By 1965, SNCC was increasingly committed to organizing for political and economic power. This took different forms in the organization’s various projects throughout the South. In Lowndes County, Alabama, SNCC joined with local people to organize a black-led independent political party. Other staff members in Atlanta undertook SNCC’s first effort to embed themselves in the inner city, while in Southwest Georgia, longtime SNCC field secretaries began focusing on economic development.
SNCC first made contact in Lowndes County, Alabama during the Selma to Montgomery march in March 1965. Like the Mississippi Delta, Black people made up the majority in counties of the Alabama Black Belt but had virtually no political or economic power. Coming off of the MFDP’s raw defeat in Atlantic City, SNCC organizers began considering the potential of building Black-led independent political parties in Black majority counties. They found people in Lowndes County, Alabama willing partners in this idea of moving from protest to power. SNCC’s Courtland Cox described the formation of the Lowndes County Freedom Party and SNCC’s political education campaign.
SNCC’s shift from desegregation to building independent power made it all the more difficult to find funding, something that Cleveland Sellers saw as program secretary. But as with the political education comic books that Courtland Cox and Jennifer Lawson created, SNCC field secretaries tapped into the resources their disposal to best address whatever problems they faced.
We’re trying to do the work always to solve the problem. – Courtland Cox
SNCC’s constant effort to solve problems and create meaningful change extended across all of it’s projects.
In 1965, SNCC’s communication director, Julian Bond, ran for a seat in the Georgia state legislature in a newly-created district in Atlanta. It was one of SNCC’s firsts attempts to develop political power in urban areas. Bond won, but in January 1966, he was denied his seat due to SNCC’s opposition to the Vietnam War. SNCC staffers formed a special committee to reelect Bond, and during their canvassing, they witnessed the many problems facing urban Atlantans: low wages, lack of transportation, poor housing. “By this time, a number of us were looking at the urban areas as being colonies and that we were looking at the economies of those areas, why and how. What could we do to change those things?” Cleve Sellers remembered. SNCC’s Atlanta Project grew out of these efforts, putting the problems facing inner cities front and center.
Like in Lowndes County, staff members in the Atlanta Project worked to educate the people they were working with about the political and economic issues that touched their day-to-day lives. One of the ways they did this was by publishing their own newspaper, The Nitty Gritty, as Zoharah Simmons explained.
Economic development was something that could be long term, ongoing, help build the power that’s needed there in the area. – Shirley Sherrod
Nearly two hundred miles south of Atlanta, SNCC had been organizing in Southwest Georgia around voter registration since 1961. Charles Sherrod, SNCC’s project director, continued working in the area after the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As the number of Black people on the voting rolls grew, it was clear that political power on its own was not going to solve the economic inequality facing Black communities. So Sherrod, his wife Shirley, and activists in Southwest Georgia turned their attention to economic development and securing land.
So we built a movement that didn’t end. – Shirley Sherrod