SNCC was the only youth-led national civil rights organization in the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. As young people in their late teens and early 20’s, they already had been forged in struggles in their local communities before coming together to form SNCC. Many – both male and female – had been accustomed to making decisions, under fire, as part of the leadership of their local sit-in groups. Their youth, as well as their experiences, helped shape SNCC’s culture and its organizational development.
Maria Varela speaks about what being in SNCC meant to her, Being SNCCy Recordings, 2016, Duke University. Click here to view more.
SNCC folk refer to themselves, even now, as a “band of brothers and sisters, a circle of trust,” reflecting how much they depended on each other in dangerous situations while still in their youth. The culture they built nurtured them… and helped them survive.
That culture was partly shaped by the nature of the dangerous human rights work in which they were involved. They chose to leave school and to bed down deep in local communities in dangerous rural areas of the Deep South, working with local activists to organize those at the bottom of the economic ladder. SNCC organizers understood that their larger responsibility was not to the organization, but to the local people with whom they were organizing, who were nurturing and guiding them… and who were at much greater risk than they were. For the most part, young SNCC activists, though still in harm’s way, did not have families to support.
Another influence came from SNCC’s guiding light, Ms. Ella Baker. It wasn’t only her grass-roots community organizing philosophy, or her network of older activists and brilliant strategic thinking that grounded the organization. She also influenced its culture. Ms. Baker showed, by example, the importance of listening to others; of being open to learning from a variety of people, no matter their education or economic background; of caring about each other; of planning and thinking things through – for the long term – since the lives of many others depended upon getting it right.
Ms. Baker also was opposed to leadership hierarchies (leadership centered in a few people at the top). She had struggled against them in SCLC and the NAACP, and didn’t want to see it replicated in SNCC. Fortunately, her philosophy was consistent with the group-centered leadership many of the young sit-in organizers brought with them into SNCC.
Muriel Tillinghast speaks about the length of SNCC meetings, SNCC 40th Anniversary, 2000, Duke University. Click here to view more.
Since many decisions could have life or death consequences – for staff and for the communities where they organized – consensus was the preferred means of making decisions. Agreement from all present was attempted… even if it took hours of argument and discussion. Given that staff people were putting their “lives on the line,” everyone’s opinions and ideas needed to be considered, as much as possible. Therefore, major SNCC staff meetings might last for 3-4 days before a certain action or organizational direction was agreed upon. If someone later questioned a particular decision, he or she might demand to know: “Who made that decision!?” The question was asked so much that it can make SNCC veterans smile, even today, since it perfectly reflects SNCC’s anti-authoritarian streak. As one staff person commented, “SNCC folk could argue with a telephone pole.”
Even in the midst of internal tension, however, it was the common assumptions held by most SNCC folks that kept them together: that anyone could do anything; that if you didn’t know how to do something, you’d figure it out; that women and men would have equal opportunity to contribute to the organization; that all staff, no matter their position, would be heard… that everyone was a vital part of the organization. Also, strongly held, was the assumption that no one would be left to stand alone in the face of danger; if one person was shot or killed, then 10 would come to stand in his/her place. Violence should never be allowed to stop The Movement. They trusted each other with their lives.
It should also be said that, as young people, SNCC organizers did like to party: after a particularly hard staff meeting or just to let loose in their project areas… at the Elks Hall or at some local “juke joint” (a shack with a juke box), down a dirt road in the rural area where they worked and where local folks gathered on the week-end. The music of Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, B.B. King, Nina Simone, the Temptations and the Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas – all were included in a kind of sound track that got SNCC folk through the rough times. Singing and dancing together helped balance out the tension and dangers they faced much of the time. It also helped strengthen the bonds that united them.
SNCC’s culture was also famously irreverent. SNCC folk understood the seriousness of the struggle, but could still find the humor in certain situations – even when their lives were at risk.
And always – always – there were the Freedom Songs. They were not only sung during mass meetings, but also at times of joy… or sadness… or tension… or as a shield against fear. When a national staff meeting got too heated, someone (often Jim Forman, who couldn’t sing) would break into a Freedom Song. When a local sheriff was arresting demonstrators, they’d sing – as much at him as for themselves, to buoy their courage. And when an organizer had been murdered by a white terrorist, SNCC folk gathered together in a circle, with clasped hands, to sing one particular song: “We’ll Never Turn Back.” Its lyrics reminded the group of “those like [Herbert] Lee who died” and of their responsibility to all those who’d come before them, on whose shoulders they stood.