The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), although most often overlooked, especially in bourgeoisie academic works, is truly one of the most influential organizations in the U.S. of the last 100 years. Founded by the venerable Ella Baker in 1960 to help fulfill her vision of providing students with an activist entity independent from Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Baker – who served on SCLC’s governing board – wanted SNCC to unleash the militancy and creativity of our youth. And, that is without question exactly what SNCC did. Instrumental in helping establish voting rights while dismantling segregation laws, SNCC activists helped introduce a new level of organization to the African human rights movement. That new level was a focus on long term organizing projects instead of the one-off mobilization events that SCLC and Dr. King institutionalized throughout the civil rights movement. Unlike SCLC, SNCC avoided media focus on its work. Instead, SNCC activists flooded into the most dangerous regions of the Southern U.S., challenging racist practices and values head on, often with devastating consequences. Obviously, with this approach, alerting local racists through a media presence could not be practical for the type of work SNCC engaged in.
Most people today may have some understanding, good or bad, about the work of Malcolm X and SNCC, even if people don’t have dates, people, and details. Still, most folks with more advanced understandings of the work of SNCC connect the organization with Dr. King, not Malcolm X, due to SNCC’s origins being tied to SCLC and because of the perceived working relationship between the two organizations i.e. engaged in the primarily non-violent struggle for civil rights for African people in the Southern U.S. As a result, most people are not aware of the extent to which SNCC intentionally crossed paths with Malcolm X in the early 1960s. And, how that relationship blossomed to a level where Malcolm’s ideas came to greatly influence SNCC, to the point where Malcolm’s influence clearly surpassed that of Dr. King and eventually played a role in the developing a militancy of SNCC that contributed mightily to the emerging Black power movement of the late 60s.
Malcolm, even before his break with the Nation of Islam, articulated positions of African dignity and self-determination that has a general appeal to African people and many other people. This is true because dignity and self-determination are key components to every human’s desire to reach their full potential. Malcolm’s appeal to our dignity was designed to attempt to wake up that element with us. He embarked on this path understanding clearly that doing so required us to face up to the dangers involved. Dignity within a system reliant upon our continued oppression is risky work. Malcolm’s perspective embodied the principles sang in James Brown’s classic 1968 hit “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” when Brown sang “we’d rather die on our feet than live on our knees!” It can actually be said that there would have been no such James Brown song without the Black power movement that produced it. And, there would have been no modern Black power movement without the heavy influence of Malcolm X. Although his rhetoric always contained those elements of dignity and self-determination, core components within Nation of Islam theology and practice, it was Malcolm’s last eleven months after being out of the Nation that further cemented his legacy in SNCC and the broader African communities across the world. It was during that last year that Malcolm solidified his understanding, participation, and relationship with the worldwide Pan-African movement. This was expressed by Malcolm developing relationships with Pan-African revolutionaries like Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Ture and his founding of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (patterned after Nkrumah’s Organization of African Unity – the African Union today). Malcolm, like Nkrumah and Ture, eerily predicted the specter of neo-colonialism which contributed to his assassination as well as the overthrow of Nkrumah’s government in Ghana and serious challenges to African liberation that continue to plague our movements today.
The unknown portion of Malcolm’s relationship with SNCC is explained by understanding the experiences of SNCC activists on the ground in brutal territory in the U.S. South. Unlike other organizations like SCLC, SNCC organizers existed doing their work isolated and in constant danger. They faced constant arrest, torture, brutality, and even murder on a regular basis. The reality of racist sheriffs and others who could enact racist violence with immunity were daily experiences for these activists. These experiences radicalized them in ways that challenged them to push back against the mainstream civil rights movement leaders. The entire premise of the principle (not tactic) of nonviolence employed by SCLC and the mainstream movement was based on our pain humanizing the racists inflicting violence against us. SNCC organizers knew from daily experience that this humanization process was ineffective. In fact, a better argument could be made that the more we turned the other cheek, the more brutal our oppressors became against us. Also, SNCC organizers lived day to day with the local African community members, often in extremely violent environments. Contrary to the widely perpetuated myth, these African communities in the South lived daily with the presence on firearms. They needed them to hunt and to repel violent white supremacists. And, contrary to how history is taught, they often used those weapons to protect themselves. When SNCC organizers entered this environment they learned quickly that the nonviolence that they were taught was a principle was never going to become a way of life for the people they were working to organize with, and for good reason. To these local Africans, their European neighbors had long ago demonstrated no respect for morals of nonviolence in the face of terror. This reality forced SNCC activists to begin to consider different approaches to activist work in the South.
The seeds for this change in thinking had already been planted. Malcolm X actually had his first official interaction with SNCC as early as 1961 when he was invited by SNCC to engage in a public debate with Bayard Rustin. This happened when Malcolm was still pretty much firmly situated within the ideology and structure of the Nation of Islam. Rustin was a key advisor to Martin Luther King and a principle influencer to King’s commitment to nonviolence as a principle. King, Rustin, and the broader civil rights movement were not prepared for the impact Malcolm’s staunch opposition to nonviolence would have on SNCC organizers as a result of his performance during that debate. Malcolm won major points with SNCC activists by speaking directly to the concerns mounting within them about being committed to the philosophy of nonviolence when the people they were fighting against didn’t adhere to the same principles. To many in SNCC, Malcolm’s belief that nonviolence is an effective tactic when working, but self-defense is better when necessary, made much better practical sense based on their actual experiences. As a result, many staffers within SNCC continued to be influenced further by Malcolm’s ideas after that debate event and some of them even managed to maintain communication with Malcolm.
One example of this was a reported meeting at an ice cream parlor in Harlem in 1963. There is no evidence that this meeting was anything beyond a chance meeting, but Malcolm was there and so was Kwame Ture (formally Stokely Carmichael) and Cleveland Sellers. Malcolm, Ture, and Sellers engaged in ice cream consumption while also consuming the merits of Malcolm’s position that our struggle was more than just one of civil rights in a backward society. And, that consistent with that position, if this government was not willing to make any level of commitment to ensure our lives were protected, we have the right and responsibility to protect ourselves. That ice cream parlor discussion extended for a period of time and long after the ice cream was eaten, the SNCC organizers left that meeting with fresh and personal validation for the emerging militant beliefs that they were exploring which were confirmed by the concepts being advanced by Malcolm X.
From that point forward, SNCC activists, particularly those like Ture who had roots in more nationalist formations within SNCC like Howard University’s Non-Violentl Action Group, began to push the concepts expressed by Malcolm X more and more in SNCC spaces. There was growing support for these debates since the ideas Malcolm was articulating squared up much better with the on the ground realities SNCC organizers faced in the South than the ideas of King which more and more people within SNCC began to feel were somewhat disconnected from the realities of the work they were doing.
As a result of the above, the connection between Malcolm and SNCC intensified. In 1964, Malcolm organized an event in Harlem where SNCC activists from McComb, Mississippi, U.S., including Ms. Fannie Lou Hamer, came to Harlem to talk about the work taking place in Mississippi. During that event, Malcolm spoke extensively with praise for the work of SNCC in extremely dangerous conditions. He expressed his support to protect these activists and he again took advantage of the ideological disconnect between Dr. Kings nonviolence and the practical commitment to self-defense that even if Ms. Hamer publicly expressed support for. These connections were further cemented when Dr. King was in jail in early February 1965. SNCC, engaged in a major organizing offensive in rural Alabama, extended another invitation to Malcolm to come to Alabama and talk to the African masses. Malcolm responded by going down and speaking to an overflow crowd at Tuskegee University and then to an equally enthusiastic crowd in Selma, Alabama. SCLC, recognizing the shift in consciousness among SNCC organizers and how that shift was influencing members of the Congress of Racial Equality and other participants in the civil rights movement, decided to endorse Malcolm speaking at the Selma event instead of opposing it. Andrew Young, one of King’s key aides, and also someone in the King camp who had a cordial relationship with Malcolm, argued to other SCLC staffers that it was much smarter strategically to endorse Malcolm’s presence and situate him within the program where speakers surrounding him could blunt his militant radical message as opposed to permitting Malcolm to participate unchallenged.
Malcolm responded by giving one of his most memorable presentations in Selma. It was during this presentation that he articulated one of his most pointed perspectives in explaining the class contradictions between house slaves (dedicated to fulfilling the interests of the ruling class slave masters) and the field slaves (committed to overthrowing the slave master and creating freedom for the oppressed). What he did with that work in Alabama, just days before he was assassinated, was solidify his legacy in the minds of the young SNCC activists. They now felt confident enough to further advance Malcolm’s views that African people, and African people alone should be the architects of our own destiny. And, that we should take that position regardless of how the European capitalist power structure responds to us. And, finally, we should be prepared to defend our dignity “by any means necessary” while recognizing that our struggle is an international struggle that must be linked to people fighting against oppression all over the world. Also, it should be noted that Malcolm’s influence on SNCC contributed mightily to other ideological developments within SNCC that Malcolm didn’t have direct involvement in. For example, inspired at least in part by Malcolm’s consistent criticism of the U.S. policy role in undermining the self-determination of emerging African nations, SNCC worked through Harry Belafonte to travel as an official delegation to Guinea, West Africa, in 1964. Hosted by Sekou Ture and the Democratic Party of Guinea, the SNCC delegation members, including Ms. Hamer and then SNCC Chair John Lewis, were constantly reminded by members of the PDG that their responsibilities were forever rooted in recognizing that the struggle for human rights in the U.S. is part and parcel of the worldwide African struggle for dignity and self-determination. Upon returning, Lewis commented that “everywhere we would go, people wanted to know what our position was in relationship to Malcolm X!” This reality had a profound impact on Lewis, clearly one of the most ardent King disciples within SNCC. And, from that point forward, even the future U.S. congressman developed a strong respect and admiration for Malcolm X.
Under these conditions, the 1966 election for SNCC Chair resulted in Kwame Ture defeating John Lewis. This election reflected SNCC’s sharp turn in the direction of much more militant ideas articulated through Malcolm X and away from the ideas represented by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Within a year from that election, SNCC had emerged as the voice of the Black power movement throughout the U.S. Unlike pretty much all the other civil rights organizations, including King’s SCLC, SNCC came out against the zionist state of Israel. SNCC also played a significant role in pushing Dr. King to take a position against the war in Vietnam. This is documented by the fact that the night before King gave his historic speech against the war on April 4, 1967, one year to the day before he was assassinated, King phoned Kwame Ture and told him that he should come that next day to hear that speech because he was going to be happy with King’s statements against the war.
Today, nothing happening within African activist circles in the U.S. – whether it’s the Black Lives Matter movement or anything else – is in existence independent from the foundation laid out for us by SNCC and its push for Black power. It was this mass push which raised the consciousness of the African masses. In other words, without SNCC there would be no Black Panther Party. Without the Panthers there would be no Black Lives Matter movement. And, situated within all of that was Malcolm’s clear ideological role in challenging SNCC to grow. For those out here who claim that ideological struggle is fruitless, this history is a clear repudiation of that position and a clear endorsement of the necessity and importance of ideological struggle. As Kwame Ture was fond of saying; “organization decides everything!” And, ideological development is the cornerstone of organizational capacity. The role of Malcolm with SNCC is confirmed for history. All we have to do is study this and other developments and use that knowledge to strengthen our march towards forward progress.