By Abayomi Azikiwe
Published Feb 11, 2010
It was on Feb. 1, 1960, some five decades ago, that the student
movement was initiated when four youths were arrested for demanding
service at a segregated whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.
When the Southwide Student Leadership Conference on Nonviolent
Resistance to Segregation was held in April of that same year, at
least 56 colleges in the region had participants linked to the
so-called "sit-in movement." These activists were spread out over 12
states and had links with students from 19 northern colleges and universities.
The gathering was sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference, headed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and executive
director Ella Baker. The over 300 students who were delegates and
observers to the conference witnessed the formation of a continuing
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which would constitute
itself later as a more structured organization with a headquarters as
well as field workers.
With the intensification of the campaigns to abolish legalized
segregation and to win universal suffrage for African Americans in
many areas of the southern United States, SNCC began to play a
critical role in the civil rights movement. In 1961, the "Freedom
Rides" were launched by the Congress on Racial Equality, resulting in
the bombing of an integrated busload of freedom riders in Anniston,
Ala., and severe beatings by white racists in a Greyhound bus depot
As a result of these actions carried out against the freedom riders,
CORE called off the campaign aimed at outlawing segregated interstate
transportation facilities in the South. However, it was the student
activists from SNCC based in the Nashville area who pledged to
continue the freedom rides until the segregation laws governing
interstate transportation in the South were overturned.
The SNCC activists in the area worked with the Nashville Christian
Leadership Conference under the influence of Rev. James Lawson, who
taught seminars on nonviolent protest methods.
Student activist Lucretia Collins summed up the sentiments within
SNCC when she stated: "In Nashville, we had been informed that CORE
was going to have Freedom Rides that could carry people all over the
South and their purpose was to test the facilities at the bus
stations in the major cities.
"Later we heard that the bus of the Freedom Riders had been burned on
Mother's Day in Anniston, Alabama, and that another bus had been
attacked by people in Birmingham.
"CORE was discontinuing the Freedom Rides, people said. We felt that
it had to continue even if we had to do it ourselves. We knew we were
subject to being killed. This did not matter to us.
"There was so much at stake, we could not allow segregationists to
stop us. We had to continue that Freedom Ride even if we were killed
in the process." ("The Making of Black Revolutionaries," by James
After the continuation of the Freedom Rides by SNCC, the government
was forced to intervene and repeal the segregation laws that
regulated interstate public transportation. This was only done after
numerous activists were beaten, tortured and imprisoned on false
charges in Parchman Correctional Facility in Mississippi.
Fighting for political power
SNCC, however, was not content to merely abolish the segregation
laws. It recognized that political power being denied to African
Americans in the South would continue to perpetuate the system of
oppression and inequality. Consequently, the organization took a
great interest in developments in Fayette County, Tenn., where the
African-American community had suffered severe reprisals for their
efforts aimed at voter registration.
By 1963, the slogan "one man, one vote" became the cornerstone of
SNCC's organizational program. This slogan, demanding the
establishment of universal suffrage in the U.S., paralleled the
efforts taking place within the anti-colonial struggle in Africa.
When Oginga Odinga, the Home Affairs minister of the newly
independent government in Kenya, visited the U.S. in late 1963,
Atlanta was the last stop on his itinerary. Several representatives
of SNCC, which was headquartered in Atlanta, visited Odinga at his
hotel, where they presented him with gifts and exchanged solidarity greetings.
After the meeting with Odinga, SNCC members held a sit-in at a
segregated restaurant in the city, resulting in the arrests of 17 of
their members. This event prompted other protest activities against
segregation in the city, where several hundred people participated
and were arrested.
James Forman, the executive secretary of SNCC, stated some years
later: "All these activities, beginning with our visit to Oginga
Odinga, must have made some people on a higher level squirm too. Here
was a high-ranking foreign dignitary, on an official visit,
commenting that the racial situation in the United States was 'very
pitiful' and that the United States 'practices segregation which is
what we are fighting in Africa.'
"The racist image of this country that SNCC's work projected was in
sharp conflict with the picture of democracy at work painted by the
bureaucratic beavers in Washington, D.C." (Forman, "The Making of
During 1964, SNCC embarked upon its most challenging effort with the
Mississippi Summer Project, which was launched in coalition with
other civil rights organizations operating in the state. Under the
direction of this alliance, known as the Council of Federated
Organizations, nearly 1,000 volunteers were mobilized from northern
universities and communities to travel to Mississippi that summer to
organize an independent Freedom Democratic Party and to register
thousands of African Americans to vote.
The state's racists responded with the murder of several civil rights
workers and the jailing and beating of scores of others. By the
conclusion of the summer, the MFDP activists had attempted to unseat
the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party delegation to the national
convention in Atlantic City.
Although the MFDP was never seated at the National Democratic
Convention in 1964 and the federal legislation on universal suffrage
would not be passed until after the Selma campaign of early 1965, the
efforts of the MFDP and its SNCC supporters were successful in
bringing broader segments of the community into the struggle for
political empowerment and national recognition.
SNCC & the global anti-colonial struggle
As a result of the pioneering work of SNCC, it was invited to send a
delegation to tour several independent nations in Africa during the
fall of 1964. The group spent two weeks in the Republic of Guinea at
the special invitation of President Ahmed Sekou Toure. After this,
John Lewis and Donald Harris continued the sojourn in Kenya and
Zambia as well as other countries, while the other members of SNCC
returned to the U.S.
Forman, who was a leading member of the SNCC delegation to Africa,
said in 1972: "[T]he trip for me was a culmination of my life in
several ways. Africa as a black continent, as our homeland, had
always been on my mind." The SNCC executive secretary went on to say,
"I had also dreamed for years of helping to build an organization to
achieve popular power in the United States and then to relate it with
one or more African countries for common revolutionary purposes."
After 1966, SNCC would create an International Affairs section under
Forman's direction. Forman represented the organization at an
international conference on settler colonialism in southern Africa
that was held in Zambia in 1967. He also spoke before the United
Nations Fourth Committee on Decolonization later that same year.
The role of SNCC during this period illustrated the
interconnectedness of the African-American struggle and developments
on the continent of Africa. This intersection of the history of
Africans in various parts of the world would continue throughout the
remaining years of the 20th century.
SNCC, urban rebellions & the workers' movement
What distinguished SNCC from other civil rights organizations was its
work within the cities, small towns and rural areas of the South
where the development of local leadership was a key aspect of its
political program. In 1965-66 in Lowndes County, Ala., SNCC's work
with farmers and youth led to the formation of the original Black
Not only did the Black Panthers in Alabama push for the right to vote
and the development of an organization that was independent of the
racist-controlled state Democratic Party, it also advocated and
practiced self-defense for activists and the community as a whole.
These efforts spread throughout the country and created the
conditions for the founding of the Black Panther Party for
Self-Defense by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, Calif., in
Between 1964 and 1968 hundreds of urban rebellions erupted throughout
the U.S. Chapters of the Black Panther Party grew rapidly all over
the country from 1967 to 1969. The FBI and local law-enforcement
agencies responded to the upsurge in revolutionary activity by
directly and indirectly killing Malcolm X in 1965, Martin Luther King
Jr. in 1968, and Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969. Hundreds of
members of SNCC and the Black Panther Party and other revolutionaries
were harassed, imprisoned and driven into exile.
In 1968, African-American workers in Detroit began to engage in
wildcat strikes demanding an end to racism and superexploitation in
the automotive industry. These struggles were soon linked to the
efforts of community organizers and students who were waging battles
around education issues, housing and police brutality.
The National Black Economic Development Conference was held in
Detroit in April 1969, where the demand for reparations was put
forward when Forman issued the Black Manifesto, calling for massive
compensation for centuries of slavery and national oppression. Forman
would soon join the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, which grew
out of the African-American independent labor struggles of the period
in Detroit and around the country.
The students at Wayne State University in Detroit took control of the
campus newspaper and turned it into the official publication of the
LRBW. The daily newspapers published on campus were distributed at
plant gates and within the African-American community.
These developments illustrated clearly the necessity for the student
movement to merge with the broader movement of workers against
capitalism and national oppression.
The student activists of the present period must learn from the
struggles of the 1960s. By linking the cutbacks in education to the
overall economic crisis of capitalism, students and youth can become
an important force in the burgeoning movement against the most
aggressive attacks against the working class since the Great Depression.