In-Depth Look at SNCC’s Past Offers Lessons for Activists Today

Man and woman looking over a brochure for a political candidate before election day in Lowndes County, Alabama, November, 1966, Photograph by Jim Peppler, Courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.

What can the immediate past teach us about voting rights, self-determination, and democracy today? A new website created by the SNCC Legacy Project and Duke University explores how the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—the only youth-led national civil rights group—organized a grassroots movement in the 1960s that empowered Black communities and transformed the nation.  Told from the perspectives of the activists themselves, the SNCC Digital Gateway: Learn from the Past, Organize for the Future, Make Democracy Work (snccdigital.org) highlights SNCC’s thinking and work building democracy from the ground up, making those experiences and strategies accessible to activists, educators, and engaged citizens today.

Generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the site uses documentary footage, audio recordings, photographs, and documents to chronicle how SNCC organizers, alongside thousands of local Black residents in the Deep South, worked to enable Black people to take control of their lives. The gateway unveils and examines the inner workings of SNCC over the course of its 12-year existence—its structure, how it coordinated sit-ins and other direct action protests, and how it organized voter registration efforts and economic cooperatives to effect social change. SNCC had more field staff than any civil rights organization and was considered the cutting edge of the civil rights movement.

The SNCC Digital Gateway also presents the voices of today’s young activists in the Movement for Black Lives, sharing their views on the impact of SNCC and the southern civil rights movement of the 1960s on their activities today. “Reading through the SNCC Digital Gateway website is like taking a masters class in community organizing,” explains Jennifer Bryant, a community organizer based in Washington, D.C. “The primary source documents provide a deeper understanding of how SNCC was structured, the day-to-day work of field organizers and how campaigns were shaped. The site serves as a reminder that the civil rights movement was fought by everyday people. It provides hope that in these perilous times, we too can fight and win.” Courtland Cox, chairman of the SNCC Legacy Project, who served as an organizer in Mississippi and Alabama in the 1960s, explains, “Our experiences have created a level of ‘informational wealth’ that we need to pass on to young people. This unprecedented collaboration with Duke University hopefully will pilot a way for other academic institutions to re-engage history and those who make it.”

The website is a product of a groundbreaking partnership among veteran civil rights activists of the SNCC Legacy Project, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, Duke University Libraries, and civil rights scholars. Wesley Hogan, director of the Center for Documentary Studies, who has written extensively about SNCC’s work and legacy explains, “The way we are working together—activists, archivists, and scholars—is a powerful new model. This project gives us a unique opportunity to understand the work of the local people who broke apart Jim Crow that would otherwise be lost to future generations.”


For more information, contact:

Wesley Hogan, Director, Center for Documentary Studies
(919) 660-3610
wesley.hogan@duke.edu

Courtland Cox, Chairman, SNCC Legacy Project
(220) 550-8455
courtlandc@starpower.net

John Gartrell, John Hope Franklin Research Center, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
(919) 660-5922
john.gartrell@duke.edu

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