Friends of SNCC and The Birth of The Movement

By Ethan Scott Barnett

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) would have achieved little without their Friends. In 1960, lunch counter sit-ins and freedom rides placed SNCC in the national spotlight. By 1963, regional offices in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Washington, DC represented the organization’s growth and maturity. College students returning from Freedom Summer—a national call led by SNCC to assist in voter mobilization across the South—brought militant grassroots tactics to the stuffy corridors of their college campuses. To put it simply, SNCC metamorphosed from an assemblage of goodhearted teens with a desire to create societal change into an internationally admired, multitiered civil rights organization. However, SNCC’s growth and impact wouldn’t have been possible without Friends of SNCC (FOSNCC). FOSNCC was responsible for conducting “support work,” which included organizing emergency fundraisers, planning events, implementing publicity campaigns, and ensuring that federal officials knew when local governments were abusing their power.[1] The most prominent Friends of SNCC chapters—New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Chicago and Detroit—were the “northern support” network. Betty Garman Robinson, a graduate student at the University of California Berkeley and the Northern Coordinator of FOSNCC in 1964, wrote a memo explaining that it was their responsibility “to pressure the Justice Department and the President by sending letters and telegrams,…and by getting people in their area with influence to speak out about what is happening in the South.”[2] Demonstrations that were covered in mainstream newspapers were largely due to the support work conducted by volunteers.

In California’s Bay Area, SNCC Field Secretary Charles “Chuck” McDew recruited Mike Miller, who was known for his work with the Student Committee for Agricultural Labor in Northern California.[3] McDew quickly recognized Miller’s savvy coordination skills and knack for communicating the importance of SNCC’s advocacy in the deep south to the Bay Area constituency. Miller became responsible for generating publicity, fundraising, and network building with like-minded organizations. Supporters of the black freedom struggle rarely received a clear report from the mainstream press as to the ways women and working-class individuals were transforming the country through non-violent action. Nor were supporters able to receive regular updates on how the organization was evolving in real time. To bridge the communication divide, Miller recruited Terry Cannon, a twenty-four-year-old journalist who previously helped Miller launch a community-organizing project in San Francisco’s Fillmore district.[4] As partners and supporters of SNCC, Miller and Cannon birthed an informational publication titled “Bay Area Friends of SNCC Newsletter.” The newsletter provided subscribers with updates about the national organization, but most pointedly it disseminated detailed accounts of demonstrations from organizers in the field.

November_1964
Cover of the Bay Area Friends of SNCC Newsletter, November 1964.

Bay Area Friends of SNCC used their newsletter to publish articles on freedom schools, election results, and mass meetings in Mississippi, as well as critiques of the war in Vietnam and US imperialism. The newsletter’s main job was to articulate the importance of the movement in the Deep South to subscribers around the nation. On the back page of the January 1965 issue, the staff advertised opportunities for volunteers to lend their time at 11 Northern California addresses. The number of locations illustrates the growing presence of SNCC-affiliated organizations in California.[5] San Francisco was distinctive because it had established a sustainable network of volunteers that raised “anywhere from several hundred to well over $10,000 a year.”[6] The various factions of Bay Area Friends of SNCC would crowdsource stories for the newsletter, each reporting on their specific committees for updates in the organization. If field organizers were in the spotlight or released from jail, it was likely that Friends of SNCC had done behind-the-scenes support work.

During the six years that the San Francisco Friends of SNCC Newsletter was published (and, later, transformed into The Movement), it operated as connective tissue for leftist circles. Mainstream print, radio, and television were deemed untrustworthy by activist groups. At the paper’s peak, distribution reached 25,000 per run with 2,500 paid subscriptions.[7] An obvious strength of the paper lay in its reporting staff. The eclectic group of novice journalists and activists gave readers a clear understanding of how oppressed people were organizing across the nation and the globe.

On a national scale, Friends of SNCC branches were responsible for understanding the interests of their local community. The San Francisco chapter regularly pandered to Bay Area residents’ bohemian taste. In one instance they published a full-page hand-drawn advertisement for the fifth anniversary of the Greensboro, NC, sit-in. The fundraiser advertised an assortment of distinguished speakers, artists, poets, bands, and plays. Entertainment included: San Francisco satirists The Committee; a jazz ensemble led by Jon Henricks; “Playful Playlet” directed by Art Hoppe; and a lecture by Robert Moses, director of the Mississippi Freedom Project. The keynote speech was given by SNCC National Chairman John Lewis. Lewis had recently returned from a trip to Africa organized by civil rights activist, actor, and musician Harry Belafonte. By hosting an event that demonstrated SNCC’s international character, Bay Area FOSNCC provided transparency into the ways the organization was evolving and developing a consciousness that was not limited to the United States.

January_1965.png
Advertisement for the 5th Anniversary Celebration of the Greensboro, NC sit-ins.,  January 1965.

For four years, SNCC had placed energy into multidimensional grassroots campaigns across the Deep South.[8] The Africa excursion included eleven comrades. Jim Forman, John Lewis, Bob Moses, Dona Richards Moses, Julian Bond, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, Donald Harris, Bill Hansen, Prathia Hall, Matthew Jones, and Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer visited Sekou Toure and Guinean independence fighters to grasp the anti-colonial movement from a ground level. Lewis’s speech on “the relationship between the Amer. & Afro freedom movements” pointed to the youth organization’s early roots in anti-colonial thinking.[9] Atlanta-based field organizer Julian Bond was shocked that American information offices in Africa distributed propaganda of “pictures of Negroes doing things…Negro judges, Negro policemen,” which created a false sense of progress and allowed African leaders to grow complacent in the fight for Blacks in America.[10] Cleveland Sellers recalls in The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Account from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1960, that “[we] were beginning to expand our horizon, beginning to talk about similarities between the struggle for independence in Africa and the struggle for the right to vote in Mississippi.”[11] The Movement reported that John Lewis and Donald Harris stayed on the continent to partake in a month-long tour of Liberia, Zambia, Ghana, Kenya, Egypt, and Ethiopia. While at a hotel in Nairobi, Lewis and Harris ran into El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X), who had recently left the Nation of Islam and was seeking support from African nations for his new group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAU). The happenstance meeting launched a short-lived alliance, in which both SNCC and OAU sought to establish comradery between Africans and Black Americans. Upon returning to United States, the contingent led SNCC toward an ideology of international solidary; Friends of SNCC followed suit.

In spring 1965, the Bay Area Friends of SNCC made the decision to rebrand the newsletter into the formal publication, The Movement. Coincidently, as the newsletter took on a new name and look, SNCC’s rhetoric evolved.[12] At the center of this change was Stokely Carmichael. At 19 years of age, Carmichael became the youngest person to join the freedom rides.[13] By 1965, Carmichael had grown into a prominent organizer known for his work with SNCC, MFDP and Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO). His fiery speech, charismatic persona, and political position to the left of Martin Luther King, Jr. landed him on the front page of the New York Times. While operating as a field organizer in Alabama assisting in the formation of the LCFO, Carmichael, alongside Willie Ricks, helped shift SNCC and the larger political consciousness from the “Freedom Now” framework into a “Black Power” ideology. In March 1966, Carmichael is quoted in The Movement saying he didn’t “see any coalition forces in the country that SNCC could hook up with …aside from the…workers in Delano, working on the grape strike.”[14]

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The Movement Cover, August 1969.

The Delano Grape Strike lasted from 1965-1970 and The Movement provided monthly updates on the demonstrations for several years. Mexican and Filipino American migrant workers joined forces under the guise of The Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). The two organizations initiated a coalition led by organizers Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz from the AWOC and César Chávez and Delores Huerta from the NFWA. By seeking solidarity across ethnic lines, the coalition was able to subdue grape farmers’ attempts to pit the two unions against each other.[15] In the April 1967 issue, the editorial staff dedicated 4.5 pages to the boycott. In the article, Chávez argues that besides “the church among Negroes” the “Muslims” may be the biggest power in America.[16] Organizers were rarely given the opportunity to discuss their political views in mainstream press, only in The Movement could leftist activists articulate the relationship between the Third World and the black freedom struggle in the United States. Printing interviews of Chávez and Carmichael giving praise to the latter’s radicalism illustrated the budding relationship between black and brown activists. Before the strike would end, Chávez risked his life with a month-long hunger strike. In response, migrants, civil rights activists, organizers and supporters from across the United States reached a crowd of 9,000 people and marched 300 miles from the Borderlands to Sacramento.[17]

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Malcolm X, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right speaking in San Francisco, photograph by Francis Mitchell, circa 1960s, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Movement was birthed to maintain the pulse of SNCC field organizers across the country, but steadily grew into an international megaphone for leftist politics. By regularly featuring articles from the student movement in Puerto Rico, offering critiques of Algerian ally Frantz Fanon’s writings, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) leader Fannie Lou Hamer, Welfare organizer Johnnie Tillmon, and the Delano Farm Workers, readers could understand how race, gender, class and nationality were operating in tête-à-tête rather than in opposition.

12038051_10153919280290283_8471375904124209408_nEthan Scott Barnett is a filmmaker, cultural worker and PhD student in History at the University of Delaware.


Featured image (at top): Black power advocate Stokely Carmichael speaks at Berkeley, 1966, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

[1] “Friends of SNCC.” SNCC Digital Gateway, n.d. https://snccdigital.org/inside-sncc/sncc-national-office/friends-of-sncc/.

[2] Betty Garman Robinson, “A Note about the Friends of SNCC Groups — What They Do?,” 1964, crmvet.org,1. https://www.crmvet.org/docs/sncc_fos.pdf

[3] “National Farm Workers Association (NFWA).” SNCC Digital Gateway, n.d. https://snccdigital.org/inside-sncc/alliances-relationships/national-farm-workers-association/.

[4] Terrence Cannon and Joseph A. Blum, “Introduction to THE MOVEMENT,” https://libraries.ucsd.edu/farmworkermovement/ufwarchives/sncc/movementIntro.pdf.

[5] “5th Anniversary Celebration,” The Movement (San Francisco), January 1965, 5.

http://freedomarchives.org/Documents/Finder/DOC40_scans/40.Movement.Jan.1965.pdf

[6] Miller, Mike. “‘Role of Friends of SNCC,’ Circa 1963.” Organize Training Center. https://www.organizetrainingcenter.org/writings.html.

[7] Terrence Cannon and Joseph A. Blum, “Introduction to THE MOVEMENT,” https://libraries.ucsd.edu/farmworkermovement/ufwarchives/sncc/movementIntro.pdf.

[8] John Lewis and Donald Harris, “The Trip,” in The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Account from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1960, Clayborne Carson, et al., eds, (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 197.

[9] John Lewis and Donald Harris, 198.

[10] James Forman, “Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Brief Report on Guinea,” 1964, The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Account from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1960, edited by Clayborne Carson, et al. (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 192.

[11] The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader, 155.

[12] The Movement (San Francisco), April 1965, http://freedomarchives.org/Documents/Finder/DOC40_scans/40.Movement.April.1965.pdf.

[13] “Stokely Carmichael.” SNCC Digital Gateway, n.d. https://snccdigital.org/people/stokely-carmichael/.

[14] “Interview with Stokely Carmichael,” The Movement (San Francisco), March 1966. http://freedomarchives.org/Documents/Finder/DOC40_scans/40.Movement.March.1966.pdf

[15] Asian American Activism: The Continuing Struggle, “Strike! Filipino Activism and the Delano Grape Strike,” https://blogs.brown.edu/ethn-1890v-s01-fall-2016/historical-figures-and-organizations/filipinx-involvement-in-the-delano-grape-strike-and-the-united-farm-workers-union/.

[16]“Cesar Chaves: Nothing Has Changed!” The Movement (San Francisco), April 1967, 6. http://freedomarchives.org/Documents/Finder/DOC40_scans/40.Movement.April.1967.pdf

[17] The Movement (San Francisco), April 1967, 6.

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