An International Consciousness

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Many of those who later became a part of SNCC grew up watching the liberation movements that were gaining traction in the years after World War II, especially those on the African continent. In the New York City projects, Courtland Cox remembered conversations about the Bandung Conference and the independence of Ghana. Down in Washington, D.C., Charlie Cobb kept up with the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya by reading the Black newspapers in his parents’ house. These young people knew the names of African leaders, like Sekou Toure, Jomo Kenyatta, and Tom Mboya, who were organizing to throw off the chains of colonialism.

Courtland Cox, Phyllis Cunningham, Worth Long at SNCC conference in Waveland, MS, November 1964, Danny Lyon, Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement 163, dektol.wordpress.com

In some cases, this international awareness was rooted in people’s personal connections to the African diaspora. Courtland Cox grew up in New York, but his family was rooted in Trinidad and the Caribbean.

Courtland Cox “More Personal Than Political”

From its beginning, SNCC linked its struggle for civil rights within the United States to anti-colonial struggles abroad. “We identify ourselves with the African struggle as a concern for all mankind,” SNCC’s founding statement in April 1960 read. As SNCC’s experiences increasingly led staffers to contemplate how to achieve meaningful power, the organization’s international awareness only grew.

Photograph of Jennifer Lawson, Atlanta, GA, 1966, crmvet.org

Photograph of Jennifer Lawson, Atlanta, Georgia, 1966, Julius Lester, crmvet.org

Jennifer Lawson grew up in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama and went to college at Tuskegee Institute. While there were African and Caribbean students on campus, Lawson’s international consciousness came more from her involvement with SNCC. SNCC organizers read constantly, so she was exposed to Pan-African writers like Franz Fanon, C.L.R. James, and George Padmore. In the Lowndes County Freedom House, they would have long discussions about power and independence both within the U.S. and globally.

Jennifer Lawson “Growing International Awareness”

You were a minority only if you thought of yourself within an American or U.S. context. But once you started looking at … all of the many places where there were people of African heritage, people of color … you suddenly became part of a majority world. – Jennifer Lawson

In January 1966, SNCC released a statement condemning the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. The statement condemned the hypocrisy of fighting a war in Vietnam for democracy while actively refusing to protect the rights of Black Americans. Leading up to the statement, many men in SNCC had already had individual run-ins with their local draft boards.

Courtland Cox “Facing the Draft Board”

A photograph of Charlie Cobb, undated, crmvet.org

A delegation of SNCC staffers had traveled to West Africa in 1964 after the Democratic National Convention, which marked the beginning of SNCC’s international travels as an organization. In 1967, Charlie Cobb and Julius Lester traveled to Vietnam to investigate U.S. war crimes there. Meanwhile, Courtland Cox went to Stockholm to represent SNCC at the Bertrand Russell International War Crimes Tribunal. After their assignments, Cobb and Cox decided to take a tour of Africa themselves.

Charlie Cobb & Courtland Cox “First Trip to Africa”

In 1968, Jennifer Lawson traveled to Cuba to attend the Cultural Congress in Havana. There, she got a chance to ask people about their firsthand experiences with the Cuban Revolution.

Jennifer Lawson “Cuba & the Meaning of Revolution”

By the late 1960s, SNCC staffers were traveling the globe, but oftentimes, their physical presence was preceded by their reputation and knowledge about their organizing work. Tony Bogues was a high school student in Jamaica during the late sixties. Inspired by what he was reading and seeing about civil rights organizing in the United States, Bogues his classmates decided to begin their own freedom school.

Anthony Bogues “Afros & the Black Freedom Struggle”

All I’m getting is watching the T.V., reading the newspapers, and hearing these names; reading these books and then I now have an opinion on what needs to happen … That Movement in the United States galvanized us.

As SNCC organizers increasingly saw themselves as a part of a global struggle, many in the African Diaspora were paying close attention to what was happening in the United States. Bogues remembered thinking, “If these young people could do these things in the belly of the beast, then what we who were from that beast, what is it that we should what is it that we could and should do.”

At the Centers of Power

Part 2: Pan-Africanism