The Civil Rights Movement for Intellectual Change

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

More than half a century since the 1960s, scholars and citizens alike continue to grapple with how our country should remember the civil rights movement. To many observers, the movement’s calls for political change—to refashion America into an anti-racist democracy—represents its most profound legacy. Others remember the movement as a force for moral change. Largely forgotten, however, is how civil rights activists created a movement for intellectual change.

Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, is widely recalled as an unimpeachable moral authority, as a master orator, and as a fierce proponent of democracy. But how many Americans today recall him as the powerful intellectual that he was–the inveterate reader and theoretician that many of his contemporaries knew him as?

The same can be asked of the members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The organization’s members are recalled for the remarkable bravery and resolute moral clarity they displayed on the Freedom Rides, during Freedom Summer, and in Selma. SNCC members created a movement for social change, for moral change, and for political change. But how many of us acknowledge that SNCC also forged a movement for intellectual change? A short SNCC memo I recently came across forced me to reconsider this question.

“Dear Brothers and Sisters,” begins the undated letter from SNCC’s national office in Atlanta. “This is a copy of SNCC’s suggested readings …It is essential that every black person become aware of his/her history and become proud of that history. Let us hope that his pride will build a basis for the coming together of black people on an international as well as national level.”

The memo is followed by a four-page document listing nearly one hundred books divided into eight categories: History of Blacks in the United States; Contemporary Black Thought; Biographies of Famous Black People; Black Fiction; Books on Black Arts; African History; Contemporary African Thought; and Books of International Revolution.

The list appears to be from 1968–towards the very end of SNCC’s life and after several years of leadership struggles and ideological battles had left the organization depleted and far less influential than before. And yet, the list still reveals the intellectual agenda of one of the era’s most critical civil rights organizations.

Academic giants dominate the list, including W.E.B. Du Bois, St. Clair Drake, E. Franklin Frazier, Carter G. Woodson, and John Hope Franklin. Icons of international struggle abound, including Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, Fidel Castro, and Patrice Lumumba. Black popular history by J.A. Rogers and Lerone Bennett make appearances, as do novels and essay collections by leading literary figures such as Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. Black Marxists like Harry Haywood and James Lee Boggs also find their way onto the list.

The reading list features SNCC’s own intellectual output. There are recommendations for a Freedom School Poetry collection and works by SNCC field secretaries, including Charlie Cobb’s poetry and Julius Lester’s, Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!

SNCC’s reading list and its members’ own publications embodied the civil rights movement’s challenge tp white supremacy. Perhaps most importantly, SNCC contended that African Americans should celebrate Black cultural and intellectual works. This was the thinking of a broad swath of the Black freedom struggle, and not just the Black Arts movement. The New York Amsterdam News gave voice to the depth of this intellectual transformation with a vivid description of change on the ground in Harlem  in 1972. 1

Anyone who walks along 125th Street in Harlem today may be impressed by the marked changes from the Harlem street of yesterday…Black owned clothing stores, record shops, bookstores, African bazaars, and other cultural happenings now indicate a new pride and self-determination in the black community…These changes in the face of Harlem and other similar communities are largely the result of a black revolution of the mind, begun less than a decade ago.”

To be sure, the SNCC memo is not without shortcomings. Most glaringly, the list largely overlooks women, a common mistake made by male civil rights activists, but one that scholars such as Ashley Farmer, Bettye Collier-Thomas, V.P. Franklin and others have fortunately corrected.2 While the list may be addressed to “our brothers and sisters in Africa, Asia and Latin America,” its authors can’t help but reveal their gendered bias when they urge readers to seek out “information of the past and present history of the black man.” Indeed, only five women authors appear on the list, including Amy Jacques Garvey, Billie Holiday, and Margaret Walker. The works of Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, or even SNCC member Nikki Giovanni are sadly nowhere to be found.

Having been published at the end of the organization’s life, the SNCC reading list may have had limited influence both inside and outside the organization. But it anticipated a long and rich body of intellectual work that SNCC veterans would create in the years ahead. In 1968, a group of former SNCC organizers that included Cobb, Judy Richardson, Courtland Cox, Curtis Hayes, Daphne Muse, and Jennifer Lawson established the Drum and Spear Bookstore and Press in Washington, D.C., with a second location in Tanzania. Drum and Spear became one of the leading African American bookstores in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, and the press would publish half a dozen books in as many years. Among those works were Enemy of the Sun: Poetry of Palestinian Resistance, children’s books by African American authors such as Eloise Greenfield, and A History of Pan-African Revolt, a revised edition of C.L.R. James’s 1938 text, A History of Negro Revolt.

In the decades ahead, individual SNCC veterans authorized dozens of books, not only about their experiences in the movement but also on multicultural children’s literature, math programs for low-income students of color, and the Negro National Anthem.

SNCC’s celebration of intellectual work, its members’ considerable literary output, and the organization’s afterlives in such projects as Drum and Spear Bookstore ultimately distinguished it from other civil rights groups of the 1960s. Leaders in other movement organizations were no strangers to intellectual analysis. But it was SNCC, arguably more than any other civil rights group, that recognized the Black freedom struggle as not only a force for political and social transformation, but also as a movement for intellectual change.

  1. V. Thomas, “Move to Rediscover Black Heroes Gaining,” New York Amsterdam News, March 18, 1972, A5.
  2.  On Black nationalists’ intellectual output in the twentieth century, see Ashley Farmer, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Keisha N. Blain, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018); and Joshua Clark Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).
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Joshua Clark Davis

Joshua Clark Davis is an assistant professor of history at the University of Baltimore. His book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs (Columbia University Press, 2017) examines how natural foods stores, head shops, feminist businesses, and African American booksellers emerged from social movements in the 1960s to advance the goals of political transformation and cultural liberation. Follow him on Twitter @JoshClarkDavis.