We, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), would like to address something before we begin our assessment of the current assault against Black lives. When considering our functionality as a civil rights organization, we are considered to be by most scholars as an enigma. How we were able to find such rampant success in our efforts to secure civil rights for the African American community — particularly in poorer areas where our outreach was needed the most — during the 1960s is deemed to be a mystery of some sorts, but allow us to make ourselves plain. When faced with a problem, we choose to solve it instead of living with it. It is no mystery that injustices are plaguing our world, and even more so are its causes not hidden behind some shroud. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the problems that course through the institutions that we put our trust in have become all too glaring, which has resulted in people publicly voicing their opinions in order to enact change. Particularly in America, the presence of police brutality against marginalized citizens is an issue that has appeared time and time again, but we would like to highlight that this issue has been met with a stronger wave of resistance each time. In the words of our fellow member Bernice Johnson Reagon, “[life’s] challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, they’re supposed to help you discover who you are. They’re the prod that moves you forward” (“Bernice Johnson Reagon: Quote on Life’s Challenges”).
In America, the topic of civil rights — which is defined as the rights of citizens to political and social freedom and equality — is a significant socio-political issue that has been debated and challenged over ever since the country’s founding. When people’s civil rights are not guaranteed in society, various forms of discrimination emerge to ostracize and constrain particular groups so that they cannot exercise their fundamental rights as citizens of their country. In America, it is no secret to African Americans that their community experiences various racial disparities that their white counterparts do not experience collectively. To help highlight this divide, the National Urban League releases reports every decade on “the state of black America” that aim to summarize how well African Americans are doing in comparison to white people in areas of education, economics, civic engagement, health, and social justice. For 2020 — which turned out to be a critical year for revelation and reckoning for injustices — their report titled “State of Black America, Unmasked” reveals how racism is a pandemic within the COVID-19 pandemic. While their Black-White Equality Index reports that Black people and white people are experiencing a great equality of outcomes in relation to health issues and concerns, Black people are only experiencing 57.5% of the “well-being” of their white counterparts in the social justice sector in relation to the outcomes of violent crime victimization. In their journal article “Young, Gifted, and Black”, the authors assert that “…despite widespread criminal law data collection, there has been no U.S. tracking of police shooting deaths. Black deaths at the hands of the state have been tacitly accepted for decades as routine by the mainstream media and most white Americans…” (Dorhn and Ayers). The death of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020, which was made visible by several bystanders recording his fatal arrest, proved to be a breaking point for not only the African American community but for many others as well. His death provoked an outpour of mass demonstrations against police racism and brutality, which led many to fear that there would be a spike in COVID-19 infections, but many protesters took the risk. The National Urban League reported that a protestor quoted by the New York Times told the newspaper that “[folks] who don’t have much else to lose—they understand that this system isn’t built for Black people. And that’s why people are in the streets” (National Urban League, 6). The Black Lives Matter movement — which emerged in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s assassination in 2012, whose killer was acquitted in the following year — saw a powerful resurgence as millions of demonstrators around the world focused their efforts to dismantle racial injustice by (but not limited to): destroying monuments that celebrated white supremacy and slavery, taking down Confederate flags, confronting police officers head-on in heated confrontations, and flooding social networks with petitions to call on the Minneapolis Police Department to fire Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who murdered Floyd. The air of unity amongst these protestors — the majority of whom took it upon themselves to organize protests — coincides with what we, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), sought to do during the height of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
In Raleigh, North Carolina, our organization was formed by many black and white students during a meeting called by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1960. Although we primarily focused on helping poor rural Black people that lived in the Deep South to exercise their political freedom, our main objective was to create grassroots leadership in black communities. Considered to be the “shock troops” of the Civil Rights Movement, we directed our attention towards: encouraging Black people to register and vote; educating rural Black people to read and write; conducting sit-ins and jail-ins to protest segregation; and setting up cooperatives and health clinics. Although we fought alongside other notable organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in securing civil rights for African Americans, we differed greatly in our organizational and leadership style. As stated by Emily Stoper in “The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: Rise and Fall of a Redemptive Organization”, our principles are as follows:
(1) a moral ethos, consisting of a set of broad attitudes, shared by almost all members, involving a rejection of ideology (formal set of beliefs);
(2) a sense of superiority to other institutions and to individual nonmembers;
(3) a very high rate of activism among members;
(4) pervasiveness, that is, an important influence on all or almost all aspects of its members’ lives; and
(5) a belief in the equality of all members, which leads to the rejection of bureaucracy and of all formal leadership structures (Stoper, 16).
In terms of our group’s membership, Stoper explains that we were primarily made up of individuals aged 15 to 22 years old, which became a factor in our overall effectiveness in pursuing social justice as this demographic had little to no family responsibilities and a surplus of energy that was required to perform the strenuous work we conducted. Also, another key trait from this demographic is that they were righteous because “…the young see with fresh eyes the rampant injustice and suffering to which their parents have become calloused. And they have a shorter time perspective for the correction of these injustices than even those adults who perceive that they do exist” (Stoper, 18). The young members of SNCC concentrated their attention to eradicating segregation and encouraging civil engagement amongst African Americans as a result of their lack of patience for those that maintain and enforce the evils of this world. With all of this in mind, we would have been in our element in today’s social climate as we advance the Black Lives Matter movement’s goals in regards to stopping police brutality against African Americans.
If the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was around to hear Trayvon Martin’s killer being acquitted and even more so, watched the chilling video of George Floyd’s fatal arrest, we would have loudly and proudly chanted “Black Lives Matter” as we condemn and challenge today’s judicial system to deliver justice to these tragic cases. Moreover, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, we would have vehemently opposed the “All Lives Matter” chants that were surfacing around this time, which is viewed by the African American community as a falsehood because this phrase misunderstands and even trivializes the problems that the Black Lives Matter movement is concerned about. Our founding philosophy that centered around grassroots organizing aligns perfectly to the way many Black Lives Matter activists operate today, in which the authors of “Young, Gifted, and Black” note that “…[the Black Lives Matter movement is] energized by grounded, community-based leader/organizers rather than charismatic or hierarchical leaders; it is not leaderless but ‘leader-full’, in the words of Patrisse Cullers…” (Dohrn and Ayers). With this in mind, we perceive that the cause of police brutality resides in a lack of dialogue about and empathy for Black victims of this crime. Furthermore, this issue is kept alive by institutional racism as police departments adopt militant tactics when dealing with black communities (as opposed to their white counterparts). As such, the way to tackle this would be to routinely conduct nonviolent protests in public spaces while utilizing social media as a mobilizing tool to spread awareness about police brutality and its victims. Similar to what we have declared in the 1960s, the resolution to police brutality resides in having the highest participation rate possible in the discourse regarding this issue and organizing voter registration projects to ensure people of all backgrounds exercise their political freedom to elect officials that will follow through on upholding justice and condemning the perpetrators involved in these crimes.
In October of 1961, we went to Albany, Georgia to recruit local people to lead demonstrations and marches to protest segregation and the systematic disenfranchisement of African American voters. Weeks into our campaign, our efforts were interrupted when a local leader asked Martin Luther King, Jr. to assume leadership over the marches being held in the city. King’s arrival shifted the media’s attention away from the local people and our overall tactic of grassroots organizing. This proved to be a major setback in helping the masses realize their autonomy when it came to standing up for their civil rights. In today’s American society where there are little to no discernable figureheads leading the current Black Lives Matter movement, we would have used this to our advantage. We would have taken special interest in combating police brutality against the African American community since activists in this sector are more concerned about elevating the victims whose lives were lost at the hands of police officers than promoting one individual’s ideology or beliefs about the issue. Being the radical organization that we are, we would have transformed the visibility of police torture and killings into accountability for corrupt police officers as we work tirelessly to ensure that civil rights are guaranteed for African Americans.
“Bernice Johnson Reagon: Quote on Life’s Challenges.” The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2021, africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1470913. Accessed 2 May 2021.
Dohrn, Bernardine, and William Ayers. “Young, Gifted, and Black.” The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2021, africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Topics/Display/2174022?sid=2174025&cid=91. Accessed 30 Apr. 2021.
Stoper, Emily. “The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: Rise and Fall of a Redemptive Organization.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 8, no. 1, 1977, pp. 13–34. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2783687. Accessed 1 May 2021.
“The 2020 State of Black America, Unmasked.” State of Black America, National Urban League, 13 Aug. 2020, soba.iamempowered.com/2020-report.