Nonviolent Action Group (NAG)

“On Howard’s campus we were a solid, highly visible community united by our interest in politics and, in the spirits of times, by a conviction that youth could change the world.” – Stokely Carmichael

Energized by the Greensboro sit-ins, a group of students at Howard University organized themselves as the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG) to combat racism and segregation in Washington, DC and the adjacent states of Maryland and Virginia. Like other similar organizations of the time, NAG started as a protest group. On June 9, 1960, NAG traveled to Virginia to participate in its first sit-in at the Peoples Drug Store in Arlington and at the Drug Fair at the Lee Highway Shopping Center, successfully forcing the stores to close. This gave the group early momentum, and as Nancy Shaw remembered, “we also considered every trip in any public space as an opportunity to oppose segregation if we encountered it.”

While NAG was committed to direct action, they also had debates on how the organization could best function. As Stokely Carmichael remembered, the group struggled over two major things: organizing on campus and fighting racism in the broader society. Some even argued the two could not be separated and NAG could be committed to both. These type of debates were not only taking place within NAG; other campus affiliates and SNCC were wrestling with the same issues.

NAG members were the driving force in organizing “Project Awareness,” an effort that aimed to “help liberate the minds of students.” Project Awareness brought Bayard Rustin to campus to debate Malcolm X on the question of integration or separation. The debate in the 1500-seat Cramton auditorium was filled, and some 500 people were unable to get in. Young people were inspired by the intellect of both individuals, and both Rustin and Malcolm X would have a significant impact on NAG, sparking much conversation around nationalism and non-violence. With NAG’s strong relationship to SNCC, the same conversations emerged within the organization.

Although NAG was affiliated with SNCC, that did not decrease their on-campus organizing. While some members were in the South, others were on campus trying to get students involved in the struggle. To get students’ attention NAG found it needed to address the issues of students’ rights on campus, and this sometimes caused tension with administration. NAG was never an official campus organization. However, they did have support from faculty, including Professor Sterling Brown. NAG member Courtland Cox recalled how Brown would invite them to his house to talk about W.E.B. Dubois and other critical contributors to the Black radical tradition. He also introduced students to culture, music, and the blues.

NAG members also recognized the importance of publications as an organizing tool. As staff for the campus newspaper NAG member Michael Thelwell, who edited the campus newspaper, the Howard Hilltop, made sure there was regular reporting of the southern civil rights struggle. Various NAG members contributed frequently to the paper. In addition to The Hilltop, many in NAG were involved in student government, the Liberal Arts Student Council (LASC), which they used to help fund their sit-in efforts. To secure a school bus for student sit-ins along Route 40, they told Howard administrators that they were taking a “cultural trip.”

SNCC relied on campus affiliates, such as NAG, that cultivated potential young organizers for the Black liberation struggle. With conversations around internationalism and moving past direct action, NAG prepared students for SNCC’s work in the Deep South and beyond. NAG was a community organization, consisting of students and community members. This type of organizational structure reflected SNCC’s approach to working in the Deep South–students and young people working alongside local people. Students from NAG who would play critical leadership roles in SNCC. Howard students like Michael Thelwell, Muriel Tillinghast, Ruth Howard, Jean Wheeler, Courtland Cox, Charlie Cobb, Stokely Carmichael, and others meaningfully began their Movement experience with NAG.

Sources

Stokely Carmichael with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Ready for the Revolution (New York: Scribner, 2003), 136-154.

Interview with Courtland Cox by Joseph Mosnier, August 7, 2011, Civil Rights History Project, Library of Congress.

Nancy Stroller, “Bowling in Prince George County,” 2010, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website, Tougaloo College.

Jan Leighton Triggs and John Paul Dietrich, “Freedom Movement in Washington DC: 1960-61 Based on Actions of the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG),” 1961, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website, Tougaloo College.

Jerome , “Call Out for New Leadership,” The Hilltop, November 10, 1961, Moorland-Springarn Research Center, Howard University.

"NAG Plans May 17 Demonstrations in DC," The Student Voice, April 1962, WHS

Jean Wheeler Smith Young [1:04:00], Hands on the Freedom Plow Panel with Women of SNCC, April 1, 2011, NMAAHC, Smithsonian

Interview with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell by Emilye Crosby [11:00], August 23, 2013, Civil Rights History Project, LOC

Interview with Cleveland Sellers by John Dittmer [30:15], March 21, 2013, Civil Rights History Project, LOC

Interview with Courtland Cox by Joseph Mosnier [10:11], July 8, 2011, Civil Rights History Project, LOC

Interview with Phil Hutchings by Joseph Mosnier [36:25] September 1, 2011, Civil Rights History Project, LOC