It started at lunch counters in North Carolina and Nashville.
Student activists decided that perhaps the most effective way to begin dismantling Jim Crow-era segregation laws was to sit down in places where they were, by custom and law, barred from being served.
So in 1960, the “Whites only” establishments got wave after wave of black students entering and taking seats in a quiet but explicit demand that they be given service like any other citizen.
Those protests, while not the first of their kind, were the catalysts for one of the most influential civil and human rights groups the nation has ever produced. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee became the youth arm of the civil rights movement.
The student-led group went on to organize some of the most effective campaigns of the 1960s: Freedom Summer, which sought to register African-American voters; Freedom Rides, aimed at desegregating interstate bus services in the South; and the March on Washington, as well as the Selma campaign.
They were attacked, beaten and, in some instances, murdered. Yet their assault on the system was based on a simple tenet: Fight with principle and in court, but don’t fight with violence.
SNCC’s leadership included well-recognized figures such as John Lewis, Diane Nash, Charles McDew, Julian Bond, Bernard Lafayette and Stokely Carmichael. In some ways today’s Black Lives Matter movement pulls from their legacy, in that it stresses decentralized leadership so multiple campaigns, tailored to the needs of a community, can be mounted simultaneously. If one person is arrested, the work of the organization goes on.
In later years, SNCC members questioned the efficacy of nonviolence and the group splintered. But SNCC’s essential role in fighting segregation had by then yielded results such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As former SNCC leader and current U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., now says, SNCC believed in getting in “good trouble.”
Celebrate Black History Month
Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.