“What can we do on [college] campuses?” The question lingered on the minds of many SNCC workers leading into the organization’s Waveland Conference in the fall of 1964. As many were former college students themselves, they saw the potential of organizing SNCC campus chapters on southern HBCUs. One member suggested that SNCC send out campus travelers to organize a network of student groups that could serve as a pathway for college students looking to join the Movement. Another piggybacked off the idea, adding that SNCC should organize college students as it had organized local people in the Deep South–around issues that the students themselves thought were important. Out of these conversations emerged SNCC’s Southern Campus Coordinating Program, “designed to bring about an awareness of the social change in our country and the need for college students to participate.”
SNCC was originally a coordinating committee for college-based protest groups, primarily on Black college campuses in the South–that had emerged from the sit-in movement in the spring of 1960. Most of its early members cut their teeth organizing on college campuses. But SNCC’s work quickly transitioned from direct action to voter registration, and many of its members left school to become full-time community organizers. By the winter of 1961, 16 college students “volunteered to take a year or more from school to work in the hard-core areas for subsistence only.” Many others followed suit as registration projects in Mississippi and Southwest Georgia gained steam.
Even as SNCC’s work increasingly moved from supporting student-led demonstrations to focusing on voter registration and grassroots community organizing, the group continued to maintain connections with college students on Black campuses. When Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon went to Albany, Georgia in 1961, one of their first stops was Albany State College. While the college administration wanted nothing to do with SNCC or the Movement (and expelled 40 students after their arrests in protests), the two field secretaries found a receptive audience in the student body. Many of these local students joined SNCC’s voter registration campaign in the neighboring rural counties. Similarly, as SNCC organizers fanned out across the Mississippi Delta, students from Tougaloo College joined the effort. Dorie Ladner and her younger sister Joyce became important grassroots organizers, as did Lawrence Guyot and others. These early college recruits became the lifeblood of the Movement, both in Southwest Georgia and Mississippi.
However, SNCC’s ties to other Black colleges in the South weren’t nearly as strong, which concerned some staff members, who looked to the next crop of college students to follow in their footsteps and help keep the struggle alive. So in the fall of 1964, SNCC instituted its Southern College Coordination Program, which sent out campus travelers to colleges across the South “to bring about a relationship between SNCC and Southern Negro colleges for recruitment…and political awareness.”
The campus travelers organized college campuses much the same way SNCC field secretaries organized communities in the Deep South. “Every effort will be made,” read a program statement, “to seek out indigenous leadership and provide substance to strengthen their position.” At Texas Southern College in Houston, for instance, the campus travelers supported a student group that was already “in the process of organizing the community against the local officials and the many discriminating factors in that city.” The travelers also worked closely with a group of students from the Tuskegee Institute, who wanted to work in the Alabama Black Belt. As many as 20 students dedicated their weekends and school breaks to working on SNCC projects in Selma and Marion. SNCC was slowly linking the Movement with college campuses, a process greatly facilitated by a series of statewide conferences that SNCC organized in 1964 and 1965.
Much as Ella Baker had done in 1960 for the student organizations involved in the sit-ins, the campus travelers organized student conferences in several Southern states. The most successful was at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, where students formed the Virginia Student Civil Rights Committee (VSCRC). “We began talking at a statewide conference called by SNCC,” recalled VSCRC leader Ben Montgomery. “We decided we didn’t need to go to Mississippi to find work that needed doing. We had problems right here.” In the summer of 1965, VSCRC organized voter registration drives in Virginia’s Black Belt, at the time the state’s 4th Congressional District. The group even adopted SNCC organizing philosophy. Howard Romaine of the University of Virginia explained, “our job is find out what people want and need to help them organize themselves.”
From the get-go, SNCC understood the importance of involving young people in the struggle for freedom, since they were not as constrained by family and work obligations as adults. With the creation of its Southern Campus Coordinating Project, SNCC brought college students into the Movement in a systematic way. Whether through first-hand movement experience or organizational support, the program politicized students and strengthened the Movement.
“SNCC Programs for 1965,” Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website, Tougaloo College.
“List of People on Staff,” 1965, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website, Tougaloo College.
“The Accents are Southern: Experiment in Virginia,” The Southern Patriot September, 1965, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website, Tougaloo College.
“What Can We Do on College Campuses?,” 1964, Mary King Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.
Memorandum from the campus travellers to SNCC staff regarding the observation of a college campus program, undated, Stuart Ewen Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.
“The Movement - The College Student - The Upper South” Conference, December 3-5, 1964, Stuart Ewen Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.
“Working Paper: SNCC and the Southern Campus,” November 1964, Stuart Ewen Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.