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Posted Feb. 2, 2010

SNCC Changed American Politics in Pursuit of Freedom, Bond Says

Julian Bond
Rev. Charles Sherrod

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the principal organizers of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, helped shape the country’s political future, co-founder Julian Bond said during a conference at the Law School on Friday.

“What began 50 years ago is not just history — it was part of a mighty movement that started many years before that, and continues on to this today,” said Bond, now chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “Ordinary women, ordinary men proving they can perform extraordinary tasks in the pursuit of freedom.”

Bond, a history professor at the University of Virginia, delivered Friday’s keynote address at “50 Years After the Sit-Ins: Reflecting on the Role of Protest in Social Movements and Law Reform,” a two-day symposium sponsored by the Law School’s Center for the Study of Race and Law, the Mid-Atlantic People of Color Legal Scholarship Conference, and the Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law. The other featured speaker was the Rev. Charles Sherrod, who delivered a keynote address Saturday.

Bond recalled how he first got involved in the Civil Rights Movement as a Morehouse college student in Atlanta. While sitting at a café near campus on Feb. 4, 1960, a student named Lonnie King showed him a newspaper article on the Greensboro, N.C., sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters.

“Don’t you think it ought to happen here?” King asked. Bond agreed.

“He said, ‘Why don’t we make it happen here.’ And before I could say, ‘What do you mean ‘we?’ King, Joe Pierce and I canvassed the café, talking to students, inviting them to discuss the Greensboro event and to duplicate it in Atlanta,” Bond said. “The Atlanta student movement had begun. We formed the organization, we reconnoitered at downtown lunch counters, and within a week, 77 of us had been arrested.”

Southern student protestors officially formed SNCC later that year. Bond served as the organization’s communications director.

“Within a year, the organization evolved from a coordinating committee to a hands-on organization, helping local leadership in rural and small-town communities across the South, helping them participate in a variety of protests and political and economic organizing campaigns — setting SNCC apart from the civil rights mainstream.”

By 1965, SNCC fielded the largest staff of any civil rights organization in the South. Their efforts had escalated from sit-ins, Freedom Rides and voter drives to political organizing.

“It had built two independent political parties, it had organized labor unions and agricultural co-ops, it gave the movement for women’s liberation new energy, it inspired and trained the activists who began the New Left, it helped expand the limits of political debate within black America and it broadened the focus of the Civil Rights Movement,” he said. “Unlike mainstream groups, which merely sought integration of blacks into the existing order, SNCC sought structural changes in American society itself.”

Later in the decade, the organization’s leaders, including Stokely Carmichael, made connections to Africa and other parts of the world. SNCC grew a broader worldview of challenges facing all oppressed people, Bond said.

SNCC started to dissolve in the late 1960s for many reasons.

“The current of nationalism, ever-present in black America, widened at the end of the 1960s to become a rushing torrent, which swept away the hopeful notion of black and white together that the decade’s beginning had promised,” Bond said.

SNCC asked white workers to organize in white communities, which disillusioned many white participants. In other cases, a decade’s worth of hard work at subsistence pay was too much. The failure of the Mississippi Democratic Party to gain recognition at the 1964 Democratic National Convention predicted the collapse of white liberal support, Bond said, and to many, the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and other civil rights workers “argued that nonviolence was no antidote to a violent society.”

Despite its demise, Bond said SNCC’s legacy remains clear. The group refused to apply political tests to members, created an atmosphere of expectation and anticipation, and widened the definition of politics beyond campaigns and elections to include organizing political parties, labor unions and alternative schools.

Due to SNCC’s efforts, black elected officials numbered only 72 in 1965 but rose dramatically to 388 by 1968. Bond himself was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965 but was prevented from taking his seat by members who objected to his opposition to the Vietnam War. Eventually he was seated through re-election and a unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“SNCC’s articulation and advocacy of black power redefined the relationship between black Americans and white power. No longer would political equity be considered a privilege, it had become a right,” Bond said. “One SNCC legacy is the destruction of the psychological shackles, which had kept black Southerners in physical and mental peonage.

“The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee helped to break these chains forever. It demonstrated that ordinary women and men, young and old, could perform extraordinary tasks.”