Jennifer Lawson grew up in Fairfield, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham. She was 16-years-old when Martin Luther King, Jr. was imprisoned in the Birmingham Jail, and she heard a call on the radio for people to come down and support Dr. King. Risking expulsion from school, she and a group of her classmates joined the Children’s March, where they faced fire hoses, police dogs, and arrest.
Many in SNCC had become politicized at a young age. “I began to think about, what’s happening to our people? What’s the future for all of us? And what’s happening in our country?” Lawson explained. She went on to college at Tuskegee Institute, but, like other young people wanting to make an impact, she eventually decided to drop out of school to work for the Movement full-time.
To Leave School and Work Full-Time for SNCC
Courtland Cox became involved in the Movement as a student at Howard University, where he was a member of the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG). Like many in SNCC, his early experiences in direct action protests and sit-ins led him to questions of power and the potential of the vote.
Changing the Relationship
So for us as African people, the major issue that we all face and have faced for the past four hundred years is how do we change a relationship that always puts us at a disadvantage. – Courtland Cox
He later summed this up in the following story:
The Boss & the Horse
SNCC had first started organizing around voting rights in 1961. Over time, voter registration efforts evolved into building the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), a parallel political party to challenge the segregationist Democratic Party in Mississippi. In 1964, a group of 68 delegates were selected to represent the MFDP at the Democratic National Convention, hoping to take the seats of the all-white Mississippi Democrats who had systematically excluded Black people from participating in the political process. As a compromise, only two seats at-large were offered to the MFDP. “We followed every single rule of the DNC. We dotted every i, we crossed every t, and still they shat on us,” recalled Judy Richardson. At that point, it was clear to Cox and others in SNCC that the organization needed to go in a new direction.