AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY MONTH
Youth played pivotal role in civil rights, Black Power movements
Published Feb 11, 2010 11:47 PM
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.
March on Washington, 1963.
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 in Birmingham.
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
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
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
“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
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 Panther Party.
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
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
These developments illustrated clearly the necessity for the student movement
to merge with the broader movement of workers against capitalism and national
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.
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