Winds of Change
Written by Charlie Cobb, SNCC Field Secretary 1962-1967
SNCC, of course, did not come out of nowhere. The Black Freedom Struggle began when, after a long and brutal “middle passage” across the Atlantic, captured Africans were enslaved on American soil. Memory of freedom struggle and the need for continuing struggle has been passed on from generation to generation.
Understanding the impact of World War II is an essential starting point for understanding SNCC. More than a million Black men served in that war, many of them southerners, and more than any single group, they changed the climate of the South. When these soldiers returned home after having fought for democracy overseas, many were unwilling to accept an undemocratic and white supremacist way of life in the United States. Both individually and collectively, they stood their ground in various ways, some taking on community leadership roles, particularly as leaders of local NAACP branches. Veterans in Clarksdale, Mississippi, for example, organized a Progressive Voters League. In Georgia, Black veterans organized the Georgia Veterans League, and in Birmingham, Alabama on February 1, 1946, Black veterans marched on the Jefferson County courthouse demanding the right to register as voters. The number of Black voters in the South increased modestly. At the beginning of World War II, only 2 percent of eligible African Americans were registered voters in the old Confederacy. By 1947, that number had increased to 12 percent, largely due to Black activism.
However, other factors also contributed to a new climate for struggle and change during and after the war. The Supreme Court in 1944 ruled all-white primaries unconstitutional. The migration of millions from the South to northern cities accelerated during the war and fostered a Black political presence in urban Democratic Party strongholds and greater power to challenge and begin loosening the “Dixiecrat” grip on the party. Anti-colonial struggle unfolded in European colonies, and the increasingly visible racism at home handicapped the U.S. in its Cold War competition with the Soviet Union for influence with emerging new nations of Black and brown people. Meanwhile, many prominent southern politicians began urging use of a less coarse language of white supremacy in order to gain support from white non-southerners by appealing to fears and prejudices – anti-communism, unions, states’ rights, potential Black power, “social equality” and “mongrelization.” In a 1948 press statement, Mississippi Senator John Stennis declared, “we must divorce our thinking from (a) the so-called racial question, (b) the war between the states, (c) the South as a geographic region.”
White southern leadership, nonetheless, remained firmly committed to white supremacy and especially to the denial of voting rights for Black people. Although the Ku Klux Klan was now embarrassing in some quarters, Citizens’ Councils organized in the mid-1950s by the southern political and economic establishment pursued what historian Charles M. Payne describes as, “the agenda of the Klan with the demeanor of the Rotary.” New laws restricted Black voting rights. New agencies such as Mississippi’s State Sovereignty Commission intensified surveillance of Black leadership, and especially after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision on schools, Black leaders came under greater assault and many were driven out of business, out of the South, or were assassinated. Although some leaders, like Medgar Evers, hung on and continued the struggle for change, a period of suppressed Black political activism characterized the bottom half of the 1950s.