February 4, 2010
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the principal
organizers of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, helped shape
the country's political future, co-founder Julian Bond said Jan. 29
during a conference at the University of Virginia School of Law.
"What began 50 years ago is not just history it was part of a
mighty movement that started many years before that, and continues on
to this today," said Bond, now chairman of the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People. "Ordinary women, ordinary men
proving they can perform extraordinary tasks in the pursuit of freedom."
Bond, a U.Va. history professor, delivered the keynote address at "50
Years After the Sit-Ins: Reflecting on the Role of Protest in Social
Movements and Law Reform," a two-day symposium sponsored by the Law
School's Center for the Study of Race and Law, the Mid-Atlantic
People of Color Legal Scholarship Conference, and the Virginia
Journal of Social Policy and the Law. The other featured speaker was
the Rev. Charles Sherrod, who delivered a keynote address on Jan. 30.
Bond recalled how he first got involved in the Civil Rights Movement
as a Morehouse College student in Atlanta. While sitting at a café
near campus on Feb. 4, 1960, a student named Lonnie King showed him a
newspaper article on the Greensboro, N.C., sit-ins at whites-only
"Don't you think it ought to happen here?" King asked. Bond agreed.
"He said, 'Why don't we make it happen here?' And before I could say,
'What do you mean 'we?' King, Joe Pierce and I canvassed the café,
talking to students, inviting them to discuss the Greensboro event
and to duplicate it in Atlanta," Bond said. "The Atlanta student
movement had begun. We formed the organization, we reconnoitered at
downtown lunch counters, and within a week, 77 of us had been arrested."
Southern student protestors officially formed SNCC later that year.
Bond served as the organization's communications director.
"Within a year, the organization evolved from a coordinating
committee to a hands-on organization, helping local leadership in
rural and small-town communities across the South, helping them
participate in a variety of protests and political and economic
organizing campaigns setting SNCC apart from the civil rights mainstream."
By 1965, SNCC fielded the largest staff of any civil rights
organization in the South. Their efforts had escalated from sit-ins,
Freedom Rides and voter drives to political organizing.
"It had built two independent political parties, it had organized
labor unions and agricultural co-ops, it gave the movement for
women's liberation new energy, it inspired and trained the activists
who began the New Left, it helped expand the limits of political
debate within black America and it broadened the focus of the Civil
Rights Movement," he said. "Unlike mainstream groups, which merely
sought integration of blacks into the existing order, SNCC sought
structural changes in American society itself."
Later in the decade, the organization's leaders, including Stokely
Carmichael, made connections to Africa and other parts of the world.
SNCC grew a broader worldview of challenges facing all oppressed
people, Bond said.
SNCC started to dissolve in the late 1960s for many reasons.
"The current of nationalism, ever-present in black America, widened
at the end of the 1960s to become a rushing torrent, which swept away
the hopeful notion of black and white together that the decade's
beginning had promised," Bond said.
SNCC asked white workers to organize in white communities, which
disillusioned many white participants. In other cases, a decade's
worth of hard work at subsistence pay was too much. The failure of
the Mississippi Democratic Party to gain recognition at the 1964
Democratic National Convention predicted the collapse of white
liberal support, Bond said, and to many, the deaths of Martin Luther
King Jr., Medgar Evers and other civil rights workers "argued that
nonviolence was no antidote to a violent society."
Despite its demise, Bond said SNCC's legacy remains clear. The group
refused to apply political tests to members, created an atmosphere of
expectation and anticipation, and widened the definition of politics
beyond campaigns and elections to include organizing political
parties, labor unions and alternative schools.
Due to SNCC's efforts, black elected officials numbered only 72 in
1965 but rose dramatically to 388 by 1968. Bond himself was elected
to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965 but was prevented
from taking his seat by members who objected to his opposition to the
Vietnam War. Eventually he was seated through re-election and a
unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
"SNCC's articulation and advocacy of black power redefined the
relationship between black Americans and white power. No longer would
political equity be considered a privilege, it had become a right,"
Bond said. "One SNCC legacy is the destruction of the psychological
shackles, which had kept black Southerners in physical and mental peonage.
"The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee helped to break these
chains forever. It demonstrated that ordinary women and men, young
and old, could perform extraordinary tasks."