The miracle of SNCC

Founded at Shaw University, the group pushed the civil rights movement forward

CorrespondentOctober 25, 2009 

  • Andrew B. Lewis

    Hill & Wang, 368 pages

"The pace of social change is too slow. At this rate it will be at least another generation before the major forms of segregation disappear. All of Africa will be free before the American Negro attains first-class citizenship."

These challenging words were spoken in a stuffy Shaw University auditorium on Good Friday evening in 1960 by Nashville, Tenn., minister James Lawson. His audience consisted of about 100 college students, many of whom in recent weeks had electrified the nation by engaging in lunch counter sit-ins throughout the segregated South.

Among those gathered in Raleigh that weekend were the four young men from N.C. Agricultural and Technical College who in February had staged the first such demonstration by quietly taking seats at the "whites only" counter in the Greensboro Woolworth's. This bold action motivated their counterparts in Atlanta, Montgomery and elsewhere to risk insults, bodily harm and arrest by imitating them.

Although the students had read about one another in the newspapers, they had never met. They had no training as civil rights leaders and no idea what to do next, if anything. Parents and friends counseled them to concentrate on their studies, not to endanger their futures by behavior certain to provoke punitive reaction from the supporters of the Jim Crow system.

As it turned out, they achieved a miracle that weekend.

They formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group that historian Andrew Lewis in "The Shadows of Youth" contends played a pivotal role in the dismantling of legal segregation. The case for the significance of SNCC (pronounced "snick") is made not only from the records of 50 years ago but also from the recollections and life experiences of several of its more prominent leaders.

Julian Bond became a legislator in Georgia and leader of the NAACP; Marion Barry served as mayor of Washington, D.C.; and John Lewis is a current member of the U.S. Congress from Georgia. Andrew Lewis' account of their careers effectively links the early days of the civil rights movement with the present.

Martin Luther King Jr. also addressed the Shaw gathering. His hope was that the young people would become a wing of his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. However, according to Lewis, the students were unimpressed with King, feeling that he had abandoned direct action for a self-promoting speaking tour. Likewise, they were impatient with the slow pace of the legal reform strategy of the venerable NAACP.

The young men and women wanted action -- nonviolent but direct challenges to segregation. Accordingly, with limited funding, no clear plan and untried leadership, they undertook a campaign of "freedom marches" and voter registration drives throughout the Deep South. With vivid photos and graphic detail, the media recorded the fury with which segregationists retaliated. Hundreds of young people were arrested and several murdered.

However, some SNCC leaders became impatient with the pace of progress. By late 1964, more militant spokesmen like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown emerged. Using the slogan "black power," they conjured up images of angry mobs resorting to violence in order to achieve their objectives. A nation already undergoing the emotional tsunami occasioned by the assassination of President Kennedy and the mounting opposition to the war in Vietnam now had additional reason to be alarmed.

Lewis subtitles his book "The Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation." That journey -- at least in terms of SNCC -- was short-lived. By the end of the 1960s, the organization had dissolved. Carmichael became so despairing of real change that he moved to Africa. Others, including Young, Lewis and Barry, rechanneled their energies and continued their "remarkable journey" from within the American constitutional system.

In the context of an African-American president in the White House, it is hard to believe that a scant 50 years ago, a Barack Obama would not have been permitted to sit at a lunch counter in North Carolina, vote in an election in Louisiana or stay at many hotels in Alabama.

"The Shadows of Youth" brings to life once again the nation-transforming '60s. It does so from the perspective of intelligent, passionate black youths. In a clear, measured, and highly readable style, Lewis' book pays tribute to the courage of those students who began their march for freedom on that 1960 Easter weekend in Raleigh.

William Powers lives in Chapel Hill. His most recent book is the memoir "Shaping a Life."

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