SNCC grew out of the sit-ins that students had launched in Greensboro, North Carolina and Nashville, Tennessee earlier in 1960. The students sat in the areas of the lunch counters that had been reserved for white customers by Woolworth’s and other stores, drawing both harassment and acts of violence from white customers and arrest by the police. The students, trained in the techniques of nonviolent direct action by James Lawson, steeled themselves not to react with violence or anger in response to the abuse they received.
The movement took on even greater risks the following year, after a mob of Ku Klux Klan members and other whites attacked the bus passengers who were defying local segregation laws as part of the Freedom Rides organized by the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Rather than allowing mob violence to stop them, SNCC volunteers, including Robert Moses, Diane Neal, James Bevel, Marion Barry and John Lewis, put themselves at great personal risk by traveling into the deep South, forcing the Kennedy Administration to provide federal protection for them to avoid more mob violence. More than a thousand people eventually took part in these Freedom Rides in the year that followed.
SNCC played a signal role in the 1963 March on Washington. While many speakers applauded the Kennedy Administration for the (largely ineffective) efforts it had made toward obtaining new, more effective civil rights legislation protecting the right to vote and outlawing segregation, John Lewis took the Administration to task for how little it had done to protect Southern blacks and civil rights workers under attack in the Deep South. While he toned down his comments under pressure from others in the movement, his words still stung:
SNCC followed up on the Freedom Ballot with the Mississippi Summer Project, also known as Freedom Summer, which focused on voter registration. SNCC organized black Mississippians to register to vote, almost always without success, as white authorities either rejected their applications on any pretexts available or, failing that, simply refused to accept their applications.
The white power structure responded as it always had, with murderous violence directed at both the black Mississippians brave enough to step forward and the civil rights workers who had organized the campaign. Mississippi Summer got national attention when three of those civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner disappeared after having been released from police custody. Their bodies were eventually found after a reluctant J. Edgar Hoover directed the FBI to find them; in the process it also found corpses of several other missing black Mississippians, whose disappearances had not attracted any public attention.
SNCC also established Freedom Schools to teach children to read and to educate them to stand up for their rights. As in the struggle to desegregate public accommodations led by Martin Luther King, Jr in Birmingham, Alabama the year before, the bolder attitudes of children brought into the movement helped shake their parents out of the fear that had paralyzed many of them.
The goal of the Mississippi Summer Project was to organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an integrated party, to win seats at the 1964 Democratic Convention for a slate of delegates elected by disenfranchised black Mississippians and white sympathizers. The MFDP was, however, tremendously inconvenient for the Johnson Administration, which wanted to minimize the inroads that Barry Goldwater’s campaign was making into what had previously been the Democratic stronghold of the “Solid South” and the support that George Wallace had received during the Democratic primaries in the North.
When the MFDP started to organize a fight over credentials, Johnson originally would not budge. When Fannie Lou Hamer, the leader of the MFDP, was in the midst of testifying about the beatings the police had given to her and others for attempting to exercise their right to vote, Johnson preempted television coverage of the credentials fight by arranging for a hastily scheduled speech of his own. Even so, her testimony had created enough uproar that Johnson offered the MFDP a “compromise”: they would receive two non-voting seats, while the lily-white delegation sent by the official Democratic Party would take its seats.
Johnson used all of his resources, mobilizing Walter Reuther, one of his key supporters within the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and his Vice-Presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey, to put pressure on King and other mainstream civil rights leaders to bring the MFDP around, while directing Hoover to put the delegation under surveillance. The MFDP rejected both the compromise and the pressure on them to accept it and walked out.
That experience destroyed what little faith SNCC activists had in the good faith of the federal government, even though Johnson had obtained a broad Civil Rights Act barring discrimination in public accommodations, employment and private education in 1964 and would go on to obtain an equally broad Voting Rights Act in 1965. It also estranged them from many of the mainstream leaders of the civil rights movement.
Those differences carried over into the voting rights struggle that centered on Selma, Alabama in 1965. SNCC had begun organizing citizens to register to vote in Selma, but was foced to cede a larger role to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference later that year. SNCC disagreed with SCLC over tactical and strategic issues, including the decision not to attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge a second time after county sheriffs and state troopers attacked them on “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965. Although the civil rights movement finally crossed the bridge on the third attempt, with the aid of a federal court order barring authorities from interfering with the march, as part of a five day march to Montgomery, Alabama that helped dramatize the need for a Voting Rights Act, SNCC activists became more and more disenchanted with their role as shock troops for the movement.
Many within the organization had also grown skeptical about the tactics of nonviolence. After the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965, some SNCC members sought to break their ties with the mainstream civil rights movement and the liberal organizations that supported it, arguing instead that blacks needed to seize power rather than seek accommodations from the white power structure. The leader of this movement, Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Toure), replaced John Lewis as head of SNCC in May 1966.
Carmichael first argued that blacks should be free to use violence in self-defense, then later advocated revolutionary violence to overthrow oppression. Carmichael rejected the civil rights legislation that the movement had fought so hard to achieve as mere palliatives.
Carmichael raised the banner of Black Power in a speech in Greenwood, Mississippi in June 1966. As the mainstream civil rights movement distanced itself from SNCC, SNCC expelled its white staff and volunteers and denounced the whites who had supported it in the past. By early 1967 SNCC was approaching bankruptcy and close to disappearing.
Carmichael left SNCC in June 1967 to join the Black Panther Party. H. Rap Brown, later known as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, replaced him as the head of SNCC. Brown renamed the group the Student National Coordinating Committee and supported violence, which he described “as American as cherry pie.” He resigned from SNCC in 1968, after being indicted for inciting to riot in Cambridge, Maryland in 1967, to become Minister of Justice of the Black Panther Party.
SNCC was by that point no longer an effective organization. It finally disappeared in the early 1970s.