SNCC and/in the North

SNCC affiliated protesters march in Montgomery, March 17th, 1965 (Photo: Library of Congress, Glen Pearcy Collection)

This year, one of the most important civil rights movement groups, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) celebrates the 60th anniversary of its founding. SNCC’s brilliance laid in its community organizing practices. It empowered people in communities big and small – and often amidst great danger – to see themselves as capable of effecting change. These are the contributions for which it has become most well-known, but there are still aspects of SNCC’s complex, multi-layered history about which we know too little. With this in mind, I’d like to shine some light on a lesser-known branch of SNCC’s work, the network of Friends of SNCC groups that developed across the country. The history of these groups highlights how crucial organized sympathizers were to SNCC’s success, as well as the ways in which Friends of SNCC activism could open up struggles against racism in the Jim Crow North.

SNCC got its start in April 1960, riding the tidal wave of student-led sit-in protests at lunch counters across the South. Kicked off by four North Carolina A&T students at Woolworth’s in Greensboro on February 1st, these nonviolent direct-action tactics quickly spread and, importantly, benefitted from sympathy pickets that took place across the North and West. Drawing from the visionary mentorship of Ella Baker, SNCC dared to take on the most dangerous parts of the South, including rural Mississippi and “Bloody Lowndes County” Alabama. They also ventured into territory that national civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. had only tentatively broached – voting rights, economic injustice, and grassroots organizing. This work was dangerous. White resistance to their efforts took the form of harassment, threats, economic intimidation, arrests, beatings, and killings (almost always carried out with impunity). SNCC tried in vain to pressure the federal government into sending the Justice Department or other agents to protect civil rights workers and residents, but Washington denied any responsibility and claimed to not have jurisdiction. Adding to their troubles, the communities in which SNCC organized often found that local elites punished them by dropping the kinds of welfare people depended on for survival, including food surplus commodities in the lean winter months.

In this context, SNCC began to realize that outside help would be crucial to not only the group’s survival but perhaps to local people’s too. In the summer of 1962, the group made an astute decision: to place an organizer in the North to establish support groups that would come to be called Friends of SNCC. A white woman, Casey Hayden, who came to SNCC via her work in the National Student Association brought a multitude of contacts to this role. She quickly developed offices in Chicago and Detroit, then New York, Washington, DC, and San Francisco. By the winter of 1964, a SNCC pamphlet made clear how essential the Friends groups had become to the financial health of the organization: “[SNCC]…depends on its Northern Friends organizations for its entire support. The work we have done and are doing here in the South could not be done without the support we have gotten from the people of the North. And it cannot continue without their support.”

Friends of SNCC groups proved especially crucial to the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, better known today as Freedom Summer. That endeavor relied on hundreds of volunteers journeying to Mississippi to set up Freedom Schools, provide legal counsel, and register African Americans for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention in August. Friends of SNCC groups contributed in myriad ways. Founder of the Wisconsin chapter, Theresa del Pozzo recalled that her group publicized voter registration efforts, “lobbied the state legislature for support resolutions, kept the university and local newspapers supplied with information, and had an outreach program that sent speakers out to schools, churches, and campus and community groups.” Friends groups set up speaking engagements for SNCC staffers as a form of fundraising, too.

Demonstrating the commitment of “Friends” to the on-the-ground work of SNCC, many members not only worked behind the scenes but volunteered to participate in Freedom Summer. A number of volunteer applicants – about 48% according to Doug McAdam’s study – noted an affiliation with a civil rights organization, and over half of that number said they were affiliated with either the Congress of Racial Equality or a Friends of SNCC chapter. McAdam also found that a majority of applicant interviews were “conducted by Friends of SNCC personnel or sympathetic faculty members.”

As they did at other key moments, Friends groups also mobilized Northern constituencies when white violence and neglect from officials threatened the movement and its participants that summer of 1964. The very active Detroit branch offers a window into such efforts. When three SNCC workers – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner – went missing, Detroit Friends leveraged a visit by President Lyndon Johnson to the Motor City by organizing a demonstration at Cobo Hall (where Johnson was speaking) and demanding federal marshals in Mississippi. The group also lobbied Michigan Democrats to demand that Michigan recognize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the August convention. 1

The primary thrust of most Friends of SNCC chapters seems to have involved supporting the struggle against Southern racism, but many also pitched fights against Northern-style segregation and discrimination. Chicago Area Friends of SNCC participated in local struggles, “such as adequate and fair employment, education and housing for African Americans.” Both the Chicago and Detroit groups partook in local movements against education inequalities. Members and affiliates of the Detroit Friends supported high schools students as they boycotted Northern High School in the spring of 1966. Three years earlier, the Chicago chapter created Freedom Schools for youth during the Chicago Schools boycott.

Thus, while Friends of SNCC chapters proved vital to the on-the-ground efforts of SNCC, they may have also played a more important role than we yet know in Northern civil rights struggles. SNCC wrote to its staff members that the Friends groups “keep the Northern ‘supply lines’ open” for the Southern struggle. But it may have been the case that, as these allies tapped the “supply lines” of their communities, they also tapped into the struggles happening in their midst.

As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the birth of one the 20th century’s most important civil rights groups, it is appropriate for us to focus on the profound impact SNCC had on de-segregation, voting rights and Black consciousness efforts in the South. But we should remember that there is an as-yet untold story of SNCC’s influence outside of the South. How might our understanding of SNCC and of a national civil rights movement change if we had a fuller understanding of SNCC’s “Friends”?

  1.  Letter from Detroit Friends of SNCC to supporters, 24 June 1964, Detroit file, SNCC papers.
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Say Burgin

Say Burgin is an assistant professor of history at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Her essay on George Crockett is forthcoming in a collection with NYU Press. She is also the co-developer, along with Jeanne Theoharis, of the ​educational website on Rosa Parks. Follow her on Twitter @sayburgin.​

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