Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Research Paper

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On February 1, 1960, four black freshmen from North Carolina A & T College (now University) went to the Woolworth’s 5 and 10 cent store in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. After shopping for a few items they proceeded directly to the store’s lunch counter, their real objective. They all took seats and were promptly ignored. The students were not surprised by the waitress’s refusal to serve them. In fact they knew they were flirting with danger by flagrantly violating the local segregation ordinance barring African Americans from service in white restaurants, because they had recently spent several weeks talking about the options available to them to combat segregation.

The Greensboro students were not the only ones discussing protest strategies during the 1959—1960 school year. On the contrary, black students all over the South were holding discussion groups and workshops on the topic. In the days and weeks following the Greensboro sit-ins, African American students from other schools began to sit in at segregated downtown lunch counters. Adult leaders soon recognized that a full-fledged student movement had begun. One of those who appreciated the effectiveness of the fledgling student movement was longtime activist Ella Baker (1903-1986). Previously, Baker had worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Some time later she advocated the creation of a permanent organization in the wake of the Montgomery bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, resulting in the establishment of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957.

In April 1960 Baker urged student leaders to attend a conference that she planned to hold at her alma mater, Shaw College (now university) in Raleigh, North Carolina. Before the students left Raleigh they had established the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). By the spring of 1961, the young organization became involved in civil rights campaigns of national scope such as the Freedom Rides (when members of the SNCC rode interstate buses through the Deep South to test a 1960 law forbidding racial segregation in interstate transportation). By the end of the summer, two competing strategies emerged in SNCC: nonviolent direct action and voter registration. At a particularly stormy meeting in August 1961, the group decided that it would do both.

As the organization matured over the next few years, SNCC activists were involved in virtually every major campaign of the Civil Rights movement from the March on Washington in 1963 to Mississippi Freedom Summer, a voter registration campaign in African American communities in Mississippi. During these tumultuous years, the young people of SNCC did the grueling and dangerous work of confronting every aspect of segregation from black disfranchisement to black economic inequality. SNCC organizers were threatened, jailed, brutalized, and a few were even killed. Along the way some of them denounced the Vietnam War, as well. The FBI placed them under surveillance, and the organization was harassed by the IRS. After several years of working for reform in some of the most isolated areas of the rural

South, some members of the organization began to rethink their position on a number of issues, including their support for integration. This critical philosophical shift soon resulted in a very public expression of support by some members of SNCC for the concept of Black Power, a political movement that sought to bolster racial consciousness among African Americans. Consequently, many members of the group began to shift their focus to issues of black economic equality and black political education. As the 1960s drew to a close, SNCC members drifted to pursue individual goals. For a brief time in the late 1960s, some attempted to form an alliance with the Black Panther Party, a political organization founded to promote civil rights and self-defense, but it was shortlived, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee soon passed out of existence. But in many of the communities where SNCC worked, black people still remember and appreciate the efforts of the SNCC kids to help them organize for social change.


  1. Carson, Clayborne. 1981. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  2. Fleming, Cynthia Griggs. 2004. In the Shadow of Selma: The Continuing Struggle for Civil Rights in the Rural South. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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