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This Date in History: April 16, 1960

After a decade of work, Oxford University Press and the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute published the African American National Biography(AANB). The AANB is the largest repository of black life stories ever assembled with more than 4,000 biographies. To celebrate this monumental achievement we have invited the contributors to this 8 volume set to share some of their knowledge with the OUPBlog. Over the next couple of months we will have the honor of sharing their thoughts, reflections and opinions with you.

AANB contributor Anna Christian is the author of Meet It, Greet It, and Defeat It! and Mrs. Griffin is Missing and Other Stories. Her children’s book The Big Table will be published this year.

On April 16, 1960, a conference was held at Shaw University in North Carolina. Organized by Ella Baker, field director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Congress of Racial Equality, CORE), the Southwide Youth Leadership Conference brought together student activists from several Southern universities for the purpose of coordinating their efforts and sharing their experiences with regards to civil rights. Present at the conference were members from SCLC, CORE, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), National Student Association (NSA), and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FDR). Many were inspired by and had participated in the 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins at lunch counters to protest Jim Crow.

As a result of the gathering, the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was born. Conceived by Ella Baker, (SCLC), the idea was to bring students and young people into the Civil Rights Movement not as a part of the existing organizations, but as an independent group to work side-by-side with them. This new organization would be dedicated to non violent, direct action tactics to break the hold of segregation in the Deep South.

Among those who attended the Shaw University Conference and who went on to become leaders in SNCC were John Lewis from Fisk University, Diana Nash who was active in the Alabama Freedom Rides, Stokely Carmichael from Howard University, Marion Berry from Fisk University, James Lawson a theology student from Vanderbilt University who led workshops on non violent tactics modeled after Mahatma Gandhi, J. Charles Jones, and Charles McDrew. In 1961, SNCC joined the Freedom Rides to test the federal government’s commitment to interstate travel. Prior to 1961, black passengers traveling into the South had to sit in the back of the bus while whites sat in the front.

The first chairman of SNCC was Marion Berry who later became mayor of Washington, D.C. He was followed by Charles McDrew. In 1963, John Lewis was elected to replace McDrew as chairman of SNCC. That year SNCC played a prominent role at the March on Washington. Lewis spoke out against the Kennedy Administration’s feeble efforts to protect the rights of black people who lived in poverty and oppression. In addition, he addressed the need for jobs and legislation to end discrimination. Finally, he took the administration to task for not protecting civil rights workers in the South who were being beaten and jailed for trying to educate disenfranchised blacks.

In 1962, with only 6.7 per cent of African Americans in the South registered to vote, the civil rights organizations’ goal was to increase registration of the black population throughout the South. In April of 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was founded. In the summer of that year, SNCC joined with CORE and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to organize a Freedom Summer campaign. Directed by Bob Moses, the Mississippi Freedom Summer program “recruited one thousand northern students to run freedom schools providing basic literacy and political education, and to set up community centers and help build support for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party whose representatives challenged the all-white delegation to the Democratic Convention.” Moses held a masters degree from Harvard University and was a high school math teacher before becoming field director of SNCC.

SNCC established thirty freedom schools in Mississippi. Volunteers taught a curriculum which included black history and the philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement. White mobs targeted those schools and churches that participated in these programs. That summer thirty black homes and thirty seven black churches were firebombed. Over eighty volunteers were beaten by these mobs and racist police officers. Nevertheless, as a result of their efforts, the number of African Americans registered to vote dramatically increased.

In 1966 Stokely Carmichael was elected chairman of SNCC. He began to reject the non violent tactics used by Dr. Martin Luther King and others to achieve racial equality. His militant rhetoric focusing on “black power” resulted in many people leaving SNCC. Carmichael was succeeded by H. Rap Brown who was even more militant. In 1969, SNCC changed its name to the Student National Coordinating Committee and began to protest the Vietnam War. In 1970, the organization disbanded.

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