In April 1960, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, then led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., established the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Ella Baker, at the suggestion of Dr. King, was the primary organizer (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), 2013). This student movement was one of a few Black Power organizations that changed its philosophy from being a civil rights organization, embracing the strategy of non-violence, to a Black Power organization that embraced the strategy of self-defense. The change in philosophy resulted from the violence student activists experienced during voter registration drives in the South. From 1960-1966, the group was a civil rights organization. From 1966-1971, it was a Black power organization.
Also in April 1960, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference held a conference at Shaw University to organize students (SNCC, 2013). One hundred and twenty six students who were activists at sit-in counters in 12 southern states and student activists from 19 northern colleges attended the conference. The establishment of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was an outcome of the conference. The late Marion Barry (“Mayor for Life” in the District of Columbia) was elected its first chair. From 1960 to 1966, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were active in the civil rights movement. It participated in sit-ins, freedom rides, voter registration drives, the 1963 March on Washington, and formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the then all White state Democratic Party.
In 1965, a crisis in philosophy (civil rights v. Black power) caused the organization to split into two factions and White members were expelled from the organization (SNCC, 2013). The transformation of SNCC from civil rights to Black power was reflected in its leadership:
Civil Rights era:
- Marion Barry, first Chairman, 1960-1961
- Charles McDrew, second Chairman, 1961-1963
- John Lewis, third Chairman, 1963-1966
Black Power era:
- Stokely Carmichael, fourth Chairman, 1966-1967
- H. Rap Brown, fifth Chairman, 1967-1969.
The cry for “Black Power” with a raised fist originated from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1966 in Greenwood, Mississippi. Although Carmichael popularized the term, it was actually Mukasa (aka Willie Ricks), another member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who cried “Black Power” while SNCC was completing a march from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi. Previously, James Meredith had organized the march to encourage voter registration. During the march, Meredith was shot by a sniper and hospitalized. Black activists showed up the next day to complete the march. During the march, Mukasa cried “Black Power.” When queried about the meaning of Black Power, Carmichael responded,
“We have to do what every group in the country did – we’ve got to take over the community where we outnumber people so we can have decent jobs” (History Learning Site, 2013, p. 2).
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was instrumental in establishing the Black Panther Party. In 1964, the organization helped form the Lowndes County (Alabama) Freedom Organization, which was the original Black Panther Party. In 1967, Stokely Carmichael left SNCC to join the Black Panther Party in California. H. Rap Brown, who, in 1969, changed the name of the organization to the Student National Coordinating Committee, succeeded him (SNCC, 2013). In 1969, Brown also resigned and joined the Black Panther Party as its Minister of Justice. When the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee changed its philosophy from civil rights to Black power, the government placed it under surveillance as part of its COINTELPRO initiative. In 1967, the Department of Defense stated:
“SNCC can no longer be considered a civil rights group. It has become a racist organization with Black supremacy ideals and an expressed hatred for Whites. It employs violent and militant measures that may be defined as extreme when compared to those of more moderate groups” (SNCC, 2013, p. 6).
Because of a loss of funding and COINTELPRO, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee closed its doors in 1971.
Interview with Mukasa Ricks, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Pioneer
1. What are your memories of the Black Power Movement during this period?
In Detroit and Newark, where those cities were burned, the cry was “Black Power” and with Black Power, we integrated “Black is Beautiful” in the texture of our hair, our noses, our lips, and our skin. And, it pointed us towards our history in Africa and to a philosophy of nationalism. We began to be guided by theories of Malcolm X, Garvey, Nkrumah, and Seku Toure. We then began to look to revolutionaries throughout the world including Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse-tung, and others.
We had to defeat the civil rights leaders on the question of Black Power. We had to fight them. They condemned us - SNCC. They joined with the government against us. We stuck with Black Power and the masses of people endorsed Black Power through the rebellions that took place, the new movement, and the rise of the Nationalist Movement. SNCC was endorsed by other groups in the world - African groups - that were seeking independence, fighting against some form of colonialism and imperialism worldwide. Different groups inside Africa and in the Caribbean endorsed Black Power. So, Black Power became a theory that the masses could relate to and we were able to relate it to all aspects of our struggle and our liberation.
2. Please share any information you have on the goals and plans emanating from Black Power Conference of 1967 that took place in Newark, New Jersey.
I was in a car going to that conference – me, Ralph Silverstone, and some other SNCC people. When the car got halfway, we stopped and I got out of the car and told them I'd see them later. I took another path.
3. Were you active with any organizations and, if so, what organization(s), in what capacity, and for what period of time?
I joined SNCC in 1961 or 1962, from the founding of SNCC to the very end of SNCC. I was just one of the soldiers but I was a key organizer for SNCC and was a spokesman for SNCC in the field. I had the title of “Reverend Rick” and I was on the podium with Dr. King and all the rest of those so-called leaders. Anyway, I was the one that challenged them. I was a motivator and agitator for SNCC as well as an organizer. I was probably the strongest youth organizer that SNCC had.
4. What global events influenced the formation and activities of your organization?
We merged our activities with different international struggles that were happening. In the early 60s, we supported the Mau Mau movement in Kenya, the revolution that took place in Kenya. We met with Kenya’s Oginga Odinga when he came to Atlanta and we realized that our movements were linked. Early on we sent people to Africa, to Guinea, and to other places. We always had a link with them and we also had different relationships and support from networks like Cuba.
5. What were the strengths and challenges of the organization?
The strength of SNCC was it was an organization rooted in the people and it was an organization that organized the people. It was organizing organizations that gave us strength. The other organizations - civil rights organizations - mobilized and we organized. We helped create all kinds of organizations and groups that were grassroots and we maintained good relationships with the people. SNCC was an organizing organization while Dr. King was a mobilizer. We created local leadership. We saw ourselves as organizers not leaders.
We had many challenges. As a matter of fact, challenging the system, being in the forefront of the movement, taking the leadership from all the other civil rights groups, and being a youthful organization; that was, I guess, a great challenge. They would say that the things that we did, we were the youth of the movement, were too dangerous. We took the struggle into Mississippi and into other areas. We went on the freedom rides and participated in the sit-ins. We took more of a militant position. SNCC became a vanguard of the civil rights movement where we found ourselves being the leaders and being the ones that forced or motivated the other civil rights organizations to come our way. SNCC was the organization that went into Mississippi. We went alone and then others came, but we were the ones that organized the state of Mississippi. SNCC led King and the so-called Civil Rights Movement.
I was not part of RAM (Revolutionary Action Movement), but I knew the people in the organization. I don't know what RAM had but SNCC had the organization, the territory, and the people. RAM tried to relate to SNCC in different ways but SNCC was the vanguard organization out there that most groups tried to identify with.
6. What were the accomplishments of the organization?
We took our people to another level. We fought many, many battles. We struggled throughout the South and brought organizations to another level of consciousness. We were able to link our movement with movements throughout the world and we challenged America and its system of oppression, Apartheid, and segregation. We broke their back and we broke the back of the Democratic and Republican parties that were oppressing us and keeping us from voting and participating. We challenged the American government in Mississippi on the general oppression we found, the rebellions in the South, and the rebellions in the 60s. We shook the foundation of this country and made them change all of their policies toward African people. I think the rebellion shook this country to its foundation forcing them to pass laws that would open doors, like ending segregation and things that were closed to us, that we couldn't get in. We forced them to open those doors. By forcing them to open their doors, they couldn't discriminate against us on the job and in other areas. They were so frustrated that the government was forced to pass laws saying they could not discriminate. Anybody who got federal money had to have a certain percentage of people of African descent on those jobs and wherever the federal money was, there had been some Black representatives. We forced them to appoint Black officials and elect Black people. SNCC opened those doors. SNCC was the one that started registering people to vote and open the doors. SNCC ran the first Blacks for offices, helped form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and those kinds of things. SNCC was able to open the doors to a lot of things and we don't even know the effect of our activities because SNCC was influenced by and linked up with Africa. The African independence movement began to identify with SNCC and the different governments in Africa began to say to America as we exposed them, "How can you call yourselves our friend and treat Black people in America the way you do?” We embarrassed America on the international level and at different points we began to reach out to African governments. At some point, we joined our movement with the liberation movements in Africa and began to fight imperialism on the international level. It was SNCC that really took on South Africa. SNCC people demonstrated in 1963. In 1965, SNCC went to the UN, broke in, and beat up the South African staff. We beat up the ambassadors. I went to jail over that in New York and in DC for fighting against Apartheid. SNCC opened the gates to begin to educate people and link the African movement with our SNCC movement and let people know what was going on in South Africa.
7. What do you know about COINTELPRO?
We all had problems in Mississippi with COINTELPRO because they were attacking us and doing all kinds of things to undermine our movement and our organizations. They attacked different members of our families. I know my family was attacked. They attempted to assassinate different members of my family. We lived through that so COINTELPRO was nothing but despised. It tried to undermine our movement. I've always been under the gaze of COINTELPRO and other elements of the FBI and CIA from my inception inside the movement.
8. What is the current status of the organization?
SNCC closed in 1969. We come together every now and then. We just had a big gathering in North Carolina for the 50th anniversary of the movement. We come together mostly, a few of us, White and Black SNCC people, who were involved in thousands of different movements and different phases that moved us forward toward humanity. SNCC people were involved in all kinds of things. Some people were involved in being revolutionary and linking with revolutionary movements around the world from North Korea to all the liberation movements in Africa, to Kwame Nkrumah, Seku Toure, Maoism, and Marxism. So the movement continued and different SNCC people took different paths.
9. How did the activities of your organization affect colleges and universities on campuses and in the community?
Well, during and after the Black Power Movement, after SNCC had organized the first Black Panther Party and after we began to talk about Black Power, it linked our people to countries all over the world. It also linked our people to students. We had a student brigade that organized students throughout the country. SNCC was made up of students so we always had a relationship with students. 1966 was when we made the cry for Black Power. In 1967, we had a conference on Black Power. This conference on Black Power was after the Detroit rebellions, where the cry for Black Power spread. Every household was divided on the question of Black Power. Where some people were against Black Power, you had somebody in that household that supported Black Power. So, Black Power became a very intense debate in the African community. In 1967, Fisk University had what was called the Black Power Conference. Fisk was the first school to go up in rebellion - Fisk and Tennessee State - they were the first schools to have rebellions. There were shootings and all that. They were blamed SNCC and Carmichael. One of the things we did was organize students on campuses and encourage them to organize organizations like Black student unions. SNCC went out to the White schools and began to encourage them (students) to organize Black student unions.
10. Did your organization’s activities affect the development of Black student organizations (BSUs) and, if so, how?
We influenced BSUs (Black student unions). We encouraged students to get organized on White campuses. We encouraged them to demand Black books and include Blackness in the schools, which became Black Studies. So when they (students) were on White campuses, they could relate to the Movement. That was one of our purposes for doing that.
Regarding Fisk University: The students had endorsed Black Power. They were one of the first groups to endorse Black Power. They had a Black Power conference. While we were having the conference, the police shot a Black man in the neighborhood. When they shot the man in the back of the head right down the street from the school, the students got involved in it in some kind of way and we took the students to the streets. Then, we began to challenge the police by throwing bricks, bottles, firebombs and other things. And, before you know it, the city was in rebellion and it was coming from the campus at Fisk University. So now you had a rebellion on your hands at Fisk and Tennessee State. They blamed SNCC for that rebellion. They began to terrorize and shoot students and stuff like that. On many campuses; including Black ones like Texas Southern, Orangeburg (the Orangeburg massacre), and other Black schools; we began to demand Blackness and set up Black Power chapters at all the Black schools; and, we asked the kids at the White schools to do the same thing. In doing so, they began to demand more from the schools and put together Black Studies programs and all those things.
11. Did your organization’s activities affect the development of Black studies departments at higher education institutions and, if so, how?
The Black Studies program came out of the Black Power Movement. We began to encourage students to demand Black Studies programs. In some cases, like Cornell, students took up guns and took over administration buildings. All across the country, our children began to threaten to take over administration buildings and when they did that, most of the schools were so frightened. A couple of administration buildings were burned down. In fact, some members of the administration were kidnapped and held (hostage) and the students demanded different kinds of things like Black Studies and African Studies. We wanted the White schools to build a school where they taught something that related to us. So, all of that became the Black Studies program.
12. Are you aware of any activities, programs, or benefits to higher education resulting from the efforts of your organization or other organizations in the Black Power Movement during the period from 1960 – 1980? Do they still exist today?
Most of the students did not have any Black books, Black films, weren’t able to attend Black lectures, or any of that. As a matter of fact, most schools taught history and left Africa completely out. I met a man at the University of Georgia one time. I was talking about Africa and he said, “I'm getting ready to write my dissertation for my PhD in history and I have never studied one word about Africa.” Most schools, White schools and what have you, studied history and sociology and left Africa completely out. So, we affected the whole system by making them add Africa, see us as human beings, and see Africa as something that had made some kind of contribution to the world. That's why we forced them to put millions and millions of dollars into Black Studies programs all over the country. So, all of these Black Studies degrees and Black Studies departments were established. Because they had Black faculty and Black Studies, they began to add us into other studies, like psychology and sociology. As a matter of fact, we brought civilization to this country where White people could sit in the same room with us and we could sit in the same room with them on an equal level.
On the response of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), they were scared to death of it - the administrators were. But, the students overtook the administrations and forced the issue. They tried to keep us out. As a matter of fact, Black administrators at colleges and Black high schools did everything in their power to keep us off their campuses. But, the students took over and forced them to let us on campuses. It went through the students. They were mostly college students. Anytime we went to a high school it was still mostly high school students. It wasn't the administration. It was the students. Every now and then, you had a professor that would invite us and be on our side. But, the administration as a whole, most of them were under the tutoring of the State and those kinds of people. Once we got African Studies departments in there, the FBI went to them and told them who to give jobs to. They gave people jobs who didn't relate to us. One of the things they were supposed to do was keep Ralph, Stokely, SNCC, me and Black Power people off of the campuses. The Black Studies departments did everything they could to keep us off campuses. They began to work with the system to keep us off. Now they talk about Black Power and SNCC and all that and they don't invite me. I don't get invited anywhere.
Black Nationalism grew out of the rebellions and it linked us with Africa. We began to point toward Africa and began to have relationships with Africa, Kwame Nkrumah, Seku Toure, and Lumumba - all kinds of worldviews. We created all kinds of world studies. When you look at it from the point of view of SNCC, all these groups attached their shit to us - women’s organizations, women's rights - they began to attach their shit. And now, gay rights; they attached their shit to us. So a whole lot of people benefited from SNCC and what our movement was doing. As a matter of fact, they began to put international studies and all that kind of stuff on the campuses. That was a benefit from us because we created the opportunities by demanding Black studies on campuses. Women studies - there were no women studies on campuses until we picked up guns and demanded Black studies, African studies. Now you got women studies, gay studies and all those other studies.
13. Are there other persons you feel would provide helpful information on this topic?
I have to think about it.
14. I am collecting information on the sequence of events leading to the development of the first Black student union and the first Black studies department at San Francisco State University. Are there experiences at other college or universities that you feel would be informative?
Look up the Orangeburg massacre and Texas Southern University for the rebellion at Texas Southern in 1967. Look up Jackson State University on the rebellion in 1966 or 1967. There were a lot of schools. We had Black school rebellions, fights, and killings all over. We also had street rebellions like in Detroit and Newark and other places.
Epilogue: Baba Mukasa is still active and lives in the Atlanta metropolitan area. He describes himself as an African, a soldier, and a revolutionary. He is available for speaking engagements.
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