The Founding of SNCC

99Rise | Photos

(Excerpted from SNCC 50th Anniversary Conference)

By spring of 1960, sit-ins are breaking out in college-towns all over the upper & mid-south, and even a few in the Deep South. News coverage and community mass meetings are thrusting young Black students into leadership positions and media spotlights for which they are often unprepared.

Seeing the need for sharing experiences, leadership training, and improving communication between the independent sit-in groups, Ella Baker, SCLC's Executive Secretary, convinces Dr. King to drain SCLC's meager funds by providing $800 to finance a conference of student sit-in leaders. By letter, Baker issues a Call for a Youth Leadership Conference signed by Dr. King, inviting student activists to, "... chart new goals and achieve a more unified sense of direction for training and action in Nonviolent Resistance." Understanding the students' desire for independence, the call to conference states that although "Adult freedom fighters" would be present for "counsel and guidance," the conference would be "youth centered.

Dr. King co-signs Baker's letter, and the conference is held at Shaw University in Raleigh NC over the Easter Weekend (April 15-17) — just six weeks after the first Greensboro sit-in. 126 student delegates from 58 sit-in centers in 12 states attend, along with delegates from 19 northern colleges, SCLC, CORE, Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), National Student Association (NSA), and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). A dozen white students are among the more than 200 participants.

These students are intellectual and emotional rebels willing to put their bodies on the line for what the believe. They are stubborn and independent, and their debates and discussions are long, intense, and passionate. As SNCC field secretary Joyce Ladner would later comment: "SNCC folk would argue with a street sign." The largest, and most influential of the student delegations come from the Nashville Student Movement, the Atlanta Coalition, and the Nonviolent Action Group in Washington. From these three centers of student action come many of SNCC's most dedicated activists and significant leaders.


In a speech titled "Bigger Than a Hamburger," Ella Baker — 55 years old at the time — addresses the assembled students and "adult freedom fighters," telling them that:

"The younger generation is challenging you and me, they are asking us to forget our laziness and doubt and fear, and follow our dedication to the truth to the bitter end."

James Lawson of the Nashville sit-ins gives the keynote address, emphasizing both the need for immediate direct-action (as opposed to slow court cases) and the power of Nonviolent Resistance — it's philosophy, strategy, and tactics. His presentation is so powerful that "Nonviolent" becomes part of SNCC's organizational name.

With Baker's support, the students set up their own independent organization rather than become the youth arm of SCLC. They adopt a Founding Statement based on Lawson's presentation. The name they choose for their new organization — "Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee" — clearly states their intentions: "Student" denoting an independent group as opposed to the youth arm of an existing organization, "Nonviolent" indicating their commitment to nonviolent direct-action, and "Coordinating Committee" establishing a democratic, non-hierarchical, group-centered culture and structure. Says one student:

"The greatest progress of the American Negro in the future will not be made in Congress or in the Supreme Court; it will come in the jails."

In the years that follow, SNCC becomes the cutting-edge of the Freedom Movement as it evolves from an association of campus-based student protest groups to an organization of organizers in southern Black communities. From 1961 through 1965, it grows rapidly. From it's single staff member in late 1960, by mid-1963 it has a national office staff of 12, some 60 field-secretaries and 120 full-time volunteers working in half a dozen southern states and northern "Friends of SNCC" support groups.

SNCC's Annual Budgets 1960-1965
1960 (half-year) $3,100
1961 $14,976
1962 $71,927
1963 $267,750
1964 N/A
1965 $1,153,000
Note: SNCC's annual budgets adopted at the beginning of a year don't necessarily reflect what was actually raised and spent over the course of that year. But they do reflect the anticipated scale of operation.

SNCC Executive Secretary James Forman later recalled SNCC's early years:

We were a band of sisters and brothers, a circle of trust. ...
We were young.
We had energy.
We had brains.
We had technical skills.
We had a belief in people and their power to change their lives.
We were willing to work with the most dispossessed — the sharecropper, the day laborer, the factory workers, and the mill hands.
We were not afraid of death.
  — James Forman. [2]

Historian Charles Payne would later say about SNCC:

... it is not too much to say that [SNCC] did a great deal to invent the sixties. Bernice Reagon calls the Civil Rights Movement the "borning struggle" of the decade, in that it was the movement that stimulated and informed those that followed it. In the same sense, SNCC may have the firmist claim to be called the borning organization. SNCC initiated the mass-based, disruptive political style we associate with the sixties, and it provided philosophic and organizational models and hands-on training for people who would become leaders in the student power movement, the anti-war movement, and the feminist movement. [3]

And as Mississippi Movement leader Hartman Turnbow once observed: "Power seek tha weak places, water seek tha low places, but SNCC done seek the hard places, seem like t' me."