Creating an Office
After SNCC was formed in 1960, it had no money or resources, so Ella Baker gave them a desk in a corner of SCLC’s office at 208 Auburn Avenue in Atlanta. Slowly some money began coming in, and SNCC was able to move across the street to a $20-a-month shoebox at 197 ½ Auburn.
When James Forman walked into that office on August 1, 1961, he found Edward King and a U.S. map stuck with red pins to show where student protests had happened. King, a Black student at Kentucky State, had taken on the role of administrative secretary after SNCC’s first staff member, Jane Stembridge returned to school. With little internal organization in place, SNCC had yet to establish a strong central office that could help it coordinate efficiently between the student protests of its campus affiliates and its emerging community organizing efforts.
In the fall of 1961, SNCC began to gain visibility as an independent student organization, largely because of Forman’s efforts in the Atlanta headquarters. When he officially joined SNCC’s staff, Forman returned to the Auburn Avenue office to find it completely cleared out of people. He stared at the mail covering the floor and heard the phone ringing. He answered the phone to a media request. “I’ll take your number and our communications department will be in touch,” he expertly stalled and got to work. Soon he was joined by Norma Collins as the “communications department,” issuing press statements, and then he recruited Julian Bond. All the while, Forman was pushing the idea of SNCC as an independent student group with its own agenda.
Meanwhile, as organizing projects took off in rural communities in Mississippi and Southwest Georgia, SNCC, with Forman’s guidance, began coordinating how to meet those project needs with the central Atlanta office. In Albany, Georgia, for example, where Charles Sherrod, Cordell Reagon, and Charles Jones had set up shop in “a small, run-down building two blocks from the Shiloh Baptist Church,” there was regular back and forth communications with the Atlanta office.
As in all SNCC projects, SNCC’s Atlanta headquarters was there to facilitate community work. While SNCC now had office space and a headquarters, SNCC’s staff there knew the organization’s primary mission was to be out in the community, meeting people and engaging in struggle. As Charles Sherrod described it, “When people began to hear us in churches, social meetings, on the streets, in the pool halls, lunchrooms, nightclubs and other places where people gather began to open up a bit.” This also enabled the organization to grow and not simply grow its Atlanta headquarters. By 1962 SNCC had twelve full-time field secretaries in rural counties in the Georgia Black Belt.
In June 1961 when SNCC’s Nashville affiliate established a Freedom Ride Coordinating Committee it operated out of SNCC’s Atlanta headquarters. Staffed by Marion Barry, Diane Nash, and James Bevel among others, it sought community support for jailed freedom riders and recruits to continue the freedom rides. Having an address from which national staff could send out press releases and with those on the ground was essential.
As SNCC projects spread across the South, many established local field offices. At almost the same time–early 1962–COFO was growing in Mississippi. By late 1962, SNCC had four Mississippi offices, and ten in total across the South from Maryland to Arkansas. In the geographically isolated and fiercely violent counties where SNCC worked, local offices were key to keeping staff connected to the central organization where press releases were going out. “If Jim Forman hadn’t been on the phone when those guys were down in those counties in Southwest Mississippi,” Stembridge professed in 1966, “there was no way they would have ever come out of those counties at all.”
James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 160-161.
Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 1964), 34-35, 60.
Interview of Jane Stembridge by Emily Stoper, [1966 or 1967], Originally published in Emilye Stoper, "The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee" (Unpublished dissertation: Harvard University, 1989), Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website, Tougaloo College.
“Fieldwork in Southwest Georgia,” 1963, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website, Tougaloo College.