Northern Student Movement
Protests at Woolworth’s and Kress lunch counters supporting southern students sprang up in northern cities and led to formation of the Northern Student Movement (NSM). Peter Countryman, a white Yale undergraduate, helped build the NSM in Fall 1961 from existing networks of the Student Christian Movement of New England. These Northern allies wanted to “provide an immediate opportunity for support – moral, physical, and financial – of the Southern Student Movement.” Soon, NSM began organizing community projects to fight for justice in northern Black communities.
NSM fought discrimination in the North with their eyes on the Southern Movement, and there was a strong link with SNCC. In the fall of 1962, Marilyn Lowen hitchhiked to a NSM conference in New Haven because she heard that Southwest Georgia SNCC organizers would be attending. There, she listened to stories from Ralph Allen, Peggy Dammond, and Charles Sherrod. “Singing with my young heroes and heroines of the southern battlefront forged a deeper, more unbreakable bond between me and the movement,” she wrote. From NSM, Lowen went on to join Friends of SNCC in Detroit and later organized and taught in Mississippi until 1968.
NSM had 50 full-time staff and 2,500 student volunteers by fall 1963. They worked to spread information and rally support on northern campuses and communities about civil rights organizing in the South. Under the widely used slogan “We Walk So They May Sit,” the NSM organized solidarity actions that coincided with southern sit-ins and boycotts.
While the southern struggle was important to the work of NSM, the heart of the organization was its northern community projects. From Chicago to Detroit, Boston to New York, the organization set up tutoring and community programs in some of the most segregated and impoverished urban areas above the Mason-Dixon line. In the Roxbury-South End area of Boston, NSM led a voter registration drive, preschool programs, and a Black history workshop. In Philadelphia, John Churchville, a former SNCC field organizer, created a NSM freedom library to “have books by and about black people.”
Bill Strickland, who served as NSM’s second executive director from September 1963 to 1965, found power in their geographic reach. “Because you saw the situation of black people in different regions of the country,” Strickland explained, “that was educational.” Across the North, NSM organizers gained an understanding of nationally ingrained systems of discrimination.
Because of NSM’s strong ties to SNCC, it is not surprising that their thinking changed in similar ways. “Everybody began to understand the problem was much greater than tutoring kids,” Strickland explained. Beginning in 1964, NSM focused more on local organizing and moved toward forming an all-Black organization. That year, Strickland led the organization in rent strikes, school boycotts, and neighborhood-initiated community projects.
He and Churchville, along with many staff and volunteers, wanted NSM to strive for Black self-determination and were concerned with the NSM practice of sending white college students to tutor Black inner-city youth. In Fall 1965, leaders at the Philadelphia Freedom Library created the Black People’s Unity Movement (BPUM) to be escape surveillance from both opponents and white allies. Strickland wrote in 1965, “It is [the poor] who are oppressed and must end their oppression. As organizers, we must help by encouraging the development of political forms through which the poor can challenge and change those institutions which so limit their lives. This is the task to which NSM, SDS, and SNCC… have committed themselves.”
Charles E. Cobb, Jr., On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail, (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2008), 44.
Wesley Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC's Dream for a New America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 100, 114-116, 339.