SNCC's Unruly InternationalismRoundup
tags: civil rights, African American history, internationalism, radical history, SNCC
Dan Berger is associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell, where he curates the Washington Prison History Project. He is the author or editor of several books, including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era and the forthcoming Remaking Radicalism: A Grassroots Documentary Reader of the United States, 1973-2001. He is currently writing a book about the modern Black Freedom Struggle for Basic Books.
Movements are made when people in motion outpace existing organizations and tactical urgency remakes the existing landscape.
That’s what happened on February 1, 1960, when four college students staging a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina spurred dozens of sit-ins throughout the South by the end of the month. By the middle of April that year, leading agitators of these sit-ins gathered at Shaw University to formalize a new vehicle to sync their efforts: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Pronounced “snick,” the organization’s members became known as the shock troops of the civil rights movement—people of unparalleled courage and creativity in the fight against white supremacy.
Though some SNCC veterans made their way to political office—most famously John Lewis, James Clyburn, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Marion Barry—SNCC’s greatest triumph was the emphasis it placed on grassroots organizing. It empowered a generation of largely unheralded organizers. Its members braved racist terror to challenge segregation, demonstrate multiracial democracy, and forge transnational coalitions. Since its collapse, SNCC veterans have been the most conscientious of the ’60s-era activists to ground their individual and collective legacies in the world-making pursuit of justice.
Today, even in commemoration, SNCC exemplifies the organized chaos of social change. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its sixtieth anniversary conference was postponed from an in-person gathering in April 2020 to a virtual gathering in October 2021, over sixty-one years after its initial founding. With an eye on history, the conference foregrounded the pervasive threats facing the prospect of multiracial democracy today. In 1964 Mississippi was widely seen as the most virulently racist state in the country when SNCC expanded an ambitious plan to organize voter registration efforts there. Now, as several conference participants noted with restrained optimism, Mississippi has the largest number of Black elected officials in the country—a sure sign of SNCC’s legacy. Yet it also has rampant voter suppression and remains one of the poorest states in the country in terms of education, health care, and infrastructure—signs of institutional problems SNCC could not overcome.
More than 1,000 people registered to attend the conference, where SNCC veterans chopped it up with a multigenerational group of organizers. With sessions on voting rights, police reform, Black elected officials, public education, affordable housing, economic justice, and the role of artists in activism, the gathering mapped an impressive terrain. Less frequently discussed—but no less central to its impact—was SNCC’s internationalism. The organization’s sense of urgency was always enmeshed in a global understanding of racism and liberation. Theirs was an unruly internationalism, however, one that ultimately cost the organization external support and exacerbated internal tensions. Though the difficulties of its global outlook may have diminished the memory of SNCC’s internationalism, a review of that history highlights the significance of the organization’s legacy for all who desire a world without the color line.
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