Written by Charlie Cobb, SNCC Field Secretary 1962-1967
First, by putting their lives continuously at risk through committed grassroots organizing, this relatively small group of young people broke the back of a racist and restrictive exclusionary order that was tolerated at the highest levels of government.
Second, the right to vote was gained not because Lyndon Johnson and the U.S. Congress woke up one morning and decided it was the right thing to do, but because Black people, denied the right to vote, struggled to gain it…and they won.
Indeed, the MFDP and that party’s 1964 challenge not only led to a two-party system in Mississippi and the South, but also forced changes in political practices through the 1972 “McGovern Rules,” that have permanently expanded the participation of women and minorities within the Democratic Party. As a result, Dixiecrats fled to the Republican Party. This realignment, plus the dramatic increase in the number of Black registered voters, is what made possible the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency. Even more importantly, though less visible, is the increase of local Black elected officials at every level. Mississippi, for example, has more Black elected officials than any state in the nation. The importance of this increase is evident in the recent statement of U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves, who in 2010 became only the second Black federal judge appointed in Mississippi. In sentencing three young white men who killed a Black man in Jackson, Mississippi, by running over him with their truck, then yelling “white power” as they drove off, Judge Reeves read a long statement from the bench. He noted the murder was part of the group’s reign of terror within Jackson’s Black community over a period of months. In his widely-publicized remarks, he noted this “irony”:
Each defendant was escorted into court by agents of an African-American United States Marshal, having been prosecuted by a team of lawyers which includes an African-American ,… from an office headed by an African-American U.S. attorney – all under the direction of an African-American attorney general, for sentencing before a judge who is African-American, whose final act will be to turn over the care and custody of these individuals to the BOP [Federal Bureau of Prisons] — an agency headed by an African-American.
Also, all-white juries are now largely a thing of the past.
Third, nationwide, student struggle was inspired by the Southern Movement, and these movements expanded and accelerated in the decade of the 1960s. Organizations such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Northern Student Movement (NSM) are examples of this.
Fourth, other movements gained strength from the pool of ideas found in SNCC; Chicano farm workers, who were facing sheriffs and going to jail in the late 1950s, invited SNCC workers to help with their efforts in the late 1960s. Discussion of sexism and women’s rights within SNCC – as well as SNCC’s real life examples of empowered, respected women who led local movements and held key positions in the organization — encouraged and reinforced a burgeoning feminist movement.
Lastly, the work of SNCC in particular taught an abiding lesson: that while protest is often necessary, it is not sufficient. The long, hard job of organizing at the grassroots is what empowers communities.