May 25, 1941 – July 17, 2015
Raised in Augusta, Georgia
Like most in SNCC, the sit-ins brought Silas Norman into the Movement. He was a sophomore at Paine College in Augusta, Georgia in 1960 when sit-ins spread across the South. Norman and some of his fellow students decided to stage protests against Augusta’s segregated buses. The lawsuit they filed against the city and bus company eventually led to the outlawing of segregated buses in the state of Georgia.
Norman then headed north to do graduate work in microbiology at the University of Wisconsin. But in 1963, he met Maria Varela who was recruiting for a SNCC adult literacy project she had begun to set up in Selma, Alabama; Varela recruited Norman and four others to work with the project, and Norman arrived in Selma in early June 1964.
The project operated out of the Fathers of St. Edmund Mission, a Catholic mission that had been serving Black residents since the 1930s and aimed to teach local people the literacy skills they needed to pass the voter registration tests. Assisted by the Catholic church, SNCC set up the project as a covert effort with the idea that it would not attract the attention and controversy of the organization’s voter registration efforts. “We were not supposed to be in contact with the SNCC workers,” Norman recalled, “…because that was going to blow our cover…We were supposed to stay at the mission and mind our business.”
But that changed when the Civil Rights Act passed in July of 1964. On their way downtown, Norman and fellow staffers decided to test Selma’s compliance with the new law. They sat down at a Thirsty Boy’s lunch counter in Selma. The waiter refused to serve them, and within minutes Sheriff Jim Clark and his posse arrived. “That was my first experience with cattle prods,” Norman remembered.
This event set off a chain reaction. Most of the staff in SNCC’s Selma office were local young people. When they heard what had happened, they decided to sit-in at a movie theater. Hundreds of eager students from Hudson High School followed suit. After Norman got out of jail, Jim Forman agreed to let him join SNCC’s Alabama staff since his cover was now blown. Within six months, he was the director of SNCC’s Alabama Project.
Norman was among a cadre of SNCC staff that wanted to re-evaluate the future of the organization after Freedom Summer. At a retreat in Waveland, Mississippi, SNCC staff wrote over sixty position papers on different aspects of SNCC. The role of white people in the organization became a major point of contention. In his position paper, Norman wrote, “I doubt whether I am willing to work in an integrated project simply to prove a point.” Like Mississippi, SNCC’s Alabama staff was mostly southern, Black and local.
In January of 1965, SCLC came to Selma to stage a national campaign for voting rights. Norman and many in SNCC felt that large demonstrations were not necessarily productive. SNCC chose not to participate in the March 7 march that became known as Bloody Sunday. This disagreement in tactics eventually led SNCC into the more dangerous, surrounding counties, so “we would not be bothered and we would not be in conflict,” Norman explained.
After his time in Alabama, Norman went on to co-found the Poor People’s Corporation with Jesse Morris, an organization that helped sharecroppers start co-operative businesses. Local banks refused to lend money to Blacks, so the PPC offered loans. The organization also provided technical assistance on everything from buying equipment to paying taxes.
Norman married fellow SNCC staffer, Martha Prescod, in 1967. They moved to Detroit and planned to earn professional degrees before returning South. In 1976, Norman earned his medical degree, but they decided to stay in the inner city of Detroit. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of the Michigan Department of Corrections and remained committed to aiding underserved communities.
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).
Cheryl Greenburg, ed. A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC (New Brunwsick: Rutgers University Press, 1998).
Wesley Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).
Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (New York: New York University Press, 2009).
Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, “Captured by the Movement,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts of Women in SNCC, edited by Faith Holsaert, et. al (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 483 – 503.
Silas Norman, Pt H “Alabama Bound: Selma and the Lowndes County Black Panther Party, 1964 – 1966,” We Shall Not Be Moved Conference, 1988, Trinity College.