May 25, 1941 – July 17, 2015
Raised in Augusta, Georgia
Like many in SNCC, Silas Norman was one of the students who helped the sit-in movement spread across the South in 1960. He was the student body president at Paine College in Augusta Georgia, when he joined with fellow students in forming the Paine College Steering Committee, which staged sit-ins throughout the city. This led to the desegregation of downtown Augusta and the outlawing of segregated buses in the state of Georgia.
Norman then headed north to do graduate work in medical microbiology at the University of Wisconsin. But in 1963, he met Maria Varela who was looking for people to work on the SNCC adult literacy project she was setting 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 hoping 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 they lost their invisibility 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 downtown 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 R. B. Hudson High School soon followed suit. When Norman got out of jail, his cover was blown, so he joined SNCC’s Alabama staff. 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 Mississippi’s 1964 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 was a major point of discussion and debate. In a position paper he wrote, Norman declared “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. SNCC chose to keep focusing on its ongoing organizing work in the local community instead of participating in SCLC’s efforts. “The hard work of organizing was sitting in those small groups and preparing to move in effective ways,” Norman explained. During the SCLC campaign, SNCC branched out into counties across the Alabama Black Belt.
After his time in Alabama, Norman went into the army. He was later released as a conscientious objector to the war. He married fellow SNCC staffer, Martha Prescod in 1967. Then in 1976, Norman graduated from Wayne State University’s medical school in Detroit. He went on to become medical director for the State Prison of Southern Michigan–Jackson Prison–and for the Wayne County Jail.
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.