African-American women activists played a major role in the founding and development of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Ella Baker (1903-86), director of the Atlanta headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), organized the April 1960 conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, that resulted in the formation of SNCC. A strong advocate of group-centered rather than leader-centered groups, Baker encouraged student protesters attending the conference to form their own organization rather than become the student arm of SCLC or other existing civil rights groups. During its first months of existence, SNCC's operations were conducted in a corner of SCLC headquarters, and the fledgling organization made use of Baker's extensive contacts with Black activists throughout the South. Baker remained an advisor to SNCC through the mid- I 960s, consistently arguing for organizing strategies that emphasized the nurturing of grass-roots leaders in areas where SNCC established projects.
Women who were active in the lunch counter sit-in movement of 1960 led in the transformation of SNCC from a coordinating office into a cadre of militant activists dedicated to expanding the civil rights movement throughout the South. In February 1961, Diane Nash (1938- ) and Ruby Doris Smith (194267) were among four SNCC members who joined the Rock Hill, South Carolina, desegregation protests, which featured the jail-no-bail tactic-demonstrators serving their jail sentences rather than accepting bail. In May 1961, Nash led a group of student activists to Alabama in order to sustain the Freedom Rides after the initial group of protesters organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) encountered mob violence in Birmingham. During May and June, Nash, Smith, and other student freedom riders traveled on buses from Montgomery to Jackson, Mississippi, where they were swiftly arrested and imprisoned. In August, when veterans of the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides met to discuss SNCC's future, Baker helped to avoid a damaging split by suggesting separate direct-action and voter-registration wings. Nash became the leader of the direct-action wing of SNCC.
During the period from 1961 to 1964, as SNCC established a staff of full-time office workers and field secretaries, women continued to play a central role in the organization. While Nash's activity in SNCC declined after her marriage to SCLC organizer James Bevel and the birth of their first child, Smith's role in the organization increased. In 1962, Smith (later Smith-Robinson) left her position as executive secretary of the Atlanta student movement to become the full-time southern campus coordinator for SNCC. The following year, she became SNCC's administrative secretary and then its executive secretary. She remained one of SNCC's most forceful administrators until her death in 1967 from a rare form of cancer. Other African-American women served on SNCC's office staff or in its support network, including Roberta Yancy, Smith's successor as southern campus coordinator, Norma Collins, Judy Richardson, jean Wheeler Smith, Lenora Tate, and Carol Merritt.
SNCC's community organizing projects involved many African-American women. In Georgia, Albany Movement participants Bernice Johnson Reagon (1942- ), Ruth Harris, and Bertha Gober became members of SNCC's Freedom Singers. In August 1962, Prathia Hall (1940- ) left Temple University to join SNCC's southwest Georgia project. Boston native Peggy Dammond also worked in southwest Georgia. Gloria Richardson (Dandridge) sustained a protest movement in Cambridge, Maryland. Hall, Martha Norman, Annie Pearl Avery, Colia LaFayette, Ruth Howard, and Fay Bellamy (1938- ) played important roles in SNCC's voting rights campaign in Alabama.
Many African-American women were active in SNCC's voting rights campaign in Mississippi. These included Victoria Jackson Gray (1937- ) of Hattiesburg, who ran in the 1964 Democratic primary to represent Mississippi in the U.S. Senate and later ran for Congress on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) ticket. Muriel Tillinghast, a former Howard University student, served as SNCC's project director in Greenville and later worked under Ruby Smith-Robinson in Atlanta. Another Howard student, Cynthia Washington, also served as a project director in Mississippi. Dorrie and Joyce Ladner first became active in their hometown of Hattiesburg. Other SNCC activists and organizers in Mississippi included Brenda Travis, Mary Lane, Dona Richards, Janet Jernmott (Moses), Amanda Purdew, Eleanor Holmes (Norton), Freddye Greene, Gloria House, Doris Derby, Helen O'Neal, June Johnson, Ruth Howard (Chambers), and Emma Bell.
The best known of the local leaders who were drawn into the struggle by SNCC's organizing efforts was Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-77), a native of Ruleville, Mississippi. In 1962, after attending a SNCC meeting, Hamer attempted to register to vote and was promptly evicted from the plantation where she worked. After enduring a beating in jail, Hamer became a SNCC field secretary and, in 1964, ran for Congress as a candidate of the MFDP. Hamer received national attention in August 1964, when she testified about her beating before the credentials committee of the Democratic National Convention as part of an effort to unseat the regular Mississippi delegation to the convention. Hamer and other MFDP delegates rejected a compromise that would have given them two at-large seats.
After the convention, SNCC grew increasingly concerned with issues beyond civil rights reform. Reflecting a long-term interest among SNCC workers in Pan-Africanism, a SNCC delegation, including Hamer, Hall, Smith-Robinson, and Richards, toured Africa during fall 1964. Most African-American women in SNCC were initially reluctant to affiliate with the white-dominated women's liberation movement of the late 1960s. Nevertheless, at the November 1964 staff meeting in Waveland, Mississippi, two white SNCC workers, Casey Hayden and Mary King, wrote a controversial paper on the position of women in the group that has since been described as a pioneering statement of the modern women's liberation movement.
During SNCC's Black Power period in the late 1960s, African-American women remained active in the organization's ideological discussions. Ethel Minor edited SNCC's newspaper and worked closely with SNCC chair Stokely Carmichael. The shift in SNCC activities away from sustained community organizing toward Black Power propagandizing was accompanied by increasing male dominance. The Black Women's Liberation Committee, founded by Frances Beal, was one of SNCC's few significant initiatives of the post-1966 period. Beal later was founder of the Third World Women's Alliance. By the early 1970s, external repression and internal ideological conflicts had destroyed the organization's effectiveness.
In Black Women in
America: An Historical Encyclopedia,
edited by Darlene Clark Hine.
New York: Carlson Publishing, 1993.
Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981); personal interviews by authors.