The story of the great social movements of the 1960’s appears to have been aggressively put through a historical filter. What we are left with is an entire generation that seems to have been offered a somewhat Disneyland version of the past. The echo that is heard from the classroom and the corporate media more often than not is that Dr. King simply had a dream and then during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago Illinois, all Hell suddenly broke loose; from that moment on anarchy and lawless ruled the land.
Of course this would only come to and end when Richard Nixon initiated the culture wars that have come to shape and mold the contentious red and blue divide that has acrimoniously defined national politics for the last 40 years (Pearson, 2008). However, as is often the case, the truth is a little bit more complicated than that. This is an attempt to bring just a little more clarity upon the origins and the development of two of the most prominent organizations that were active during the 1960’s.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and The Students for a Democratic Society both came to life as a moderate voice for change using nonviolent direct action tactics during the early years of the decade. As the names of both of these organizations suggest they were organized and led by youth; they were largely student movements organized for the most part on college campuses throughout the country. SNCC was largely an African American led organization. The SDS was led largely by White students.
By the end of the decade, each of these organizations had become solidly leftist and decidedly militant. This is the story of what brought them to that extreme. Textbooks today seem to almost be ceremoniously designed to highlight the 1954 Supreme Court Decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This is usually done with a focus upon the enormous significance that these two momentous events would ultimately have, after being successfully used like a bludgeon in order to break down the sordid edifice of the Jim Crow Apart-Hate South.
Nevertheless, there was also another Supreme Court decision that would actually have an even greater and immediate effect upon segregation. This was the December 5, 1960 decision in Boynton v. Virginia. This decision struck down segregation in public transportation. It would instantly become the catalyst that would help to launch the famous Freedom Rides during the early years of the movement. Earlier that year, on February 1, 1960 four freshman students from North Carolina A$T College started what was soon to become an enormous wave of sit-ins in opposition to Apart-Hate throughout the country (Zinn 2002).
Franklin McCain, David Richmond, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil challenged decades of Apart-Hate law by occupying seats at the lunch counter of a downtown Greensborough North Carolina Woolworth department store. Up until that moment, it was customary that African Americans were only allowed to order take-out, and they would have to place their order standing obediently at the end of the counter while White patrons sat and ate. In many places throughout the South, Black people were frequently made to purchase their food from restaurants by standing at the back door; like someone might feed a dog or a cat.
Quite often, they were only allowed to enter the public buses through the rear door. It was a well known ploy throughout the South that time and again, after an African American man or woman had paid their fare upfront; the bus driver might just suddenly pull off while they were heading towards the back door. The hapless victim would then be left stranded and most likely late for work, while a loud crescendo of hearty laughter erupted from the mostly White passengers who remained seated comfortably onboard.
Nonetheless, on this particular day, these students were determined that their tomorrows were not going to resemble their yesterdays, and they came back to the Woolworth on the following day. This would prove to be the proverbial ‘shot heard around the world’. In time, their numbers grew as a multi-cultural cadre of students joined in. Soon, the movement caught on like wildfire; taking autonomous shape all throughout the South and in some Northern cities as well.
Young people, for the most part students from all over the country flocked to the South in order to volunteer as organizers, bringing together all kinds of people Black and White; to participate in non-violent demonstrations across the South. Quite a number of these protests ultimately turned into ugly violent episodes that would scar many of these volunteers for the rest of their lives (Linder 2002).
Nonetheless, half a century ago, they made up the enormous carders of determined foot soldiers of every conceivable stripe who were deeply inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to join the nonviolent struggle for justice. With uncommon valor, they risked racist brutality and even death by spending their summers fighting the evil Jim Crow empire in the Southern United States. Ultimately, it was this enormous movement led almost exclusively by young people that would actually have the single greatest influence upon the successful passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the ultimate cessation of hostilities in Vietnam.
That spring, SNCC (nicknamed ‘Snick’) became the student coalition that led sit-ins and freedom rides against segregated public facilities just a few years before the lion’s share of the Movement’s energy was directed towards voter registration; after of course the eventual passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. The Student for a Democratic Society which would ultimately move into the forefront of the Anti-war Movement, also came into being during the same time.
However, for the moment, both SNCC and several members of SDS worked alongside CORE, The Congress of Racial Equality, which was then under the leadership of James Farmer; the man who would later come to coin the term ‘Affirmative Action’ in the Johnson Whitehouse. CORE had actually tried this mode of protest before (Zinn 2002). In 1947 the young multiracial CORE activists, attempted to test the Supreme Court’s 1945 decision in Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia; which declared that segregated seating of interstate passengers was unconstitutional.
In 1942, it was they who had conducted the first sit-in during the month of May in Chicago Illinois. They failed, and ultimately a number of their multiracial cadre paid a rather harsh price for their activism1. However, this was a different decade, and day after day these nonviolent foot soldiers sat in at lunch counters and at segregated public facilities, as disciplined nonviolent combatants who were spat upon and brutalized as they quietly endured a barrage of racist taunts and unchecked violence.
They would continue on for years to courageously participate in Freedom Rides and voter registration drives risking their own lives in order to register millions of African Americans to vote throughout the South (Carson 1981). It was during that spring, that the Youth Movement began to really catch the attention of the older more established members of the relatively new SCLC 2 and the older NAACP; who for the most part still largely favored challenging segregation laws in the courts.
From the very beginning, SCLC was really not as driven by direct action as the youth were; nonetheless in time they too would be drawn into the rising tide of civil disobedience. The link between the two was one woman named Ella Jo Baker. Baker was born on December 13, 1903; the very same year that Dr. WEB Dubois published his best-selling book The Souls of Blackfolk. She graduated class valedictorian from Shaw University in Raleigh North Carolina in 1927.
Baker was drawn towards social causes early on in her life. After helping to fundraise in New York City, for the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956) along with Bayard Ruskin and Stanley Levison – The former, was an influential philosopher of nonviolence who would ultimately become the organizing force behind the 1963 March on Washington. 3 – The later would bear the brunt of the FBI’s scrutiny, after becoming one of Dr. King’s best friends, 4 Baker moved to the South and became an officer in the SCLC.
With her strong and proud feminist character, it was a marriage that was apparently doomed from the very beginning. It didn’t take long for Ella to become completely discouraged with what she deemed as the patriarchal attitudes within the relatively new organization, and she would soon leave the SCLC altogether. Although she was 57 years old at the time, in 1960 she became inspired by the youthful exuberance of the students participating in civil disobedience all throughout the South.
Ella became a mentor and a kind of midwife to the brand new Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee which she helped to form that April during Easter Sunday on the campus of her Alma Mata; Shaw University in Raleigh North Carolina. Although this was an overwhelmingly African American effort, there were White students who were a part of that founding meeting as well. Perhaps the most prominent of them all was Tom Hayden who would become one of the founding members of the Students for a Democratic Society during that same period.
He was the author of the organization’s manifesto called the Port Huron Statement in 1962. During that same month Al Haber who was the first president of the SDS, invited the Greensborough Four to their convention as a show of solidarity with SNCC. Years later, along with Black Panther leader Bobby Seale and six others, Tom Hayden would become one of the defendants in the 1968 Chicago Eight case. SCLC was a kind of fraternal Upper House with SNCC serving as the young guard of the Civil Rights Movement.
Ella maintained her roll in-between the two, as a kind of guardian and mentor to the youthful activists (Zinn 2002). The year 1965 would become a turning point for the Civil Rights Movement, and by 1967 the leadership of SNCC had become irreparably divided upon the direction that the organization should take. It was a struggle between those who remained wielded to an ironclad faith in the nonviolent philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King and those who were increasingly focused upon self-determination and the philosophy of Black Nationalism that Malcolm X would come to symbolize.
Ultimately, many members of SNCC went on to become leaders in the Black Panther Party, making Malcolm X in a sense the bridge that brought Garveyism full circle in the 1960’s 5. At the same time the SDS was facing internal turmoil of a similar kind. While the original Black Panther Party can arguably be said to have been a later day manifestation of the Marcus Garvey Movement, the SDS was a direct outgrowth of the of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society formed by Upton Sinclair (The Jungle), Clarence Darrow, Jack London and Walter Lippman in 1905.
During the first two decades of the 20th Century, this group along with the Fabian Society and the integrated Constitutional League was rather active on college campuses. By the 1940’s the ISS had changed its name to the League for Industrial Democracy, and in the 1950’s it established a youth arm called the Student League for Industrial Democracy. Similar to the original ideals set for SNCC under SCLC, SLID’s original purpose was to politicize students on college campuses to the socialist activities of the senior organization.
However, by 1959 the student leaders in SLID desired independence from the LID, and they changed the name of their organization to the Students for a Democratic Society. In 1960 Tom Hayden laid out the ideals of the new organization in a manifesto called the Port Huron Statement. The statement was redrafted in 1962 and it outlined what became the founding principles of the New Left and the SDS based upon a belief in participatory democracy and an understanding that the universality played a central role in social reform.
Furthermore Hayden stated: “The declaration that ‘All men are created equal ….. ang hollow before the facts of Negro life in the South and [in] big cities of the North … our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism…” (Hayden 1962). As SNCC had it beginnings committed to the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedient direct action, in a similar fashion the Port Huron Statement outlined SDS’s primary mission to the fight against racial and class oppression through nonviolent means.
This would all change after 1964 when a gradual shift occurred from purely dissident activism to outright resistance of US imperialism. The Berkeley Free Speech Movement in the autumn of 1964 and the April 17, 1965 anti-war March on Washington were the catalysts for this change. The Mississippi Freedom Summer was the enormous mobilization organized by the Council of Federated Organization headed by SNCC to bring thousands of volunteers to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 in order to register African Americans to vote.
After realizing that their efforts were to be thwarted by the all white primary system, the COFO turned its energy towards establishing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Members of SDS along with hundreds of other volunteers flocked into the state in order to help in the month-long effort. The summer began with the tragic murders of James Chaney a young Black volunteer from Mississippi, and Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, two Jewish students from New Jersey. It ended with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Parties protest at the Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City.
The murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, and the refusal of northern democrats to denounce the all-white Mississippi delegation signaled the beginning of the end of whatever faith the young activists of SNCC and SDS had maintained in the progressive liberal wing of the Democratic Party. That September, students from Berkley University in California retuned to campus passionate about the work that they had done over the summer. They set up literature tables on campus to pass out information about the on-going struggle for Civil Rights in the South. The college administration balked at this activity and attempted to shut them down.
This set off widespread protests which became known as the Berkley Free Speech Movement which was eventually replicated on college campuses around the country. By the following year however, the SDS had shifted their attention entirely, from fighting for the oppressed to fighting against their own oppression. The draft brought the Vietnam War overseas close to home for millions of students across the country, and the SDS would ultimately take the lead role in organizing anti-war protest for the rest of the decade. Nevertheless, by now the ideological rifts within the group had begun to rip at the entire structure.