In July 2016, SNCC veterans came to Duke University for critical oral history sessions to discuss how Black empowerment, in many different forms, was at the heart of the Black Freedom Struggle. In the following selections, SNCC veterans reflect on their understanding of Black Power and SNCC’s fight to end systemic racism and economic inequality. Visit the finding aid to the SNCC Critical Oral History Conference Interviews at Duke University’s Rubenstein Library to access full videos and transcripts from the sessions.
Call for Black Power
On June 4, 1966, James Meredith set out on a solo march across Mississippi. His aim was challenging “all-pervasive overriding fear” that Black Mississippians faced when trying to register to vote. Only two days into his trek, he was shot down outside of Hernando, and national civil rights organizations pledged to continue his journey.
SNCC had been organizing around voting rights in the Mississippi Delta since 1962. Cleveland Sellers, SNCC’s program secretary, was one of SNCC representatives who pushed the alliance of civil rights organizations to use the Meredith March as a means to organize communities along the route. When the march began again, Mississippi-born SNCC field secretary, Charles McLaurin remembered “there was a different sense of power here that had not been at other marches.”
On June 16th, the march approached Greenwood, Mississippi, the epicenter of SNCC’s organizing in the Delta. That night, the gathered crowd followed Stokely Carmichael and Willie Ricks’ lead, shouting “What do we want? Black Power! What do we want? Black Power!” SNCC’s Charles McLaurin recounted the events in Greenwood and the lead-up to the call for Black Power.
That call for Black Power echoed out from the Mississippi Delta to the country and the entire world. It captured the imaginations of Black Americans, North and South, old and young. As Karen Spellman explained, Black Power meant “controlling your own destiny, organizing in your community, becoming a united front, organizing for political power, embracing the Black aesthetic.”
Black power wasn’t new. As Charles McLaurin explained, “We had been organizing all the time but we’d never told people about Black Power, we just talked about getting the right to get the vote and putting people into office and doing things to improve the quality of life for themselves. So now this, all of a sudden, that’s what it is, Black Power.”
It was Ms. Ella Baker who had first taught many in SNCC how to embed themselves in communities and learn from an older generation of Black southern activists who were already fighting for change.
SNCC field secretaries born and raised in the South, people like Jennifer Lawson and Charles McLaurin, learned many of these lessons directly from local mentors in their communities. Before SNCC arrived, Black southerners already understood that voting in the Black Belt South was a means to power.
SNCC had first begun working with local communities in Mississippi to fight for voting rights in 1961. During the summer of 1964, Black Mississippians under the umbrella organization of COFO created the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a parallel political party designed to demonstrate how Black Mississippians were excluded from the political process. That August, MFDP delegates traveled to Atlantic City to challenge to the seating of the all-white Mississippi Democrats at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Despite the MFDP’s meticulous efforts to play by the rules of the Democratic Party, the party stood by the segregated Mississippi delegation, only offering the MFDP a paltry two at-large seats as a supposed compromise.
Coming out of the Democratic Party’s refusal to seat the MFDP, SNCC felt betrayed. As Phil Hutchings saw it, “We’re actually pushed out, betrayed, pushed out and we were on our own and we had to do something different.” The Mississippians decided to campaign for the Johnson/Humphries ticket in the fall of 1964, but SNCC, fresh off a lesson about raw power, started looking elsewhere in an attempt to build real power.