one of its founders, won a seat in the Georgia State House of Representatives running as a Democrat. He was refused the seat by the white legislators due to his support for SNCC and its opposition to the Vietnam War. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered him seated.

The 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and President Johnson’s 1964 Economic Opportunity Act, the so-called war on poverty, presented SNCC with a classic dilemma of which direction to take. The reformist path seemed increasingly attractive to many. Voter registration and electoral successes were now on the horizon. The war on poverty seemed to create real opportunities to change communities, and real salaries with which to support families.

Many SNCC staff, however, rejected these strategies as inadequate and cooptative. James Forman, SNCC’s leading theorist, had predicted Washington’s strategy and its consequences: The government “would pay people to work in its poverty programs — a reformist trap designed to militate against basic changes, for the government is not about to finance programs that are working to destroy the present economic and political system.”(12)

Black nationalist tendencies within SNCC, influenced by Malcolm X and others, led to white SNCC staff feeling increasingly unwelcome. At the Kingston Springs, Tennessee, staff meeting in May 1966, Stokeley Carmichael, who was inclined towards Black nationalism and increasingly dubious about nonviolence, replaced John Lewis as chairperson.

Carmichael was 24 years old. Lewis was seen as insufficiently militant and too close to mainstream civil rights groups, especially the religiously-oriented SCLC. The issue of whites in SNCC now became urgent. If SNCC was 25% white, how could it develop a Black consciousness? Cleveland Sellers asked later.

The Kerhonkson, New York, staff meeting in December, 1966, was the last one with any white staff.(13) By this time almost all whites had left, either to organize among Southern whites, or, since that was difficult to say the least, to move into other political arenas, mainly the antiwar movement. SNCC’s going all-Black contributed further to its abandonment by the white liberal and mainstream civil rights community.

Even as SNCC and other groups were busy organizing in the South, Northern urban “ghettos” had exploded into a series of “race riots” beginning in Harlem, New York City, on July 18, 1964. These continued yearly, mostly in the summer months, mainly in Northern cities, with increasing violence until local, state and the federal authorities responded with overwhelming force.

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Black rebellion broke out on August 28. For three days white-owned businesses in the predominantly Black section of North Philadelphia were looted and police were attacked. Two people were killed and many injured, including 100 police.(14) In the Watts section of Los Angeles, California in August, 1965, 4000 people were arrested, 34 killed, and about $35 million damage resulted from nearly two days of rioting.

In the Newark, New Jersey rebellion of July 12-17, 1967, the National Guard was called out. In Newark 23 people were killed. In Detroit a week later, 5000 National Guardsmen were called in to control rioting. In the Spring of 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, riots broke out in 138 cities. About 60,000 soldiers were called out to suppress them. More than 40 Blacks were killed and some 20,000 were arrested at least briefly.

These riots, termed “insurrections” by some, were not white versus Black. They were mainly attacks against property not Black-owned. The context, as President Johnson clearly understood, was the conditions prevalent in the decaying centers of cities that had become predominantly Black after World War II, with high rates of poverty and unemployment, job discrimination, poor educational facilities, and police hostility particularly against Black youth.

Trigger incidents often involved an altercation with police. In urban areas progress towards equal opportunity was miniscule, and tactics of nonviolence were difficult to employ against landlords and politicians who were some distance removed.

The riots continued despite the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which provided significant sums to create programs to assist unemployed youth (including whites), and promoted “maximum feasible participation of residents” in local employment and other improvement programs.(15)

Militant civil rights organizations including SNCC quickly began “a veritable northward stampede…to establish organizational footholds in the ghetto…”(16) Understandably, given the usual internal disputes and difficulties in relating to a population in the urban North that was very different from the rural South, this was a tough job.

Nonetheless, Jacobs and Landau’s view, that “the masses of poor Negroes remain an unorganized minority in swelling urban ghettos and neither SNCC nor any other group has found a form of political organization that can convert the energy of the slums into political power,” is an exaggeration.(17)

In every metropolis numerous organizations existed, from the NAACP and the Urban League to political party organizations, churches, and independent charities, and even chapters of the more radical National Welfare Rights Organization. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was also doing community organizing work among poor whites. Yet despite these efforts, the poverty of many “ghettos” remained fundamentally unalleviated.

A political backlash soon developed to the urban uprisings (and the increasing militancy of students, symbolized by the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of September, 1964-January, 1965). Black support for Democratic candidates for public office led to a Republican strategy to use “law and order” and patriotic, pro-war rhetoric to sway white Democrats to the Republican side. Moreover, the riots led to massive expenditures by local governments to provide their police forces with the latest weaponry, even including tanks in some cities.

The FBI engaged in successful efforts to infiltrate and eliminate radical Back activists. Bob Zellner believed that both Black and white informers, including agents provocateurs, had been in SNCC from the beginning. Mississippi’s NAACP was infiltrated by the state’s “Sovereignty Commission,” a kind of state FBI, to spy on civil rights activists.

By early 1966 SNCC found itself in yet another dilemma: if it failed to break with the President on the issue of the war, it would lose credibility with more militant Blacks. If it did break, it would lose even more financial support from the liberal and labor wing of the Democratic Party.

However, after the shooting of SNCC volunteer Sammy Younge, a U.S. Navy veteran, on Jan. 3, 1966, as he tried to integrate a “white” bathroom in Tuskegee, Alabama, the SNCC Executive Committee not only voted to oppose the U.S. government’s foreign policy, but went so far as to advocate support for draft resisters. This resulted in SNCC’s further isolation from mainstream civil rights organizations that were loyal to the Johnson administration.

SNCC’s move in the direction of Black nationalism and the slogan of “Black Power” gained ground with a resurgence of protests following the shooting of James Meredith on June 5, 1966. In 1962 Meredith had been the first Black to attend the University of Mississippi. His successful effort to enroll required the use of 31,000 troops including 11,000 Mississippi National Guardsmen called into federal service, plus a contingent of U.S. Marshalls, to put down what amounted to an armed insurrection by white citizens from across the state protesting integration of “Ol’ Miss.”(18)

On June 5, 1966 Meredith determined to walk from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, the state capital, to promote voter registration. A day later he was shot and wounded by a sniper. SNCC, CORE and King decided to continue his march and utilize it to register Black voters along the route.

Willie Ricks, a SNCC field organizer, at this point proposed using the slogan of Black Power to arouse local Blacks to join the campaign. It was quickly supported by James Forman back in Atlanta, and Carmichael who was with the march. Carmichael wanted to de-emphasize white participation, and supported the inclusion of the armed Deacons group.

King was dismayed, feeling that the Black Power slogan would backfire, alienate white supporters, and provide ammunition to racists. Even Meredith opposed the slogan. The NAACP and the Urban League, another old-line mainstream civil rights group, both withdrew from the march.

John Lewis was similarly critical, and in a later interview termed the slogan “meaningless rhetoric.” Vice-President Hubert Humphrey spoke out against it. Yet it was supported in the form of a full-page advertisement in The New York Times by the National Committee of Negro Churchmen.

Carmichael was arrested on June 17, then released and at a rally in Greenwood, Mississippi, deliberately made a point of raising the slogan of Black Power. The march ended in Jackson, Mississippi, after it had been attacked by white mobs and police at two earlier points. In Jackson, Carmichael again called for “Black Power.”

The slogan could be, and was, interpreted in many ways. The mainstream media took it as promoting violence and hatred of whites, even as “reverse racism.” The NAACP swiftly condemned it because it seemed separatist, that is, opposed to integration. Soon mainstream civil rights groups and leaders, including Congressman Adam Clayton Powell from Harlem, maneuvered to coopt the slogan, even holding several “Black Power” conferences. It was used by some Black leaders as rhetoric to promote Black business entrepreneurship.

Yet Carmichael initially advocated only building a Black political base in order to elect Blacks to public office. Later in 1967 he wrote, with political scientist Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power, the Politics of Liberation in America. Here the authors adopt a clearly radical, quasi-Marxist Black nationalist theory, that “black people in this country form a colony…they stand as colonial subjects in relation to white society.”(19)

Regardless of interpretation, Black Power galvanized young Blacks and its militant tone seemed to revive a sense of organizing possibilities. But it also irreparably sundered the tenuous coalition of civil rights forces in which up to now SNCC had played a major, perhaps the leading, role.

SNCC’S future still looked fairly bright. It would be seven more years until the FBI closed its file on the organization. But once the Voting Rights Act and President Johnson’s “anti-poverty program” were passed, SNCC needed to find a new path forward. And Johnson’s carrot was accompanied by the stick of repression. SNCC’s advocacy of Black Power and armed self-defense attracted the attention of too many law enforcement officials.

SNCC’s name was now a misnomer. It was no longer “students” nor nonviolent. It had turned into a cadre mini-party. In the Spring of 1967 it found itself in competition with a new organization, the California-based Black Panther Party. SNCC and the Panthers developed an on-again, off-again partnership but “The government was on the offensive and everybody who had taken a revolutionary position seemed to be fair game.”(20)

There was a fundamental argument within SNCC between those like Carmichael who saw “the problem” as primarily one of racial oppression, and those like Forman who believed the underlying issue was social class, that is, the capitalist system. This was on top of the issue of reformism versus revolutionary action. These two issues would, in the maelstrom of 1968 (the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the riot at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, continuing arrests) eventually result in a change of name (to Student National Coordinating Committee). Additionally, there were splits, defections, exile for some, clandestine existence for others and even an unsolved car bombing leaving two SNCC cadre dead in 1970. By the Spring of 1971 SNCC was effectively done, in the estimation of the FBI.(21)

Was the advocacy of armed defense and the turn to Black Power the crucial element in SNCC’s demise? In my view the turn was inevitable at the time if SNCC was to remain relevant to many younger Blacks. Still, this development certainly hurt access to financial resources and did lead to the disaffection of some members and allies.

None of the militant Black organizations of the 1960s that supported armed resistance survived at the national level. Between repression and cooptation, the revolutionary elements of the Black freedom struggle were (for the power structure) successfully stalled. SNCC, however, was responsible for much of the groundwork for the next phase of the freedom struggle: the election of Black public officials in the South.

Soon there were increasing numbers of Black mayors, members of Congress and statewide office holders. Some, such as John Lewis, still in Congress at the close of 2019, had been among SNCC’s founders. Marion Berry, SNCC’s first chairperson, served two terms as Mayor of Washington, D.C. (including a political comeback from scandal and drug conviction — ed.).

Nationally, the number of all-Black elected officials at all levels, from Congress down to local sheriff, increased from 1,469 to 4,890 in the decade between 1970 and 1980 — still a pittance, but the trajectory was clear.

Non-party civil rights activity would center on organizations led by a few charismatic individuals such as the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan and his Million Man March of Oct. 16, 1995, Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH organization in Chicago and Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. But there was little to show in terms of nationwide grassroots movement building.

When a grassroots movement finally began to take root in 2012-2014, it took the form of street protests against police shootings of Black and Latinx civilians and coalesced as Black Lives Matter. Whether that movement can be sustained and achieve the level of success of the 1960s civil rights movement remains an open question.

We generally don’t think of unions as part of the civil rights movement. Although organized labor to say the least has a mixed record with regard to people of color, it should be remembered that many unions with large numbers of Black workers have been leaders in civil rights campaigns.

The 1941 March on Wash­ington was organized by A. Philip Randolph, the socialist leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. It was called off after President Roosevelt signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination in the defense industry. The 1963 March, led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was peppered with union leaders and members.

Many of today’s labor struggles, as in recent teachers’ strikes and the “Fight for Fifteen,” are led by Black and Latinx workers. Perhaps the workplace has now become the terrain of struggle for civil rights.


  1. Oppenheimer, The Sit-In Movement of 1960, Carlson Publishing, Inc., 1989; “The 1960 Sit-Ins in Context,” and Theresa El-Amin, “SNCC’s 50-Year Legacy,” in Against the Current 147, July/August 2010.
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  2. Renee C. Romano, Racial Reckoning, Harvard University Press, 2014.
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  3. Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer, Oxford University Press, 1988, 121.
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  4. Akinyele O. Umoja, “1964: The Beginning of the End of Nonviolence in the Mississippi Freedom Movement,” Radical History Review, Winter 2003, 201-226.
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  5. Howard Zinn, SNCC, The New Abolitionists, Beacon Press, 1964.
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  6. Umoja, 222-223.
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  7. Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s, Harvard University Press,1981, 144.
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  8. Jean Smith Young, “Do Whatever You Are Big Enough to Do,” in Faith S. Holsaert et al (eds.), Hands on the Freedom Plow, University of Illinois Press, 2010, 249.
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  9. McAdam, 107.
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  10. Cleveland Sellers, The River of No Return, University Press of Mississippi, 116.
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  11. Carson, 166.
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  12. James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, University of Washington Press, 1977, 238.
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  13. Bob Zellner, The Wrong Side of Murder Creek, New South Books, 2008, 291-292.
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  14. Matthew J. Countryman, Up South, Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006, 155 ff.
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  15. Report of the National Advisory Committee on Civil Disorders, 1968, sometimes called the Kerner Commission after its chairman, Otto Kerner, Governor of Illinois.
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  16. Doug McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, University of Chicago Press, 1982, 1999, 191.
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  17. Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau, The New Radicals, Vintage Books, 1966, quoted in McAdam, 191.
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  18. William Doyle, An American Insurrection, Anchor Press, 2003.
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  19. Carmichael and Hamilton, Vintage Press, 1967, 5.
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  20. Sellers, 258. He started The River of No Return while serving seven months after being shot, then arrested on multiple charges following an incident in Orangeburg, S.C. during which 33 demonstrators were shot by police. Three died.
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  21. Carson, 298.
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March-April 2020, ATC 205

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