Memory Swap Meet

Hi, Teshima Walker here —

You know I'm going to tell you the truth about how we put this show together, right? Some days, it's like breathing (that easy) and sometimes, we're performing minor surgery. Anyway, it wasn't easy wrangling guests to talk with us about the 50th Anniversary of the now-defunct civil rights organization called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). We started making calls earlier this week and finally, this morning — one hour before the taping — I was able to nail down journalist Charles Cobb and former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. Cobb served as SNCC's field secretary and Barry was elected the first national chairman. The interview was great. I learned a lot. Listen, when you have a moment. By the way, I called our friends over at North Carolina Public Radio — WUNC. I was curious to know how they were covering the reunion of these civil rights pioneers — what they were learning about SNCC and the people that risked their safety and lives to join. Producer, Lindsay Foster Thomas works on a daily show at WUNC called "The State of Things." She wrote this blog post for us: 

There are countless trips down memory lane being launched from the campus of Shaw University, a small historically black school in Raleigh, N.C.

Fifty years ago, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded on these grounds. SNCC began as a conference that was a convergence of youthful, enthusiastic activists and wise civil rights leaders who had been in the fight for freedom for decades and were eager to groom some new blood for the cause.

This week, Shaw is hosting a 50th anniversary conference to honor the brave efforts of SNCC's members, many of whom were jailed, injured or killed in the struggle for racial equality. Embraces, kisses and laughter are being exchanged as former members — some who haven't seen each other in decades — convene where it all began. The most interesting exchanges are the stories.

Frances Beal, co-founder of SNCC's Black Women's Liberation Committee and author of the seminal work on being black and female in America called "Double Jeopardy," delighted in the reunions. She recalled confronting Stokely Carmichael, who infamously remarked that "the only position for women in SNCC is prone." Surprisingly, the feminist came to his defense, saying Carmichael never meant the words the way they came out and that he lived with the shame of his comment for years. SNCC's female leaders and members charted new territory in the civil rights movement. Unlike the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and similar early groups, SNCC's women were urged to be on the front lines of the war against Jim Crow. From its founder, Ella Baker, to notable members like Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorie Ladner, Diane Nash, Beal and countless more, the women of SNCC weren't satisfied to walk behind the men of the movement. It was alongside or not at all.

Former SNCC field secretary Charlie Cobb remembers how the organization put an entirely new face on the movement for youngsters in the 1960s. SNCC was born out of student-led protests that originated in Greensboro, N.C. — with lunch counter sit-ins — and spread into a peaceful movement among teens and 20-somethings in the South. Cobb says until he saw a photo of students doing sit-in demonstrations in the newspaper, civil rights activism "was something grown-ups did." Baker and elder leaders, including Martin Luther King, wanted students to continue the movement in their own unique way. Young activists were willing to be arrested and spend nights in jail without bail and when their faces hit the newspapers, it struck a chord with fellow Americans — and the citizens of the world.

Ultimately, SNCC was successful. The passage of the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act in 1964 and 1965, respectively, meant a new day for American society. Determination, peaceful demonstrations and political mobilization worked. But SNCC's success may have ultimately led to the organization dissolving in early 1970. Without the unifying objective of defeating Jim Crow, SNCC members divided on how to proceed in the freedom fight, says Beal.

What's inspiring about the anniversary events is that it's clear SNCC does live on, perhaps not as a structured organization, but certainly as a philosophy of achieving peace, justice and human rights non-violently. It's alive and well in the memories of the people who lived it. And it endures in the voices of a new generation of civil rights activists. Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, a graduating senior at East Tennessee State University, says she first learned about SNCC when she volunteered to work on a re-enactment of the Freedom Rides alongside seasoned activists like Cobb. She described discovering the history of the organization as "life changing" and integral in shaping her ideas about grassroots organizing. Henderson drove all night from Tennessee to Raleigh to participate in the commemorative conference. The event will certainly provide her with stories of her own to add to the collage of memories being made 50 years after an important chapter in America's history was written by hundreds of passionate young freedom warriors.

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