Southern Negro Youth Congress organizes march of veterans demanding the vote in Birmingham
In January 1946, more than 100 Black veterans organized by the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) marched double file in uniform on the Jefferson County courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama, demanding the right to register to vote. Like the racist officials SNCC would find itself up against in the 1960s, the local registrar denied Black people voting rights with literacy testing, convoluted questions, and false application of law. “What is the government?” the registrar demanded of a demonstrator. Unfazed, the protester responded, “the government is the people.” Most of the veterans–who had literally put their lives on the line as U.S. combat soldiers during World War II–were denied.
The first “Snick” was the Southern Negro Youth Congress. At the height of the Depression in February 1937, over five hundred youth delegates showed up in Richmond, Virginia to form the organization. As one SNYC founder, Esther Cooper Jackson, described it, their movement fought for an end to the terror, assumed guilt, and economic depression facing Blacks across the country in the 1930s and 1940s.
In their first year, SNYC made huge steps toward realizing that goal. In Richmond, they started a Negro Community Theatre, and a campaign led by James Jackson organized 5,000 tobacco workers into a labor union that nearly doubled their yearly wages. At their second national congress in 1938, SNYC national chairman William Richardson further articulated their vision. “For the Negro youth of the South we must find jobs; and we must secure equal pay for equal work…joblessness is the arid soil from which spring such spectres as the death of hope and vision…”
SNYC’s organizing projects took place across the South–and most of these organizers were in their twenties. In Raleigh, Winston-Salem, and Durham, SNYC organized local chapters of tobacco workers and began planting the seed of empowerment through voting on a large scale. In 1940, SNYC raised national consciousness of discrimination against Blacks in the South with their National Anti-Poll Tax Week. Their vision was to “make Americans conscious of the 19 million southerners, 4 million of them Negroes,” who were denied the vote in the South by the poll tax, white primaries, and numerous other voting restrictions related to race and class.
In SNYC, women organizers very visibly assumed ideological and on-the-ground leadership roles during the World War II years and throughout the organization’s history. Esther Cooper Jackson, with a master’s degree in sociology from Fisk, led SNYC in its early years with “new fervor and imagination to the struggle for freedom,” as her co-organizer Augusta Strong remembered.
After World War II, the right of Black veterans to vote became a primary focus of SNYC. Having put their lives on the line for the U.S. government, veterans sought to underscore the hypocrisy in denying their right to vote through racist poll taxes and literacy tests. At SNYC’s first May voting rally, organizer Osceola McKaine of South Carolina declared, “Whatever we do here in Alabama will affect the actions off the oppressed in South Carolina, in South Africa, in India and in Manchuria.”
In early 1948, SNYC landed on the Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations. “I think SNYC would have continued in the South despite the racism and segregation,” Cooper Jackson commented, “if the national terror of McCarthyism had not been unleashed.” Under threat of severe repression, SNYC transitioned from sponsoring demonstrations to interpreting and spreading political ideologies through their visionary Freedomways magazine. In 1961, the periodical began a 25-year streak of spreading news, artistic expression, and political ideologies of the struggle. Co-founders included Augusta Strong, Shirley Graham Du Bois, who was associate editor, and Esther Cooper Jackson, who served as the managing editor. Freedomways projected political perspectives through literature from activists on the front line of the civil rights struggle.
SNCC ordered large numbers of each issue, and contributed political commentary and analysis. In 1962, Julian Bond wrote to the Readers Column to articulate SNCC’s vision to the magazine’s readers. In the 65th issue, SNCC activists from Freedom Summer wrote on their experiences in “Mississippi: Opening Up the Closed Society.” In 1966, Mike Thelwell and Lawrence Guyot published a two-part article on the MFDP.
Freedomways continued the legacy of SNYC and connected that legacy to SNCC. The magazine ceased publishing in 1986.
Erik S. Gellman, Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 223-230.
Sara Rzeszutek Haviland, James and Esther Cooper Jackson: Love and Courage in the Black Freedom Movement (Lexington, The University Press of Kentucky, 2015).
Esther Cooper Jackson and Constance Pohl, eds., Freedomways: Prophets in Their Own Country (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 17-31, 423.
Lindsay R. Swindall, The Path to the Greater, Freer, Truer World: Southern Civil Rights and Anti-colonialism 1937-1955 (Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 2014).
Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 39-41.