I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in the 50th reunion of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from April 15 to 18, 2010, in Raleigh, North Carolina. Over 800 SNCC workers, their families, and friends came together for four days to remember, reflect, share stories, inspire a younger generation, and strategize about how to continue the important work that SNCC students started 50 years ago.
The SNCC reunion attracted many giants of the Civil Rights Movement including Jim Lawson, John Lewis, Robert Moses, Harry Belafonte, Vincent Harding, Bernard Lafayette, Dick Gregory, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Clayborne Carson, Charlie Cobb, and Courtland Cox. They joined hundreds of SNCC workers whom most people have never heard of, or have long forgotten.
As many Friends Journal readers will remember, the SNCC movement started with four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, N.C., who sat in at a Woolworth drugstore on February 1, 1960.
This action, by David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil (see photo) ignited a wave of student sit-ins and protests that flashed like fire across the South—a fire for justice that no amount of beatings, jails, or fire hoses could extinguish. Within days, sit-ins occurred in dozens of Southern towns, and in the North supporting picket lines sprang up at Woolworth and Kress stores from New York to San Francisco.
These students faced the Ku Klux Klan, police dogs, fire hoses, and death threats; many spent months in southern prisons. Others were beaten by the police and saw their fellow SNCC workers shot and killed. Yet they continued their deep commitment to nonviolence and the struggle for justice and sang "We Shall Overcome."
I was reminded how horrendous the oppression was for blacks in the deep South 50 years ago. If black persons in Mississippi or Alabama tried to register to vote, they could be fired from their jobs, have a cross burned in front of their homes, or even have their homes or churches burned to the ground. Courageous SNCC workers accompanied these folks as they registered to vote and stood up for their right to live as full U.S. citizens.
To give a flavor of some of what was said at the reunion, I present a few of my notes from a talk by Congressman John Lewis, a former chairman of SNCC:
Through peaceful action, we helped transform this country. . . . SNCC was an unbelievable movement to make this a better nation. . . . Hundreds of SNCC workers were willing to take a stand for all humankind. . . . By sitting down, we enabled black people to stand up. . . . We started a nonviolent revolution in this country. . . . We had a highly disciplined freedom movement to liberate the soul of America. . . . We kept our eyes on the prize. . . . We were bloodied and beat up, but never gave up. . . . SNCC workers gave their lives to make this a more perfect union. . . . We cried and kept marching.
If it were not for SNCC, Barack Obama would not be the President of the United States. But the election of Obama was not the fulfillment of our dream, only a down payment. We need to get out and push and organize and make some noise to make the crucial changes still needed for justice in our beloved country.
We all live in the same house. We are one people, one family, and we all live in our house. We live in a world house and must care for our brothers and sisters around the world.
Harry Belafonte, who was a strong moral and financial supporter of SNCC throughout its formative years, not only encouraged the group not to rest on its laurels about what was accomplished 50 years ago, but also reminded attendees that many of them have another 10-15 years to live. He challenged people by asking, "What can we do with our lives using that same kind of commitment and determination to continue the important work of transforming the United States into a ‘more perfect’ union?"
We were reminded that our work is far from complete. Ninety percent of blacks in Mississippi still live in poverty. Many black and brown people across the country still study in schools that are of inferior quality and are increasingly being re-segregated (including those in Raleigh, where we were meeting). In addition, a disproportionately high percentage of black and brown young men are in prison. It is clear that we need to radically transform our criminal justice system, as well as our schools. We also need to challenge the powerful military-industrial complex in the United States, which is stealing precious resources from local communities, cities, states, and human and environmental needs of the people in the United States to fight its wars in foreign lands.
As Vincent Harding has said so often, we need to share the excitement, energy, commitment, and spirit of the SNCC folks from 50 years ago with the younger generation. We should ask them to reflect on what their elders have done, and then decide how they can best continue the struggle to challenge racism, injustice, and militarism to build the society we all want for our children and grandchildren.
It was especially inspiring to hear the children of many SNCC workers share some of their current activities, as they continue the important work their parents started 50 years ago.
Experiencing the amazing commitment of the early SNCC folk, I felt a deep challenge to those of us in the Religious Society of Friends today: "Do we have the commitment and determination to challenge the continued violence, injustice, and militarism in this country, and to help transform the United States from an empire fighting wars around the world to a more democratic and just nation living peaceably with the rest of the world?"
Suggested Reading: John Lewis, Walking with the Wind;
Vincent Harding, The Inconvenient Hero and Hope and History;
King’s World House website http://www.theworldhouse.org/whessay.html;
and the Martin Luther King page of the website http://www.peaceworkersus.org.