The Black Power At Our Base: The Formation of SNCC
In a year that will be difficult to compare politically to any other in our recent memory, many of us are focused on mobilizing for the upcoming U.S. election. As we do, we also reflect on the past and the urgent need for greater impact and lasting transformation. What we know is that change at the national level will have no meaningful effect unless there is a consolidation of Black power at every level.
At our National Gathering in February 2020, Courtney Cox of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, joined us in conversation. His story gave us clues, not only about strategies for increasing Black political representation and participation, but for how to first build Black power as we seek to articulate politically-grounded ways to shape governance.
SNCC’s leaders – barely in their early and mid-twenties when they launched campaigns like Freedom Summer and the Mississippi Freedom Vote campaign in the early 1960’s – realized early on that Black power grew from their base. They turned to leaders like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer for leadership and shared political strategies.
Much of SNCC’s action and thinking – including the awakening to Black self-love and pride – were the seeds of ideological evolution: from the civil disobedience philosophies employed in Greensboro, North Carolina informed by the non-violent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi to Stokely Charmichael’s Black Power movement. But the evolution – a process that is still playing out today in the Movement for Black Lives – was not overnight, nor was it a straight line, nor did it occur within one organization. It was the process of many relationships and cultural movements over time.
In a panel discussion with Tre Murphy, Cox, and our own Alta Starr recalled the critical role of base-building at the core of all of these movements, reminding us of the efforts by young organizers to build relationships with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the Pan-African solidarity that formed between SNCC and global movements promoting Africanism.
They also remembered moments in SNCC’s early formation and how their families and local institutions – tight knit communities out of necessity – served as building blocks helping to ground the movement in a tradition of resistance as well as serving as sites of power, unity, and mobilization. We hold these lessons up as a mirror in this critical moment.
Below are excerpts from the conversation.
TRE: How did you become a part of SNCC?
COX: I started out officially when I was 19 years old but I think my consciousness allowed me to develop and it started when I was 15 years old in the projects when we used to sit around and talk about what our realities were. And we talked about white privilege…In my cohort of people who were my age, only three of us graduated from high school. So by the time I got to Howard University, I had a consciousness that made me really open to becoming a part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I became a member because of what I saw going on in Greensborough.
TRE: How did your ideology evolve?
Two of the most important things you can ever do is First have the power to define, and then have the power to decide. Those two things are extremely important. So when we were coming up, we were told that we had nothing to contribute to history. So…we tried to congolene our hair; we tried to bleach our skin. For Black people would put clothespins on their noses so it wouldn’t be so broad. The sense of hate that was inculcated. And the sense of us being nothing, not only physically but mentally was something that was pervasive. And so the question of Black Power; the ability to define for ourselves who we were and what was beautiful and what was intelligent, it was extremely important…Stokely was the one who popularized the feeling and it exploded across the country.
TRE: Your association with SNCC started through your older brother, Billy Stafford. How did it build from there?
ALTA: So really it feels like I’m part of that pivotal generation that benefited from the rising, the call for Black power, for the shift to conscious and intentional building of black consciousness. I mean, I was thinking about it just in terms of, you know, how SNCC impacted me or those experiences that it was the first time. I would say the first time it was for me an entry again, to the intentional and intentional political project that was grounded in loving black people and loving kindness. So similarly it’s that identity, the power to define that Courtland [Cox] was talking about, and then based on that definition, to act collectively towards a certain end: building actual political power.
But I don’t want to at all underestimate what that transition felt like to actually live in: to be a student at a 2,500 person black high school McKinley…being 11 member Black Student union, to come to school the day after deciding I’m going [wear my hair natural]…History happened with the assassination of dr. King in 1968, you know, the Black Student Union hall or a walkout to go up to Howard university, enjoying the students there, all of a sudden everybody was “Black.” What did it mean to embrace that identity?
I would say that the transition that happened as a result of the rising of Black power and the birth of a deliberate, intentional building, a black consciousness for the sake of winning political power and the right to govern was absolutely transformative…And then with the turn that happened kind of post-Black power, when in fact there’s also much more activity that’s happening in urban centers. Again, I’m in [Washington], DC…but then it’s different because we’re not in a movement. It’s not happening in a moment of mass movement with perhaps as clear objectives as the fight for the right to vote for him to desegregation.
So personally, the institutions that had an impact on me include the SNCC office. That was where it was 14th and U street in DC. I get to that office and am listening to the conversations…those were the people from whom we were learning. Those were our mentors. And then beyond that, the Drum and Spirit Bookstore…It was a place of knowledge. And there’s a real grounding of connection to Howard University …when you talk about Robyn Hayden, certainly Sterling Brown.. It was available to those of us who were not students, because there were people who had been.
There were artists doing their own work, but then also teaching young people that African dance photography, there was music in there. [An organization called] The New Thing sponsored a weekly jazz performance. I mean the outgrowth of mass movement, in addition to getting us more access to the existing Black institutions like a university, also spawned circles: places where people could engage and be shaped and met were absolutely critical.
COX: When I left SNCC I was 26...so you’ll have much more institutional capacity than we ever had. And what you’re able to do will be much more than we were ever able to do.
Will the circle be unbroken? It cannot be broken as long as you continue your work.
— Courtney Cox