Birth of SNCC
Written by Charlie Cobb, SNCC Field Secretary 1962-1967
Then, on February 1, 1960, Black students in Greensboro, North Carolina launched sit-ins challenging segregation in restaurants and other public accommodations. Similar “direct action” lit by this spark in Greensboro spread like wildfire across the south. SNCC was founded just two and a half months later – on Easter weekend – at an April meeting of sit-in leaders on the campus of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Ella Baker was the gathering’s organizer. She had immediately recognized the potential of this new student activism and persuaded Martin Luther King, Jr. to provide $800 to bring them together at her alma mater. The sit-in movement was “bigger than a hamburger,” she told the students addressing them at the Shaw conference. And in an article published a month later, she wrote of the young activists, “[They] are seeking to rid America of the scourge of racial segregation and discrimination – not only at lunch counters, but in every aspect of life.”
Her network across the South was extensive; in the 1940s, she had been the NAACP Director of Branches. After the 1955-1956 Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott, she had been instrumental in organizing Martin Luther King, Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and was its executive director when the sit-ins erupted. “Strong people don’t need strong leaders,” she stressed to SNCC. She provided office space for the new organization in a corner of SCLC’s Atlanta headquarters. Jane Stembridge, a white Baptist preacher’s daughter who had grown up in Georgia, left her graduate studies at Union Theological Seminary and became SNCC’s first staff person.
Within the year, a few other students left their college campuses to commit to full-time movement work. Although SNCC was still primarily engaged in protests aimed at desegregating lunch counters and restaurants, Ella Baker maintained a conversation about grassroots organizing, especially with Robert “Bob” Moses, a Harlem, New York native who in the summer of 1960 had come to Atlanta as an SCLC volunteer. She and Jane Stembridge sent Moses on a journey through the Deep South to recruit students to participate in a SNCC conference being planned for October 1960, in Atlanta. Ella Baker provided Moses and Stembridge with a list of her contacts, and Jane Stembridge wrote letters of introduction to them.
One of the southern leaders she sent Moses to was Amzie Moore, president of the Cleveland, Mississippi NAACP branch and vice president of Mississippi’s state NAACP. Moore, a tough World War II veteran, had worked with Medgar Evers and other Black activists to form the Regional Conference of Negro Leadership (RCNL). In 1951, the RCNL held a conference that drew over 10,000 Black residents to a conference in all-Black Mound Bayou, Mississippi that focused on voter registration and police brutality. Though he admired the sit-ins, Moore did not want them in Cleveland. He wanted a voter registration campaign and introduced Moses to that idea. “Amzie,” remembers Moses, “was the only one I met on that trip giving the student sit-in movement careful attention, aware of all that student energy and trying to figure out how to use it.” Moses promised Moore that he would return to Mississippi the following year and work with him.