Over the past few months, the country has been rocked by a wave of demands focused on shifting the way American society operates. Calls for the dismantling of the current societal structure in favor of one that prioritizes equity and justice ring louder with each passing week. Whether it’s people making the case for Medicare for All, advocating to re-envision public safety, or demanding extended relief for people impacted by systemic economic injustice, Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) communities across the country are fighting the racial violence of white supremacy and systemic racism in real time.
Between the scaling up of mutual aid work across the country, organizing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the sustained uprisings and solidarity protests over the past few weeks, all facets of American life and institutions are being forced to reckon with generations of oppression and subjugation. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) has been at the forefront of this work for 60 years. Celebrating its anniversary this past April, SNCC continues to teach the public while simultaneously providing space for new voices and leaders. While the in-person convening has been rescheduled for next year, the SNCC Legacy Project—along with several partners—has planned a series of events building on the legacy of multigenerational organizing intended to seize upon this moment of political engagement and power.
This week, the SNCC Legacy Project is leading two powerful conversations. The first, on June 16, is called “Protest to Power: The Making of Newark’s First Black Mayor KEN GIBSON,” and features Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Elise Boddie, and Junius Williams. The second, on June 19, is a collaboration between the SNCC Legacy Project and WOKE VOTE that will kick off a five-part series on intergenerational organizing, power, and the vote featuring Courtland Cox, DeJuana Thompson, Angela Peoples, and New Georgia Project CEO Nse Ufot.
Many organizations were forced to shift plans and programming in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic, but SNCC has a history of resilience and showing up regardless of the circumstances.
“I think it matters that instead of just canceling … we were able to celebrate the 60th anniversary of SNCC because I just think that’s the SNCC way,” said Ash-Lee Henderson, executive director of the Highlander Center. “SNCC has been making the impossible possible for 60 years. In a moment where racialized capitalism and white supremacy created the conditions which they thought would break the spirit of Black liberation work that’s happened intergenerationally and across racial differences, not even a global pandemic could stop SNCC from being teachers in this moment.”
Henderson pointed to the long history of intergenerational relationships within radical Black traditions or Black resistance.
“Everybody I know [was] influenced by SNCC or the Black Panther Party or lots of other grassroots local organizations that have paved the way for us,” said Henderson. “I hear young folks in the streets singing ‘Which Side Are You On’ that is connected to not only an Appalachian tradition of resistance to bosses and pro labor movement, but also connected to the SNCC freedom singers who remixed it in the ‘60s, and then Rebel Diaz (a Latinx rap group) remixed it again, and then it got remixed again as “Freedomside” [by] Black and brown young people that said they were going to do this work together.”
For members of the SNCC Legacy Project, the work currently happening in communities across the country is part of the ongoing learning and organizing exchange that occurs between the generations.
“One of the things about the SNCC 60th is that we came into being, not just out of whole cloth. SNCC was brought together by Ms. Ella Baker,” said Cox, ”And Ms. Ella Baker had been involved in the NAACP and the SCLC, but more importantly she was the director of branches for the NAACP and also part of the YMCA movement. She was part of a history that probably started after World War II.”
Citing Bob Moses as an example of Baker’s effect on the students’ organizing and connecting with impacted communities in Mississippi, Cox explained the value and importance of institutional wealth and involvement from the contacts that Baker maintained. For Cox, Baker was instrumental in connecting Moses with Amzie Moore, the Mississippi NAACP president and others; those connections later led to deep organizing with communities in Mississippi and across the South.
“What we wanted to do with the 60th is begin to bring into the discussion all of the things that were done and left to be done…[and] what we need to do in terms of informational wealth and [providing] contacts,” said Cox.
As an example, Cox pointed to an issue Ufot and the New Georgia Project had with the CDC going door to door asking Black residents in Atlanta to participate in antibody testing, but Ufot needed resources and partners to address that issue.
“So just as Ms. Baker showed Bob [Moses] where to go, we were able to show [Ufot] where to go,” Cox said. Recently, the New Georgia Project held a community conversation called “Filling the Gap: COVID-19, The CDC Antibody Survey & The Black Community.”
SNCC Legacy Project member Judy Richardson stressed SNCC’s work around economic issues. From Rep. John Lewis’ speech given at the March on Washington in 1963 (a SNCC-authored speech) to the work on the ground in Mississippi, SNCC centered the economic struggles of Black people.
“We were [always] talking about what it means to be able to sit down to get the hamburger and not have the money to buy it,” said Richardson alluding to the lunch counter sit in movement.
A producer on the Eyes on the Prize docuseries, a 14-part series about the Civil Rights Movement, Richardson explained the strategic nonviolence of SNCC and the reality of SNCC organizers versus the image of stoic sit-in protests while angry mobs tossed lit matches at them and doused them with ketchup.
“The main thing we know [is] that you don’t act irresponsibly because the larger responsibility is to the community who has [been] housing, clothing, guiding, and guarding you. And so you don’t do anything that’s gonna put them at even greater risk than they are already in trying to register to vote.”
Along with intergenerational organizing, SNCC created opportunities for multiracial organizing, training young white people to work alongside their Black counterparts in southern communities.
“One of the things that SNCC taught me and encouraged us as white folks to do was to go into the white community,” said Betty Garman Robinson, a SNCC Legacy Project member. Robinson works with Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), which she described as a national organization that calls “white people in to undermine white supremacy working in white communities.”
Focusing on the current moment, Robinson suggested that white people needed to pay attention to the need for them to transform their own behavior and prejudice, while bearing in mind that progress requires transforming institutions as well.
“I’ve seen the coming together of those two threads, which for many years like in the ‘90s among white people, there was a lot of anti-racism learning and talking but it wasn’t about acting in the political arena to transform the structure,” said Robinson. “So now the two things have kind of merged, which is [a] really good thing.”
“Ms. Baker and others taught us that the struggle was long and it was torturous, and it was forever,” said Robinson. “And here we are 60 years later, still plugging away and trying to encourage people to see the longevity of struggle, as opposed to thinking they are going to win the victory tomorrow.”
As a part of the leadership of the Movement 4 Black Lives, Henderson reflected on the convergence of intersecting crises and pressure points on the system that will make the impossible possible.
“People are standing up in the tradition of folks like Ella Baker [and] not only my movement ancestors but my biological ancestors, Pap and Fannie Lou Hamer,” said Henderson. “The thing that I learned from SNCC is to not fall victim to false dichotomies. What we know is that it’s not either class or race, it’s both because racism is an economic benefactor to lots of people in this country, and you can’t talk about capitalism and not talk about it being racialized. It’s [also] not about gender or race, it’s about both because I can’t leave my race or my gender at the door.”
Richardson noted that board members of the SNCC Legacy Project are still connected with current activism, which she credits to the lessons in leadership and mentorship from Baker. “She was the age that we are now and, and we saw people like her, who never stopped,” said Richardson. “That’s part of the tradition of what we’re carrying forward.”
The first person Cox remembered seeing when he was a young organizer was A. Phillip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who was the same age that Cox is now. Cox expressed hope that people protesting and taking to the streets are also making sure they are connected with the surrounding communities. “The most important emotion, at least from my perspective, is determination,” said Cox. “Because we understand that this is a long-distance discussion, and we’ve got to be determined and intentional about how we proceed.”