SNCC sends Marion Barry & others to political conventions
“We are here today to urge the leaders and candidates of the Democratic Party to stop playing political football with the civil rights of eighteen million Negro Americans,” Marion Barry, then SNCC’s first chairman, told the platform committee of the 1960 Democratic National Convention. Barry, Bernard Lee, and John Mack pressed the committee to include a strong civil rights plank in the party’s platform. Later that July, Barry, Lee, and Nashville sit-in leader Diane Nash did the same at the Republican National Convention in Chicago. “We want our rights as citizens of America and we want our nation to free herself from the albatross of racism,” they declared.
Jane Stembridge, SNCC’s lone staff person, worked diligently so that a group of SNCC representatives got a chance to testify before the credential committees at both major parties’ national conventions. She secured allotted times for them to present and scraped together enough cash for transportation, housing, and food. It was decided that Marion Barry and Bernard Lee would represent SNCC at both committee hearings. John Mack joined them in Los Angeles for the DNC, and Diane Nash joined them in her hometown of Chicago for the RNC.
In true SNCC fashion, the organization collectively crafted a statement that chided the bipartisan political establishment for its lackluster support for Black civil rights. “We are here to ask leaders of our nation to face up to the reality that racial discrimination is America’s number one social issue,” SNCC’s statement read, “and that our national government must assume responsibility to guarantee the fundamental rights of all citizens without discrimination.” The statement outlined a four-part platform that addressed some of the key areas of racial discrimination. SNCC called for the immediate implementation of the Brown vs. Board decision to integrate public schools; the enforcement of fair hiring practices and the legal rights of Black Americans; and lastly, “the unhampered exercise to the franchise for all citizens.”
Impatient with the cautious approach to civil rights of the federal government and established civil rights groups, young people had begun attacking segregation head-on through nonviolent direct action. Student sit-in protests spread like wildfire throughout the South in the winter and spring of 1960. On Easter weekend, leaders from various student movements were brought together by Ella Baker and formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The group created a committee to coordinate cooperation and communication between the various student groups.
Throughout 1960, SNCC primarily engaged in direct action but also gradually began to realize the necessity of developing political muscle. “It becomes increasingly important and expedient,” read a SNCC editorial in the Student Voice, “to realize the rights and duties we have as American citizens to exert political force to improve the conditions of those suffering second-class citizenship and the American community as a whole.” The presidential election of 1960 was SNCC’s first step on the national stage.
SNCC activists were beginning to see that racial discrimination was, in the words of Ella Baker, “larger than a hamburger or even a giant sized coke”–that it went beyond segregated lunch counters and department stores, which were the main targets of student demonstrations. SNCC’s statement at the 1960 conventions laid out the guidelines for SNCC’s continued activism, especially as the organization moved into community organizing around the right to vote in the Deep South in 1961.
Jonathan I.Z. Agronsky, Marion Barry: The Politics of Race (Latham, NY: British American Publishing, 1991), 102-107.
Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1988), 216-217.
Marion Barry, Jr. and Omar Tyree, Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr. (Largo, MD: Strebor Books, 2014), 51-55.
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1981), 26-27.
Andrew B. Lewis, The Shadows of Youth: The Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation (New York: Hill and Wang, 2009), 63-85.
Statement Submitted by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to the Platform Committee of the National Democratic Convention, July 7, 1960, Ella Baker Papers, 1959-1965, Wisconsin Historical Society.
Interview with Marion Barry conducted by Blackside, Inc., May 15, 1979, Eyes on the Prize, Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University.
Letter from Jane Stembridge to John Mack, June 14, 1960, SNCC Papers, ProQuest History Vault.
Statement Submitted by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Immigration of the National Republican Convention, July 20, 1960, SNCC Papers, ProQuest History Vault.